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Niebuhr Part 2: Christians in an “Immoral Society”

Last week, I analyzed the basic thesis and orientation of Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society.[1]. This week, my intention is to deal the way in which his basic thesis is flushed out in certain chapters of MMIS. I do not want to repeat Niebuhr’s biography, but merely remind the readers that MMIS represents the early work and thought of this great thinker. Over the years, he modified his views. In particular, the evident Marxist and materialist bias of the early years is not prominent in Niebuhr’s later works, some of which I intend to eventually cover.

The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century impacted the thought of the early Niebuhr. Although by the time he wrote MMIS the problems of the Russian revolution, and in particular its violence and descent into an abuse of power that Niebuhr found offensive, was beginning to disillusion Western Intellectuals, the full extent of the oppression Lenin and Stalin unleashed was not fully known. The gross inefficiencies of Communist economic organization, which would eventually doom the Soviet Union, was also not well known. In Western Europe, the economic stagnation created by the centralized socialist enterprises of Western European nations after World War II was not fully understood until much later, near the end of the 20th Century.

Finally, and most importantly, the impact of contemporary science and the end of the modern world-view, ie. seeing reality as composed of matter and force, and a Cartesian division between mind and matter, had not reached the point where writers like Niebuhr intuitively understood the distortion dualistic and materialistic thinking was making in their understanding of politics. This is a reminder that every generation is captured by worldview that is implicit in the way they see reality and can distort thinking about matters of importance. This is true of ours as well as prior generations. A fair reading of Niebuhr requires keeping these factors in mind.

The Source of Social Conflict

According to Niebuhr, the basic source of social conflicts and injustices is ignorance and selfishness. [2]Enlightenment optimism traditional held that education, both moral and political, would eventually overcome the social conflict and injustice resulting from human finitude and self-centeredness. Niebuhr recognized that this optimism was not warranted and concluded that education and increased reasonableness are not alone sufficient to overcome injustice and social conflict. [3] While human reason and our capacity to act rationality increases our ability to appreciate the needs of others and transcend our innate selfishness, there is a limit to the ability of moral imagination and sympathy to overcome natural human selfishness and class interest.

This is not to say that human beings lack moral capacity. Reason is not the only source of human moral intuition. Thus, Niebuhr writes:

Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilize but it does not create the capacity to affirm other life than it is own.  [4]

Human social capacities are innate and do give human beings a desire to live in harmony with others, especially as concerns family life and those nearest to us.” [5] One sees in this quotation a recognition of the communal aspects of human life and their importance in social life.

While reason and education can broaden the innate moral capacity of human beings, it is not capable of completely overcoming the impact of personal selfishness, class interest, and social norms. This is particularly true where economic and class social advantages are concerned. The very sociability of human beings makes us inclined to support our own family, our own desires, and our own social group to the exclusion of others. Thus, human reason cannot achieve social harmony alone, for the irrational force of human Will to Power, and the limitations upon social reasons, make it impossible for human beings to create a fully just society. [6]

Religion and Social Conflict

The Enlightenment impacted both secular and religious thought. Progressive religious thinkers also became optimistic about the power of human reason to change human beings unjust human social institutions. This optimism was especially evident in the Social Gospel movement previously covered by these blogs. As early as MMIS, Niebuhr moves intellectuals towards a more realistic view of the role of religion in social change. Religion has a role to play, but it is limited.

Religion is fundamentally an orientation towards the Absolute (God), and that Absolute includes a notion of absolute justice and morality. In the case of the Christian religion that absolute is captured by the phrase, “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). Faced with the absolute holiness and love of God, the Christian is faced with a sense of his or her own sinful inadequacy and failures to love. Thus, Niebuhr begins his analysis with the following observation:

If the recognition of selfishness is the prerequisite to the mitigation of its force and the diminution of its anti-social consequences in society, religion should be a dominant influence in the socialization of man; for religion is fruitful of the spirit of contrition. Feeling himself under the scrutiny of an omniscient eye, and setting his puny will into juxtaposition with a holy and omnipotent will, the religious man is filled with a sense of shame for the impertinence of his self- centered life. [7]

According to Niebuhr, there are two reasons why religion cannot completely fulfill its promise as a source of social change. First, religion deals with the relationship of people and communities with the Absolute. [8] As such, irreligious faith frequently causes those individuals to view as secondary the achievement of social justice. This is particularly evident in mystical or monastic religion where the physical world is denigrated or superseded by the spiritual world.

Secondly, as to the Christian faith, the religious ideal of absolute love can result in a sense of defeatism once it is recognized that absolute love is unachievable within the boundaries of human history, or a sense of powerlessness change the existing social order.

In my view, Niebuhr misconceives the nature of love as it functions in human society. While it is true that Christians proclaim that “God is love,” and a special kind of self-giving love revealed on the cross, this absolute self-giving love in no way creates a sense of defeatism as it is applied in political matters. To the contrary, the love of God is the strongest motive to remain involved in the business of social improvement. The defeatism, if any, is caused by the human propensity to expect too much too quicky and to be impatient with the slow process of wise and loving change.

The distinction between justice and love embedded in Niebuhr’s thought (and om the thought of many of his followers) misconceives the nature of justice. Justice is not something different than love. Justice is the practical application of love in finite and sinful human society. Because human beings are sinful and finite, human society reflects the finitude and sinfulness of its inhabitants. Under these conditions, justice will never be absolute because human love is never fully absolute. Instead, for the Christian, human society is in a process of translating the gospel of love into concrete forms. This is not just true in society. It’s true in the family, marriage, business, every social organization.

This leads to an analysis the role of eschatology in Niebuhr’s thought. The apocalyptic visions of various religions represent the emergence of an ideal society or situation for a religious group. This religious ideal is particularly evident in Jewish and Christian eschatological thinking. Marxism secularized that apocalyptic vision into an ideal society that can be achieved within history and justified the use of violence in the achievement of the “classless society”.

There’s no area of Niebuhr’s thought that is more likely to have changed over the years than this particular area. Although at the time of MMIS Niebuhr was aware that the Russian regime showed signs of substituting an oppressive political elite for an economic elite, the full implications of this revelation had not yet dawned on Niebuhr and others. [9]

Any attempt to forcefully create a perfect world within history is doomed and inevitably results in misuse of power, social violence and tragedy that one sees in 20th century Marxist and Nazi regimes. The propensity to use violence and distort a society in the search for social improvement is not the sole preserve of the upper classes, the middle class, or the proletariat. All classes, in fact all human beings, when placed into power abuse that power. Real social improvement is never revolutionary, but evolutionary involving the cooperation of all of a society.

The Morality of International Affairs

One of the most insightful and important chapters in MMIS has to do with the morality of international affairs. In this chapter, the perceptive social realism of Niebuhr is abundantly evident. He gives many examples to sustain this thesis that international affairs are inevitably selfish and self-centered.

Niebuhr sees the modern nation state as the central and most important social institution. [10] Families, neighborhoods, cities, territorial jurisdictions, business organizations, religious organization and other institutions all these are secondary to the central institution of the nation state. At this point I think Niebuhr makes an error that is endemic in modern thought. The modern nation-state is the result of a long process by which families gather together into tribes, tribes gathered into giving cities towns and other social groupings, and those other social groupings began to coalesce in such a way that the modern nation state was formed. Each of the fundamental levels are important. The greatest single error of the modern social theory is placing too much emphasis on the nation-state while ignoring the other social institutions that make it possible.

This being said, there is no question but what the modern nation state, and its relationship with other nations, and increasingly and its relationships with its own people, does not feel restricted by any form of common morality in its exercise of power. Interestingly, there is a movement to create international courts, the United Nations, and a variety of other institutions for the very purpose of moderating this facet of the modern nation-state. In my view, the movement toward the development of an international legal system may be motivated by a subconscious understanding that the currently existing system of nation states is morally and legally inadequate.

The problem is created by the fact that nation-states are unable to create a collective in which the selfish interests of the collective can be sought on a wider scale. [11] Naturally, the larger the nation state the more effective it is in seeking its own best interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. One particularly perceptive passage, Niebuhr quotes Washington’s dictum that “Nations are not to be trusted beyond their own self-interest.” [12] This was true in every age of human history, not just the modern age.

This tendency to act without concern for the interest of anything or anyone but the nation state results in a huge element of hypocrisy that cannot possibly be avoided given human sin and finitude. Niebuhr gives so many examples that it’s impossible to not realize that the United States has been guilty of this kind of hypocrisy in its history just as have other nations. However, it is important to recognize that there are certain actions which a democratic government cannot do if the voters believe that the action would be immoral or unjust. The final American unwillingness to participate in the Vietnam War is a good example of where a social moral judgment made impossible the continuing prosecution of the war. On the positive side, there’s no question but what the entrance of the United States into the Second World War, which was partially motivated by selfish and secular motives, was accompanied by the moral motive to defend democracy.

Finally, Niebuhr understands that it is impossible to fully ameliorate the selfish tendencies of nations by the use of international authority, which is never impartial and also is itself a source of hypocrisy and injustice. [13] International organizations are often under the control of dominant groups and are therefore used to undermine justice as often as support its extension.

Conclusion

I hoped to conclude these blogs as they relate to MMIS this week, but the book is simply too dense and difficult to permit that to happen. Next week, I will, by some means, find a way to conclude these blogs.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] MMIS, at 23.

[3] Id at 34-35.

[4] Id, at 26.

[5] Id.

[6] Niebuhr is obviously familiar with Nietzsche and makes numerous references to the Will to Power and its impact upon human society in his work. In my view, this is an aspect of the early Niebuhr that reflects his materialism and an implicit division between the subjective ability of human reason to apprehend a moral course of action and a deterministic idea of how social groups work. Obviously, I disagree with this implicit bias of the early Niebuhr. See, MMIS at 35

[7] Id, at 54.

[8] Id, 52.

[9] Id, at 114. “In modern Russia a csass nt ve developing which dependd for its power not upon economic strength but upon the ability to manipulate political power.”

[10] Id, at 83.

[11] Id, at 84.

[12] Id, at 84.

[13] Id, at 110-111.

Niebuhr No.1: Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society is an important but difficult book to review. [1] During my undergraduate and graduate years, this book was required reading. On both occasions, the book made an impact. I have since read it again and again over the years. Together with his monumental work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the best example of an attempt to articulate a “realistic Christian political philosophy for the 20th Century” and the high point of what is sometimes called, “Christian Realism,” an attempt to articulate a political philosophy that is both Christian and realistic in its view of human nature and human institutions.

A short biography may be helpful. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was born in Wright City Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Reformed Evangelical pastor. Niebuhr attended Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, and then Yale Divinity School. He was eventually sent by the German Evangelical Alliance to pastor a small church in Detroit, Michigan. The church grew dramatically under his leadership.

In this pastorate Niebuhr was exposed to the poverty of the American industrial working class, which impacted his thought in profound ways. In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the rest of his career at Union.

His experiences in Detroit and sympathy for the working man resulted in his initially embracing a strictly socialist philosophy, a view he eventually abandoned as he developed his mature Christian realism. Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the early Niebuhr and not his mature thought as worked out in, among other works, The Nature and Destiny of Man.

