Monday, August 10, 2020

The cult of the individual

 Rolling Stones, I understand, may have had more than its fair share of brilliant writers over the years.

This article (with H/T to a couple of clerical colleagues in the Chch Dio) mourns and explains the passing of the American era.

From a Christian perspective it implicitly poses the sharp question: how could US Christianity not contribute to the development of a US welfare state in the way that Christianity has done elsewhere (including in NZ)?

From a human perspective it is alarming that the new imperial game in town is China which is a dictatorship - ruthless (its treatment of Uighur Muslims, Christians), heartless (Hong Kong) and impervious to shame (it has a chilling influence on life in a faraway country such as NZ).


Father Ron said...

You may, Bishop Peter, have seen a documentary last night about China's entrenchment into Queensland University's academic arena - one of China's 'cultural representatives' having been appointed to the academic staff to keep an (undercover) eye on chinese students studying there.

It appears that the University is fearful that, if it does not accede to China's demands, it may lose the considerable revenue it is gaining from the asccommodation of Chinese students.

Meanwhile, the 'Cultural Representative' continues his subversive political influence on campus!

The world clearly now has two very threatening political forces to deal with: China - with its burgeoning influence everywhere in the West; and Trump's money-rich Republicanism, which has even - if rumour be believed - used China to bolster it's own influence in securing Trump's re-election in the United States.

The biggest difference between these two regimes is that China is militantly atheistic; while Trumpism is militantly Fundamentalist faux-Christian. Perhaps they may destroy each other in the end, but what about the rest of us? (However, I do have faith that true Christianity will eventually triumph)

Anonymous said...

"How could US Christianity not contribute to the development of a US welfare state in the way that Christianity has done elsewhere (including in NZ)?"

Peter, your premise that Christianity has contributed to the development of a welfare state elsewhere is true, of course, but would be news to churchmen and policymakers here. That points to two implications of a rather damning truth.

The most widely credited social science explanation for the flimsiness of social insurance here is that estrangement along the fault-line of race has inhibited Americans from extending *in-group altruism* to each other. Voting for say universal healthcare is not "taking care of our own" but "making a forced donation to those other people who would not need help if they would just work harder." Here, the disunity of churches institutionalizes the disunity of the society.

And how has Christianity contributed to the development of welfare states? In most countries, such social insurance fleshed out an institutional backbone of diaconal work that a national or territorial church did for its members and community. The most obvious example is the network of Church of England hospitals that became the NHS. Even in the US, the Roman Catholic Church has likewise accepted that diaconal *works of mercy* are a constitutive part of what a real church of Jesus Christ does.

But Protestant churches here, especially non-denominational ones, have tended to see the work of churches as passing out justification placebos to individuals according to taste. They are pleased to see their most entrepreneurial members do *charity work* but the congregants of even a mega-church do not feel bound in the same way to professionals providing reliable help to a defined local population. Hence the patchwork of services that the pious provide is nothing that could evolve into solid help for the poor or the public at large. And even Catholic hospitals belong, not to a system of Christian institutions, but to a regulated market for profit.

For concrete example, the US Congress passed a law a few years ago that effectively compels those helping the homeless to coordinate their provision of care within a structure standard for every American community. Until the Congress acted, two Christian homeless shelters less than a mile apart here were not on speaking terms with each other, city hall, county social services, Catholic social services, local hospitals, etc.

Now I do not mind if Caesar calls an occasional ecumenical council, but it is troubling that the national legislature had to show these pious folk that chaos-- and its very real human consequences-- is not humane. The gap that Oliver O'Donovan has criticised in confessions like the 39A kills people wherever bodies feel able to dispense grace, often rather cheaply, without being the Body. Absent robust ecumenism, any other stance taken for social justice could be called a whitewashed tomb.


Anonymous said...

"Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along."

The premise of this article by Elizabeth Dias is that a New Yorker perplexed by people in the Dakotas can just fly out there, interview some people, and the Truth about where they went wrong will emerge. Provincial, patronizing and implausible.

But she is right about the desperation that inland evangelicals feel as the composition of society changes, and as its culture defines progress as being less like them. She is also right in seeing them as making a pragmatic alliance with Trump with their eyes wide open.


Anonymous said...

Peter, the passing of John Lewis a fortnight ago occasions a thought about race and secularity here up yonder that may matter elsewhere.

When I was a child, the end of racism was envisioned as an act of inclusion: the WASP establishment would make room for people of colour. Famously, that was Martin Luther King's dream. It was also implicit in the tactic of non-violent disobedience to Jim Crow laws that brought Lewis to national fame. At the time, this inclusion was justified on explicitly religious grounds, and Black religious leaders like Lewis and King lead a movement of our society toward it.

Today, the end of racism is envisioned as a *rising American majority* of progressive whites and people of colour moving into the house, rearranging the furniture, and displacing the whites not inclined to join them. In this secular phase of the movement toward racial equality, religion is not only not the common language of all sides, but is seen as a shibboleth on one side and an impropriety on the other. So action for change is directed less at a church-going society than at a state with the power to compel change.

