Enchantment of Capitalist Religion

We Have Never Been Disenchanted
by Eugene McCarraher, excerpt

“The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.  Attending primarily to the history of the United States, I hope to demonstrate that capitalism has been, as Benjamin perceived, a religion of modernity, one that addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion.  But this does not mean only that capitalism has been and continues to be “beguiling” or “fetishized,” and that rigorous analysis will expose the phantoms as the projections they really are.  These enchantments draw their power, not simply from our capacity for delusion., but from our deepest and truest desires — desires that are consonant and tragically out of touch with the dearest freshness of the universe.  The world can never be disenchanted, not because our emotional or political or cultural needs compel us to find enchantments — though they do — but because the world itself, as Hopkins realized, is charged with the grandeur of God…

“However significant theology is for this book, I have relied on a sizable body of historical literature on the symbolic universe of capitalism.  Much of this work suggests that capitalist cultural authority cannot be fully understood without regard to the psychic, moral, and spiritual longings inscribed in the imagery of business culture.”

Has Capitalism Become Our Religion?

“As a Christian, I reject the two assumptions found in conventional economics: scarcity (to the contrary, God has created a world of abundance) and rational, self-seeking, utility-maximizing humanism (a competitive conception of human nature that I believe traduces our creation in the image and likeness of God). I think that one of the most important intellectual missions of our time is the construction of an economics with very different assumptions about the nature of humanity and the world.”

 

 

“A Bitch For God”

“I challenge the idea that the people who got us in this ditch are the only ones who can get us out of it.”

Marianne Williamson has called herself “a bitch for God.” As presidential candidate, she is getting plenty of attention right now. She is well known among a certain crowd, as she has written numerous books that sold widely, including best-sellers, such as Healing the Soul of America that topped The New York Times nonfiction list for 39 weeks: “Seven reached the New York Times best-seller list, and four hit No. 1” (Cameron Joseph, Marianne Williamson Knows You Think She’s a Joke. But Her Campaign Isn’t.). I’ve known about her since the 1990s during my young adulthood. But for most Americans, she hasn’t been a household name. Yet many people are more familiar with her words, such as a quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Besides being on Oprah’s show in the past, she is well connected and, for those who know her, strongly supported. She has inspired many people, from famous stars to ordinary Americans, including in politics: “She has some surprising adherents in the Granite State, including former Rep. Paul Hodes who served as a co-chairman on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and is still a power broker in the state. He’s been a Williamson fan since her heyday in the ’90s — her quote “Who are we to stay small?” inspired him to run for Congress a decade-plus ago and hangs in his home to this day,” as reported by Cameron Joseph. That has been her career, inspiring people and she has a talent for it. It is the kind of mixing of religion, politics, and progressive vision we haven’t seen in a while, maybe not since Martin Luther King Jr.

I must admit it feels validating to hear her in the mainstream media, particularly in the early Democratic debates. She comes out of the same background as I do, something I explained in another post (Heretic For President!). She is part of a heretical tradition of thought that goes back to the earliest Christians. Today, we think of it as “New Age” or what in the liberal wing of Christianity is called New Thought. Basically, she believes God is Love — no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s the radical message of Jesus himself, too often diluted or rationalized away and yet still carrying a powerful punch when released from centuries of stale dogma.

Williamson was the minister of the second largest Unity church in the country, the denomination of Christianity I was raised in. She still does guest speaking at that church and other churches. Her primary career has been as a Christian minister, but the mainstream, both left and right, caricatures her as a New Ager, spiritual guru, or whatever; although I’ll give Slate some credit for sort of complimenting her, if backhanded (Shannon Palus, The Bizarre Charm of Marianne Williamson). “I do not understand why everyone is so dismissive of her,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick. “Are we really so out of touch with emotions, spirituality, etc that she seems insane?” If corporate media were to be fair, they’d have to admit she is a Christian minister who comes out of the American Evangelical tradition (Unity Church) and who upholds a theology that has its roots in the earliest Christianity by way of Valentinianism (A Course In Miracles). That is maybe too much historical knowledge for a society that suffers from permanent historical amnesia. She may be a heretic, but she is a heretic with credentials. I’ll call it the return of the repressed. It’s amusing.

Despite it all, Unity is slowly creeping into the mainstream. This has been going on for a long time. I remember when visiting non-Unity churches in decades past and I would sometimes come across the Unity publication The Daily Word even in mainstream churches. So, many people were reading New Thought theology without knowing it. More recently, the Unity Church showed up in a major subplot of the tv show The Path (Meyerism and Unity Church). Then there is the story of Carlton Pearson, as told in a segment on This American Life and in the Netflix movie Come Sunday. He attended Oral Roberts University and was mentored by Oral Roberts himself. As a popular fourth generation Pentecostal preacher, he came to a point of crisis in his faith. He no longer could believe God was a horrific and monstrous demiurge threatening people with eternal damnation. After much inner struggle, he converted to the view that there is no hell, was officially condemned as a heretic, lost his congregation, and then found his faith again in New Thought theology. He has since become the senior minister of a New Thought church and an affiliate minister of a Unity church. His story has inspired many.

Now here we are. We have a Unity minister as a presidential candidate. To me, it is mind-blowing. Unity Church powerfully shaped who I am. I can’t shake the blinding idealism of New Thought theology, in the way an ex-Catholic never quite gets over original sin or an ex-Baptist never loses that sense of fire-and-brimstone breathing down their neck. It is hard to explain being raised in that kind of light-and-love sincerity. I remember going to what was the Unity equivalent of a Bible camp, called Youth of Unity. I had never experienced so much positivity and goodwill in my life. Then I returned back to ‘normal’ life of high school and it shook me to the core. As wonderful as Unity was, it wasn’t the way life operated or so I was told. I was supposed to get real and accept the world the way it was. Like most others growing up in this society, cynicism fell upon me like a sledgehammer.

But Marianne Williamson embodies and exemplifies another way of being. She suggests there is another way and she walks her talk. She doesn’t care who attacks her. She won’t attack back. Instead, when she feels she is wrong, she admits and apologizes. Holy fuck! Someone aspiring to be president who isn’t afraid to apologize! Trump came to power on the arrogant, egomaniac and psychopathic claim that morality, compassion, and common human decency no longer matters. Williamson disagrees down to her soul that it does matter. How we act determines the kind of country we live in. And she is driven to make the world a better place or go down trying. When arguing her position, she doesn’t fall back on talking points. In response to a question about her strategy, she used air quotes as she spoke of her “strategy” — she said that her only strategy was to speak the truth she knows and to continue campaigning as long as people supported her vision of America (Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). Her non-aggressive approach doesn’t come across as weakness for, when a principle is at stake, she doesn’t back down. And she isn’t afraid to call someone out on their bullshit, including the MSNBC interviewer Jo Ling Kent, but even then she does so with perfect politeness.