As his neo-orthodox theological view of the human person and God developed, Niebuhr was an important voice in emphasizing the fallenness of the human race and the moral frailty of human institutions. Niebuhr supported the Second World War and in opposed some of the more fanciful proposals of radicals before, during, and after the war. He influenced and supported such figures as the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the 1930’s until his work fell out of favor around the crisis of the Viet Nam War, Moral Man and Immoral Society was recognized as a work of religious, philosophical and practical insight into the way in which Christian faith interacts with secular politics.

In the end, his work stands as the supreme achievement of American political theology.

As Francis Fukyama put it:

…. Niebuhr played an invaluable role during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s by bringing Christians to terms with participation in the Second World War and later the Cold War. The Christian doctrine of sinfulness and the Fall meant, according to Niebuhr, the ever-present possibility of evil, which was all too evident in spreading fascist and communist doctrines. Moral action did not imply passivity in the face of sin, nor were leaders of communities bound by the same moral constraints as individuals. Though now primarily remembered for its tough-mindedness, Niebuhr’s book bears rereading to remind us that a realistic morality is not the same thing as amoral realism, that power, even in the service of justice, must recognize its own limitations, and that democracies were capable of their own kind of hubris. [2]

In recent years, his work has gained a new hearing among scholars and practical people alike, and there seems to be a bit of resurgence in interest in this ideas.

Thesis

Niehbur’s book begins with a thesis that contains the genius and the limitations of his book:

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.

….

Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. [3]

He goes on to say again:

As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves. Whatever their power can command. [4]

For the early Niebuhr, as individuals, human beings are capable of acting from Christian love and morality. However, in groups, human beings act according to baser motives of social, class and national advantage. It is my view that the fundamental error the early Niebuhr makes is right at the beginning: his division between “moral man” and “immoral society.”

Distinction Between Moral Humanity and Immoral Social Institutions

I question whether this distinction was accurate in Niebuhr’s time, and it is clearly not true in the post-Christian America today. Niebuhr himself recognized the false impression his title gave (it was the idea of his publisher), and even quipped that he should have titled the book, “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.” The fact is that the tendency to ignore moral motives is a part of human nature and a constant threat to personal as well as social morality.

In my view, the better view is that finite and self-centered human beings create limited, selfish and often unjust societies, which in turn create finite and self-centered people. This is why humility, a sense of social solidarity, wisdom, and the ability to show restraint are important to both individuals and societies.

Niebuhr was correct, however, in seeing that the reason societies can create a different level of injustice is because of the magnifying impact of collective activity. For example, it is unlikely that Adolf Hitler could have instituted anything like the death camps alone. But, if you combine a demonic leader with compliant architects, engineers, chemists, soldiers, police, and judges, death camps become a possibility. In other words, the difference in social and personal evil is not qualitative but quantitative. The old saying, “two hands are better than one” is true whether the deed be for the good or for evil.

This insight is important today, when we can easily see the multiplicative power of social evil. Niebuhr wrote at a kind of peak of the power of Western, Christian, Protestant civilization. He assumes that the majority of European and Americans believe that they ought to love and serve each other and in their personal lives do so to one degree or another. A bit of experience in the world shows this to be untrue. Individual people tell lies, seek their own advantage, serve their own interests and disregard morality just as often as do social units. The problem today is that both personal and social morality are compromised, and the Christian consensus that existed in the America of his day is largely absent.

Humanity and Human Society

Niebuhr begins by observing that human beings have had trouble from the beginning with their “aggregate existence”. Throughout human history, human beings have had difficulty living together without violence and social inequality. The advancement in science and technology that changed human economic and industrial capacity created little in the way of “social progress” to overcome human selfishness and the inequality it breeds.

The use of the term “aggregate existence” by Niebuhr betrays a Newtonian, mechanistic, atomistic notion of human society. Implicit in the term is the view that human society is not something that exists before, during. and after an individual life, but is “an aggregate” of individuals. In other words, human beings are social and political monads bound together by social force. [5]  This seems to me to be neither an accurate description of human society nor the individual human situation within society. Human society exists before individuals, molds individuals, and then is changed and enriched by individuals who act within that society while at the same time forming it. [6] We emerge from a social context of which we remain a part all of our lives.

Given Niebuhr’s initial views of the relationship between individual human beings and society, it is not surprising that he views individuals as capable of being driven by reason and morality, but social units as being fundamentally driven by the search for and use of power. In a society made up of individual human social units, the connective tissue is bound to be power, just as in Newtonian Mechanics, atoms are acted upon by force. Thus, Niebuhr reflects:

All social cooperation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. [7]

For the younger Niebuhr, at the root of human society is the Will to Power and the force of those in leadership exerted against a society to maintain order and social peace. Niebuhr does not deny that there are human factors involved in a healthy society, he sees those elements as in some ways finally subordinate to the application of power in society.[8]

Another interesting aspect of Niebuhr’s thought is the distinction he makes between power and justice. Instead of considering the use of power as the state’s means to create justice, he sees social power as used by dominant elements of society to maintain their privileges. Thus, in his thought love, power and justice are fundamentally different aspects of reality. Here again, I think Niebuhr makes a subtle error. There are many kinds of social power. There is the power of the military, of the legislature, the judicial power of the courts, the social power of morality, the power of teachers over students, the power of parents over children, and the religious power of religious leaders over their followers. All these “powers” are not necessarily or even customarily contrary to justice in a well-ordered society. They are in fact the means by which a just society is formed. The problem is not with power as power but with its use by human beings.

Love in all its forms is the communal relational power that binds these different powers together in a kind of social peace, and justice is the form love takes in law and society. Some of these powers are in fact aspects of love. The love of a parent for a child, of a teacher for students, of a pastor for their congregation, of judges for justice, of military leaders for their nation, sit at the center of their power. Love it seems to me sits underneath all the powers we see around us, and all of them are corrupted by its absence or limits. This notion is so important that it has been the subject of prior blogs and will be the subject of blogs to come.

This is also an area in which the Marxist influence is apparent in Niebuhr’s early years. Of all the powers in society, Niebuhr affirms that economic power is fundamental. [9] This is particularly true in an industrial civilization in which the military is subject to political leaders who themselves are servants of economic interests. It flows from this reduction of society and social power to economics that the fundamental character of society is a constant conflict over the division of wealth. According to Niebuhr societies are always in a perpetual state of conflict over the control and distribution of economic assets.

Conclusion

Despite his importance as a thinker, by the time of Niebuhr’s death, and even before, the limitations of his thought were widely perceived, and he himself had abandoned many of his earlier views, which is why it will be necessary to review his later works. More importantly, I think, is the fact that the world view that gave birth to Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society was even by the time he wrote passing away. Several of the limitations are evident in this thought seem to me to be as follows:

  1. Moral Man and Immoral Society largely works within a division between the spiritual and moral (areas of freedom) and the material and social (areas of determinism). This leads him to underestimate the power of the spiritual and moral in public life.
  2. Moral Man and Immoral Society is excessively influenced by Marx and by his acolytes in 20th century academia. This leads to an unwarranted belief that social instruments of overt political power can create a more just society.
  3. Moral Man and Immoral Society is afflicted with a notion of power that is largely, though not entirely, in opposition to cultural, moral, and other non-material forces instead of a notion of power that includes them.

Moral Man and Immoral Society is in many ways the most important book of political theology of the 20thCentury. No public theology can ignore the accomplishments of Niebuhr, even when critiquing him, for his thought is the dominant voice of the 20th Century and is likely to remain so. Just as Karl Barth dominated Reformed theology and impacted all other theologies, so also Niebuhr dominates American public theology in a unique way and no public theology can ignore his importance.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] Francis Fukyama, “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and PoliticsForeign Affairs ( (September/October 1997 ) at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/1997-09-01/moral-man-and-immoral-society-study-ethics-and-politics, downloaded June 13, 2022.

[3] MMIS, xxv

[4] MMIS, at 9.

[5] The word “Monad comes from a Greek word meaning, “one” “singularity,’ or’ unit” In metaphysics, the term “monad” is used to refer to the smallest unity of psychophysical units or force that constitute the universe. Leibniz began to use the word “monad” to refer to his concept of a fundamental unit non-material unit of existence. In theology, it is used as a term for God, the One. In political philosophy/theology, the term reflects the view that there is a fundamental unit (the monad) from which all other aspects of political reality get their own existence.

[6] We are not yet at the impact of process theology on political philosophy. However, the view that I am outlining is that is one in which human beings are part of a social experience and the flow of human society from which they emerge and the course of which the impact by the decisions they make in the actions they take. If the monadic view is atomistic and materialistic, the process view is organic and evolutionary.

[7] MMIS, at 3.

[8] Id. I tried to count the number of times Niebuhr uses the Nietzschean term, “Will to Power” and ultimately gave up. It sits at the center of his analysis in MMIS.

[9] MMIS, at 7.

Kingdom of God No. 3: God’s Intended Kingdom Renewed by Faith

For two weeks, we have looked at the Creation story with an eye towards the kind of Kingdom God intended for the human race, and what happened to that ideal when the sin and human foolishness entered the equation. This week, we are looking at what God has done and is doing today in the lives of people of faith to renew his original intention by creating his own kingdom in the midst of the nations.

The author, C. S. Lewis, created an imaginary vision of what might have been the case if we human beings were not warped by sin. In the second book of his famous Space Trilogy, Perlandra, his hero, Ransom, is taken to Venus to fight demonic spirits and those inhabited by those spirits in order to prevent Perlandra/Venus from falling under the power of the Dark Spirit, as has the Planet Earth. [1] Lewis, in a wonderful imaginative way, pictures what an unfallen earth and an unfallen Adam and Eve might be like.

In the end, his Adam becomes a great king and his Eve a great queen, living in fellowship with God and with God’s creation in wisdom, love, and happiness, in dependence on God. As we mentioned the first week, this is what God initially intended for the human race. He wanted to create a people to live in wisdom and love of God and others, gradually becoming more like God, drawing others and creation into that same relationship. He still does.

Unfortunately, human sin and brokenness, our anxiety and tendency towards violence and self-seeking prevente the human race from achieving its original destiny. As Genesis 3-11 unfold, the human race falls more and more deeply into the patterns of personal and social behavior we experience today. On the other hand, as learned last week, God has never given up on the human race or human history.

The Call of Abraham

The story of who God intends to go about creating his New Kingdom within the world and his new family of kings and queens begins in Genesis 12. Hear the Word of God to us today:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you shall be cursed—and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

Today, we know much more about the implications of these words than Abraham would have known. When he first heard the promise, he was thinking about his desire for an heir, not God’s promise to make him a great nation. He was just hoping to have a son who could carry on after him. As to the part about being a blessing to all the nations, I suspect he barely understood what that might mean. Yet, the Bible records that

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan….” (Genesis 12:4-5).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, we ask now that you come into all of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we might become your children, remade in the image of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Step 1: A Decision to Trust and Obey

Abraham was born somewhere near Ur of the Chaldees in the Middle East almost 4,000 years ago. His father’s name was “Terah.” They were descendants of Noah, about whom we spoke last week. Today, Ur of the Chaldees is gone—a reminder that no civilization lasts forever.

