Worship the Creation, Not the Creator: An Immodest Challenge to Natural Law, Catholic Theology, the Intellectual Foundations of Conservative Politics in the United States (and Pretty Much Everything Else)
Writing about hunchbacked Nostradamus Steve Bannon, and other topics in the past year (mostly, but not all, Trump-related) creates the sensation that one is (metaphysically speaking) sitting on the shoulders of something, unformed and drenched in darkness, but real and mutable and worth exploring further, no matter what the risk.
Writing anything worthwhile is usually about this sort of exploration or quest to uncover the large, masked forms of our existence. This process requires commitment and trust, that we can figure out things as we go along, that creation (and storytelling) is an adventure of discovery, not the schematic unfurling of foreknowledge.
Existential Risk Requires Existential Thinking
Here’s the concern. When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment – we have unhinged ourselves and crossed a globally bro-bauched point of no return that half-measures (and quarter-measures,etc.) cannot address.
Of course it is tempting – given the scale of the problem and of the potential harm, and the general uncertainty of the causation – to minimize or dismiss these concerns. To wish them away, or to imagine the harm will come to others and not to oneself. But the direction is clear, and the wager is entirely on the order of Pascal’s.
And here’s the problem. For the most part, the scale of our thinking does not even approximately match the scale of our risk. We delude ourselves if we think it really matters whether today’s special election in Georgia delivers Tom Price’s seat to prepubescent Democrat Jon Ossoff. Or whether Donald Trump releases his tax returns. Or whether Bill O’Reilly returns to Fox.
Perhaps a better way to make this point is to say without a robust, coherent framework for assessing the meaning of these events or moments, we cannot assign any significance to them at all. In this sense, we need to avoid the temptation to take each event or moment on its own terms, especially those events and moments that spotlight the words or deeds of a single individual, and that are merely anecdotal and so almost by definition possess no meaning beyond themselves. We need to be clear about the architecture of assumptions that activates meaning for our actions.
Normal Times. This focus on an architecture of assumptions is to some degree a matter of historical perspective. In “normal” times (if such exist), we feel free to apply a pretty immediate temporal lens to the things that happen around us, a perspective that encompasses merely personal or generational memory. In these normal times, we scan the headlines and respond within a framework of familiar, morally comfortable, and largely programmed, biases and instincts and heuristics, in which events or people are summed into categories of “good” or “bad” associated with a scale of virtues.
Strenuous Times. In “strenuous” times, we might shift to an elongated temporal lens, that reaches back to foundation moments or ideas or claims in our history as a community, a state, or a nation. We need benchmarks for how things have changed, how they have remained the same, and what steps and adjustments we should take in relation to those historical patterns and dynamics. This is where data and metrics and precedent and research can help us, as with disruptive trends in the economy, health, education, culture, or religion that require active debate and appeals to traditional sources of authority and legitimacy, typically summoned by the actors in major court cases (Plessy, Brown) or political movements (Populism, Suffrage, Civil Rights).
Perilous Times. In yet more “perilous” times, we may need to think creatively and take intellectual or mental leaps to grapple with risks or opportunities that are beyond our experience and standard tables of knowledge. The film Hidden Figures instructs us on how both mathematical thinking and racial and gender biases needed to bend and reshape themselves to conform to the requirements of launching and landing a manned spacecraft. The demands and stresses of war are also sources of innovation and disruption, which typically lead to the shattering of conventions, the erosion of boundaries, and the emergence of new cognition maps.
Extinction Moments. Finally, there are “extinction” moments, when radical disruption on a scale outside of human time and memory requires us to peel back vast slices of the past, lay bare the ground of our being as a species, and rebuild upon that purled soil. Extinction moments are infrequent and can involve disease pandemics (such as the Black Death of the 14th century or, more recently, AIDS and Ebola) or extreme environmental events (earthquakes, tsunamis), but can also target specific populations in sustained acts of destruction ranging from ethnic cleansing to systematic genocide.
Extinction moments require us to consciously, with all of the mental strength we can muster, look past the emotionally comfortable and familiar rituals of our minds, past problem-solving heuristics that work well enough in “normal” times, past nearly everything we regard as a given in our lives. The most profound extinction moment, of course, is the extinction by our own hand of life on the planet as we know it.
The Big Think
Climbing around in the dark doesn’t lend itself particularly to systematic thinking, although eventually some full picture probably does emerge. For the next year, though, my intention is to do some extinction-appropriate purling, to appropriately scale my own thinking to the level of risk and challenge we face in the world.
This project will both explore and confront canonical ideas regarding Thomist natural law and Catholic human dignity theology; Western conceptions of individuality, selfhood, agency, rationality, causation, and morality; and the pretty stunning inadequacies of religious belief founded on revelation. My general assumption is that to one degree or another we accept most of these ideas as “self-evident” (including natural law ideas about “self-evidence” itself), but that they actually are not at all self-evident, and dismantling these ideas is akin to dismantling an atomic bomb, and no less urgent and important.
In this project, the most pivotal argument will be that peeling back our past tells us that revealed religion – specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is the big obstacle obscuring our ability to grasp basic realities of our existence and blocking our capacity to address challenges to our existence. The foundations of revealed religions tend to be textually arbitrary and fragmented and evanescent, and so in times of strife wholly inadequate as a basis for holding together societies under stress and at risk.
But even more damning, these religions promote and require their own form of idolatry, absolute submission to and worship of an inscrutable, capricious, human-seeming Creator – in whose image we are told we have been created – who uncannily reminds us of the sour-tempered, inebriate father from our childhoods, sullenly abusive and quick to unsheath his belt or unspool the flat of his hand (no wonder we all suffer from PTSD).
The alternative is simple enough. First, we do not need to worship an arbitrary, entirely preposterous concept of a Creator (who is actually created in our own inadequate human image). We need not base our thoughts and deeds on the flat, toneless, scriptural archaicisms we imagine to be representations of his will. Second, we can and must instead turn our attention to revealed truths that are far more “self-evident” and miraculous, the truths enfolded within the body of the earth, which is the Creation itself.
It’s possible a Big Think project of this sort should daunt, intimidate, or humble me, but it really doesn’t. I don’t harbor the illusion that I’m gifting the world with some gold-encrusted pearl of wisdom (after all, this essay starts by invoking David Letterman). But I do harbor the illusion that we – as a species – face an existentially significant moment and we don’t have a ton of time to sort things out. Pretty much an all hands on deck moment. Which is daunting, intimidating, and humbling.
Where do we look for strength? Perhaps, within the frame of reference of Catholic theology, caritas (loving care for the creation) is the enabling, empowering condition and state of mind toward which we must strive (and so the occasion for calling forth a theology rap battle between St. Thomas of Aquino and St. Francis of Assisi, refereed by St. Augustine of Hippo).
Also relevant: The Secret Mission (July 15, 2016)