Her personality comes across as strong and confident, and not as a pretense and pose. I loved watching her in that interview. Before answering, she would often get this serious look on her face as if she were scrutinizing the true intentions behind the question and contemplating it as a philosophical issue. Such sincerity is potent, an antidote to cynicism. Trump would have a hard time combating her because she would never give him the kind of response he feeds on. No one is likely to throw Williamson off message because she lives her message. Walk and talk are perfectly aligned. I’m not sure how many people listening to her get where she is coming from. It’s something I’m extremely familiar with from years in the Unity Church. But most people rarely come across authenticity at this level. It’s not something we’ve come to expect in politics. The last time I heard a candidate this straight-shooting was when I went to a speech given by Ralph Nader when he was running for president in 2000, but even he didn’t come across with the same confidence in vision. Even Bernie Sanders, in his down-to-earth style, doesn’t come across as powerfully as this.

Marianne Williamson, in the Democratic debate said, “So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please — you have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out … I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.” Who says something like that in a national political debate, especially in a political party that has become infamous for its political insincerity from Clinton domination, and even more especially while facing president Donald Trump who came to power through hate, anger, and outrage. Such audacity to proclaim love in this era of cynicism. Listen to what she said in that debate (Tim Hains, Marianne Williamson: If You Think We’re Going To Beat Donald Trump By Having A Lot Of Plans, You’ve Got Another Thing Coming). She kicks ass! And it has won her a following, something the corporate media is trying to dismiss — oddly, one hit piece calls her positivity-spouting and humorous followers on Reddit “trolls” (Ben Collins, 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson’s reddit following).

Those in the mainstream are looking for reasons to attack her. For example, some misrepresent her as an anti-vaxxer (Jo Ling Kent, Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). In explaining her actual position, she states in no uncertain terms that, “I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma.” There is no way to fairly call her an anti-vaxxer. What she is mainly questioning is the anti-democratic role big biz plays in public policy and wants to ensure the best scientific evidence possible is available to promote the public good. She is a principled anti-corporatist and pro-democrat. As she put it in her own words, “I want you to rail against the chemical companies and their GMO’s — not support them. I want you to decry the military industrial complex — not assure them you’re their girl. I want you to support reinstating Glass-Steagall — not just wink at Wall Street while sipping its champagne” (An Open Letter To Hillary Clinton).

She supports mandatory vaccinations when they meet the criteria of the highest standards of the scientific method, if and only if the best evidence strongly supports a public health concern that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be remedied only through this drastic course of action. Otherwise, if the evidence is weak or still under debate, if big pharma is unduly influencing government decisions, then we are morally forced to defend democratic process and individual liberty, personal conscience, and bodily autonomy. It is the forever difficult but not impossible democratic balance between public good and private good. A mandatory vaccination is justified in many cases and maybe not in others. She is not promoting denialism. After all, she has vaccinated her own daughter. Science isn’t a dogmatic belief system that is forever settled. Instead, science is an ongoing process. To act like it is otherwise is anti-scientific.

The same problem comes up with attacks on her credibility because she is skeptical about GMOs. Do these people even bother to look into the science? I could write a long post about all the contrary evidence, especially the relationship between GMOs and increased pesticide use (as opposed to organic farming), but this isn’t the place to flesh out that debate. Let’s just honestly acknowledge it exists as a contested issue, a state of affairs that, of course, is reported on in the alternative media but also found in mainstream sources (a few examples: The UK’s Royal Society: a Case Study in How the Health Risks of GMOs Have Been Systematically Misrepresented by Steven Druker from Independent Science News, How GMOs Cut The Use Of Pesticides — And Perhaps Boosted It Again by Dan Charles from NPR, Largest-Ever Study Reveals Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Crops by Caroline Newman from University of Virginia, Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles by Robin Mesnage et al from BioMed Research International, etc).

If only from a viewpoint of the precautionary principle, whether about the GMOs themselves or the pesticides heavily used with GMOs, it’s perfectly rational that the vast majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) are concerned about GMOs and strongly support having GMO foods labeled — 71-95%, depending on the question and the group asked (Chris Mooney, Stop Pretending That Liberals Are Just As Anti-Science As Conservatives). Not that American politics was ever constrained by nuance. That is precisely the problem. Williamson is arguing that we must understand diverse problems as being systemically related, such as health and the food system or such as the inseparable relationship between GMOs and pesticides. Yet nuance is deemed ‘loony’ because it challenges the dominant paradigm that is dominated by corporate agendas.

As a loony left-winger myself, here is how I put it: “Yeah, monocultural GMO crops immersed in deadly chemicals that destroy soil and deplete nutrients are going to save us, not traditional grazing land that existed for hundreds of millions of years. So, sure, we could go on producing massive yields of grains in a utopian fantasy beloved by technocrats and plutocrats that further disconnects us from the natural world and our evolutionary origins, an industrial food system dependent on turning the whole world into endless monocrops denatured of all other life, making entire regions into ecological deserts that push us further into mass extinction. Or we could return to traditional ways of farming and living with a more traditional diet largely of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, etc) balanced with an equal amount of vegetables, the original hunter-gatherer diet” (Carcinogenic Grains). Tell me. Is my skepticism irrational? If so, how has the highly destructive ‘rationality’ of mass industrialization been working out for life on this planet, as we head toward the cliff of mass extinction and climate change?

In many different ways, Marianne Williamson is a potential threat to the Clinton Democrats. Republicans have sensed this and, as a way of fucking with Democrats, some of them have donated to her campaign (Cnaan Liphshiz, Republicans donate to Marianne Williamson’s campaign to keep her in the Democratic debates). It reminds me of how Democrats promoted Trump in the hope that would ensure a Democratic victory. It’s funny that Republicans are falling into the same trap of naivete. Williamson isn’t a mere unknown outlier. After the debate she participated in, her name was the most Googled and, even while the debate was happening, Google searches for her name spiked every time she spoke (Malachi Barrett, Marianne Williamson searches in Michigan explode after Democratic debate). Also, “Williamson has performed better in national polls than more established candidates like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; and Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii” writes Merle Ginsberg (Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson Is Running on Empathy); and she concludes that, “If anybody could play Jesus to Trump’s Antichrist, Williamson is, as our wayward president would put it, straight out of central casting.”

Williamson is no lightweight. In the debates, she is the only candidate that brought up the harmful US policy in Latin America — interestingly, the only article I came across mentioning this came from a conservative source (Christian Watson, Democratic debate showed conservatives could learn something from Marianne Williamson). And she is bold in her vision that comes across as quite left-wing (e.g., since 1997, she has supported reparations for African American slave descendants) while simultaneously invoking the American founding generation of revolutionaries. Here is how she puts it: “Franklin Roosevelt said that the primary role of the presidency is moral leadership. Americans are a decent people, but over the last 50 years, the concept of what it takes to live a good life—an ethical life—has been overtaken by corporatocracy. When I was a child, corporations were expected to have responsibility to the community, not just focus on fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders. Soulless economics has not brought us economic vibrancy. It’s destroyed our middle class and replaced a model of democracy with a model of aristocracy. We repudiated that in 1776—and need to repudiate it again.”

We used to call that a jeremiad, an American tradition if there ever was one (Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad). If that is ‘woo’, then give me more of it. This is ‘woo’ that could seriously shake up public and political debate and hopefully a whole lot more. Give me some of that old time religion.