Abraham was the leader of a tribe known is the “Iburu,” which in our speech is translated, “Hebrews.” The Iburu were what we would call “Bedouins,” a group of people related by blood and marriage, together with servants and slaves, which wandered from place-to-place tending sheep. They did not have an established nation, but wandered among the nations. [2]

Abraham must have been a fairly astute businessman. [3]  He had many sheep, and his shepherds relied upon him for their livelihood. As we meet Abraham, he is at the age when men in his culture (and ours) are inclined to be careful and conservative in business and in decision-making. They are older, experienced, near retirement, and thinking about their heirs. They no longer have time for mistakes or delay. In this respect, Abraham had a big problem. For all his success and wealth, despite the position he held among his people, he was without anyone to whom he could bequeath his properties and who would carry on his work.

Abraham lived in a world in which there were many gods. One day, he heard the voice the LORD God, promising he would be the “Father of Many Nations,” if only he would follow God in the life of faith. Abram decided to cast his lot with God, and so Abram obeyed God and went. This is important. Since the Reformation, Christians have often debated the relationship between faith and works. The word in Hebrew and its connotations really do not open the door for that kind of debate, for “faith” means “trust” and to trust means to act upon what one believes. Abraham believed God, trusted God, and obeyed God.[4]

There is an old story that illustrates this point. A man walks across Niagara Falls on a rope pushing a wheel-barrow. When he returns to the US side, he asks the crowd, “Do you believe I can cross Niagara Falls with this wheel-barrow?” Everyone says, “Yes.” Then he asks, “Who will get in the wheel-barrow and let me push them across?” No one responds. The Christian life means not only intellectually believing in Christ, but being willing to get in God’s wheel-barrow. In creating his new nation and people to bless the earth, God needs people willing to get into his wheelbarrow and risk.

Step 2: Patience in Wandering

Abram traveled through the northern part of Mesopotamia, then south along a well-established trade route until he reached Palestine, the land that we currently call, Israel. This was a long journey—600 miles or more—and just as dangerous almost 4,000 years ago as it is today. The journey was not completed at one time. As the author of Hebrewssays, Abram left “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11: 8). Along the way, Abram stopped, grazed his sheep, and waited for God to show him the Promised Land and deliver the son of the promise. He had no idea whether the trip would last a week, a month, a year, or longer; however, I bet he never thought that it would last over a quarter of a century!

This reminds us that the life of faith requires patience. Trusting God is not a “one and done” kind of thing. Like Abraham, Christians have to follow God through uncertain times not just for a part of their life but throughout all of life. Christians have always faced difficult and uncertain futures. We live in such a time just now. As we face our uncertain future, we believe in God, believe in Christ as God in human form, the love and wisdom of God made human,  pray for the Spirit of God to enter our lives, read our Bibles, live in Christian community, worship, pray, and continue to believe in the answer God gives to our prayers.

Step 3: Recovering from Setbacks and Family Trouble

You might think that, because of Abraham’s faith and obedience, his life and the life of his family was easy or perfect. But, it was not. From the beginning, Abraham endured problems and setbacks. This gives us a third clue about how we can become true children of God—we can learn to recover from sin and setbacks and family trouble. We need resilience in the life of faith.

For example, in the course of the journey, Abraham eventually went as far as Egypt. Like all Bedouins, he was suspicious of what might happen in a foreign place. When Abraham arrived in the Land of Egypt, he was worried that the people of Egypt might kill him and others in order to acquire his wife, Sarai, who was beautiful. Therefore, he told her to masquerade as his sister. This turned out to be a mistake, for the fact that she was beautiful and unattached caused Pharaoh to desire her. He actually took her into his harem! God, who was protecting Abraham and Sarai, caused a plague to fall upon everyone belonging to Pharaoh’s house. When Pharaoh found out what Abraham had done, he gave Abram back his wife and expelled him from the land. [5]

His nephew, Lot, was also a problem. God had told Abraham to go and to take his household, which he naturally assumed included my nephew. Abraham was wealthy, and Lot was wealthy as well. As they traveled through a land in which there was little water and grazing land for their flocks, their herdsmen argued over water and grazing rights—and some of those arguments resulted in violence. Eventually, Abraham understood that the two families needed to separate, which they did.  Lot chose the fertile lowlands near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This turned out to be a huge mistake, for other groups desired this land, and the cities had an evil reputation and corrupted Lot and his family (See, Gen. 13:1-13). [6]

Finally, Abraham agreed with Sarai to have a child by her maidservant. This may seem morally wrong to us, but in Abram’s culture it was customary for a barren wife of a wealthy man to give one of her female servants to bear for her the child she could not have. [7] Of all his mistaken ventures, this was the most serious, because after the child was born, and especially after Isaac was born, Sarah and Hagar simply could not get along. Hagar was haughty towards Sarah, and Sarah was fearful of her position, and later of the position of Isaac, since Ishmael was the first son and would inherit the family fortune if something happened to Isaac. In the end, Abraham was forced to send Hagar and Ishmael away. [8]  Even today, the human race lives with the consequences of that choice. [9]

This part of the story reminds us of the consequences of sin, consequences that can have an impact long even after the lifetime of the person who falls short of God’s will. Since we all do sin and fall short of the glory of God, and since we all do make mistakes in life, we all have to live with the consequences of our decisions, not all of which are pleasant. This is a part of the life of faith. We have to learn to recover from our life mistakes.

God’s Faithfulness

Throughout Abraham’s wandering and wavering faithfulness, God was faithful. He constantly reaffirmed his promises to Abraham. [10] When Abraham despaired of the fulfillment of the promise God had made, God appeared in a vision and assured him that his descendants indeed would be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:1-6). He believed God; and it is at this time that the writer of Genesis relates, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This verse points to the fact that, although Abraham was not perfectly obedient to God, he had faith and lived by that faith, and God honored that faith. [11]

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and had wandered in the wilderness a quarter of a century, God appeared and confirmed his covenant one final time. It was at that time that God changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” as he was the father of my tribe, to “Abraham,” which means the “Father of Many Nations”. [12]

The author of Hebrews uses Abraham as the supreme example of faith. “Faith,” he says, “is the assurance of things hoped for and a certainty about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). He is, of course, talking about the things of God. Faith as to God is accepting and trusting the promises of God. Hebrews goes on to say:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12).

We Christians are no different than Abraham. We live withn earthly kingdoms of one kind or another, but we look forward to a different kind of Kingdom, one whose architect and builder is God. Christ came, as we shall see, to institute that Kingdom. It is not a kingdom made by human hands we seek, but one made by God. It is not a kingdom separate from all the kingdoms of this world, but one that exists within those kingdoms as a source of wisdom, love and growth.

Conclusion

A large percentage of the East/West United States commercial traffic goes through Memphis, Tennessee. My former church was near IH-40, which is the major highway trucks use. Just after 9-11, we noticed a huge number of trucks carrying tanks, troop carriers and other items painted for desert warfare on IH-40. These caravans did not go on for hours or even days, but for weeks and months. The preparation for what became the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns had begun. It was obvious, visible and reflected just how much preparation goes into something like a human military campaign. We all knew something big was about to happen. Secular governments, you see most often try do things in a big, obvious, and powerful way. [13]

God has a different way of doing things. We are told that he chose one man and his wife, both elderly and unable to have children, and asked them to believe that he would give them a child and a family which would change the world.It was unseen by the high and the mighty, but in due time their child, Isaac was born, and after many years another family was formed, and Jesus was born, also unseen by the rich and powerful of the day.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Perlandra (New York, NY: Scribner, 1004).

[2] The linage of Abraham and his tribe are unclear from the archeological evidence. Some scholars feel that Abraham was associated with the “Iburu”. Others point out the similarity between the customs of other groups and the narrative of Genesis, including Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham. See, Norman Gottwald, Light to the Nations: An Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959): 85-101. I have followed the Iburu tradition, but there are other possibilities. See, John Bright, A History of Israel 3rd ed (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1972, 1981): 67ff.

[3] It may seem from these verses that only Abram, Sarai, Lot and a few slaves. In other places in Genesis we see Abraham led 318 of his men to rescue lot (Gen. 14:13-16). Obviously, Abraham many families with him, together with slaves, and others.

[4] This last word, “Obey” is a connection between faith in the Old Testament and the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the world and teach people to obey (Matthew 28:16-20).

[5] This story is repeated in Genesis 20 as an event between Abraham and Abimelech, and again as a story about Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26. Critical scholars often point to the parallels as indicating a problem in the text, which could certainly be true. This, however, masks the fact that it is hard to believe that there is not some historical foundation for the stories. See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964): 91-92.

[6] On two occasions, Lot had reason to regret his decision. First, the kings of the lands around the fertile area near what is now the Dead Sea attacked the place Lot was staying and he was captured. Abraham had to raise and army and rescue him (See, Gen. 14:1-16). Later, near the end of his wanderings, God sent his angels to tell Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot was then living. Abraham interceded for Lot and his family. In the ensuing destruction of the cities, Lot was saved, but his wife was lost and he was reduced to poverty and ultimately to living an immoral life. [6] In the end, Lot was one of those fundamentally good men who, through a small amount of moral laxity, destroy themselves—which he did. Today, Lot is seen as a type of man who is not evil or irreligious, but who lacks the integrity believers need to endure the pressure of a pagan world.

[7] The story is told in Genesis 16. Under Middle-Eastern custom, a wife could have a child through a maid and the child would inherit unless another child was born in the meantime, in which case the natural child inherited. See, John Bright, above, at 79.

[8] See, Genesis 21: 8-21 for the story of the casting out of Hagar.

[9][9] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong.

[10] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong. Finally, just nine months before Isaac was born, God sent his angels to visit him and to warn him about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (See, Gen. 18:1-33). He was sitting in Mamre under some very famous oak trees, when three men appeared. They told him that he would have son, but Sarah laughed (Gen. 18:13-16). By this time, Abraham was almost 100 years old, and could not believe that he could possibly have a child this late in life, even if Sarah were not barren. Nine months later, when he was 100 years old, Abraham finally had a son whom I named Isaac, which means “laughter.” Abraham had laughed when God promised me the child as did Sarah. God laughed at his lack of faith, and answered prayers thought impossible.

[11] Faith is an active trust in God and in the promises of God. As such, it has two components: (1) an intellectual component in which we hear and believe the promises of God and (2) a volitional component as we actively trust the truth of Christ we have perceived. See, R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company, 1878): 604-605. I am honoring the greatest Nineteen Century theologian of my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. I could have cited many other theologians, ancient and modern.

[12] See, The NIV Study Bible 10th Anniversary ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995): note to Genesis 17:5.

[13] In the series of blogs I am working on just now, I often make the point that this propensity for the big in American government is mistaken. In the weeks to come, I will be discussinging how modern and post-modern ideas should be moving us into a new political direction, one characterized by respect for what already exists, dialogue, and slow and moderate change.

