Radicalism and Religion

by Mark English

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, had been involved with a mystical form of Judaism (possibly Merkabah) before he joined the early-first-century Jewish sect which became (largely through his own writings and missionary activities) a new religion quite distinct from Judaism. Paul knew that his teachings were unacceptable to most devout Jews and would be perceived as utter foolishness by most non-Jews, especially by those educated in classical culture. The Mediterranean world was dominated by the Roman Empire; Koine Greek was the main language of international trade and culture. Paul, as a practising Jew, a Roman citizen and a speaker of Greek, understood – and unequivocally rejected – both classical values and the tribal aspect of Judaism. Arguably, more than any other single figure, he universalized and so cut loose from its ethnic moorings the radical political morality which had become a significant feature of the Judaism of the time.

Though Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. Unfortunately these modes of thinking become very problematic if you remove them from the theological context in which they arose. The moral imperatives of the Biblical and Christian world cannot be divorced from the absolute and morally engaged deity who lies at the heart of most Biblical texts without creating major distortions.

What gives force to notions of moral responsibility which go beyond our natural instincts and the requirements of social life? If there is a morally engaged creator-God involved, a God who communicates with us and cares about us, an absolute and demanding Biblical-style morality makes sense. If not, not.

On the Christian view, we are called to feel in some sense responsible for and to truly care about everybody on the planet. And this may be psychologically possible – if one believes in prayer and providence and a beneficent deity.

If you take these radical moral imperatives seriously in the absence of religious belief, however, they create an absolutely crushing and debilitating psychological burden. It is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse. Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. What’s more, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish or tribalistic behavior.

Activist groups typically involve a strong in-group/out-group dynamic; but, over and above this dynamic, there is a demonstrable link between radical Western social and political thought and Biblical ethics.

Thinkers with a Jewish background (amongst them Heinrich Heine, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky) have been prominent proponents of radical ideas within the Western tradition, especially over the last two hundred years. It would be naive to attribute their prominence solely to a shared, secularized religious culture however. Much can be explained in terms of social and economic history. But it is not unreasonable to see many of these thinkers as having being influenced, directly or indirectly, by the radical morality implicit in certain books of the Hebrew Bible as well as by a sense of belonging to a group with a long history of persecution and resistance.

Many Christian radicals also took their cue from the Bible, of course. Over the centuries, anti-establishment Christian thinkers of all kinds have found inspiration for religious reform and radical politics in both the New and Old Testaments. The New Testament draws heavily on the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of postexilic Judaism. Revelation, the final book of the the New Testament, is just one of many apocalyptic texts, the vast majority of which were associated not with Christianity but with Judaism. Perhaps the most influential of these was the the Book of Daniel, composed in the second century B.C.

Despite attempts by later thinkers to Christianize them, mainstream classical values stand opposed in quite fundamental ways to the uncompromising moral spirit of the prophetic literature and the New Testament. The contrast between mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy (with its emphasis on reason and moderation) and the apocalyptic literature (with its emphasis on revelation and its often extreme and violent imagery) is even greater.

Many points of difference could be enumerated between the moral attitudes which are evident in these various traditions. The contrasts, however, are not just between Roman and Jewish or Pagan and Christian, but also between specific strands of Judaism or Christianity or Pagan philosophy. The New Testament narratives and other documents of the time make it clear, for example, that not all Jewish religious groups were committed to the values and beliefs of the apocalyptic and prophetic writings. And there were also many assimilated Jews (like Josephus) who took a basically pro-Roman stance.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the early Christian view and the classical view is pretty clear. Drawing on certain strands of Jewish thought, the Christian tradition defined morality or ethics in narrower terms than the classical philosophers. Prudential considerations were excluded (thus the emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom). And moral considerations (in this narrow sense) trump all other kinds of consideration. Also, the Christian view is that we have a direct responsibility not just for our family members, friends and neighbours, but for everybody. My main point is that this style of ethics evolved within the context of a particular system of religious beliefs and, divorced from such a context, it is neither logically compelling nor (and I am speaking from personal experience here) psychologically bearable.

To summarize: I am saying that Western culture has inherited (at least) two very different – and incompatible – ways of conceptualizing and judging human behavior, and that the form peculiar to certain Hebrew and Christian texts in which commonsense and prudential considerations are marginalized or excluded altogether, is only sustainable within a religious framework of some kind. Furthermore, I am suggesting that, in many cases, traces of Biblical morality mark the thinking of people who see themselves as being non-religious and quite unaffected by the Biblical traditions of which I am speaking. This applies particularly in the sphere of radical politics.

I mentioned tribalism. As I see it, we are inveterately tribal creatures, but our tribalism may express itself in different ways. Traditionally it was associated with actual tribes and clans. But the radical moral views of the New Testament lead to a tribalism of ideas, beliefs and values totally unconnected with – and in fact inimical to – family and clan loyalties. Radical forms of socialism clearly inherit such notions.

Finally, a brief mention of a couple of specific concepts which are are associated (mainly) with progressivism and the left and which also bear the marks of their religious origins: social justice and human rights.