Heretic For President!

“I’ll tell you my strategy, the power that emerges from fierce authentic truth articulated among us!”

Marianne Williamson is one among many in the Democratic field of presidential candidates. She is a popular writer and motivational speaker, a liberation theologian and spiritual teacher. She was raised Jewish, but as an adult she embraced A Course In Miracles (ACIM).* She was the leader and senior minister of the Renaissance Unity Church (formerly known as the Church of Today). Under her leadership, it grew to be the second largest Unity church in the country. She sought to make the church independent of the Association of Unity Churches, but it didn’t work out and so she left that position; she would later return to the same church as a guest minister.

She is already a fairly well known name — not as much for politics, although she previously ran as a congressional candidate. Consistently left (and often quite far left) on every major issue, she has been speaking out about social, economic, and political issues for decades, including her 1997 book The Healing of America, but public health has been a particular focus. For example, she started two organizations to support HIV and AIDS patients during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; and also that same decade she formed a nonprofit that continues to this day in bringing meals to the seriously ill. She has founded other kinds of organizations as well, such as one teaching peace-making skills. On the more radical side, she strongly advocates reparations for slavery.

She is a social justice warrior, but does so with a light touch without attacking others. She promotes moral patriotism in emphasizing that America, though imperfect, has stood for great things throughout its history. Americans have done the morally right thing many times before and we can do so in the future. It’s a message of making America great again, just without any hint of cynicism. It isn’t empty rhetoric to manipulate supporters and win votes. If nothing else, she is sincere. That isn’t what we’ve come to expect from presidential hopefuls. Then again, maybe it is exactly what we need, if only to change the public mood and shift public debate.

Along with her time in the Unity Church, the ACIM informs her vision for humanity and America. It has shaped me as well. My grandmother read the ACIM and, when I was in high school, I read my grandmother’s copy of it. It is particularly popular in the Unity Church**, the New Thought Christianity also introduced to my family by my grandmother. Williamson was the major force behind the ACIM’s rise into public awareness, along with Gerald Jampolsky as a guest on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power tv program (Schuller being the all time most influential prosperity preacher; certainly, my mother’s favorite). The ACIM message reached a much larger audience by way of Oprah Winfrey promoting Williamson and her writings. Some people like to portray Williamson as Oprah’s spiritual guru, but that seems more like a way of dismissing the message, whatever one may think of New Age religion (I’m personally of mixed opinion, having been around it my entire life).

Williamson will be in the second Democratic debate hosted by NBC, along with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. She is the only candidate, as far as I know, who is openly speaking about spirituality and religion. Interestingly, as a longtime Democrat, she will be the most religious candidate in either party. I guess New Age religion is moving up in the world. She represents the most potent antithesis of everything Donald Trump stands for. As he promotes hatred and division, she speaks of love and unity: “We have to shift from a sense that we are separate to a shift that we are one. That is the only way the 21st century will be survivable. Our technology has so outdistanced our wisdom that we are a threat to ourselves.”

Public religiosity has been dominated by the Republican Party since the Fundamentalists gained a foothold in the Reagan administration, although we have to blame Jimmy Carter for introducing Evangelicalism onto the national stage and making it respectable. For many decades now, the loudest voices and most powerful forces of religion have worshipped an authoritarian demiurge of fear, hatred, and judgment. Now here is a religious leader entering the political fray with a message that declares that the God inspires our worship is of love and nothing but love, a God who speaks truth instead of lies, a God known through personal transformation and radical vision, not from institutional authority and righteous dogma. That is quite different than the right-wing ‘god’ who creates his own pseudo-truths, as do his followers, and then forces them upon the world. Williamson is part of the reality-based community, but she elevates reality to a faith in Reality, that truth isn’t a mere convenience of opinion that we bend to our preferred biases and agendas. Truth remains, as always, and it will overcome what is false like shadows before the light of the sun — I might note, according to the earliest Pauline tradition, this is the original teaching of Jesus Christ.

Even if you’re not religious and are opposed to New Agey woo, even if you’re an atheist or simply not a Christian, still understand this represents an interesting turning point and a challenge to the status quo. The Republican Party has embraced Trump, a man raised in a different strain of positive thinking Christianity, that of Norman Vincent Peale who had more of a right-wing lean. But this conflict within religion is quite ancient. It goes back to the early Church. Williamson is defending a theology that once was at the heart of Christianity before being expelled by later heresiologists. Her message of love is the return of one of the earliest strains of radical thought, at a time when Christianity was challenging another abusive power of this world, the Roman Empire. The situation isn’t fundamentally different under the American Empire (“The Empire never ended!” PKD), even if not yet reaching the same height of brutality, not quite yet. The times change, along with the ruling powers of this world, but this ancient message of hope is continually resurrected.***

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* For those unfamiliar, ACIM is one of the most popular New Age texts that uses Christian language and, according to Kenneth Wapnick, Valentinian theology. Valentinus, one of the earliest Church Fathers and in the Pauline tradition, introduced the Trinity into Christianity. According to Clement of Alexandria, his followers said that he learned under Theodas or Theudas, a disciple of Paul the Apostle. Marcion, first collector of the Pauline Epistles (as argued by Robert M. Price) and originator of the earliest New Testament canon, was another famous student of Theudas. In following the radical Pauline vision, both Valentinus and Marcion preached about a God of love, forgiveness, and mercy.

This was part of a direct lineage of wisdom, maybe more similar to Eastern traditions of mysticism and meditation or else something along the lines of the Roman mystery schools. Supposedly taught to Paul’s inner circle, this was a personal vision of the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2–4; Acts 9:9–10), and one might note that Paul never claimed historical literalism (and so this lends itself to a docetist interpretation) for the Christ he spoke of always was a spiritual figure that transformed the individual supplicant, akin to Enlightenment. Never once did Paul describe a physical Jesus, which is truly bizarre if such a Jesus existed for Paul converted to Christianity during the time when later Gospels claimed Jesus was still alive and yet Paul never bothered to seek out Jesus, as he apparently was fully content with the spiritual Christ. Considering no historical record of a Jesus Christ has ever been discovered, not even in the writings of the most famous Jewish historian of the era, one is forced to conclude that speculating about a historical Jesus is meaningless since it obviously held no meaning to the earliest faithful such as Paul.

It might be seen as similar to other traditions labeled as Gnostic, that is if one interprets this vision of Christ as secret knowledge of an elite or an elect. But one might argue it is more similar to the anti-elitist strain of some later Protestant or Anabaptist faiths in how Valentinianism upholds a personal relationship to God that depends on no institutional authority as mediator. His monism resonates with Eastern religion and philosophy. Evil, in this worldview, has no fundamental reality and, instead, is an illusion or error. In not understanding the monistic essence, some mistake this as dualism associated with Gnosticism. But if Valentinus and Marcion were Gnostics, then so was Paul and, with this in mind, we should acknowledge that Paul’s writings are the earliest known Christian texts. Many have argued that the Paul’s teachings were the prototype of both Christianity and Gnosticism, the two traditions maybe having originally been the same faith or else emerged from the same milieu.

