Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Other "September 11th"

The date September 11th is clearly engraved on our minds as the date of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Whether you characterize the Islamic terrorists as "non-Christian" or "anti-Christian", in either case, they believed themselves to be attacking a nation which they believed to be spiritually corrupt. They were attacking a nation whose core values (freedom, equality, individualism) were opposed to their worldview.

But there is another September 11th, over a century earlier. In 1857, a group of Christian families were making their way westward as part of a wagon train. Consisting largely of farmers with their wives and children, they had begun in Arkansas, and were mid-way through Utah on their journey toward California. Unfortunately for them, this was at time when the Mormon Church (also known as "Latter-Day Saints") was feeling somewhat paranoid toward the ordinary population of the United States. Convinced that these peaceful civilians posed some threat, the wagon train was attack at a location known as "Mountain Meadows", where over one hundred men, women, and children were slaughtered. Only a few infants remained alive. The Mormons had been ordered not only to attack the Christians, but to ensure that all of them died.

Whether in 1857 or in 2000, September 11th reminds us that the worldview of Western Civilization - a worldview that values each human life greatly and equally - is a culture which will has been attacked by other traditions - traditions which don't place much emphasis on the dignity of the individual human.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Congress of Vienna - Again

Why do we keep returning to the topic of the Congress of Vienna? This brief event, in a beautiful German-speaking city, not only solved a series of social and political problems which had plagued Europe for the preceeding twenty-five years; it not created an international structure which preserved peace for several decades; it also symbolized and articulated a deeper and more abstract philosophy and view of human nature and human society.

The underlying attitudes which led to the outcomes of the Congress of Vienna were the ideas presented mainly by Metternich at the Congress, and by Edmund Burke years earlier. They were reacting to 25 years of continuous violence (10 years of French Revolution and 15 years of Napoleon). The attitude was never again can we allow so many people to die, either in mass executions at home (the Revolution), or in battle in foreign countries (Napoleon). In order to prevent this, they had to combat the attitudes which led to the Revolution, and those attitudes were the attitudes which Metternich and Burke opposed in their writings. The Revolutionaries said that you had to work for a perfect society, but Burke and Metternich said that perfection was impossible in this life, that you should settle for 99%, and perfection will come in the next life. The Revolutionaries said that you should make sudden radical changes, Burke and Metternich said that you had to respect tradition, because it represents the accumulated wisdom of human reason and human experience, so be slow and cautious when making changes. In practical terms, then, this meant that the Congress of Vienna wanted to make stable legitimate governments which might change slowly over time to adapt to new circumstances, but which would not make sudden revolutionary changes.

Reacting to the Congress of Vienna, there were those eventually came to disagree with it: J.S. Mill and Liberal movement of the 1800's who wanted free markets; the Nationalists who wanted the people of each nation to be free to express their collective identity and not be restrained by traditional governmental structures; and the Communist/Socialists, who thought that the changes and problems inflicted on society by urbanization and the industrial revolution required different political approaches.

So the Congress of Vienna is important, not only because it solved a specific set of diplomatic problems and preserved peace, but also because it symbolizes an outlook: the ideas, philosophies, views, opinions, and goals of Metternich and Burke, of a Europe tired of the bloodshed and mass murder which arose from the French Revolution and from Napoleon. Their plan was to stabilize Europe by restoring the legitimate governments, and by balancing the power among England, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France, so that none would exercise hegemony over the others.

Equally historic are the movements which emerged, in part, as reactions against the Congress of Vienna: nationalism, J.S. Mill's liberalism, socialism/communism etc.

Liberals were freemarket people back then; nationalists viewed the identity of the nation as coming from the people, not the monarchs, but the Congress of Vienna supported the monarchs.

What is Luther Really Doing?

Some historians have characterized the struggle between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X as a struggle between "Papal Authority" and "Individual Experience / Revelation".

The same conflict can be described in a different way: "Is the ultimate source of authority in the Pope or in the Text?" Behind the different wordings lie two different notions of what Luther was really doing.