Kingdom of God 2: The Confused Kingdoms We Create

Have you ever made a decision, started off on a course of action, and then suddenly realized that you made a huge mistake? I certainly have. Most of us have had that experience. When it comes to the human race, not only have some people rebeled against God and made bad decisions; but, from time to time, we all rebel and make bad decisions. This should not surprise us because after the story of Creation, comes the story of the Fall and of mistake after mistake by the human race. It is also the story of the mercy of a God of Love who never gives up on his creation.

Last week, we looked at the creation of the human race and God’s initial plan for the world and the human race. We were supposed to be God-connected, Christ-like, Spirit-Empowered humble stewards of a world of beauty, peace, and plenty. Instead, we tried to be our own god’s and became alienated from God and others, slaves to sin and brokenness.

Genesis 2 begins where Genesis 1 leaves off—with Adam in the Garden of Eden, naming the beasts and enjoying perfect fellowship with God. Then, to make man complete, God created a woman for the man to love and be loved by. The human family, the foundation of society, was created. Creation and the human race were off to a great start (Genesis 2). Unfortunately, before long the human race was tempted, rebeled against human limits, and Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden into the fallen, hostile, imperfect world (Genesis 3).

As the remainder of the first chapters of Genesis unfold, the human race becomes progressively more entrapped by sin and brokenness until finally God sends a great flood upon the whole earth, rescuing only Noah and his family (Genesis 5-9). After the flood, the children of Noah returned to the ways that got the human race into trouble in the first place, until finally we are told they attempted to make themselves like God once again building a tower to the heavens (Genesis 9-10). Secular human history, you see, is a story of rebellion, violence, and sin.

Building the Tower of Babel

Today, we are looking at the strange story of the Tower of Babel. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis, Chapter 11:1-9:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Flawed Human Family

It is a fundamental part of Biblical history that, from the beginning, the human race disobeyed God and brought judgment upon the human family. The human race was  made in the image of God (Genesis 1), intended to rule over the earth in fellowship with God and one another (Genesis 2), but tragically unable to maintain that fellowship and dependency on God Genesis 3).

Here is how the Bible tells the story: Along with human freedom comes the freedom to choose, and the human race chose to disobey God. As a result, Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. Though Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the Garden, and no longer enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God they enjoyed before the Fall, they prayed to God and remembered with longing their time in Paradise (Gen. 4:26). Adam and Eve, and every human being since, has had somewhere in their soul a deep desire to return to the innocence of the Garden and escape the power of sin. We desire to have healed our broken relationship with God, creation, and others.

Human beings have always understood that there is a price for sin and immoral behavior. The Jewish people also sensed that the human race required some kind of sacrifice to undo the impact of sin. The ancients understood that they were somehow alienated from God’s Love and Wisdom. Human beings, therefore, developed the habit of offering sacrifices, in hopes that the God they had angered might forgive them and show mercy. [1] Their sacrifices showed that that they believed in God, worshiped God, loved God and desired the blessings of God. They wanted to be restored to the fellowship they enjoyed in the Garden Innocence, and they were willing to sacrifice to restore that fellowship.

In time, Adam and Eve had a child, and Eve cried out, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man!” (Gen. 4:1). Adam and Eve thought that their first-born son, Cain, might be the one who would undo the curse and crush the head of the Serpent who had ruined everything in the Garden (Gen. 3:17). A little later, they had another son, Abel. Interestingly, Cain’s name means, “Spear” and Abel’s name means “Breath”.

The story of Cain and Abel is a story of jealousy and murder and the rise of human violence. One lesson of the story is that Cain was a man of violence, but Abel was a man of faith in whom the breath of God was active and alive.After a time, Cain took some of his grain and offered it to God (Gen. 4:3), and Abel, being a shepherd, offered some of the first fruits of his flocks (Gen. 4:4). The LORD God, looked with favor on the sacrifice of Abel, but he did not seem to accept Cain’s sacrifice with the same degree of favor. [2] You may ask, “How did they know?” I can’t really answer the question, because this matter of God’s accepting a sacrifice or a prayer is something you either feel in your heart or you do not. [3]

What can be said with certainty, is that Cain was fundamentally a person of violence, and that violence erupted against his brother. We have seen in the past two weeks, abundant evidence that the Spirit of Cain is alive and well in our society. We have seen at least two senseless cases of mass violence, and deluded people sought their moment in the sun at the expense of the lives of others. Whatever else we may say about these incidents, we can surely see that that the corruption in Cain’s soul is with us today.

Flawed Human History

There are consequences to sin and to murder, and there were consequences for Cain and for the rest of human history. Cain, like Adam and Eve was driven out of his home because he had shed his brother’s blood (Gen. 4:11). The earth and soil were cursed as they had been cursed for Adam because of his sin. But, even judgement, God showed mercy. He assured Cain of his protection as he left the presence of the LORD as had Adam and went out to the Land of Nod, which means, “Land of Wandering”. [4] Cain became a wanderer, and the human race has been wandering ever since. [5]

Like Adam and Eve, Cain had children. The Bible records seven of them—a perfect number (Gen. 4:17-18). I only want to mention one, Lamech, who himself became a murderer and even bragged about it, saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).

From as far back as anyone can remember, the kingdoms of this earth, one way or another, have been established by violence and vengeance has been a curse upon the earth. One of the less attractive things we have seen about the current leadership of Russia is a habit of sending assassins to painfully murder those who have disappointed or opposed the leadership of the state. It is no coincidence that the same leadership has begun a violent and unnecessary war to extend its power.

Attempts to Be God

St. Augustine, wrote of the God-shaped void in every human heart—a void that makes us restless until we find our rest in God. [6] All of us experience that restlessness. I have and everyone I ever met has. Some people cover up their restlessness with pleasure. Others cover up their restlessness in a search for power. Some fill their God shaped void with pleasure. Some try to fill that void with possessions. Nothing short of God works

As far as politics and human society is concerned, the fall of the human race created a situation in which people tried over and over again to fill that void by being the rulers of creation without God instead of stewards of creation. The search for power is one of the enduring drivers of human history.

In the Bible, the story is one of increasing sin and violence, until God finally brought a judgement on the entire earth (Genesis 6). In the story of the flood, the human race is destroyed. Unfortunately, the children of Noah continued the same tradition as the children of Adam and Eve and of Cain. They tried to become God’s and create the same kind of kingdoms one gets when one tries to be God.

Finally, the human race continued their mistaken attempt to become little gods by building a tower to heaven, so that they could be gods themselves. God responded by disbursing the human race over the earth with many languages, in order that human beings have trouble understanding one another. (Some of speak the same language and still have trouble understanding one another!) We still suffer that curse. We human beings have trouble understanding one another—and we often do not even try.

Some scholars are critical of this story as evidence that the God of Israel was a petty and jealous God who wanted to deprive the human race of the opportunities to use its natural abilities. I do not see the story this way. What I think the story reflects and teaches is the inevitable chaos that we human beings create when we become proud and alienated from God—when we cease being stewards and try to become kings. Things always turn out badly. God wants us to use our natural abilities—in the way intended from the beginning.

A New “Pentecost Kingdom”

June 5 was Pentecost 2022, the Sunday on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church. As we will learn in July, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples spent fifty days together in the Upper Room. Then, suddenly with thousands of vistotors present in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues. Here is how the New Testament describes the event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoke (Acts 2:1-6).

Pentecost is the day on which we celebrate the beginning of a great reversal of the ancient curse of the Tower of Babel. The Spirit of Christ began to unwind the ancient divisions of the human race symbolized by our inability to understand one another. Christians call it the “Birthday of the Church” because Pentecost symbolizes the emergence of a new Kingdom to be created by God. This New Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom born of violence, but a Heavenly Kingdom of peace born of love. It is not a kingdom of confusion and misunderstanding but a kingdom of love and patient understanding. It is a kingdom our society needs desperately to experience anew.

Conclusion

The theme for these last two weeks is the “Kingdom of God,” a theme we will continue to explore as time goes by. Even now, we can see that humanity is, by itself and its own power not capable of creating the kind of Kingdom in which all human beings are equal, in which the earth is a kind of garden to supply every legitimate need of the human race, and in which governments are just. The problem is never really the “system of government.”

In the next few weeks, I will take a short look at the political philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. [7] Beginning before the Second World War and until the 19760’s he represented a Christian political philosophy that did not forget the human condition and the way in which sin warps human beiges and societies. Interestingly, his thought was sometimes referred to as “Christian realism” to distinguish it from the sometimes overly-optimistic kind of Christian liberalism that the Social Gospel and various Christian liberal and utopian movements of his day.

I am not an uncritical fan of Niebuhr. His strength is that he could see at root our human problem,  the men and women who run every government, people who are unfortunately a great deal like us: selfish, self-centered, and given to acts of foolish pride. If there is to be a kingdom that fills the human need for justice, harmony, and peace, it will come not from our power, but from the power of God. It is the coming of that power that we celebrate on Pentecost. In this broken world, the people of God best serve our secular state when we are fully committed and active disciples—and when we live out the Gospel of Love and Wisdom in our own lives for all the world to see.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The story implies that sacrifices were already known at the time of Cain and Abel. Anthropologists believe that the practice of sacrificing to gods to secure their favor is nearly universal in human history. For a review of this phenomenon as it affects the Old Testament, see, R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1969): Part Six.

[2] The story dates from a time when sacrifice is already known. Hebrews were nomadic shepherds, and so some commentators have seen in this story the tension between farmers and nomadic shepherds—a conflict which has been explored from time to time in contemporary westerns which pit the farmer against the rancher who wants land to graze cattle upon. There may be some memory of this in the story, but it cannot be the basic point of the story. The story makes plain its basic point, which is the continuing and growing power of sin and violence in human history. See, Everett Fox, In the Beginning (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1983): 21. “Although this story may well have originated as a tale of enmity between two ways of life (farmer and shepherd), or in another context, it has obviously been transformed into something far more disturbing and universal.”

[3] Theologians have thought a lot about what made my sacrifice less acceptable than Abel’s. I do not think the fact that Cain offered grain and Abel offered meat from his sheep is the reason. Cain gave what he had; Abel gave what he had. I don’t think it is because God prefers shepherds to farmers. God loves everyone. I think that the key is in the comparison between what Cain brought—some of the grain—and what Abel brought—the best part of the first fruits of his flock (Genesis 4:2-4). David W. Spicer, OSB in “Genesis” in Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003) 41. See also Driver in Westminster Commentaries Rev. & Enlarged ed (London, UK: Methuen & Co. 1926), 63

[4] See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co., 1964): 30.

[5] It is significant that Cain cries out to God, “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wander upon the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (See, Gen. 4:13-14). As his father was sent from the Garden to wander upon the earth, so Cain will wander all of his days.

[6] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960): 43

[7] See for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral and Immoral Society: A Study in Christian Ethics and Politics Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001.

The Kingdom of God: Part 1

This summer, at Linwood Park, where I am one of the Camp Pastors from time to time, the theme is “the Kingdom of God.” In July, that theme is going to be at the center of the sermon series, as one of the pastors preaches from the Book of Acts. For the next three weeks, I am going to introduce the theme of the Kingdom of God from the Old Testament, hoping we will all gain a better understanding of the Christian notion of the Kingdom of God and our place within that kingdom.