Rather than the dualism of good and evil that has long plagued Christianity (as inherited from Judaicized Zoroastrianism and as incorporated from Augustine’s Manichaeanism), Valentinus’ monistic system of faith reconciled the Trinity within the one true divine source. Despite the denial of the Trinity, the closest modern equivalent to this monism would be Unitarianism, specifically in relation to Universalism as Valentinus also had a broad vision of salvation (besides the Unitarian-Universalists, the Unity Church also holds to these doctrines). Despite being called a Gnostic according to those who seized power within the Church, Valentinus was a leader in the early Church long before any heresiologists came along to slander anyone as not being a real Christian and centuries before the Nicene Council. His Christianity was original and, if anything, what came after was revisionism.

Gospel of Truth
(written by Valentinus or his followers)

“Therefore, if one has knowledge, his is from above. If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him. And he knows in what manner he is called. Having knowledge, he does the will of the one who called him, he wishes to be pleasing to him, he receives rest. Each one’s name comes to him. He who is to have knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and where he is going. He knows as one who, having become drunk, has turned away from his drunkenness, (and) having returned to himself, has set right what are his own.

“He has brought many back from error. He has gone before them to their places, from which they had moved away, since it was on account of the depth that they received error, the depth of the one who encircles all spaces, while there is none that encircles him. It was a great wonder that they were in the Father, not knowing him, and (that) they were able to come forth by themselves, since they were unable to comprehend or to know the one in whom they were. For if his will had not thus emerged from him – for he revealed it in view of a knowledge in which all its emanations concur.”

– – – –

** Let me offer some historical context, but specifically about the United States. So-called New Age thinking began quite early. Of course, you find it rooted in the Axial Age. But you also see evidence of it in the various mystical and spiritual schools of thought that kept erupting throughout European history. Following the Protestant Reformation, the idealistic Anabaptists, Huguenots, Quakers, Shakers, etc brought a political edge to religiosity — all of which shaped England during the English Civil War and shaped the American colonies during the same period. Consider Roger Williams’ version of the Baptist faith, as radical as they came in that era and remains radical to this day.

The Enlightenment kicked this into high gear with such things as Mesmerism which would later influence not only psychology by way of hypnotism and hypnotheraphy but also positive thinking, new thought, and prosperity gospel. The American Founders were often quite radical in their views, such as many of them being Unitarians, Universalists, and Deists. Thomas Paine, like a number of others, challenged the historicity of Jesus Christ and other Biblical stories, not that he was making a docetist argument. The American Revolution might not have happened without this religious fervor and the theological challenge to the British Empire. In asserting natural law above human law, in declaring everyone was an equal before God, this moral righteousness struck directly at the heart of abusive power.

From the American Revolution to the decades following the American Civil War, there was an emerging sensibility about religion and spirituality. It was the the period of the second and third Great Awakenings, involving the spread of what was then radical Evangelicalism (giving voice to women and challenging slavery), along with Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, etc. This would come to shape 20th century progressivism and liberalism. The Unity Church formed in the late 19th century, having taken shape amidst the Evangelical unrest of the Populist Era. Besides offering a more positive message, they early on were advocates of vegetarianism; also, women were allowed greater participation and at least by the time I was a kid they were proponents of same sex marriage. The New Age is as American as apple pie.

– – – –

*** This isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. The same basic message was preached by all of the major Axial Age prophets. It has been the defining feature, the radical heart of all that has followed since, including the universal idealism that erupted during the Enlightenment.

This vision has been persistent in its challenge. It is unsurprising that Christians, as with the faithful of other religions, have so often failed to live up to it. But one wouldn’t mind all the failure so much if there were more believers who took the message seriously in the first place, serious enough to attempt to genuinely follow such high ideals. Instead, most failure of faith comes from a weakness or lack of faith. It is a rare Christian I’ve met in my life who has even bothered to try to live according to Jesus’ example and his simple teachings of love, as such extremes of self-sacrifice are inconvenient.

Marianne Williamson is making the humble suggestion that maybe, just maybe religion doesn’t have to be equated with heartless hypocrisy, doesn’t have to make a moral compromise with cynical realpolitik. Nor that spiritual transformation is inherently separate from political revolution, a truth that has been embodied by many visionary leaders before, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. This has been the challenge of Axial Age idealism for more than two millennia.

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Western Individuality Before the Enlightenment Age

The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
by Edward Muir
Introduction
pp. 5-7

One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchic notion of the human self. Ancient and medieval thought depicted reason as governing the lower faculties of the will, the passions, and the body. Renaissance thought did not so much promote “individualism” as it cut away the intellectual props that presented humanity as the embodiment of a single divine idea, thereby forcing a desperate search for identity in many. John Martin has argued that during the Renaissance, individuals formed their sense of selfhood through a difficult negotiation between inner promptings and outer social roles. Individuals during the Renaissance looked both inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties 2 The fragmentation of the self seems to have been especially acute in Venice, where the collapse of aristocratic marriage structures led to the formation of what Virginia Cox has called the single self, most clearly manifest in the works of several women writers who argued for the moral and intellectual equality of women with men.’ As a consequence of the fragmented understanding of the self, such thinkers as Montaigne became obsessed with what was then the new concept of human psychology, a term in fact coined in this period.4 A crucial problem in the new psychology was to define the relation between the body and the soul, in particular to determine whether the soul died with the body or was immortal. With its tradition of Averroist readings of Aristotle, some members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Padua recurrently questioned the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul as unsound philosophically. Other hierarchies of the human self came into question. Once reason was dethroned, the passions were given a higher value, so that the heart could be understood as a greater force than the mind in determining human conduct. duct. When the body itself slipped out of its long-despised position, the sexual drives of the lower body were liberated and thinkers were allowed to consider sex, independent of its role in reproduction, a worthy manifestation of nature. The Paduan philosopher Cesare Cremonini’s personal motto, “Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est,” does not quite translate to “If it feels good, do it;” but it comes very close. The collapse of the hierarchies of human psychology even altered the understanding of the human senses. The sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “enlightenment”; the Venetian theorists of opera gave that place in the hierarchy to the sense of hearing, the faculty that most directly channeled sensory impressions to the heart and passions.

Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage
edited by Nicholas Price, M. Kirby Talley, and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro
Reading 5: “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline”
by Erwin Panofsky
pp. 83-85

Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling with weakness and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down again until the visitor had taken a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen’—’The sense of humanity has not yet left me’. The two men were moved almost to tears. For, though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness and civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that implied in the word ‘mortality.’

Historically the word humanitas has had two clearly distinguishable meanings, the first arising from a contrast between man and what is less than man; the second between man and what is more. In the first case humanitas means a value, in the second a limitation.

The concept of humanitas as a value was formulated in the circle around the younger Scipio, with Cicero as its belated, yet most explicit spokesman. It meant the quality which distinguishes man, not only from animals, but also, and even more so, from him who belongs to the species homo without deserving the name of homo humanus; from the barbarian or vulgarian who lacks pietas and παιδεια- that is, respect for moral values and that gracious blend of learning and urbanity which we can only circumscribe by the discredited word “culture.”