For the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500's, the Pope was the final word: what he said, was to be considered as the final decree on any topic.

For Martin Luther, the Text (i.e., the Hebrew and Greek documents which we call "Tanakh" and "New Testament") was the final word. Since we can all (hopefully!) read, we can each individually have access to the text for ourselves. It is in this sense that Luther stressed "individual experience."

Luther is sometimes mis-understood in this matter of "individual experience" - he was not a mystic, although there were many mystics in Luther's time. Luther did not want to place too much emphasis on individual spiritual experiences or revelations, because they retain a mainly subjective element. Rather, Luther located authority in text, because this made it objective. The letters on the page are the same, no matter who reads them! Certainly, there will remain a certain amount of subjectivity, as each person reads a text slightly differently. But the essence of text is objective, and that is what Luther was looking for.

The subjective side of Luther, then, lies in the fact that he empowers each individual to study the text and draw meaning from it; and as different individuals examine the same text, different interpretations will arise.

The objective side of Luther is seen in the fact that he views the text as the location of truth, publicly accessible to all; the ink on the page does not change, even if the readers do. The text is an objective fact.

So is Luther an objectivist or a subjectivist? Or both?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Analyzing Augustine

Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D. to 430 A.D.) is one of the most complex authors of his era. An African, he is part of the Roman Empire; a Christian, he was educated in pagan philosophy. His books deal with a wide variety of topics, and sometimes with more than one topic at the same time. He is defends the Christians who have been blamed for the fact that the Goths from northern Europe attacked and trashed Rome in 410 A.D.; the Roman polytheists said that the presence of Christians had angered the pagan gods and weakened the city. Augustine points out that the City of Rome would have been trashed even worse if the Christian churches hadn't protected both the pagan and Christian citizens of Rome.

Augustine uses the metaphor or image of two cities in his writings, but it is difficult to exactly define what they represent. The two cities are, of course, not actual physical cities, but symbols, for those who embrace Christianity as compared to those who cling to paganism. Alternatively, the can be interpreted, not as those two groups of people, but rather as two sets of ideas, and the interplay between them.

He is realistic enough to say that you will never have a society which is 100% pagan or a society which is 100% Christian, so the two groups have to cooperate, and they have common goals which will help them do this. Augustine pleads for tolerance: the pagans should stop killing the Christians, and stop blaming them for Rome's misfortunes, and simply allow the Christians to live peacefully within the Empire. Augustine echoes, in this way, the Emperor Constantine, who essentially founded the idea of tolerance, when he decided that Jews, Christians, and pagans would all be allowed to study their ideas in Roman society.

Augustine also says that simply being a member of the church doesn't guarantee that a person really has a Christian spiritual desire for peace. Being a Christian is studying and believing the distinctive ideas presented by Jesus (that each human life is valuable, that peace is better than war, etc.); being a Christian is different than merely being a member of a church.

As part of the Christian tradition, Augustine embraces the whole idea of God's unearned favor toward people; nobody earns God's gifts, and the thing that will really get a person into trouble is if she or he thinks that he or she is good enough to earn God's favor. Admitting that you're not perfect (says Augustine) is the basis for Christianity. These concepts apply equally to all people, making Christianity a user-friendly religion.

Augustine criticizes the pagans for thinking that earthly peace can be achieved by human intellect and abilities. Rather, he says, peace has a spiritual origin beyond human beings. Human beings, trying to use their own powers, are imperfect and insufficient to create peace. Augustine is pointing out that human reason is good and powerful, but it is not perfect, and there are somethings that human reason can't do. We need to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that we have limits. Centuries later, Augustinian philosophers, who formed one part of the Scholastic movement in the Middle Ages, will apply these ideas in a new setting.

Augustine points out the need the balance both the Christian impulse for societal involvement (helping the poor, founding schools, etc.) and the Christian impulse for meditation and contemplation: both are good, he says, but we should not have too much of either.

The future of human history is, then, societies continually trying to find peace and justice, and sometimes succeeding more, and sometimes succeeding less, depending on how the mix of people works together.