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Archive for May, 2012

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

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