In the Middle Ages this concept was displaced by the consideration of humanity as being opposed to divinity rather than to animality or barbarism. The qualities commonly associated with it were therefore those of frailty and transience: humanitas fragilis, humanitas caduca.

Thus the Renaissance conception of humanitas had a two-fold aspect from the outset. The new interest in the human being was based both on a revival of the classical antithesis between humanitas and barbartias, or feritas, and on a survival of the mediaeval antithesis between humanitas and divinitas. When Marsilio Ficino defines man as a “rational soul participating in the intellect of God, but operating in a body,” he defines him as the one being that is both autonomous and finite. And Pico’s famous ‘speech’ ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is anything but a document of paganism. Pico says that God placed man in the center of the universe so that he might be conscious of where he stands, and therefore free to decide ‘where to turn.’ He does not say that man is the center of the universe, not even in the sense commonly attributed to the classical phrase, “man the measure of all things.”

It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from this two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.

Small wonder that this attitude has been attacked from two opposite camps whose common aversion to the ideas of responsibility and tolerance has recently aligned them in a united front. Entrenched in one of these camps are those who deny human values: the determinists, whether they believe in divine, physical or social predestination, the authoritarians, and those “insectolatrists” who profess the all-importance of the hive, whether the hive be called group, class, nation or race. In the other camp are those who deny human limitations in favor of some sort of intellectual or political libertinism, such as aestheticists, vitalists, intuitionists and hero-worshipers. From the point of view of determinism, the humanist is either a lost soul or an ideologist. From the point of view of authoritarianism, he is either a heretic or a revolutionary (or a counterrevolutionary). From the point of view of “insectolatry,” he is a useless individualist. And from the point of view of libertinism he is a timid bourgeois.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, the humanist par excellence, is a typical case in point. The church suspected and ultimately rejected the writings of this man who had said: “Perhaps the spirit of Christ is more largely diffused than we think, and there are many in the community of saints who are not in our calendar.” The adventurer Uhich von Hutten despised his ironical skepticism and his unheroic love of tranquillity. And Luther, who insisted that “no man has power to think anything good or evil, but everything occurs in him by absolute necessity,” was incensed by a belief which manifested itself in the famous phrase; “What is the use of man as a totality [that is, of man endowed with both a body and a soul], if God would work in him as a sculptor works in clay, and might just as well work in stone?”

Food and Faith in Christian Culture
edited by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden
Chapter 3: “The Food Police”
Sumptuary Prohibitions On Food In The Reformation
by Johanna B. Moyer
pp. 80-83

Protestants too employed a disease model to explain the dangers of luxury consumption. Luxury damaged the body politic leading to “most incurable sickness of the universal body” (33). Protestant authors also employed Galenic humor theory, arguing that “continuous superfluous expense” unbalanced the humors leading to fever and illness (191). However, Protestants used this model less often than Catholic authors who attacked luxury. Moreover, those Protestants who did employ the Galenic model used it in a different manner than their Catholic counterparts.

Protestants also drew parallels between the damage caused by luxury to the human body and the damage excess inflicted on the French nation. Rather than a disease metaphor, however, many Protestant authors saw luxury more as a “wound” to the body politic. For Protestants the danger of luxury was not only the buildup of humors within the body politic of France but the constant “bleeding out” of humor from the body politic in the form of cash to pay for imported luxuries. The flow of cash mimicked the flow of blood from a wound in the body. Most Protestants did not see luxury foodstuffs as the problem, indeed most saw food in moderation as healthy for the body. Even luxury apparel could be healthy for the body politic in moderation, if it was domestically produced and consumed. Such luxuries circulated the “blood” of the body politic creating employment and feeding the lower orders. 72 De La Noue made this distinction clear. He dismissed the need to individually discuss the damage done by each kind of luxury that was rampant in France in his time as being as pointless “as those who have invented auricular confession have divided mortal and venal sins into infinity of roots and branches.” Rather, he argued, the damage done by luxury was in its “entire bulk” to the patrimonies of those who purchased luxuries and to the kingdom of France (116). For the Protestants, luxury did not pose an internal threat to the body and salvation of the individual. Rather, the use of luxury posed an external threat to the group, to the body politic of France.

The Reformation And Sumptuary Legislation

Catholics, as we have seen, called for antiluxury regulations on food and banqueting, hoping to curb overeating and the damage done by gluttony to the body politic. Although some Protestants also wanted to restrict food and banqueting, more often French Protestants called for restrictions on clothing and foreign luxuries. These differing views of luxury during and after the French Wars of Religion not only give insight into the theological differences between these two branches of Christianity but also provides insight into the larger pattern of the sumptuary regulation of food in Europe in this period. Sumptuary restrictions were one means by which Catholics and Protestants enforced their theology in the post-Reformation era.

Although Catholicism is often correctly cast as the branch of Reformation Christianity that gave the individual the least control over their salvation, it was also true that the individual Catholic’s path to salvation depended heavily on ascetic practices. The responsibility for following these practices fell on the individual believer. Sumptuary laws on food in Catholic areas reinforced this responsibility by emphasizing what foods should and should not be eaten and mirrored the central theological practice of fasting for the atonement of sin. Perhaps the historiographical cliché that it was only Protestantism which gave the individual believer control of his or her salvation needs to be qualified. The arithmetical piety of Catholicism ultimately placed the onus on the individual to atone for each sin. Moreover, sumptuary legislation tried to steer the Catholic believer away from the more serious sins that were associated with overeating, including gluttony, lust, anger, and pride.

Catholic theology meshed nicely with the revival of Galenism that swept through Europe in this period. Galenists preached that meat eating, overeating, and the imbalance in humors which accompanied these practices, led to behavioral changes, including an increased sex drive and increased aggression. These physical problems mirrored the spiritual problems that luxury caused, including fornication and violence. This is why so many authors blamed the French nobility for the luxury problem in France. Nobles were seen not only as more likely to bear the expense of overeating but also as more prone to violence. 73

Galenism also meshed nicely with Catholicism because it was a very physical religion in which the control of the physical body figured prominently in the believer’s path to salvation. Not surprisingly, by the seventeenth century, Protestants gravitated away from Galenism toward the chemical view of the body offered by Paracelsus. 74 Catholic sumptuary law embodied a Galenic view of the body where sin and disease were equated and therefore pushed regulations that advocated each person’s control of his or her own body.

Protestant legislators, conversely, were not interested in the individual diner. Sumptuary legislation in Protestant areas ran the gamut from control of communal displays of eating, in places like Switzerland and Germany, to little or no concern with restrictions on luxury foods, as in England. For Protestants, it was the communal role of food and luxury use that was important. Hence the laws in Protestant areas targeted food in the context of weddings, baptisms, and even funerals. The English did not even bother to enact sumptuary restrictions on food after their break with Catholicism. The French Protestants who wrote on luxury glossed over the deleterious effects of meat eating, even proclaiming it to be healthful for the body while producing diatribes against the evils of imported luxury apparel. The use of Galenism in the French Reformed treatises suggests that Protestants too were concerned with a “body,” but it was not the individual body of the believer that worried Protestant legislators. Sumptuary restrictions were designed to safeguard the mystical body of believers, or the “Elect” in the language of Calvinism. French Protestants used the Galenic model of the body to discuss the damage that luxury did to the body of believers in France, but ultimately to safeguard the economic welfare of all French subjects. The Calvinists of Switzerland used sumptuary legislation on food to protect those predestined for salvation from the dangerous eating practices of members of the community whose overeating suggested they might not be saved.