In a way, the whole idea of a “Kingdom” is contrary the way we Americans think. We live in a democracy. We do not have kings. In the United States we have Presidents, Senators, Congress men and women, and judges, but no king. In fact, our Constitution forbids the giving of anyone any kind of title to nobility. [1] The founders of our nation did not want to create a new kingdom but something new in world history: a Constitutional Democracy.

This creates a real problem for Americans, because it would seem that God in some way is busy creating a kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace, and he intends for there to be a king, a special kind of king, to rule over this earth in wisdom and love. If we cannot get that first notion into our minds, we will not really understand what the Bible is trying to teach us about the Kingdom of God.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is used over 70 times in the New Testament – with the Gospel of Matthew alone uses the term about 30 times. As Christians, it is essential to understand the meaning behind this phrase which is often confusing for many Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, it might be good as we begin to give a short, easy to remember definition of the “Kingdom of God”: The Kingdom of God is that place and contains those people where God is in control, working his wise and loving purposes for the good of all human beings.

The Beginning of the Kingdom

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper. If you want to understand something, the first place to begin is at the beginning, which for our purposes is the creation of the world. In the opening chapters of the Bible, in Genesis 1-2 we see the world as God designed it to be. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:1-5).

As Genesis tells the story, God goes on to create  the heavens, our world, and all the living creatures in the world.

The Bible begins with God creating a kingdom—the universe, our world, and everything in it. God is the author, the designer, the creator, and the lord of our universe and our world. In order to manage this world, God needed a creature who is something like God—endowed with intelligence, consciousness, and the ability to manage his creation. Therefore, as God completes his creation, the human race is created.

Human Race as Stewards of the Kingdom

Then, finally, on the sixth day God creates the human race. Here is what the Bible goes on to say:

Then God said, “Let us make the human race in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-31).

This brings us to the first point that we need to understand if we are to understand the kingdom of God and what it means for our lives. Our human capacities have a purpose and a goal. We are intended to be stewards of God’s good creation. This is true of everyone. Men and women. Old and young. Boys and girls. Rich and poor. Smart and less intelligent. Gifted and less gifted. Powerful and less powerful. All of us were intended to have a role in managing God’s kingdom and tending his creation.

Our position as members of the human race and stewards of God’s creation has implications for our behavior. As stewards, we have the responsibility to manage the creation, as the Bible puts it, “have dominion over it.” A good steward manages the master’s property, and that means working hard at it. However, a steward is not given the master’s property to waste it or consume it, or ruin it, but to improve it and manage it wisely.

Our first church was in a small, rural farming community in the third poorest county in Tennessee. I have always been glad we began in Brownsville.  Brownville was a farming community and there I learned to garden. I had to keep the yard for the manse that had drifted into disrepair and needed landscaping. The farmers helped me learn to landscape and plant a garden (and keep from killing all the plants). Frankly, it was a spiritual experience. I thought of Adam and Eve and our human destiny to be caregivers for creation every time I stepped out of my back door and went into the church building.

The lessons of my garden in Brownsville continue to bless my life today. When I think of ministry, I think of gardening. Now that I am retired and write a bit, I think of writing as gardening. (It is just as hard to get “weeds” out of a manuscript as it is a physical garden.) You and I are not simply “inhabitants” of God’s creation. We are its gardeners. God wants us to take whatever part of his garden we are blessed to be a part of and improve it. Our garden consists of the people and places God brings into our lives.

Discipleship as Stewardship

The physical part of caring for God’s creation is important. However, the spiritual and human part of caring for God’s creation is more important. We are all called to be stewards of the people and relationships God has placed in our path, our parents, our spouses, our children,  families, co-workers, friends and  neighbors. In fact, caring for people is the most important part of our stewardship.

Jesus told many parables, and a good many of them deal with the subject of being good stewards of what God places with us. Here is just one. In Luke 19:11-27, Jesus tells a story about a nobleman who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom intending to eventually return to his country. Unfortunately for this nobleman, the citizens of this country hated him and told the high king that they did not want him to be king (v. 14). Before leaving, the nobleman called in his servants and gave each on some money to invest for him while he was away.  Then he left to go and receive his kingdom.

When the nobleman returned, having received the promised kingdom, he called in the servants so that he might know how they had done with his money. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ A second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Finally, a third servant comes and admits that he did not invest the money, but kept it hidden, because he was afraid of his master.  The king was furious, and took from the man what he had been given. (Luke 19:21-26).

This is one of those texts that Christian rarely hear preached on except on stewardship Sundays. Interestingly, this parable is not about money at all. It’s about taking care of the people and relationships that God brings into our lives. Here’s the background. This parable occurs in Luke near the end of Jesus’s ministry, just before he enters the city of Jerusalem where he will be crucified and die. He is about to go home to God until the end of time. As Jesus is teaching, he is surrounded by Pharisees and Sadducees, scribes and leaders of the people. They oppose him and want to see that he is put to death. They all reject him.

In the parable, Jesus is the noble king. He is the one who has gone off into a far country to receive a kingdom, which he will get at the end of time when he returns as the Lord of the heavens and the earth. In the meantime, the people of God and the creation of God have been left in the hands of human leaders. This particular parable, it’s not likely the Jesus meant the Sadducees, Pharisees, and other leaders of the Jewish people. In the parable, the leaders of the people, and indeed all the citizens of the little country, reject the leadership of the nobleman (Jesus) who is going away. No, the servants are not the leaders of the people. It is almost certain that, in this particular parable, Jesus meant the discipleswhom he will be leaving  in charge of his kingdom in his absence. In other words, in this particular parable, Jesus is talking to you and me and about our stewardship of the Great Commandment and Great Commission until the end of time.

Discipleship as Investing our Gifts

This parable is a reminder that we all have been given some kind of ability to use for the building up of the kingdom of God. Not everyone has been given the same abilities. We have different abilities. Paul makes this clear in First Corinthians when he talks about spiritual gifts. He says, “Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:4-7).

Paul does not say, “To the first apostles were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To preachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To Sunday School teachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To those who speak in tongues were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To elders and deacons and other leaders of the church were given spiritual gifts.” He says, “To each was given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). This means all of us. Just as we are all made in the image of God, we are all stewards of God’s creation. And, just as we all are disciples of Christ, citizens of his kingdom, we are all gifted with talents and abilities and assets to be used for the glory of God and for the perfection of this kingdom.

Conclusion

As I was writing this, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review on the importance of leaders taking stock at least weekly of their progress, their goals, their successes and failures. What the writer was encouraging is as old as any kind of religion. In the Christian tradition, people like St. Ignatius Loyola have encouraged disciples to take time daily to examine themselves, to see where God has been at work in their lives and where they have failed to do the work God intended for them. In some Christian groups, people are encouraged to take time annually to reflect upon their lives in ministry.

Most of us go on vacation each summer to relax and enjoy ourselves for a while before we go back to our day-to-day lives. This relaxation is important. Just after God gives Adam and Eve dominion over the world and all that is in it, he institutes the Sabbath, so that they may learn to rest. We need time away to rest. While we are here resting and relaxing and recharging our batteries, we need also to reflect on our stewardship of the talents, gifts, and abilities God has entrusted to us. For, in our hearts, we know we are accountable for them.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] US Constitution, Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 (1789). Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 reads: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Orthodoxy, Oppression and Social Harmony

This week, we are looking briefly at Eastern Orthodoxy and the way it has been formed its unique political climate. The experience of Eastern Orthodoxy can be an important source of wisdom for the contemporary Western Church and Christians generally as they seek to adapt to the vast and sometimes revolutionary social change which Western society is experiencing as the Modern Age draws to a close. The task this week is to set the stage by looking at one single concept that was of historical importance to the Eastern Orthodox view of the relationship between government and the church.

Symphonia East and West

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith had a special position within the Roman empire. It eventually became the established religion of the empire. Under these circumstances, a doctrine known as “Symphonia” developed. The root in Greek for symphonia means “to speak with” or “a harmony of sounds or voice” The Greek is the root from which we get our word “symphony,” an extended musical piece performed by an orchestra made up of many different instruments making an harmonious sound in unison.

Transposed into political thought, the idea is that the spiritual realm, made up of the Catholic Church, and the political realm, made up of the Roman Empire, as the two primary social institutions of the Empire, should work together to create and harmonious, peaceful, and just society. In the East and in the West, until the fall of Rome in the West and the triumph of Islam in the East, this doctrine of Symphonia was at the root of the relationship between the Roman emperor, the political establishment, and the church.

In the West, after the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian empires of Europe until the Modern Age, the fundamental unity of church and state with each function overlapping the other and complementing it retained its force until the Protestant Reformation, and even after the Reformation the nations of Europe sponsored established churches and the majority of their inhabitants belonged to the state church.

In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire things were different. Beginning in the 7th Century Eastern Orthodoxy (hereinafter “Orthodoxy”) found itself confronted by militant Islam and substantially within the boundaries of a growing Islamic empire. In the end, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire was defeated and became part of the Ottoman Empire by 1453. Within this empire, Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, was a restricted faith, subject to special taxes, economic disadvantages, and persecution. It had to apply Symphonia in a much different way in order to survive within the boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate. Naturally, the result was survival at the occasional cost of integrity.

The Russian Experience

In 998 AD, Orthodox Christianity came to Russia at the invitation of Prince Vladimir (980-1015) and became a central feature of Russian society and culture. Eventually, as the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, the center of Orthodoxy began to shift from Constantinople to Russia and Moscow. Even today, at least nominally, the largest Orthodox community is in Russia.

In Orthodox Russia, the Tsar and his family were intimately bound to the church, and the doctrine of Symphonia continued to be the foundation of political theology and of the practical relationship between the church and the state. Unfortunately, as one writer put it, by the time of Czar Nicholas II, the Russian nobility was corrupt and unable to take wise political steps and the Russian Orthodox Church was similarly incapacitated by its ossification as an institution. [1]

After the Russian revolution and for the next eighty years, the Russian church was faced with an historic crisis. It was attacked by the Soviets, persecuted, its properties taken over by the state, and its seminaries and monasteries closed. Many priests and others were martyred, as was the Romanov royal family. This created in crisis in Russian Orthodoxy that continued for most of the 20th. Russia exited the Soviet Communist era an economically, spiritually, morally, and politically bankrupt society. It is still in the process of recovery from its eighty-year detour into Communism, if indeed it will ever recover.