The rhetoric of social justice has Christian roots but it was also a focus of much secular activism during the 20th century and beyond. In the 1930s the demagogic Charles Coughlin probably did more than anyone else in the United States to popularize the term. But, for him, the concept was still essentially a religious one in the sense that the moral imperatives involved had a religious basis. Remove that basis and you change the concept entirely.

The concept of human rights (taken from the Natural Law tradition rather than Biblical sources) is also a staple of today’s radical progressivism. Activists find the rhetoric of human rights extremely useful in pursuing their political goals. Few however have any interest in or commitment to the underlying metaphysics. Again, the result is unfortunate: conceptual confusion and a loss of meaning and coherence. As rights inflation has inexorably taken hold, the emptiness and absurdity of many of the claims being made becomes increasingly evident.

42 Comments »

  1. Mark: there is no question that you present one possible way of framing these issues. Just to call your attention to some other ways: G.E.M. Anscombe was of the view that Christianity represents a synthesizing of Jewish and Classical Ideas — indeed, the Western moral “ought”, she argues, is what one gets when one combines the Classical Greek virtues with the Judaic notion of divine command — essentially, we are commanded to develop the virtues. And Leo Baeck, in his essential — and in my view, largely correct — book comparing Judaism and Christianity, characterized Judaism as a classical religion and Christianity as a Romantic one.

    https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/mmp.pdf

    http://www.christianjewishlibrary.org/pdf/lcju_binder_judaismchristianity.pdf

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dan

      I suppose we can leave Leo Baeck’s views aside for now and deal with them later. (You say you might be writing something on his ideas in the future.) My initial thought is that I am quite open to his Christianity-as-romanticism idea, though I don’t see his idea of classical religion (it sounds very Kantian) as having much in common with the old, mystical strands of Judaism which I was focusing on in the essay; nor with Aristotle et al..

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  2. One point: neither Theodor Adorno nor Max Horkheimer can hardly be called a radical activist. They both were Marxists in their analysis of contemporary society and both were very critical of what might be called “capitalist mystification”, but neither ever participated in politics. Both were armchair intellectuals (in the positive sense of the term) and Adorno is famous for calling the police when genuine student radicals occupied the Frankfurt Institute in 1968.

    Adorno (and Horkheimer) were both extremely pessimistic that any positive social change could occur in contemporary society and instead, tried to be critical voices on the edge of society, negative thinking as they said.

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      • Nonetheless, when I read s. wallerstein’s remark, what flashed into my brain was, ‘yeah, Adorno is kind of the Marxist Mark English.’ He shares an awful lot of opinions on the nature of culture, and the direction it took, with you. I strongly suggest (re)reading him.

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  3. Mark,
    I always enjoy your essays but this time I struggled to recognise my own religion in your description of it.
    Dan-K, as usual, put his finger on the heart of the matter when he said:

    essentially, we are commanded to develop the virtues.

    This really is the central point and it permeates both the Old Testament and the New Testament. They both are suffused with the language of the virtues.

    But there is so much more. The practice of our religion immerses us in song, in praise, in worship, in exaltation, in gratitude and especially in service. Ignatian spirituality develops a sacramental view of the world as a sacred place, infused with the presence of God and on this account it develops an especially deep sense of gratitude and reverence. This draws heavily on the Psalms in the Old Testament and today we are still encouraged to pray five times a day(the Liturgy of the Hours). The central part of this are the readings of the Psalms.

    There are really five things that will help you to see our religion the way we see it. I wish you had read these first before you wrote your essay.
    1) The Sermon on the Mount (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sermon_on_the_Mount)
    2) The so-called Prayer of St Francis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis)
    3) The Prayer of Azariah (Daniel 3:24 – 90) (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Song+of+the+Three+Young+Men&version=RSV)
    4) The Daily Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola (https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen)
    5) The Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila.

    Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

    Christ Has No Body

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

    People are always selective in the way they read a large body of thought and they invariably seek out the things that confirm their prior views. I see that clearly in your essay and you will reply that I am just as guilty. Yes, I am guilty as charged. But how we see our religion is the thing that defines our religion and this is the viewpoint you should examine, if you wish to understand it. The critic’s view, on the contrary, usually defines their biases more than it does the object. The five small excerpts I have given above are enough, not to define our religion, but to give you a feel for its flavour You might begin to understand that we see our religion as a thing of great beauty and joy.

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  4. Another reason (which has nothing to be with religion) why traditionally there are so many Jewish radicals is that Jews, until very recently, were an out-group, were discriminated against, and excluded from elites by numerous explicit and implicit norms. There is nothing like being “left out” to sharpen your eye about how unjust the system is.

    However, unlike other out-groups, peasants, workers, slaves, etc., Jews have a long tradition of literacy and learning, which allowed them to formulate theories about how oppression and exploitation function and allowed them to become leaders of groups which represented or claimed to represent other oppressed and exploited groups.

    Let’s take Trotsky, whom you mention above. Where else in anti-semitic Czarist Russia would a Jew with Trotsky’s intelligence and organizational abilities (he organized the Red Army which won the civil war) find a place to express his talents than among one or another revolutionary group? Tol potentiate his talents, abilities and intelligence a Jew like Trotsky in Czarist Russian had two choices: emigrate to the Americas or join a revolutionary group.