Lewis recognised that good change comes from what he called "good trouble." But his deep Christian commitment to non-violence was threatening only to racism itself. The trouble in this more secular phase may turn out to be good, on balance, but it is more intrusive and threatening.


Father Ron said...

Dear Bowman, I always enjoy your fulsome comments, bringing light into the sometimes scary places of my lack of understanding. I think that what we have in common is a love of God and of the Church that forces us to share what we perceive as wisdom for the time in which we are living. I also thank Gor for the hospitality of our Bishop Peter, who allows us to contribute on his valuable blog-site.Hence; I offer yet another insight from the Jesuits today, in their daily '3 Minute Retreat" :

"Jesus assures the disciples that although he is returning to the one who sent him, they will not be abandoned or alone. A gift, the Spirit, will come to them. This Spirit will bring them comfort and understanding. In our own lives we may notice that we grow in understanding and knowledge of God's truth. What we once knew, we now know more deeply. What we perhaps have heard unclearly or incompletely in the past, we now understand differently. The role of the Holy Spirit is to lead us to this truth, this new place of understanding, this new depth of faith, this new life in God, Father, Son, and Spirit."

I now believe that when things go wrong as they do - both in our lives and the life of the world - Christ's disciples sometimes forget to call upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to turn our eyes and hearts to the power of God-in-Christ to re-orient our energies towards the discovery of 'how God's mercy works', so that we can be renewed in body, mind and spirit to partner with God and one another in the conuing work of redemption of our world.

Pope Francis' Word for Today is this:-


“How important it is to always put God’s forgiveness, which ‘generates heaven’ in us and around us, back at the centre, this pardon that comes from God’s heart who is merciful!”

Pope Francis

Anonymous said...

"But she is right about the desperation that inland evangelicals feel as the composition of society changes, and as its culture defines progress as being less like them."

"The trouble in this more secular phase may turn out to be good, on balance, but it is more intrusive and threatening."


"...when things go wrong as they do - both in our lives and the life of the world - Christ's disciples sometimes forget

to call upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit

to turn our eyes and hearts to the power of God-in-Christ

to re-orient our energies towards the discovery of 'how God's mercy works',

so that we can be renewed in body, mind and spirit to partner with God and one another in the continuing work of redemption of our world."

Thank you, Father Ron :-)


Anonymous said...

Any following news of a certain event up here on November 3 may possibly have heard that Nate Silver's excellent 538 model gives the president a roughly 28% chance of a second term. These are about the odds that Silver famously-- at the time, heretically-- gave Trump on election day 2016. For comparison, Andrew Gelman's model for The Economist gives Trump about an 11% chance. Both are excellent.

Why then do they disagree? It's August. Patterns in past voting have little weight in Gelman's model, but more weight in Silver's. Concretely, Gelman's assumes less than Silver's does that Republicans will vote as they have in the past. As the quantity and quality of state level polls improves near election day, neither model will pay much attention to history and their numbers should converge.

But then there is the real world. There are few undecided voters this year. There are Republican super-PACs raising millions to campaign against their party's nominee. Suburban Republicans voted to give the House to the Democrats in 2018. Everything Trump does to attract one of the rare undecided voters to his side pushes two or more others further away. A conservative ex-governor and sometime Republican presidential candidate is speaking at the Democratic National Convention. To put it mildly, we do not have historical data on this sort of year.

2016 was about populist insurgency in both parties. 2020 is about the centre's leftward migration. This has opened Democrats to more robust policies on issues like climate change. It has also drawn suburban Republicans who want to govern away from a politics of pure negation. For that reason, this is a wonderful year to be a Democrat challenging a Republican senator up for re-election. Or to be a Republican strategist laying a foundation for a new party.

It is unlikely that the president will be elected to another term. It could hypothetically happen through a combination of freak events. Say, another year like 2000-- poor turnout shaves Biden's commanding lead, Florida or some other state cannot count its votes, and a Supreme Court effectively resolves all the technical uncertainties in Trump's favour. Still unlikely.

More importantly, that would pit a president even weaker than he is now against a relatively legitimate, unified, and potent Congress. The country needs an effective head of government, and some of the world might also welcome that. But it could also do our republican constitution good to see the Congress strip the Oval of some imperial pretenses, layer by layer. Or just to impeach and remove the president from office.

Most likely, the chief justice will swear in a new president at precisely noon on January 20, 2021. Any personal items of the old one still found in the White House will be boxed and put on the curb outside. Prosecutors in New York-- federal, state, and local-- will be calling the ex-president to schedule appointments.


Anonymous said...

The title of this OP is alluding to two problems that should perhaps be made explicit.

(1) How exactly should Protestants distinguish the *particularism* in their notion of salvation from the *individualism* that bottoms modern moral schemes like those of Friedrich Nietszche, John Stuart Mill, or Ayn Rand?

(2) Then, given some understanding of that distinction, what sort of politics-- alliance, opposition, or something else-- can classical Protestants offer secular libertarians?

Seeing evangelical churches where few wear masks and many have stickers for Trump on their cars, an unsentimental observer could think that the virus of individualism had infected them, and was using their DNA to make libertarian nihilists of millions of people.