When the Communists came to power in Russia, Lenin and his successor Stalin, motivated by militant atheism and the desire to destroy any institution that might hinder the progress of their revolution, shut down many churches and monasteries, and sponsored atheist organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless to wage war on Christian faith. The Donskoi Monastery became the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) became the Museum of the History of Religion. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public display for all the world to see. [2] Just as in the areas controlled by Islam, Orthodox Christians were a persecuted and disfavored minority. To one degree or another, this was true in Russia until the near the fall of Communism. [3]

Thus, unlike the West in which the Christian church had a privilege status in society, Eastern Orthodoxy was forced to live under the constraints of hostility, opposition, disenfranchisement,  and often corrupting political influence. This was true in both post-Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy and in post-Revolutionary Russia. Under conditions of oppression, the doctrine of Symphonia could be construed to make collaboration the best (and only) means of preserving the Christian faith. Just occasionally, this collaboration resulted in the church taking self-destructive stands, and the church was much embarrassed by disclosures of its occasional collaboration with the Soviet State. On the other hand, one might ask, “What other course of action could they have taken?” In fact, had the Eastern Church not acted as it did, it would most likely have been extinguished.

Symphonia and Russia Today

This issue is of continuing importance today as the Patriarch of Moscow has leant some degree of support to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which may well in the long run at least somewhat discredit Russian Orthodoxy in Russia and certainly in the Ukraine and the West for some time to come. As the Washington Post recently observed:

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub. Because of this, Kirill, 75, has offered a full-throated endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils at widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support. [4]

Underlying difficulties caused by the activities of the Patriarch Krill and his alliance with Vladimir Putin is an historic difficulty involving the Russian and Ukrainian churches. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian church was under the patriarch of Moscow, a situation that changed only in 1990 after the fall of Communism and Ukrainian independence. Under Soviet Communism, the Ukrainian church had been a part of the Russian church without its own independent patriarch. Obviously, as a part of Putin’s desire to reunify the Soviet Union, the Russian Patriarch has a desire to unify the Russian Church to include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church once again. It is my guess that, even if Russia proves successful, the destruction and defacement of Ukrainian Churches by the Russian Army will result in hostility for years to come.

This incident illustrates a difficulty that plagues the notion of Symphonia, as applied in Orthodoxy as well as Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine as applied in Western Churches: There is a danger of the Church either becoming:

  1. Too spiritually intertwined with the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state with which it is intertwined (Symphonia danger); or
  2. Too spiritually separated from the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state as a distinct power (Two Kingdom’s danger).

In either case there is a tendency for the church to be used by the state to achieve its own political purposes, tacitly support political behavior by the state that is unwise or violent, and in the end become discredited in the eyes of society. The experience of the Eastern Church in Russia and the Lutheran Church in World War II Germany are two vivid examples of the problem.

Reflections for Memorial Day

In America, contemporary Christians, liberal and conservative in leanings, sometimes adopt a form of subconscious Symphonia, where we expect the state and church to live in a kind of harmony with the values of Christian faith in some sense being body in society. Both are tempted to support and be used by a political regime that actually does not share their values. This way of thinking is inclined to view the success of the policies and political party they support as advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, and too often this way of thinking is used by politicians to manipulate their followers.

Following up on my blogs regarding Royce, it seems to me that a dialogical view of the relationship between Christianity and the state is a more productive way of viewing things. No state will ever embody the fullness of the kingdom of God to which Christians look forward as a transcendental ideal. Christians need to bring the specific tools and ideals of the Christian faith into a continual dialogue with the state in such a way as to promote a wise, caring, just, and harmonious society.

A Place for Symphonia?

The doctrine of Symphonia has fallen out of favor in recent years. In a later blog I hope to cover some contemporary voices in Orthodoxy and their contemporary views on political theology. For now, it is enough to indicate that there may be a place for a kind of “Reimagined Symphonia” in Christian thinking. In a pluralistic society, Christians are but one voice as are the voices of those of other religions and secular voices as well. On the analogy with a symphony orchestra, government, religious and other groups (what are sometimes called “mediating institutions”) are all instruments in the “orchestra” of our society and of creating the “music” of social harmony and a just and fair society. A plurality of voices is what makes our society dynamic and able to achieve peaceful and positive change.

All the voices that make up a diverse society need to be heard in the formation of public policy, and when they are heard, they should be seen as contributing to the health of the polity. (Of course, the voices should be wise, courteous and loving and not foolish, strident, and divisive. “Speaking the Truth in Love” is forever difficult to achieve) In our society, powerful forces want to silence religious voices, perhaps especially the voices of traditional Christian faith and morality. This is a mistake, as the eighty years of Soviet Communism proved. A better and wiser course is given in the notion that we should all work together to create a free, just, and wise social order. We will not always or even generally agree, but a wise government listens and serves as best it can all of the social components of society.

Conclusion

This is Memorial Day Weekend. It is an important and appropriate that Christians join with the rest of our nation recognizing the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf by past generations. The future will not be a rerun of the past, but those who with humility and wisdom appreciate the sacrifices of the past and attempt to learn from its successes and failures have the best chance of creating a society “Of the People, By the People, and For the People.” This means all the people, not just those in power and in a position to dominate society.

Copyright, 2022, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissents (New York: Sentinal Press, 2020), 22.

[2] Gene Sublovisch, “Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again” in Religion and Politics October 16, 2018 https://religionandpolitics.org/2018/10/16/russias-journey-from-orthodoxy-to-atheism-and-back-again/ )downloaded May 19, 2022). This is a review of Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Stace is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[3] This is a long and complex story. During World War II, Stalin, wanting as much social support for this military as possible, began the process of allowing greater religious freedom in Russia. Under Khrushchev, this progress was halted to some degree. In the late years of the Soviet Union, the process of allowing greater religious freedom continued. Nearly all religious Russians are Orthodox, though other Christian groups, Islam, and other religions are part of the Russian religious landscape.

[4] Erin Cunningham, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine is Dividing the Orthodox Christian World” Washington Post, April 24, 2022 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/24/russia-ukraine-orthodox-church/ (downloaded May 19, 2022). I think it is important to recognize that the Russian Orthodox Church stands almost alone in its support of Putin and this war.

Royce 4: From Loyalty to Beloved Community and Beyond

This is my final week on Josiah Royce and the early pragmatists. Peirce, James, Dewey, and Royce are important figures in American thought, and especially in the case of Dewey, have a continuing influence on American public policy. Each struggled with a problem at the root of American democracy: What is the proper way to coordinate between individual self-interest and the needs of the community? Dewey, in particular, subscribed to a form of socialist thinking. Peirce leaned towards incrementalism, inclined towards careful change in institutions after investigation and analysis. [1]James was an individualist and, as we saw, against largeness and oligarchic or imperialistic organizations generally.

Royce is important for a number of reasons, most importantly because  of his diligent attempt to reconcile individualism with community. It is Royce who conceived the term, “Beloved Community,” which inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of what ought to motivate Americans in overcoming the problems of race and economic inequality. His balanced approach was indicated by his support for the First World War, despite being inclined towards a pacifism. He was a proponent of social and organizational change, but also for preservation of the best of the past and of tradition. His work is supremely wise and balanced. If for no other reason than the last, Royce has a view that ought to be heard today.

From Communities to Individuals to Community

For Royce, the virtue of loyalty involves the willing devotion of a human person to a cause greater than oneself. [2] “Loyalty is the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of an individual to a cause.” [3]. Any cause results in a community, for a cause by definition is social in nature. In order for a cause to exist, it must be embodied in a community that advances the cause.

The implication of this for the relationship of individuals to community are many. First, loyalty means “willing devotion.” This implies that any human community is first and foremost the result of human decision and no true community can be created by force. In Royce’s thought, the voluntary societies which have such an important role in American society and politics are just that—voluntary. They cannot be commanded into existence. Second, loyalty to a cause is personal. It is the loyalty of a human person. For Royce, the incredible diversity of people and their different families, experiences, education, vocation, hobbies and the like mean that there will be many different kinds of persons and many different kinds of causes within American society. Finally, loyalty involves devotion to a cause greater than ourselves. In other words, loyalty draws us out of our isolated individuality into community.

Courtesy and Conflict Among Loyalists

Royce is aware that in a society such as America, with many different nationalities, faith communities, political parties and lobbying groups, the emergence of community can and does involve the reality of conflict. In a complex society, people will be loyal to many causes, some of which are opposed to one another and have difficulty communicating peacefully. This calls for the virtue of courtesy. Courtesy is an essential expression of loyalty. Thus:

The true value of courtesy in ordinary human intercourse lies in the fact that courtesy is one of the expression of loyalty to loyalty, and helps everyone who either receives or witnesses courtesy to assume himself a loyal attitude towards all the causes that are represented by the peaceful and reasonable dealings of men to men. [4]

There’s no aspect of loyalty more important for contemporary American political discourse than the insight that courtesy is essential in a free society in which people join together to support sometimes differing causes. We cannot truly be loyal to our own causes unless we can be courteous to those whose opinions differ. If a free society cannot inculcate this virtue in its citizens, it is doomed to unfaithful and unreasonable discourse. It only takes a moment’s reflection to recognize that much contemporary American discourse has this characteristic. A glance at social media is sufficient to see a great deal of vulgar discourtesy and unreasonable and unpeaceful commentary.

Practically speaking this virtue of courtesy is assisted by implementing a few simple rules:

  1. First, respect the loyalty that others have towards their causes even when we do not share the same enthusiasm for the cause or cause they support.
  2. Second, be more critical towards the causes to which you are loyal than to opposing causes and
  3. give the benefit of the doubt to those who are loyal to their own causes.

Life-enhancing and Life-denying Communities

In the beginning, Royce declines to discriminate among causes, preferring to begin his analysis with a definition that embraces all loyalty, misguided, evil, wise and good Although all communities involve the creation of social entities, since not all causes are good causes not all communities formed to support a cause or an equal footing. To give an obvious example, there’s a considerable difference between a church form to advance the gospel and a criminal organization formed to advance a criminal conspiracy. There is a difference between a political party formed to advance the best interest of a society and a political party formed for the purpose of enslaving the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. There’s a difference between a society formed to advance the cause of peace and one form to advance the cause of war. Communities formed for criminal, antisocial, or violent purposes are not on the same footing as communities form to advance some legitimate benefit of society.

A community may begin its life formed for the benefit of a society, it may become outdated, ineffective, unable to adapt to change, or corrupt and no longer be beneficial or work for the common good of society. History is filled with business and other organizations formed to advance a public benefit that became unable or unwilling to adapt to change in the society of which they were a part. History is filled with organizations that over time became ineffective in the way in which they addressed issues. Finally, any society may become corrupted and no longer work for the benefit of those society. History is filled with organizations that began well and ended corrupt.

An Individual Plan of Life

The need to avoid misguided loyalties requires that each individual develop for his or her self a “plan of life”. [5]The process of developing a plan of life is by no means easy, since our society and every society provides multiple encouragements to give loyalty to various causes. It’s important to recognize that there is a positive aspect to what might be called, “becoming socialized into a plan of life.” Every society either consciously or unconsciously steers its members into a plan for their lives.