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    • s. wallerstein

      “Jews have a long tradition of literacy and learning, which allowed them to formulate theories about how oppression and exploitation function and allowed them to become leaders of groups which represented or claimed to represent other oppressed and exploited groups.”

      Yes, but that literacy didn’t come out of nowhere. Much of it was based around scriptures etc.. So the *content* of those scriptures matters.

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      • As Dan K. points out, studying the Bible and the Talmud for Jews has always had a heavy legalistic strain. You’d really have to research Trotsky’s biography a little (as well as that of other Jewish radicals) to see exactly what kind of Jewish education they received. I think that you’re simplifying the complexity of Jewish culture, even of Orthodox Jewish culture.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark,

    (1 of 2)

    I agree with pretty much none of your interpretations here. I respect the reading evidenced, and the thought you’ve given it, but believe the perspectives skewered, both on ancient history and recent history.

    “The contrast between mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy (with its emphasis on reason and moderation) and the apocalyptic literature (with its emphasis on revelation and its often extreme and violent imagery) is even greater.” This is true talking about texts; but “mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy” didn’t have much influence on Roman daily culture (part of the context of the apocalyptic literature). You may remember that a year or so ago, an essay of mine was posted here about the Satyricon, and how its (fairly accurate) depiction of Roman street life subverted the dialectics of history offered by Hegel and Marx. It also subverts the suggestion that Greek and Roman philosophy was normative in ancient Rome. It wasn’t. Rome was a stew of inherited traditions, overlapping and sometimes conflicting religions, social customs and mores that tolerated enormous variance in moral behavior, as long as wealth could be produced keeping the elite comfortable. This would seem to support your claim that Judeo-Christian promises of Apocalypse as an inevitable antidote conflicted with Greco-Roman values. Yet to see how this works, one doesn’t go to the Bible but to secondary texts – my preference is Civitas Dei. Written in the wake of a minor local apocalypse, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. The Roman religion – and its culture – that Augustine rips to shreds in the first half of that book is morally exhausted. It is the same culture which Petronious lacerates in Satyricon. In other words, we have to recognize that the later Hebraic authors and their Christian inheritors are not positioning themselves against a philosophy “with its emphasis on reason and moderation” (some of which they actively admired and learned from, eg., Neo-Platonism and Stocism), but against the real mainstream of Roman culture, which was confused, materialistic, bound to dead custom taking the place of actual ethical reasoning. If one wants to know what people really believe, one looks to what they do.

    As aside, while its been many years since I tried to read my way through the Talmud (a wonderful text in many ways, but very difficult for those not trained in the tradition), but I don’t remember anything like a “radical political morality which had become a significant feature of the Judaism of the time.” Beyond Talmud, Philo doesn’t strike me as in opposition to Greek philosophy. And I can think of no greater emphasis on “reason and moderation” than one finds in Hillel or, much later, in Maimonides. I just don’t recognize any “radical political” inheritance to be assigned to Jewish culture, ultimately leading to “prominent proponents of radical ideas in the Western tradition.” (Oh, BTW, you missed at least one, Spinoza. Not a political radical? But apparently that’s what they thought in Amsterdam at the time.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • ejwinner

      “I respect the reading evidenced, and the thought you’ve given it, but believe the perspectives skewered, both on ancient history and recent history.”

      I suppose you mean skewed. But where does one draw the line between bias or distortion and a plausible perspective on (aspects of) the historical record?

      ““The contrast between mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy (with its emphasis on reason and moderation) and the apocalyptic literature (with its emphasis on revelation and its often extreme and violent imagery) is even greater.” This is true talking about texts; but “mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy” didn’t have much influence on Roman daily culture (part of the context of the apocalyptic literature).”

      I agree with you. It had some influence amongst the educated classes however.

      “Rome was a stew of inherited traditions, overlapping and sometimes conflicting religions, social customs and mores that tolerated enormous variance in moral behavior, as long as wealth could be produced keeping the elite comfortable. This would seem to support your claim that Judeo-Christian promises of Apocalypse as an inevitable antidote conflicted with Greco-Roman values. Yet to see how this works, one doesn’t go to the Bible but to secondary texts – my preference is Civitas Dei.”

      The City of God was a 5th-century text written in Latin. My focus is on earlier Hebrew and Greek texts.

      “… In other words, we have to recognize that the later Hebraic authors and their Christian inheritors are not positioning themselves against a philosophy “with its emphasis on reason and moderation” (some of which they actively admired and learned from, eg., Neo-Platonism and Stocism), but against the real mainstream of Roman culture, which was confused, materialistic, bound to dead custom taking the place of actual ethical reasoning. If one wants to know what people really believe, one looks to what they do…”

      Roman civilization broke down over time. You seem to want to conflate different periods. Paul was conscious that his message was opposed to Greek and Roman modes of (philosophical) thinking. There was also the political and moral side of things (e.g. the zealots of the first century; much later, Augustine…).

      “As aside, while its been many years since I tried to read my way through the Talmud (a wonderful text in many ways, but very difficult for those not trained in the tradition), but I don’t remember anything like a “radical political morality which had become a significant feature of the Judaism of the time.”

      The time I was talking about was the period around the turn of the millennium.