Ultimately, sumptuary regulations in the Reformation spoke to the Christian practice of fasting. Fasting served very different functions in Protestants and Catholic theology. Raymond Mentzer has suggested that Protestants “modified” the Catholic practice of fasting during the Reformation. The major reformers, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, all rejected fasting as a path to salvation. 75 For Protestants, fasting was a “liturgical rite,” part of the cycle of worship and a practice that served to “bind the community.” Fasting was often a response to adversity, as during the French Wars of Religion. For Catholics, fasting was an individual act, just as sumptuary legislation in Catholic areas targeted individual diners. However, for Protestants, fasting was a communal act, “calling attention to the body of believers.” 76 The symbolic nature of fasting, Mentzer argues, reflected Protestant rejection of transubstantiation. Catholics continued to believe that God was physically present in the host, but Protestants believed His was only a spiritual presence. When Catholics took Communion, they fasted to cleanse their own bodies so as to receive the real, physical body of Christ. Protestants, on the other hand, fasted as spiritual preparation because it was their spirits that connected with the spirit of Christ in the Eucharist. 77

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Effeminate Christianity

 

Jesus is a metrosexual deity, sometimes seemingly transgender or outright feminine or at the very least androgynous. This was common among salvific godmen and divinities at the time. During the mass urbanization of the Axial Age, the old agrarian fertility goddesses became less of a focus. In their place, some male figures of worship inherited the characteristics of the old goddesses, not only aspects of their physical appearance but also key attributes such as self-resurrection and triune identity.

This mythological gender mixing has remained within Christian tradition. It pops up from time to time. Every few centuries or so, effeminate portrayals of Jesus begin appearing. This is partly because of the origins of Christianity, as within the early Roman Empire it was seen as a religion of women, slaves, and low class — an equation of power that Jesus sought to turn on its head. Jesus himself was described as taking a particular interest in speaking with, healing, and defending women. This sense of Christianity carried over even into more recent history such as how, for example, early Evangelicalism, in the post-revolution and largely unchurched South, was considered unmanly in how it initially attracted mostly women and slaves, not to mention the overly emotional (i.e., ‘feminine’) mode of religiosity.

Every now and then, some modern artist will portray Jesus as feminine. And of course, there is always outrage. But there is an ancient history to this going back to the earliest Christians. This Western crisis of gender identity is far from being a mere recent phenomenon inflicted on society by radical feminists. Supposedly ‘traditional’ gender roles have been overturned multiple times these past millennia. As one of the key figures in this ongoing anxiety, Jesus is constantly being re-envisioned.

This has lead to right-wing moral panics about emasculated males and demands for muscular Christianity. Even though women played major roles in the early church, even though there were influential female mystics and visionaries and preachers over the centuries, many conservative Christians to this day worry about women even having minor roles for fear they will turn churches into “women’s clubs”. And in American history, this fear has been real, considering churches have been places of political organizing and occasionally insurrection. The earliest feminists in the 18th and 19th centuries, after all, were feminists who often took inspiration directly from their Christian faith.

On a related note, one of the most famous black churches in Charleston, SC was the site of the planning for a slave revolt. And churches played a central role during the Civil Rights movement. In dreams of freedom, many blacks during slavery and Jim Crow took inspiration from the Bible itself (e.g., the Jews once having been enslaved and in their escape many of their oppressors died). This gives new meaning to Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity was a slave religion. It also might be noted that it was common for Southern women to be likened to slaves in the expectation of their submission to the social order, but then again Biblical figures like Moses and Jesus also were expected to submit. Rebellion from within, sometimes by women, has been plaguing the church for centuries. The First Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) along with the American Revolution unleashed these internal tensions within Christianity.

In modeling themselves after Jesus’ teachings of turning family against family, Evangelicals like other dissenter sects, from the Quakers to the Shakers, sought to break free from kinship loyalties and form new spiritual families. Following Jesus’ example, Evangelical preachers put particularly great importance on women, praising their capacity of spiritual sensitivity and vision. Many women found they could gain a new kind of confidence, respect, and authority within their adopted spiritual families:

“Pious sisters could also rely on early Baptist and Methodist preachers to affirm that women of all ages and races might exercise their gifts by speaking before public, sexually mixed, religious gatherings. Thereby the clergy endorsed the view that acceptable forms of female spiritual expression went beyond fulfilling their private roles as dutiful wives, mothers, and sisters. Indeed, rather than advising women to restrict their influence to the uplift of their households, ministers encouraged them to display their talents in churches and religious meetings at neighboring homes. To assert themselves as authoritative public presences was an extraordinary liberty for women in a culture that otherwise required them to be silent and subordinate.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 3283-3288)

This gave further evidence that these Christianities were effeminate and emasculating. As kinship loyalties were based on a highly entrenched patriarchy, this was a radical challenge to the entire social order:

“Both ritual practice and the association of fellowship and family thus sustained converts to early Methodist and Baptist churches. Separating the sexes at public worship obscured the painful absence of converts’ unbelieving family members. Condemning their upbringings eased converts out of past lives embedded in kinship networks. Identifying the church as a family endowed converts with a new circle of spiritual kin, often one more sympathetic to their religious strivings than were relatives by blood or marriage.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 2953-2957)

Further challenges came from other of Jesus’ teachings such as, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” For those who took their Bible seriously, these were powerful words. Jesus didn’t only speak in this way for, through his actions, he demonstrated what it meant to defy authority. And as I’ve pointed out here, the very portrayals of Jesus showed him as a profoundly ambiguous figure who transcended the divides of social identities.

The ancient and extensive history of a ‘queer’ Jesus can’t be erased. There has always been a bit of the trickster to Jesus and the trickster, by nature, is always hard to pin down. For anyone who doubts that, ask the Roman and Jewish authorities during Jesus’ life. If Jesus were around today, he’d give the modern Pharisees a run for their money.

* * *

The Feminine/Androgynous Jesus
by Valerie A. Abrahamsen

Jesus was a man, right? In the New (Christian) Testament of the Bible he certainly was. However, in the first few centuries of the Common Era (CE), images of Jesus were not limited to male.

During this era, a great deal of Christian literature, generally called “apocryphal” or “extra-canonical,” circulated but did not make it into the New Testament (NT). Similarly, art depicting images of Jesus, his family, his disciples and their stories was also created, not all of the images taken from NT texts. In both the literature and art of the first Christian centuries, Jesus’ sexuality could be ambiguous, androgynous or even feminine.