Jesus did not die for individualism. But hundreds of millions think he did. And 200,000 here have died of the plague.

Because nobody wants the gospel of an irrational death cult, those following the Great Commission will have to distinguish themselves from that libertarian one. That distinction needs answers to (1) to be clear about the gospel itself, and to (2) to avoid its being hijacked by a simulacrum.

How should Protestants escape from their babylonian captivity?


Anonymous said...

A Quibble

*Particularism*, used in my 7:44 just above, is unfamiliar to those unread in Protestant, especially Reformed, systematics. But definitions are possible.

What did the Resurrection concretely show the apostles? That the Creator god of their father Abraham had begun to transfigure the common life of humanity. That simple idea is summarized in the creed used in ancient baptisms, and elaborated in Romans 5-8. People who understand and live by this simple thought are usually called *Christians*.

In theology in English, the word *particular* has been used to distinguish the transfiguration of bags of skin and bones like yours and mine from that of any congregations in which we stand, the Body of them here, there, or everywhere, or the humanity of which that Body is the avant garde. All do not care equally about that distinction.

At one near extreme, John Calvin cared about it a lot. He saw God transfiguring the life of the world mostly or entirely by acting on the several persons that our skins contain. Through his eyes, we can see salvation, not as a cosmic event than somehow includes the Body and then each member, but as something that spirals out from the conversion of a particular soul to whatever is in the scope of her agency. The cogency with which he argues this from an Augustinian reading of the Bible is a brilliant tour de force, all the more so if you do not think that the apostles would have understood what he was doing or why he was doing it.

Anglicans per se do not need Calvin, but if they read him, they do so with an empathy rare in the C21. Apart from his system, liberals who hate the 39A and conservatives who recite them are equally incoherent because they cannot otherwise explain why they are basing everything they say on the abstract *particular* soul. We could say that the Communion can accommodate Calvin's *particularism* in a wider view, but its warring tribes cannot do without it.

Anonymous said...

At the far but not always opposing extreme, St Maximus the Confessor distinguished particular skins from humanity as a whole only here and there. A famous and beautiful passage in his Ambigua 41 is as *particularist* as the East ever gets, and even it is about the individual soul's participation in what God is doing in the cosmos. God's victory over the rebel powers razes the walls of estrangement that have divided all reality since the Fall, walls between--

God and creation
things invisible and things visible
heaven and earth
paradise and world
man and woman.

The walls having fallen, they no longer divide or confine humanity, collectively or-- here it comes-- particularly. The peace that God's victory has won for his creation gradually pacifies humanity and so each disciple as well. At peace, the disciple returns to tending creatures as Adam once did. On the morning after Pascha, every priest of the East goes to the nearest lake, river, or sea and blesses all the waters of the earth.

In this aeon, God's peace is apparent in some lives before others, and it is that part of humanity that is the Body. If humanity per se has been saved, then why has the rest of humanity not yet shown up? And why do those who have still sin so horribly? These questions ask why we are living in the present aeon instead of the next one. God has not told us why. St Paul has explained how to live with this. Any more questions?

We seem to have too many answers. Thinking from the cosmos in rather than from the convert out is closer to the usual perspective of Jesus and the apostles. If you spend much time in the theological East, you will be pleasantly surprised to find myriad fuzzy bits of the NT suddenly making crystalline sense. But such thinking dissolves questions venerable in the West and answers to those questions define all the churches and tribes we know.

The bolts that Western churchmen use to fasten furniture to the floor are made of *particularism*. Many fear that if anyone loosens the nuts, then lamps and couches and tables and chairs will soon float over the treetops. It's not that they have never heard of gravitation-- they can spell the word, they have bought that book-- it's just that because their practice has always been to bolt things to the floor, they feel that they just do not know what dreadful things might happen if you unwound the nuts. It could reverse all the advance in theology since the apostles met the risen Lord.


Peter Carrell said...

Thank you, Bowman, "particularly" for further insights into common theological currency between Calvinist West and the East!

Of course Christianity is responsible in various ways for emphasising the individual while not intending to set up a cult of individualism:

The healings of Jesus, for instance, often tell the story of one individual accorded, so to speak, special, individualised treatment.

John's Gospel has various discourses to the collective (crowd, disciples, "the Jews") while also highlighting Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the blind man, Lazarus and Mary Magdalene.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Peter, for kind words and an argument well worth an OP.

My own *via media* has leaned toward Wittenburg rather than Geneva. But many today are fated to seek one between the latter and Constantinople.

If they should sojourn in the East long enough to understand its consensus, then they will discover that C16 theologians from university towns in Northern Europe were notably farther from horizon of the Bible than the fathers of the places named in it. This disrupts a pious belief that, unlike others, the Reformed have merely systematized what anyone could have heard in the table talk of the apostles.

Must they give up their Reformed theology? Some do. Although still difficult, it might be better for them to give up their anti-traditional biblicism. If they borrow even a Lutheran idea of *paradosis*, then they can hear Calvin et al as innovating voices in an older and deeper conversation.