      “Philo doesn’t strike me as in opposition to Greek philosophy. And I can think of no greater emphasis on “reason and moderation” than one finds in Hillel or, much later, in Maimonides. I just don’t recognize any “radical political” inheritance to be assigned to Jewish culture, ultimately leading to “prominent proponents of radical ideas in the Western tradition.””

      I made it clear in the essay that I accept that there are various strands of Jewish (and Christian and Pagan) thought, and I clearly stated that my focus was on one particular strand.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mark,
        “Roman civilization broke down over time.:” – No, Mark, I’m sorry – Roman culture was morally bankrupt long before the Empire.

        Let’s talk about sex. In the Republic, male members of the elite were not simply allowed to have male lovers, this was exp3ected of them. But not for the reason that homo/bisexuality was advocated in Greece. There was no intention in Rome of forming male friendships with a sexual component. Elite males were expected to form sexual union with slaves, children, anyone lower in class than themselves. But no (married) women. They were expected to to produce children, keep their mouths shut, and keep away from men (and other women). No, something’s just wrong here (from our perspective, but also from a Greek perspective). This is about relationships of use, social status, and power.

        Some of this was changed with the rise of Augustus (a social conservative); but it came back. Part of the allure of money and power is the ability to have sex with whomever one chooses without sanction. Denying this denies our evolutionary origins. We are just naked apes, after all.

        At any rate, the moral bankruptcy of Rome, coupled with its enormous power and global influence, meant that there would always arise opposition forces with stronger moral claims – these included Judaism – which had real skin in this opposition, having not only a culture but a kingdom at risk – but later Christianity.

        The fact that the culture that Augustine critiques, and Petronious mocks, is still much the same culture, despite the temporal differences between their writings, tells us all we really need to know about Rome.

        Liked by 1 person

        • EJ,
          “Roman civilization broke down over time.:” – No, Mark, I’m sorry – Roman culture was morally bankrupt long before the Empire.

          I chuckled when I read this. This was typically what a Christian would say. But my main point is this – we may judge present actions, in normative terms, but past actions should be the subject of understanding. After all no amount of judgement will change the past. Seeking to understand the past is neither to condone it nor to condemn it. Understanding is an act of suspending judgement so that we may learn.

          With that in mind, I can recommend this lovely book by Carlin Barton – Fire in the Bones, if you want to understand what happened to Rome.

          Very, very briefly, she describes a contest and honour culture, conducted according to strong, well defined codes, rules and roles. This supplied the energy and cohesion that enabled their remarkable military expansion.

          Then two things happened. As Carlin Baron describes it:

          The triumphs of the Roman Republic were purchased with the destruction of the codes which made these triumphs meaningful, the codes by which these activities could be framed and interpreted. The feeling of triumph was the feeling of a vivified will, of effective energy—but effectiveness is always relative to a code. The enormous increase in wealth and the potentialities set in motion in Rome by the conquest of the Mediterranean brought with them a sense of liberation from the old restrictions, but, also, and even more keenly, a sense of deprivation, a taedium vitae, a dulling of the senses, a feeling of corruption, loss and entrapment.

          The liberation from old restrictions weakened the Republic, allowing it to to be replaced by Empire. Strong men will always exploit weakness for their own advantage. The Empire became a period of enormous danger for the individual trained in a contest culture. The result was a shrinking of the spirit as it retreated behind the face, which became a mask. This was the primary impetus of Stoicism in Rome.

          Carlin Barton again:

          The contest, Cicero explains, is different between a competitor and an inimicus (De officiis 1.12.38). The competitor held back; for the competitor there were still taboos and limitations. For the enemy there were no boundaries and no bonds; the enemy sought to break the spirit.

          But in the Empire the enemy was all around you. And thus the outward facing energy and the internal cohesion of Rome declined.

          From this perspective I agree with Mark’s statement – “Roman civilization broke down over time.

          Liked by 1 person

          • As I understand it, many in the Greco-Roman world looked with admiration to Jewish culture for its stability and family-mindedness (family values, if you like). Women were given respect in Judaism and in its Christian offshoot. With the terrible Roman destruction of Jerusalem putting Judaism into crisis, the Christian offshoot inherited this admiration and took off demographically.

            From this perspective I agree with EJ. Greco-Roman civilisation was excessively masculine. — But I’m no classical scholar. The Carlin Barton book sounds like something I should read.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Have; thanks. Learned, going forward. Did want to remark, going forward, that as much as I disagree with the present essay, I think it well crafted and intellectually challenging (as always from Mark), which is why I wrote such lengthy responses to it.

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        • EJ,
          Here I completely agree with you.
          My own reply did not do Mark’s essay justice. He raises very important issues and I am really not sure how to go about responding to them. I am still turning the matter over in my mind.

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  6. 2.
    This listing of Jewish political radicals has a disturbing aspect – it is a form of ‘guilt by association’ rhetoric, which shows up throughout the article, especially at the end when you write: “In the 1930s the demagogic Charles Coughlin probably did more than anyone else in the United States to popularize the term (social justice).” That’s not true; “social justice” had become a watchword among unionizers and reformers on the left long before Coughlin established his rightist National Union for Social Justice. Attaching the name of a notorious anti-Semitic demagogue to the term “social justice,” is a similar move to remarking ‘socialism as essentially evil’ because the Nazi’s had the word “sozialistische” compounded into the official title of their party. We must be careful not to engage in reification in discussions like this – the suggestion that there is only one “social justice” to which all other uses of the term refer, or that there is only one “socialism” to which all socialistic theories or practices refer. We are discussing a complicated historical narrative of overlapping – and often conflicting – ideas and rhetorics here.