What may be shocking, offensive or bewildering to us most likely resonated for the people of the time and had parallels in the culture. […]

What is more problematic for us moderns is the portrayal of Jesus as sexually ambiguous, with feminine traits. Examples of an ambiguous Jesus are found in both art and literature and, as Cartlidge and Elliott point out (page 66), some of this evidence leads to “intricate academic footwork” and “dodging and weaving” of interpretation; that is, scholars tend to dismiss the importance of images and texts of which they cannot make sense. […]

Cartlidge and Elliott point out that the debate about Jesus’ sexuality must have been raging from the earliest times of the development of the church, as attested in these literary and artistic pieces of evidence. If the feminine/androgynous Jesus and the tripartite Jesus are viewed from the point of view of ancient, even prehistoric, religion, it becomes more comprehensible as to why such depictions and images appeared and resonated with early Christians. The prehistoric nature goddess (whom we met earlier) was often accompanied by a young, vital male deity, especially in her aspect of the life-creating force; “male animals and humans stimulate and enhance life” (Gimbutas, Living Goddesses, 117). Taken alongside the power and influence of Mary – Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, Theotokos – the appearance of the young Jesus fits this ancient pattern. In the competitive Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine era, the pairing of the powerful Mary with the powerful, younger Jesus made sense.

Similarly, Jesus with feminine characteristics suggests that he took on attributes of powerful female deities in the Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine milieus. If Jesus had characteristics of these goddesses, devotees attracted to them might also be converted to the Christ cult.

Understanding Early Christian Art
by Robin Margaret Jensen
pp. 124-127

One of the most striking and, to modern eyes, curious aspects of the beardless, youthful image Jesus is Christ’s endowment with feminine physical characteristics, including small protruding breasts, sloping shoulders, wide hips, and long curling hair. Such representation obviously contrasts with the darker, bearded type of Jesus image, but it also often presents an image of Jesus that differs from congruent representations of the apostles, who usually are given quite masculine appearances, with clipped beards, short hair, broad shoulders, and square jaws. The contrast between Jesus and his apostles shows up very clearly on several fourth- and fifth-century sarcophagi (cf. Figures 42, 48). Such feminine features led to the original misidentification of a famous statue of Christ as a seated woman poet. […]

However, in contrast to mortal human males, long ringlets and beardless cheeks characterized the iconography of certain late antique gods — Apollo and Dionysus in particular. Moreover, Apollo and Dionysus iconographic types also share other feminine attributes seen in the youthful Jesus images, including the round shoulders, small but obvious breasts, wide hips, and full cheeks of the nearly hermaphroditic figures described by Euripides, Ovid, Diodorus, and Seneca, or portrayed in the classical iconography. Dionysus, especially, underwent transition from a mature, bearded, Zeus-like figure on archaic Greek vases to a late-classical and Hellenistic appearance as a youthful, androgynous and “Apollonian” image. However, while the changes in Dionysiac types have been noted by art historians, the variants in Jesus’ iconography (which parallel those of Dionysus) are rarely discussed in modern secondary literature.

The parallels between Jesus images and Apollo or Dionysus in earlier Roman iconography raise certain fascinating theological issues, including whether some art objects were specifically commissioned by or for women, who envisioned or experienced Jesus as female, and whether they emerged in non-orthodox Christian communities that varied their gendered images of the Triune God and transferred particular attributes from the pagan deities to Jesus, including Dionysus’ role as a god of fertility. Jesus’ application of the metaphor “true vine” to himself (John 15:1) may have strengthened the parallel. […]

A more likely possibility is that representations of Jesus were simply consistent with the portraiture of the savior deities of the Hellenistic mystery cults, especially Apollo, Dionysus, and Orpheus. The iconography of Jesus merely borrowed from the traditional and familiar portrayals of those gods, perhaps in part because of their similar divine attributes. Serapis, too, was known to be represented with female breasts (although not beardless) and statues of that god are known to have been restored as the goddess Roma or Minerva. These classical types had come to be visually synonymous with the concept of deity; certain physical characteristics automatically signified divinity to the ordinary viewer. The power of association encouraged those characteristics to be transferred to Jesus iconography, as they had become a kind of artistic marker — or shorthand — for the appearance of a certain kind of god. Jesus’ transformation of water to wine at Cana and his statement, “I am the true vine,” may account for the adoption of Dionysiac vintaging scenes for Christian monuments. Perfectly orthodox Christians could image Jesus with feminine physical attributes because those attributes visually signalled characteristics that were deeply rooted in the visual language of the surrounding culture. However, not only were these borrowings intended to suggest that Jesus possessed certain god-like qualities, but in fact subsumed all divine attributes in one person.

Jupiter’s portrayal and perception as majestic and powerful — both Lord and Judge — could be borrowed to transfer these same characteristics to Jesus in compositions like the enthroned apse of Sta. Pduenziana. Certain aspects of Orpheus’ or Dionysus’ portrayal as idealized, youthful “savior” gods were likewise applied to images of Jesus. The gods featured in the mystery cults of late antiquity were immanent and personal gods with whom devotees had intense encounters, not unlike Jesus. Moreover, they were gods of resurrection who survived descents into the underworld. Orpheus additionally was often depicted as a shepherd in a paradisical setting — a figure that parallels the Christian Good Shepherd. Clement of Alexandria had already pointed out certain parallels that formerly misguided pagans might find between the old gods and the divine Son in Christianity. No wonder, then, that aspects of traditional representations of these gods would be transferred to visual imagery of Christ, including the almost feminine beauty associated with such gods in particular.

The Roman god Bacchus as a Christian icon
by Riley Winters

Bacchus was the Greco-Roman god associated with mental and physical duality. His mythology began in Greece, under the name Dionysus, a foreign god joining an already existing civilization (Dionysus and Bacchus are comparable deities, but for the purpose of this article, “Bacchus” will be utilized to discuss the pagan god to avoid confusion).

In Euripides’ Bacchae, Bacchus came to Greece from a far off land and shook up the Thracian king with his new religious practices and effeminate ways. The Bacchanalia, a procession of satyrs and overly drunken women, led to the king’s disapproval of Bacchus’ religion, eventually resulting in the death of the Thracian king. Though this particular myth is vastly different from the stories of Jesus, there are similar visual themes the Christians expertly borrowed in their symbolic portrayal of Jesus to aid the Romans in accepting the new religion, allowing it to eventually become the primary faith of the empire.

On the surface, the similarities between Bacchus and Jesus are easily evident. Both gods are first depicted as youthful and feminine. Bacchus is intended to be androgynous, with long flowing hair and a soft face. Jesus, however, is in part portrayed young to reveal his innocence, highlighting his purity. […]

There is also an important similarity between these two figures in that their early imagery reveals that their faiths were initially targeted toward women in the beginning of their worships. Men were the religious leaders of both societies, and women were commonly ignored or pushed to the side. To gain a position within the Roman culture, both Bacchus and Jesus had to show a value for women, giving them a voice in the male-dominated world. The primary worshippers of Bacchus were the Maenads, women who reached a heightened level of ecstasy through excessive drinking. According to Greco-Roman thought, the drinking allowed the women (and the few men who participated) to achieve a spiritual release they were otherwise not allowed because of the norms of their society. Religious worship, however, temporarily exempted them from these rules.