In this vein, Royce demonstrates devotion to individual choice, while recognizing that we all need education and instruction into social norms. when he says’

I, and only I whenever I come to on my own, can morally justify to myself my own plan of life. No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty yet I, left myself can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. By nature I simply go on crying out in a sort of chaotic self – will, according as the momentary play of desire determines. [6]

Human beings need socialization, traditions, expectations, family instruction, and other socialization into the kinds of causes and communities that our society finds life-enhancing. However, there is a tension that has to be recognized and an interplay that needs to be supported: every individual has to own for themselves the precise causes and communities within a greater society to which they will belong and give their devotion. In fact, our moral self-consciousness and our capacity for healthy social engagement is a function of our social life. As Royce put it, “our moral self-consciousness is a product of our social life. This self is known to each one of us through its social contrasts with other selves, and with the will of the community.” [7]

In this view, the inevitable conflicts of social life are not negative; they are the means by which we human beings grown and develop our identity. As Royce so eloquently puts it:

In brief, it is our fellows who first startle us out of our natural unconsciousness about our own conduct; and who then, by an endless series of processes of setting us attractive but difficult models, and of socially interfering with our own doings, train us to higher and higher grades and to more and more complex types of self-consciousness regarding what we do and why we do it” [8]

Our self-awareness and identity as human persons are established as we interact with others, who may be critical of our plans, behavior, beliefs, customs, or other social aspects of our identity. They may even actively oppose certain of our most treasured ideas and behaviors. In this way, our fellow human beings train and shape us to transcend our current level of individualization. In our internal and external dialogue with opposing views, we refine our own identity and commitments. As solitary beings, achieve no social growth. It is only by entering into society and the inevitable conflicts and comparisons of that society that we become true individuals. [9]

Levels of Community

There is, however, a deeper issue to which loyalty must address itself: The danger that a particular cause or community may begin to become so ultimate to its members that it is unable to recognize the limits of their cause, turn inward, and become instrument of cultish isolation, intolerance, and even oppression. Here we see the root of what these blogs have often called the problem of “Moral Inversion.” Moral inversion is likely to occur when a particular individual or group of individuals make ultimate a cause that is not truly ultimate. For example, I may belong to a family and be so loyal to my family that I do not recognize my family’s responsibility to its neighborhood. I may become so loyal to my neighborhood that I cannot understand the value of loyalty to my town or city. I can become so loyal to my town or city that I cannot be loyal to my state or nation. In each of these cases my subordinate loyalty has become something negative. This problem is especially difficult where politics and the power of the state are involved.

To avoid this problem, Royce recognizes that there are levels of loyalty, and our loyalty to any given less than ultimate ideal cannot become ultimate without dangers to society. Royce finds this ultimate loyalty in our devotion to loyalty itself and into the gradual merger of our lesser loyalties into the ideal community of the Beloved Community, which is a kind of secular adaptation of the nature of the Christian Church, if indeed the Beloved Community can be separated from that heavenly vision that Christians have always celebrated as their transcendent ideal—the heavenly city come down from God. [10]

Higher forms of community create a spiritual transformation in our loyalties and a greater and deeper love of all of our communities, as they are relativized by what I will call the “Transcendent Community” of the ideal society. [11] I would argue, and I think that Royce would agree, that no merely human community, no existing cause can be healthily sustained without it being related to a higher ideal which relativizes and renders penultimate that loyalty. In our society, many people regard politics as ultimate and the achievement of what they conceived to be adjust economic and social order to be the ultimate good. Over the course of the 20th century great evils were done by search people, all devoted to cars that in itself wasn’t evil but which became so by becoming ultimate. I think we see in the West today the growing danger of another outbreak of the kind of fanaticism that created the holocaust and the great human suffering under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot Pol and other leaders of penultimate movements become ultimate to their followers. Each of our human causes and communities is important on its own level, but it is not ultimate.

The Morally Inverted Leader

The kind of moral inversion of which this series often speaks results from a kind of person who has been collectivistically socialized into a kind of revolutionary individualism that is actually anti-social and destructive of persons and society. Here is how Royce puts it:

For the highly trained modern agitator, or the plastic disciple of agitators, if both intelligent and reasonably orderly in habits, is intensely both an individualist and a man who needs the collective will, who in countless ways and cases bows to that will, and votes for it, and increases its power. The individualism of such a man wars with his own collectivism, while each, as I insist, tends to inflame the other. As an agitator, the typically restless child of our age often insists upon heaping up new burdens of social control, control that he indeed intends to have others feel rather than himself. As individualist, longing to escape, perhaps from his economic cares, perhaps from the marriage bond, such a highly intelligent agitator may speak rebelliously of all restrictions, declare Nietzsche to be his prophet, and set out to be a Superman as if he were no social animal at all. Wretched man, by reason of his divided will, he is; and he needs only a little reflection to observe the fact.[12]

I must end here only to mention that a study of the quote above and a deep internalization of its meaning will explain the behavior of many organizations that regularly create violence during our election and other seasons and the true motives of their misguided leaders. There is no area of our political life in which Royce’s views need to be heard more important than this one.

Conclusion

I find Royce a difficult but rewarding philosopher as regards the problems we face in our society today. When we reach the end of these blogs, and I begin to summarize what I have learned, his views will receive another look and place of honor.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs All Rights Reserved

[1] Of all the thinkers reviewed in this series, Peirce is the most difficult to locate. For an interesting take on his likely political thinking (and a most revealing and important review of his thinking about education for political leadership see, Yael Levin Hungerford, Charles S. Peirce’s Conservative Progressivism Boston College Electronic Thesis or Dissertation, 2016http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:107167 (downloaded May 19, 2022).

[2] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]), at 46. Hereinafter, “Loyalty.”

[3] Id, at 18.

[4] Id, at 69.

[5] Id, at 23ff.

[6] Id, at 23.

[7] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 1 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library) https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (downloaded May 17, 2022), “hereinafter, Problem of Christianity”.

[8] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (downloaded May 17, 2022).

[9] Id.

[10] (See, Revelation 21:1-4)

[11] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (Downloaded May 17, 2022). In several passages, Royce speaks of the spiritual warfare of modern society which creates an intolerable burden on the conscience of the individual which burden grows; and the moral individual cannot bear it, unless his whole type of self-consciousness is transformed by a new spiritual power which this type of cultivation can never of itself furnish.” I think that this and other passages which speak of the spiritual aspects of the kinds of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies that have dominated the past two centuries prevent moral wholeness in he individual.”

[12] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (Downloaded on May 17, 2022).

 

Royce 3: Truth and Loyalty

Three years ago, wandering through a church library, I discovered Josiah Royce and his interest in community. Royce coined the term “Beloved Community” which was important to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. He is an important, if often forgotten, American voice in making progress in both political and religious thought.

Josiah Royce was born in a small community in California, and his first work involved California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1875, and then did a year of postgraduate study in Germany reading Kant and other German philosophers. In 1876, he entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Royce received his doctorate in 1878, taught in California, and then went to Harvard as lecturer in philosophy. In 1885, he was appointed as an Assistant Professor, and in 1892 a Full Professor. He continued at Harvard until his death in 1916. Royce was sympathetic to Christian faith, and one of his major works, The Problem of Christianity, is an attempt to create a philosophical basis for modern faith. This week examines his most popular work, “Loyalty,” which was first published in 1908. [1]

Pragmatic Idealism

Royce was a a friend and colleague of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who encouraged him to seek a career in philosophy. Royce is often thought of as the last American idealist philosopher. In fact, Royce represents a merger of idealism and pragmatism, which resulted in his calling his mature philosophy both “Absolute Idealism” and “Absolute Pragmatism.”

For Royce, human knowledge arises from the pragmatic search for truth upon which we can resolve doubt in some area. Truth, in this view, is the view considered to be true at the end of a process of inquiry by the community devoted to such investigation. Truth is found when the community of inquirers of any particular inquiry has reached consenus. This constitutes the “Absolute Pragmatism” of Royce. It is absolute because the end of the inquiry occurs when all inquirers agree as to the solution of the problem.

One the other hand, Royce was impressed by the fact that truth discovered displays a remarkable coherence with reality itself, and so there must be some connection between human ideas and the external world. In his famous argument from error, Royce notices that even when our ideas are erroneous, we intend to find something we call “truth,” which indicates that the object of our search exists. This, in turn, indicates that truth must already exist in the world of ideas. This represents Royce’s “Absolute Idealism.” Royce believed that the universe is “constituted of these ideas, a kind of “noetic truth” that human beings seek and believe they will find at the end of a process. This is true in the area of religion, morals, and politics as much as in the area of science.

At this point it is worth asking the question, “Does reality itself give us some reason to believe that mind ‘goes all the way down?’” as a scientist would put it. In a qualified way, I think the answer is probably, “Yes.” I have several reasons for thinking that this might be true.

First, there is the mysterious nature of mathematics. Mathematics (at which I was never any good) has features that indicate that it has a noetic or mental reality. Most mathematicians, when they make mathematical discoveries, think that they have “found” something that was already there. This element of discovery seems to me a strong reason to believe in the noetic reality of mathematical truth.

Second, scientists are frequently amazed at the way their discoveries happen to explain relationships in the material world. New theoretical discoveries seem to ideally explain some relationship that exists between the constituent parts of the reality being investigated. Albert Einstein’s famous discovery of relativity theory expressed in the famous equation, E=MC2  is a case in point. As the existence of atomic energy indicates, energy does equal the mass of an object times the speed of light squared. The theory expressed in the equations of physics seems to express an existing, invisible, noetic relationship mirroring physical reality. There are many other examples. This intelligibility of the universe seems to “go all the way down” as it were, so that even at the subatomic level, where the distinction between matter and energy begins to disappear, the ability of science to uncover relationships that seem to have “always existed” is remarkable.

Third, and this is a feature of reality that quantum physics caused science to confront, our own minds appear to be part of the universe we human beings observe. My mind and I are not somehow “outside of the universe looking in” but a part of the flow of reality examining other parts of that flow. The universe must at least have some form of a “mental potential,” otherwise it is hard to explain the human mind’s ability to understand the flow of reality surrounding it in any way at all. As physicist and philosopher David Bohm put it, “The mind may have a structure similar to the universe.” [2]

Finally, and this is where we come to currently debated scientific matters, our universe is intelligible in some mysterious way because it is at least partially “made up of” information. Some physicists are of the view that reality is made up of information and the universe is something like a giant computer. In the words of Physicist John Wheeler, “the it is a bit.” [3]

One does not need to go as far as Wheeler and some current theorists to be of the view that intelligibility is fundamental to reality. The world as we know it is made up of matter, energy and intelligible relationships between them. This intelligibility seems to be an irreducible component of reality. Wherever one finds matter and energy, science  finds intelligible relationships (meaningful information) that illuminates some aspect of the reality constituted by that matter and energy

For these reasons, I think it is fair to propose that, at the end of the enterprise of human knowing, we will understand that, in some way, “mind” or “order” or “ideality” in the form of irreducible comprehensibility, is a fundamental aspect of our universe. In the words of physicist John Polkinghorne, we live in “a world of deep and beautiful order—a universe shot through with signs of mind.” [4]

Morality and Moral Theory

Royce is also of the view that there is an irreducible moral quality to reality. Royce examines this moral reality in his most read book,  Loyalty, where Royce sets out an ethical theory based on the fundamental virtue of loyalty. His theory has four basic components:

  1. The fundamental ethical imperative is “Be Loyal.”
  2. One cannot be loyal in the abstract, but must be loyal in specific, concrete chosen circumstances and causes.
  3. Each individual must choose for him or herself the specific causes to which they will remain loyal.
  4. Finally, in the end, each individual must be loyal to loyalty itself, an approach that will bring persons into an ever-expanding commitment to the virtue of loyalty. [5]

For Royce, loyalty is the willing devotion of an individual to a cause outside of themselves. [6] In other words, loyalty is essentially social and binds us to a community of other persons. If loyalty is a virtue of personal choice, it is inevitably a virtue of communal participation.