    It is entirely possible to advocate social justice without ever agreeing to the demands of ‘social justice warriors,’ – the probable target of your criticism. And I don’t care if these presumed SJWs “find the rhetoric of human rights extremely useful in pursuing their political goals.” I found that rhetoric useful in advocating Civil Rights in the ‘60s. I find it useful still, in discussing how best we in surviving democracies can deal with murderous dictators, and how best to maintain our democratic values. I sense a sneer here, if so, I’m unhappy. I don’t think there is any need to understand or “have any interest in or commitment to the underlying metaphysics.” Because the religious history you trace is not how the modern idea of human rights was developed.

    It is well to remember that Christendom actually collapsed twice: once in the Reformation’s discovery of the multitudinous possible interpretations of the Bible, and then in the secularization of certain theological concerns into what became Modern philosophy. The first came coincidentally with the rise of an independent bourgeoise, the second with the collapse of the Ancien Regime of the aristocracy. It’s not surprising that in the aftermath of this double collapse people should try to find what guidelines could be preserved, and what set aside; what guidelines could be invented and by what principles. But much of this is really theory, not practice; explanations for our continuing efforts to live together relatively amicably. What we end up with is a rich stew of possible motivations, some elements dropping to the bottom, others rising to the top, but each offering the right meat to some, or the wrong to others.

    “Again, the result is unfortunate: conceptual confusion and a loss of meaning and coherence.” In a society having a pluralistic history and with democratic aspirations, such confusion in politics or ethics is inevitable. “Meaning” is a thing made, not received; and only authoritarians are wholly confidant in their beliefs.

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    • ejwinner

      Don’t know how (or whether) to respond to vague talk of smears and sneers….

      “[Y]ou write: “In the 1930s the demagogic Charles Coughlin probably did more than anyone else in the United States to popularize the term (social justice).” That’s not true; “social justice” had become a watchword among unionizers and reformers on the left long before Coughlin established his rightist National Union for Social Justice.”

      But Coughlin had a huge audience, and was a household name. My claim is that no individual did more to popularize the term. And I mentioned him to underscore the religious side (origins?*) of the social justice concept.

      “… And I don’t care if these presumed SJWs “find the rhetoric of human rights extremely useful in pursuing their political goals.” I found that rhetoric useful in advocating Civil Rights in the ‘60s. I find it useful still, in discussing how best we in surviving democracies can deal with murderous dictators, and how best to maintain our democratic values. I sense a sneer here, if so, I’m unhappy.”

      There can be a cynical side to the use of this rhetoric, I think. I am not suggesting that everyone who uses the language of human rights is using it cynically.

      “I don’t think there is any need to understand or “have any interest in or commitment to the underlying metaphysics.” Because the religious history you trace is not how the modern idea of human rights was developed.”

      I clearly stated that the rights idea derived from the tradition of natural law rather than directly from Biblical sources.

      * I haven’t researched the origins of the term “social justice” but it may be interesting to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark: This is a terrific essay, I think. So many interesting thoughts packed into a small space.

    Myself, I think religious radicalism began with the Abraham story. That relativised human morality — with undesirable consequences, as I see it. The God that shaped so much of our history was a warrior God. Later, his people became quite unwarlike. Then the people who broke off from that people to follow an ethic of love became themselves pretty warrior-like.

    I find the four classical virtues (justice, courage, reasonableness and moderation) the best guide to living. Strangely, the Greeks and Romans were quite unclassical in their behaviour, fighting each other in the first case, fighting everyone else in the latter case.

    Last week Jack Miles launched his third book on the warrior God. I look forward to reading it, having been very intrigued by his two previous studies. See http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an

    Alan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alan.

      Justice, courage, reasonableness and moderation sound good to me.

      “… [Jack Miles] presents Christ as a hero of literature based only in part on the historical Jesus, asking us to take the idea of Christ as God Incarnate not as a dogma of religion but as the premise of a work of art, the New Testament.”

      So often you see people trying to “save” the doctrines or doctrinal matrix they were brought up in and which they cannot (or can no longer) accept as being true. One common way of doing this is to interpret everything in metaphorical or artistic terms.

      I can’t speak about the motivations of Jack Miles but the descriptions offered on his website don’t exactly whet my appetite. Not my cup of tea!

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  8. Mark,
    Finally, on a personal note, I’ve been reading Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope lately, and while I don’t agree with everything he writes there (his essay on Umberto Eco is especially misguided), I think he answers a lot of the points you raise here, without recourse to “underlying metaphysics.” in one essay, for instance, he makes a good argument that moral education is enriched by readings in the Gospels and in Marx, not because they demand rigid adherence to a rigid code, but rather because they increase our sensitivity to the suffering of others; our ability to widen the scope of our communities inclusively; our hope for a better tomorrow.