Similarly, Jesus showed an interest in women by taking the time to heal those who otherwise were ignored and exiled. One of the images found in the catacombs relates to the Woman with the Issue of Blood who was cleansed by Jesus after reaching for his robe, her faith in his power alone healing her. According to the Biblical account, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who herself travelled with the twelve apostles. Both Bacchus and Jesus emphasized the importance of women early in their mythologies by providing women with the attention they desired from their deities right away. By focusing on women, a large faction of supporters rose around both men quickly, the power of the forgotten ones. This was a very strong image in both Greco-Roman and early Christian culture, and both were commonly depicted with women in their art.

 

Feminine Images of Jesus: Later Medieval Christology and the Devaluation of the Feminine
by Jenny Bledsoe

During the later medieval period in Western Europe, feminine representations of Jesus abounded. Medieval Christians had begun to emphasize the humanity of Jesus in reaction to the religious foci of the era before their own (early medieval focus on the spirit and Jesus’ resurrection), and seemed to find that “feminine” characteristics were most expressive of the human nature of Jesus. […]

As a result of economic changes, the later medieval period refashioned Christology, as well as conceptions of self. Feminine images of Jesus express changing ideals of femininity and also the socially accepted roles of women in the Church and the public. This study explores later medieval representations—both textual and visual—of Jesus as mother in order to determine the implications of such representations for actual women. We will sample three medieval writers who wrote about feminine Jesuses, two writing in the heyday of incarnation theology and feminized Jesus imagery—the twelfth century monastics Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen—and later, one fourteenth century theologian who inherited the legacy of her predecessors, Julian of Norwich. In her book on Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, Barbara Newman describes the shared focus and understanding of all medieval representations of a feminine Jesus: “The common denominator is a sense that the feminine is somehow problematic; being neglected, undervalued, or wrongly understood within a patriarchal culture, it needs to be perpetually redefined, revalued, and relocated in the general worldview.”1 Although all of the medieval writers subscribed to essentialist understandings of gender based in a patriarchal society, it is true that they all seemed to think that it was necessary to explore and define the feminine more fully and consider how the feminine fits within human understandings of God. […]

Feminist Theology

Some feminist theorists argue that descriptions of divine motherhood refer to long-suppressed ancient worship of female goddesses or androgynous gods. Elaine Pagels writes that the monotheistic religions are unusual in comparison to other world religions in that the former do not employ feminine imagery to describe God.2 By 200 CE, upon the establishment of the Christian canon, orthodox Christianity discouraged feminine symbolism for expressing the essence of the divine.3 While women played leading roles in Gnostic Christian groups, which sometimes described God in feminine language, the orthodox tradition banned female leadership and description of the divine as female. Pagels questions why the orthodox Christian tradition so ardently demanded that women and feminine conceptions of God be banned from Christian hegemony: “Is it possible, then, that the recognition of the feminine element in God and the recognition of mankind as a male and female entity bore within it the explosive possibility of women acting on an equal basis with men in positions of authority and leadership?”4 […]

Medieval Conceptions of Motherhood

At this point in Western culture, there was no conception of separate religious and secular realms. And so, religion defined all aspects of later medieval society, including the role of the mother. Spiritual writers define the medieval woman or mother as having three distinct characteristics: “The female is generative (the foetus is made of her very matter) and sacrificial in her generation (birth pangs); the female is loving and tender (a mother cannot help loving her own child); the female is nurturing (she feeds the child with her own bodily fluid).”15 In medieval representations of Jesus as mother, Jesus displays these feminine characteristics, all of which are based on medieval physiological theories

The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.

Meyerism and Unity Church

One of the shows I’ve been following is The Path, about a growing spiritual movement and community called Meyerism (they don’t refer to themselves as a religion). It’s in the third season. My interest has been sustained, even if not quite as good as the first season.

The melodrama has increased over time, but that is probably to be expected. After all, it is about a close-knit faith group that transitions from a cult-like commune to a respectable large-scale organization. It’s a turbulent process with an existential crisis for the community involving a change of leadership. The portrayal of faith feels honest and fair to human nature, the way people struggle and care for what matters most to them.

One aspect I like about the show is the comparison and contrast with Christianity. As the organization grows, they decide to expand their reach to provide more services. Volunteer work and generosity is central to their spiritual vision. So, they invest in a major center in the nearby city, but it is more space than they immediately need. They share the space with others, including a Christian youth group. As a community, they are confident in their faith and so don’t see other groups, religious or otherwise, as competition.

One of the young Meyerists, Hawk, who grew up in the faith soon falls in love with the also young Caleb who leads the youth group. The conflict is that Caleb’s father is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, not accepting of homosexuality. Hawk has to simultaneously come to terms with his own homosexual feelings and those of others. This causes him to question what is faith, what is religion vs a cult, what does it mean to love someone no matter what. His parents raised him in Meyerism, but after his father became the new leader his mother had her own crisis of faith. She has learned to be more accepting and offers Hawk her perspective.

This conflict for Hawk came up again in the most recent episode (ep. 10, The Strongest Souls). Hawk doesn’t want to lose Caleb, but Caleb is afraid of losing his family. Unlike Meyerism, Caleb’s fundamentalist church is not accepting in the slightest. Caleb is feeling unbearable pressure to enter into a program to have his homosexuality cured or whatever they do. In hope of helping Caleb, Hawk looks for a gay-welcoming Christian church and finds himself sitting in a Unity service. That caught my attention. I grew up in the Unity Church (part of New Thought Christianity) and it is the first time I’ve seen it portrayed in any form within mainstream media.

I can be critical of Unity. It is as idealistic and as liberal of a church as you are likely to find. As someone dealing with depression, the idealism I internalized in my youth has been a struggle for me. It has messed up my mind in many ways, a bright light casting a dark shadow. But at the same time, the Unity Church represents some of my happiest memories. I attended Unity youth camps and the experience blew me away. Unity theology is all about love and light. I was never taught any notion about sin, damnation, and hell. These were foreign concepts to me. It is a beautiful religion and the positive feeling and support I felt growing up was immense. It showed me the world could be a different way. But returning to high school after one of those youth camps, it sent me into a tailspin of despair. The idealism of Unity didn’t match the unrelenting oppressiveness of the world I was forced to live in on a daily basis. Positive affirmations and visualizations were no match for the cynical culture that surrounded me. I felt unprepared to deal with adulthood in an utterly depraved world.

Yet that was long ago. For a moment in watching Hawk in that Unity service, I remembered what was so wonderful about the Unity Church. It’s a place where you will be accepted, even the lowest of the low. It’s a church that actually takes Jesus’ message of love seriously. If you think you hate Christianity for all the ugliness of fundamentalism, then you should visit a Unity Church. It has nothing to do with whether or not you want to believe in God or have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can’t say all Unity Churches are equal, as I’ve been to some that felt less openly welcoming than others. But the best of the Unity Churches can give you an experience like few other places.