New Growth in the Soil of Decay

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of months although I have been writing quite a lot. But the tone of my writing has been too negative, so it’s ended up in the trash bin rather than the blog. It’s easy to be a critic; it’s easy to postulate about what’s wrong with the world. It’s better to find a way forward.

The most dramatic trend in the last two decades (if it were a play, it would be a grand denouement) is the catastrophic failure of Liberal culture. To be clear, I am not referring to liberalism and conservatism as we tend to think about it today. They are in fact two versions of Classical Liberalism, the broad category I have in mind. These two versions (that we call conservative and liberal) have suffered a catastrophic failure of vision and will. The reactions to this failure, nativism, nationalism, tribalism, political philosophies that are exclusive rather than inclusive, are seen with horror by those of us who are true children of the Enlightenment. And there are certainly reasons to be horrified by many of these expressions, whether its the denial of science, the tendency toward xenophobia, etc. What is more difficult to see is that all of these movements are new sprouts growing from the fertile soil of spoiled fruit. The nature of these new sprouts is what has captivated my thinking for the last while. Many of the sprouts are noxious weeds, but not all. It is in discerning the difference where dreaming dreams and proclaiming visions needs to become a core bit of our contemporary kerygma.

So where is the good in the midst of this collapse of the Enlightenment hegemony? First is the rejection of the inherent reductionism that marks the Enlightenment. Reality is made up of far more than science and empirical inquiry can study. Furthermore, the part of reality science to which science does have access, always turns out to be more complicated and interconnected than anyone imagined. As a result science studies a subset of that which is necessary for true knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell is fond of using the automobile as an illustration. What is the ontology of the automobile? Said another way, what is its most basic function? What is it best at? We can consider the question from two different perspectives: intent and result. Intent looks forward ; it describes our hopes and desires, while results looks backward and describes what actually happens. The intent is that an automobile is designed to get us place to place. From this perspective the ontology of the automobile is as a conveyance, and it’s actually pretty good at that. But we could argue that looking back (considering cold, hard results rather than hopes and dreams) the automobile is even better at (1) killing and injuring people and animals, (2) polluting the air and other environmental degradation, and (3) undermining community by allowing and possibly encouraging the insular existence of the suburbs and exurbs. Looking back rather than forward, the ontology of the automobile may be better described as a destroyer, destroying life, environment, and community.

We more commonly call the gap between intent and actual results “unintended consequences.” There is a very real sense that one of the primary agendas of the Enlightenment was to take control of our world. Rather than leaving our destiny to chance and the vagaries of nature, we would control it and determine our own outcome. Now there is overwhelming evidence that we humans are incapable of this because we are not capable of considering all the consequences.

The anti-science backlash we see today, from anti-vaxxers to global warming denialists, is an expression of this exasperation we have with the hubris of science. Nature is brutal but it doesn’t seem to be quite as stupid as science sometimes turns out to be and there is a strong desire to to once again cooperate with creation rather than re-create it in our own fallen image. Of course the pendulum has swung too far. There’s a big difference between humble science and simply being anti-scientific. But we have an opportunity to learn humility and develop a new respect for the inherent wisdom of the created order.

A second “good” which is arising from the collapse of Classical Liberal culture is the rediscovery of our connectedness. The Enlightenment idea of the individual at its most radical rejected this connection. Ever since Descartes (the “I think, therefore, I am” guy), theologians have been fighting a rear guard action to re-establish the Christian idea of the “person”—a being whose self-understanding doesn’t come from within (the mind or the will) but from relationship. This emphasis on the untethered individual has been magnified with industrialization. The modern city, based on industrialization, which doesn’t need families or artisans who mentor other artisans, but only worker drones to keep the machinery humming, accompanied by the ease of transportation (have I said anything about the assumed vs. the real ontology of the automobile?) promotes individuality to the point of isolation.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been push-back, beginning with aid societies, and then the growth of labor unions. The shape of the current push against isolation is rather amorphous and it’s hard to tell exactly where it is going. But it is something that can be happily capitalized upon by Christian communities. Isolation is not normal. But rather than rail against it, we have the opportunity to offer authentic examples of the true alternative.

I went into some detail above about how trying to control nature almost always backfires. There is now an openness to the value of cooperating with nature. There is a parallel in our personhood. History shows that individualism and its resulting isolation, leads us to think of a neighbor who is too close to be a hinderance, and sometimes, even an enemy. But society is increasingly open to the value of relationships, the push and pull of communities, and the dangers of privacy as an absolute right. Just as we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with nature, so we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with other people in our communities and society.

There are other examples of this moment of opportunity in which we live, but 1,000+ words and two examples will suffice for now. Rather than complain about what might seem to be the collapse of society, I want to explore how we can capitalize on the tender shoots of positive growth that we see all around us.

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