    Politics ought not be about nostalgia – even you admit that if there ever was a golden age, we can’t hearken back to it, it’s not coming back. So the pragmatic question here is: let’s allow that all of your claims (which I don’t, but for the sake of argument), what is to be done? What are the consequences of your position, and what can we do with it? I’m as pessimistyic as one can get about politics; but that is not what I advocate. Hope is preferable to despair; inclusion preferable to tribalism; and sometimes, reform must be radical (as the Civil Rights movement was in the ’50s) in order to succeed. What is the measure of sucess here? In the Civil Rights movement it was that people who had been left out of the political and economic processes of their own country were at last given – or recognized (however one wants to put it) – right to participate.

    Some in the Civil Rights movement found their explanations in their Christian – or Jewish or Muslim – heritage. Others – like myself at the time (since I was quite young) merely responded to the evident unfairness of treating quite evident human beings as though they were subhuman. I don’t think I had any “underlying metaphysics” in mind. Although I had a racist parent, I stopped being a racist in third grade. I suppose I had a crush on her, and that may have helped; but in any event, I there met a black girl who was articulate, didn’t smell, worked hard in class, and showed creativity a, a sense of humor, and was still, at such an early age, able to express her frustration with the social status assigned to her by the white dominated society.

    We need to increase experiences like that for all children. The SJWs aren’t going to get us this, and Donald Trump doesn’t want it for us. We’re certainly not going to get it by complaining about misuses of rhetoric; but rather in developing appropriate rhetoric.

    … I still don’t see any need to invoke either a metaphysics or a linear history of religion’s legacy here.

    (I want to add, in this afterthought, that I think Dan’s remark is right, and that I agree with S. Wallerstein; and while he won’t agree with me, I actually largely agree with labnut’s remark as well. You seem to complain against tribalism; but there’s an underlying tone of distinguishing tribal identities here that works against your main thesis.)

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  9. With recent disagreements with labnut in mind, as well as the general implicature of the present essay, I want to close with an epigram from one of my political heroes (regardless of my Irish heritage and the damage he did to my ancestors – because if we can not learn from history and forgive, what good are we? what is our future?

    At any rate, this from Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, from the bowels of Christ, think that you may be wrong.”

    That’s Modernity.

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  10. For everyone: You may not have noticed the link I included in my reply to Mark. It is to a PDF of the entirety of Leo Baeck’s “Judaism and Christianity.” Baeck was one of the greatest Jewish theologians/scholars of the 20th century. If you want to understand the Jewish perspective on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, it is the definitive source. I’m linking it here again, with some additional links. I may do an essay on it at some future point.

    http://www.christianjewishlibrary.org/pdf/lcju_binder_judaismchristianity.pdf

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Baeck

    https://www.lbi.org/

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  11. EJ,
    With recent disagreements with labnut in mind, … think that you may be wrong.

    I was waiting for this and you did not disappoint. But I am surprised on this occasion by the mildness of your prod. Christmas is the season of goodwill after all!

    …think that you may be wrong‘ is of course a two edged sword, but I really don’t care about you being wrong, even if my ‘wrongness’ seems to be such an irritation to you. That is your prerogative and I totally respect that. We are all entitled to be wrong at some point in our lives, or even most of our lives, for that matter.

    And, as it turned out, I have to confess that I was wrong for most of my life. Now that is quite some admission to make! I was an atheist for almost all of my adult life. And all of my friends were atheist(they still are). This was the natural, default position for me. And then I decided to think for myself. I carefully weighed up the evidence and the arguments, both for and against. And I did this very, very carefully, with voluminous research. Having done that, I decided, rather like Anthony Flew(or Alisdair McIntyre, for that matter), that I must follow the evidence, no matter where it led, and like Anthony Flew I ended up by overturning all my of deeply held beliefs and assumptions. I can assure you that was not easy but intellectual honesty demanded that I do this.

    You are a Buddhist. I am sure you arrived at that position, like me, after careful and mature thought. For this reason I totally respect your choices and it causes me no irritation at all that you have different beliefs. I have always thought of Buddhists as being kind, gentle, tolerant people, accepting of diversity. Naturally I expect the same from you. Vive la différence!

    As a closing note. Following through on my new found belief that God did after all exist, I rather hesitatingly entered that strange place called a church. The priest, seeing a new face, welcomed me and asked which church I was from. Oh, I said, none, I am a lapsed atheist. I still chortle at the memory of the shocked, stunned look that crossed his face.

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    • EJ,
      after reading my little anecdote I hope you will understand that, as advised by you, I did indeed very carefully and honestly consider the possibility that I was wrong. Having considered that possibility and concluding that I had been wrong rather overturned my whole life.

      Here it should be noted that this was not the facile conclusion of a callow youth with little experience. It was the measured, thoughtful conclusion of a mature adult, based on a lifetime of knowledge and experience.

      You will, in all probability, continue to think I am wrong, but you can never do that on the basis of the accusation that I did not consider the possibility I was wrong. I did, and look what happened.

      But why should it matter so much to you? Nobody can agree on everything. That would be so dead boring. Our differences could be the occasion of stimulating debate, conducted in a spirit of goodwill, enlightened by powerful curiosity about what motivates differing opinions.

