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Adventures in Avarice, 2

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Something happened that is probably my fault.

I didn’t mean to give the impression that Brad Gregory, the author of The Unintended Reformation, was naive and nostalgic about the Middle Ages.

He isn’t, and wasn’t–he seems to have a pretty good grip on the fact that the actual practice of Christians in the Middle Ages was often downright awful, and that that had a lot to do with why there was a Reformation to begin with.

He was only pointing out that the Middle Ages had a different concept of religion and how religion was to be practiced than that which became common later and that which is familiar to us now, both in what we call “tradtional” and what we call “emotive.”

But there are two basic problems here that won’t go away, so let me get to them.

First–Gregory spends a lot of time proving that philosophical naturalism (this material world is all that exists) is just as much a set of unproved and unprovable assumptions as philosophical theism.

I think that this is almost certainly true, and that his main complaint against the New Atheists–that they depend for their “proofs” that God does not exist on defining God in a way (as one “entity” the same as all other “entities” in this universe) that the definition presumes the conclusion.

So far, so good–but he goes from this to argue for an inclusion of study of possible miracles, for instance, or of God’s existence, as if it automatically assumes that existence as Christianity has defined Him.

Now, Gregory is not using the kind of definition you hear from American folk Protestantism, or even from your standard Catholic catechism. 

He simply seems to assume that once you have accepted that it is possible for God to exist, then the claims of Christian revelation automatically become compelling, and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ automatically become normative.

But if God is what is is–that is, if God is not A being but is existence itself–I don’t see why that should establish that God became man in Jesus Christ or that we are commanded to live in Christian communities formed in such a way as to make the practice of the virtues in a shared life more possible for us on earth.

We are back, in other words, to the “God said so” problem. 

And since he admits out front that there is no independent way of verifying what God said, that we need an authority (i.e. the teaching of the Church) to establish what that is–we’re back again to the mess the Reformation was in. 

God says whatever the Church says He said, and we know that–because the Church says so.

Gregory spends a lot of time in this book fulminating about the way in which secularism and skepticism were the result of the fact that, once they left the Church, Protestants were unable to come up with a standard by which to determine what God was really saying in the Bible–

But it’s not really clear what he wants.  He admits that the initial world order of a single Church speaking in one voice and imposing orthodoxy from above didn’t work out very well.

He admits that the supposed desired result–Christians living a shared life in a community dedicated to practicing the virtues–did not come about.

I ended up wondering what it is the man actually wants. 

However, to the extent that he wants that shared life in Christian communities where all people satisfy their needs and not their wants and tend to the poor–

It’s a terrible idea.

I’m not saying that the spectacle of people like, say, Paris Hilton, buying multiples of $3000 handbags is not ugly, because it is.  It’s also a fairly spectacular public exhibition of the stupid.

But Gregory’s world of Christians living in voluntary poverty (not penury) so that they can give all their excess to the poor has the same problem Peter Singer’s secular version of the same society has–

If the majority of people ever tried to practice it, it would collapse under its own weight.

If nobody, or virtually nobody, bought $3000 handbags or Mercedes limousines, the result would be mass unemployment–first among the workers in businesses producing luxury goods, then among the workers in the businesses those workers patronize, and so on down the line.

The prosperity of modern advanced industrialist nations, where even the poor have electricity, central heating, and a well-equipped emergency room down the block, is dependent on all that buying and selling.

$3000 handbags and Mercedes limousines and private jets may be over the top, but the fact that some people buy them means that other people work, and the fact that those people work means that other people also work.

That’s how an economy functions.

And that leaves us with a question–since the model society and the moral rule both Gregory and Singer want here not only will not work, but cannot work, and will result in everybody being worse off–

If that’s the case, what do they actually want here?

I’ve always thought that what Singer was doing was using guilt to undermine the moral convictions of his audience, who often hold convictions he would find outdated and uncongenial.

I’ve got no reason to assume such things about Gregory, but we’re still at where we’re at. 

And I find that the result of my having read this book is that I’ve come to the realization that I am not only a child of the Enlightenment, but that I’m happy to be the child of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment project may have its flaws–not the least of which is the emergence of people like Peter Singer–

But it’s better than what seems to be proposed here.

Written by janeh

May 1st, 2012 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Adventures in Avarice, 2'

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  1. It’s probably one of those continuum things, not a choice between financial collapse and extravagance. You could probably have everyone living quite comfortably with buying and selling at a far more moderate level than we have now.

    How you set things up so that this moderate society is stable, I don’t know. Imagine something that doesn’t either tip into poverty as a result of some challenge it can’t fund the reasearch to solve, or, more likely, tip into greater economic disparity in one of several ways. Maybe some people are working harder/better than others, or you have a redefinition of status behaviour from modest restraint to wild extravagance, or some political imbalance leading to an insecure dictator being able to demand and get all the shiny toys….etc.


    1 May 12 at 10:48 am

  2. I agree with Jane that Singer’s ideas are self defeating. I haven’t read his books but the reports about his thinking suggests that he reduces everything to money. That leads to problems.

    Suppose you build a hospital in a 3rd world country. You need doctors and nurses to staff it. You also need reliable electricity which requires trained linesmen and electricians and a complicated infrastructure. You can export money but that doesn’t export an infrastructure or the people to maintain the infrastructure.


    1 May 12 at 3:21 pm

  3. Second thought:

    Paris Hilton is a trust fund baby. It seems to me that Singer wants to turn the whole world into a trust fund baby.


    1 May 12 at 3:23 pm

  4. In fairness to Singer and Gregory, I don’t think the economic ideas as Jane describes them are self-defeating.
    Observe the happy widget-maker, making 1,000 widgets a month. Her pay for 500 will keep her fed, clothed and housed, and her pay for the remaining 500 pay for $3,000 handbags. Now, if she suddenly decided “this is ridiculous!” and only produced and was paid for 500 widgets, economic activity would indeed go down–though there really is a trade-off between work and leisure: am I morally OBLIGED to take overtime work if I can get it, or to keep working until I’m no longer able in order to raise the overall level of economic activity? I’d say no, but it is an argument.

    If our widget-maker goes on making 1,000 widgets but lives on half her pay and burns the rest of the money, this just leads to a deflationary cycle–as many things being produced, but less money to pay for them. (Putting the money in a bank doesn’t count. Someone will just loan it out again. You have to actually get rid of the stuff.)

    But if our widget-maker reads Gregory, goes on making 1,000 widgets and living on the income from 500 widgets but, instead of buying a $3,000 handbag, sends 4,000 75-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese to the local food bank, there is no diminution of economic activity. Yes, if enough people do this, the $3,000 handbag maker will be out of a job–but there will be hiring for the pasta harvest, the cheese factory and the cardboard box factory. This happens all the time. Not many people making hula hoops and rickshaws these days, but there are people making i-pads and Chevy Volts.

    Spending more of our earnings on the poor would be a change in economic activity, but it would hardly throw us into an economic death spiral–so long as it’s voluntary.

    Once someone decides he’s going to MAKE these people be moral as he understands economic morality, the equation shifts. Our widget-maker, instead of being happy she can afford to give all that mac and cheese to the poor, knows that any production over 500 widgets is wasted, since what she wants is a $3,000 handbag, and she’ll never be permitted to have one. In fact, maybe she’s stupid to produce 500 widgets because if she only produced 350, the State would see that she lived just as well. NOW you’re talking economic death-spiral. The only good news is that it won’t take long to reach bottom.

    Alas, the world is full of “activists” who find compulsion much more satisfying than persuasion.


    1 May 12 at 4:01 pm

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