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      • labnut,
        One can’t get to the Enlightenment’s “Think for yourself!” without being reminded “Think that you may be wrong!” Surely I should remind myself of this, as well as others.

        There are no promises of certitude that can be long maintained in Modernity. But I try to see this as a challenge.

        Part of that challenge is learning to allow differences of opinion, even of those most strongly held.

        My concern on the Kant article, and here as well, has been to remark a profound change in human thinking in the West, a change difficult to account for,, though we tell the story of it over and again, from many different perspectives. Some of the results of this change have been beneficial, some have been ruinous. But we’re stuck with it, and must find ways of moving forward.

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  12. “Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles”

    Sure, but I’m not convinced this is as wrapped up in metaphysics as you do. I mean, if people really felt that pressure and decided to bite the bullet and say, “OK, then I’ll opt in to the metaphysical picture wholesale,” what then? Maybe it could be a liberation theology, or maybe it could be an ambiguously secular metaphysics that others call a religion but they don’t. Maybe they’re a Western Falun Gong. Would the contortions, distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy abate? I find that doubtful. Consider the similar aberrations we see in evangelical circles, a far larger and more powerful constituency in the U.S. I don’t see the metaphysics saving them in this regard by virtue of a claimed consistency in the evolution of ideas. People live with contradictions. People interpret them differently, not always feeling a contradiction where others do.

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    • Zac

      “Consider the similar aberrations we see in evangelical circles, a far larger and more powerful constituency in the U.S. I don’t see the metaphysics saving them in this regard by virtue of a claimed consistency in the evolution of ideas. People live with contradictions. People interpret them differently, not always feeling a contradiction where others do.”

      There are indeed distortions and aberrations within the American evangelical tradition. But other types of religion (certain strands of thinking within the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish traditions) are more intellectually — and psychologically — sophisticated.

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  13. EJ,
    Part of that challenge is learning to allow differences of opinion, even of those most strongly held.

    Yes.

    I have just started watching again Davis Attenborough’s marvellous series, Planet Earth. In it we see vast migratory flocks of birds and herds of animals. They are bound in a strong common purpose because their survival depends on it in a world of scarce resources. There is no place for freeriders. They are swiftly dealt with and that is because a freerider extracts more than he contributes. A social group, in the presence of scarce resources, can only tolerate a very small number of freeriders before its cohesion breaks down, to the detriment of all.

    But abundant resources creates opportunities for more freeriders and so they grow in number. And this is where moral systems come into play. Moral systems are an attempt to curb the predatory activities of freeriders in situations of greater abundance. That is because the greater abundance, that feeds the freedriders was created by more efficient working of the social group. If there are too many freeriders it destroys the cohesion and trust that made the group productive in the first place.

    But who is the freerider? We are naturally watchful and suspicious of people that may be freeriders, punishing them with social sanction. You will see that immediately happen if someone tries to push in at the head of a queue. This suspicion of potential freeriders is extended to people who hold opinions outside the group norm. And for good reason. Freeriders do not consider themselves bound by group norms.

    Thus a society with lower resources can hardly tolerate freeriders and as a result punishes all who show deviance from group norms. But with the industrial revolution we have created staggering surpluses of resources. With such a surplus we can tolerate a greater proportion of freeriders and consequently society allows greater diversity of thought. With that has come a reduced dependence on moral systems as a means of policing freeriders, leading to the decline of moral systems.

    And you will see, if you take into account, as well, my earlier comments about the Enlightenment, I consider the conventional story of the Enlightenment to be a vast, self-congratulatory myth. Alan Tapper understands very well my point of view.

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  14. EJ,
    “With recent disagreements with labnut in mind, … think that you may be wrong.”

    I will return to this once more because I find the concept so fascinating.

    I have long held that the scientific revolution has ushered in the ‘radical partisanship of the truth‘, to borrow Dan’s lovely phrase. That is both good and bad, but more and more I am coming to see it as bad because it is stultifying thought. I want to argue instead for a spirit of playfulness, where we throw an idea against the wall to see if it sticks. This is what I liked about DM, with his perpetual spirit of contrariness. Playfulness is liberating and stimulating. It is exploratory and curious. It is unpredictable, leading always to unexpected ideas. Some argue that it is our primary source of innovation.

    So we should not fear being wrong. We should instead fear that we have lost the energy to take the risk of being wrong.

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    • labnut,
      all I can say in response here is that Modernity begins, not in the Enlightenment, but in the Reformation -when those who read the Bible on their own, in their own language, effectively raised their middle finger to Rome, and determined that they would find their own way to any moral truth. That’s an historical fact. It is a fact that you have never accounted for and for which you have no reply. It is important going forward to understand the Enlightenment, and to understand many of my disagreements with Mark here. I don’t think he adequately accounts for that revolution in thought; I don’t believe you do. Yet it is the moment when the trajectory of human thought changed direction, from authoritarianism to personal responsibility in the Modern context.

      Many died in this transition. This is not simply a contest of ideas, but a contest between wholly incompatible ways of life.

      The kind of linear narrative of religious influences that Mark’s essay depends on, is simply misguided. Failure to account for the Reformation is a major failure in any historical narrative linking the ancient world with the Modern world.

      I quoted Cromwell, because, despite his mania for killing in Ireland, he was otherwise thoughtful in his dispatch of Charles I, and in his relations with Parliament, and with other European powers. I don’t forgive him for Ireland, I recognize the devastating change he brought to European politics as a positive progression toward Modernity.

      Kings are no longer our masters; Popes are no longer our masters. Without recognition of this fundamental change in human thought, Modernity can never be understood.

      I am not trying to engage a quarrel here, but answering your objections with respect (despite disagreement) with Mark’s essay.

      With the Reformation, the linear narrative of religious influence Mark tells simply cannot be sustained,

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      • ejwinner

        “The kind of linear narrative of religious influences that Mark’s essay depends on, is simply misguided. Failure to account for the Reformation is a major failure in any historical narrative linking the ancient world with the Modern world.”

        Failure to account for the Reformation? What, in a 1400-word essay about the possible influence on moral and political thinking today of some 2000-year-old Greek and Hebrew texts?

        The advent of Modernity, you seem to be saying, represents a discontinuity, a radically new era. (Like the birth of Christ??). It starts at the moment when..

        “… those who read the Bible on their own, in their own language, effectively raised their middle finger to Rome, and determined that they would find their own way to any moral truth. That’s an historical fact.”

        Really??

        I am, as it happens, thoroughly aware of the Reformation and its significance.

        “Many died in this transition. This is not simply a contest of ideas, but a contest between wholly incompatible ways of life.”

        This is, I would suggest, *precisely* the kind of dichotomous thinking that you find in the apocalyptic literature.

        Bear in mind also that there were movements within the Catholic church (philosophers in the late Middle Ages, Jansenism in the 17th century, etc.) which challenged Rome.

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        • Mark,
          I am glad you responded to that comment – which was not complete (or well-formed), and which was really a note to myself, – and I apologize for posting to labnut, since it really had to do with my remark concerning Cromwell, which had only the spark of an idea behind it….

          Yes, this thought gnawed at my mind reading your essay. Your essay has two basic parts: discontinuities in the the ancient world, then problems with modern progressivism.

          I know that you are aware of the Reformation and its issues. I don’t think you’ve given proper accounting of it. If you had, your essay might have had 3 parts, or the latter part would have taken a different (-and at least to me, more satisfying) shape.

          ‘“Many died in this transition. This is not simply a contest of ideas, but a contest between wholly incompatible ways of life.” This is, I would suggest, *precisely* the kind of dichotomous thinking that you find in the apocalyptic literature.’

          Absolutely. But despite decades of effort to bring a final reckoning about, apocalypse *didn’t* happen, and Europeans began developing resolutions that no longer invoked either a promised Apocalypse, or an intervening Deity.

          These resolutions interest me. I think you will agree that the urge to apocalypse – to a final reckoning – have not gone away – you are right when you say that a certain kind of radicalism keeps hoping for final pacification of political differences through achievement of authoritarian control. That can certainly be seen in Marx; and I refer to such a pacification as a ‘final reckoning’ because that is how Hitler understood the Holocaust.

          So what I would suggest is that we don’t need to go back to the ancient world for the the kind of intellectual tensions or misguided quasi-religious urgency of which you write.

          But the Reformation also offered implicitly the possible non-apocalyptic intellectual tools for resolving such tensions without recourse to horrific violence and blood-shed. I would suggest it is possible to read the Enlightenment as the first mature development of such tools.

          “The advent of Modernity, you seem to be saying, represents a discontinuity, a radically new era.” Yes; but as you know, this discontinuity was many decades in the making, long before there was a Martin Luther.

          When we read history to understand historic disruptions of this kind, what we are looking for are expressions that can not be found in cultures prior to the historic moment of disruption. Your essay begins by remarking the appearance of Paul, and what his text implies as a distinct break from the Judaism of his day, and from Greek philosophy. Indeed; I invite you to bring that understanding further – to read the texts of the Reformation as distinct breaks from the religious thinking that came before. And yet to read those texts in context of a society that was developing new economies, new industries, new social structures that neither the prior religious views nor the aristocratic political structures could accommodate.

          Statements like Luther’s “Here I stand” or Cromwell’s “Think that you may be wrong” are expressions of a self-hood, and a response to a social milieu, that really were not available in the Middle Ages, and would only sound as bluster in the Renaissance. Only a new understanding of the self, and of the self’s relationship to society could not only justify them but make them ring for us. Such expressions are in keeping with both Modern radicalism as a whole, and contemporary radicalism as we still deal with it. But they are also in keeping with possible resolutions to such radicalism. .

          “With the Reformation, the linear narrative of religious influence Mark tells simply cannot be sustained,” – this remark of mine is poorly formed; It should read: Without accounting for the Reformation, that linear narrative of religious influence has some serious difficulties.

          So, if you read my comment(s) as dismissal (possibly because I expressed them poorly), I suggest re-reading them as a challenge: I would love to see an article from you on the Reformation and it’s possible influence, either on the Enlightenment, or on our current political malaise.

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  15. Hi Mark English,

    Thank you for writing this important and much needed article. I agree with you and you have helped me to be more clear about things which I felt but had not put in correct words.
    You are right on.

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