Loyalty and Individualism

This social aspect of loyalty, places Royce in opposition to all systems of virtue that celebrate and are founded on individual will and self-authentication. This puts Royce in immediate opposition to Nietzsche, who is the object of criticism in Loyalty. All purely individualistic ethical systems based on will are doomed to failure for a number of reasons. First power is always dependent upon good fortune and luck, and many who begin life in the search for power will end in failure. Secondly, one who seeks power will never be satisfied, for the desire for power is insatiable. Third, the one who seeks power puts him or herself at odds with the universe itself, which leads inevitably to a clash between the power seeker and reality itself. [7]

I might add that since we human beings are social by nature, the one who seeks a solely personal power in the end is doomed to isolation and a failure of true humanity. Think of a Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin all alone at the end with no friends, no allies, nothing. It is likely that this will be true of the next conqueror to visit human history. It is not just true of military conquerors, but also of those in business, law, religion, politics—in any human social endeavor. Since the time of Greek tragedy, wise people have  understood that Fate treats ill those who defy the Fates.

Loyalty on the other hand inevitably draws us out of our isolation into a community. Our loyalty to a cause inevitably involves joining with others who possess a similar loyalty. In addition, our loyalties draws us into contact with those who have different, and perhaps opposing loyalties. As we must confront these other loyalties, we are forced to adjust and negotiate our own loyalties to place them into a harmonious relationship with others. This inevitably involves the social skill of dialogue and discussion, of tolerance, of compromise, and of growth. These are virtues much needed today.

Only persons can exhibit loyalty, and so loyalty to be loyalty requires the free choice of each individual member of a cause. Because we are finite, we cannot possibly be loyal to all possible causes, we must follow those causes that come into our path and of which we are able to be a part. For example, I cannot be loyal citizen of France, but I can be a loyal citizen of the United States. I cannot be a loyal member of my neighbor’s family, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to each and every religion in the world, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to every company in the world, but I can be loyal to the one for which I work.

Limits of Loyalty and Loyalty to Loyalty

Here we come to the most frequent critique of Royce: There are a lot of bad causes to which people have in the past and will in the future give their loyalty. For example, members of organized crime organizations can be incredibly loyal to their group. Many members of the Nazi Party were loyal to the party even to death. Every teacher has seen youth cover for a cheating student out of a sense of loyalty to their classmates. The list of misplaced, negative, even evil loyalties goes on and on. The fact that we can have misguided loyalties is a strong argument against the primacy of loyalty as a virtue. [8]

There is a second phenomenon that we all observe in loyalists. Occasionally their loyalty is blind and unwise. For example, there is a certain kind of patriotism that is blind to the faults of the nation and willing to defend what is not defensible. Closer to home, there are parents who are loyal to their children, defending behavior that is not truly defensible. There are businessmen who exhibit loyal to their company or firm to the point that they cannot see or oppose unwise or immoral behavior. Blind or excessive loyalty is a constant threat to the true virtue of loyalty.

Interestingly, we can appreciate the value of this kind of misplaced or misguided loyalty even while denying its ultimate value. In response to these objections, Royce developed his notion of “loyalty to loyalty.” Loyalty to loyalty requires judgement. If one is to be loyal to loyalty, it is necessary to develop discrimination as to the kinds of causes to which one will be loyal and the limitations to any given loyalty. I should not be loyal to a political party that advocates killing innocent people. It can be difficult to determine the extent to which any given loyalty should be served. For example, I may be loyal to my nation but still called oppose a war that is unjust. I may support my employer but refuse to engage in illegal or immoral behavior. The virtue of loyalty must be exhibited with wisdom and discrimination.

Conclusion

Next week, I will finish with Royce with a blog on the way in which loyalty draws the loyal person into a series of constantly expanding and deepening loyalties and how the principle of dialogue functions in Royce to create a climate in which one can live peacefully and productively with those with different loyalties. There is no virtue more needed in our democracy than the virtue of recognizing and honoring other people and their loyalties, even when they are opposed to our own deepest convictions and loyalties. Only a hierarchy of loyalties can prevent my own loyalties from becoming idols or justifying in my mind fanatism with respect to my loyalties. This is a big topic which will be covered next week.

Copyright 2022, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]).

[2] David Bohm, “The Super Implicate Order” in The Essential David Bohm Lee Nichol ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 157.

[3] Archibald Wheeler, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” in Proc. 3rd Int. Symp. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, (Tokyo, Japan: 1989), pp.354-368. “It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2007), 8.

[5] Loyalty, at 86.

[6] Id, at 46.

[7] Id, at 44.

[8] In point of fact, while I appreciate Royce’s argument in Loyalty, I am personally persuaded that self-giving love (agape) and not loyalty is the fount of virtue. Love by its nature cannot tolerate injustice, unfairness, or violence against the other, and always whishes the best for the other. It seems to me that it is a much better foundation for ethical reflection than loyalty. This argument must await a future blog.

John Dewey: the Politics of Individualistic Pragmatism

John Dewey (1859-1952) was without doubt one of the most influential American thinkers of his day. His work as a philosopher included educational philosophy, political philosophy, and other important works. He also a popularized pragmatism as both a method and way of looking at the world. Dewey’s pragmatism, which he called, “experimentalism,” relied heavily on both Peirce, under whom he studied, and William James, who was also influential in this thought. Dewey’s experimentalism incorporates aspects of Peirce’s belief that philosophy ought to emulate science as a fallible enterprise of solving concrete theoretical problems, an enterprise in which defined, limited and provisional problems are solved in an experimental and scientific way.

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont. After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, Dewey earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Charles S. Peirce. Thereafter, Dewey taught at the Universities of Minnesota, Michigan, and Chicago. After a dispute in Chicago, Dewey finished his career at Columbia University in New York City, where he chaired the philosophy department until. retirement. After his retirement, Dewey lived another twenty-two years and continued to write articles and books not only on philosophy and logic but on art, education, science, and social and political reform. Among his many books are Democracy and Education, Reconstruction in PhilosophyThe Public and Its Problems, and Freedom and Culture. [1]

Individualism

Like his mentor William James, Dewey was a defender of a kind of individualism, that makes the individual, and his or her self-development, the supreme end of political thinking. This radical individualism translates into a kind of radical democratic theory in which the individual becomes that center of all political calculation. However, this individualism might be better termed a “communal individualism,” whereby the individual finds his or her full self-actualization as a part of a society. This individualism does not deny government the ability and even duty to plan and control a great deal of the activity of individuals, especially in the economic arena. [2]

For Dewey society is composed of individuals and it is the individual that sits at the foundation of any democratic society:

Society is composed of individuals: this obvious and basic fact no philosophy, whatever its pretensions to novelty, can question or alter. Hence these three alternatives: Society must exist for the sake of individuals; or individuals must have their ends and ways of living set for them by society; or else society and individuals are correlative, organic, to one another, society requiring the service and subordination of individuals and at the same time existing to serve them. Beyond these three views, none seems to be logically conceivable. (Emphasis added) [3]

For Dewey, both the individual and the social are fundamental to society and exist in a mutually beneficial, organic, and “correlative” relationship. [4] Individuals are not a kind of atomistic unit, but are formed by a society within families and a variety of social institutions. [5]

Pragmatic Communitarianism

One review of his thought locates Dewey’s philosophy as follows:

Dewey elaborates a version of the Idealist criticisms of classical liberal individualism. For this line of criticism, classical liberalism envisages the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals, and takes social and political life as a sphere in which this competitive pursuit of self-interest is coordinated. By contrast, the Idealists rejected this view of social and political life as the aggregation of inherently conflicting private interests. Instead, they sought to view individuals relationally: individuality could be sustained only where social life was understood as an organism in which the well-being of each part was tied to the well-being of the whole. Freedom in a positive sense consisted not merely in the absence of external constraints but the positive fact of participation in such an ethically desirable social order. [6]

One might say that there is a complementarian relationship between the individual and social institutions, with each relying upon the other for its full and healthy expression. Individuals cannot emerge without a sound society in which they can flourish, nor can society flourish without well-formed individuals.

Mediating Institutions

For Dewey, the modern bureaucratic and administrative nation-state with the kind of powers common in America and Europe is a relatively new institution in human history. It is the result of a long struggle of society to liberate itself from subservience to feudal and other orders. Now, it exists, at least in part, to give support and freedom to other social institutions:

As the work of integration and consolidation reaches its climax, the question arises, however, whether the national state, once it is firmly established and no longer struggling against strong foes, is not just an instrumentality for promoting and protecting other and more voluntary forms of association, rather than a supreme end in itself. Two actual phenomena may be pointed to in support of an affirmative answer. Along with the development of the larger, more inclusive and more unified organization of the state has gone the emancipation of individuals from restrictions and servitudes previously imposed by custom and class status. But the individuals freed from external and coercive bonds have not remained isolated. Social molecules have at once recombined in new associations and organizations. Compulsory associations have been replaced by voluntary ones; rigid organizations by those more amenable to human choice and purposes—more directly changeable at will. What upon one side looks like a movement toward individualism, turns out to be really a movement toward multiplying all kinds and varieties of associations: Political parties, industrial corporations, scientific and artistic organizations, trade unions, churches, schools, clubs and societies without number, for the cultivation of every conceivable interest that men have in common. As they develop in number and importance, the state tends to become more and more a regulator and adjuster among them; defining the limits of their actions, preventing and settling conflicts. [7]

It is extremely important to understand this statement. Because human beings are by nature social animals, the freedom that humans gained during the modern era, did not and will not change the fundamentally relational and communitarian nature of society. What changes is that instead of externally imposed social relationships the foundation of society are voluntary social relationships and societies through which human beings develop and express their individual capacities. Government’s responsibility is to secure the status and freedom of the many voluntary societies of which any given political unit is composed.

In other words, once a nation, like the United States of America has achieved its status as the supreme governing body over a territory, it becomes the duty and primary responsibility of that governing body to secure the freedom and security of the various persons and social groups of which it is composed. Governments should not be monopolists of either political or economic power, as they are under both communism and national socialism, but regulators and guarantors of freedom for all those persons and institutions within their boundaries. In essence, governments must learn to serve the social organs of which it is made up, and especially what we would call “Mediating Institutions.”

Society as a Process

One feature of Dewey is his steadfast commitment to Darwinism and a vision of nature and society as embedded in a process of continuous change and development. This involves a vision of human maturation and human society as unceasingly in a state of dynamic change:

The tendency to treat organization as an end in itself is responsible for all the exaggerated theories in which individuals are subordinated to some institution to which is given the noble name of society. Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common. To this active process, both the individual and the institutionally organized may truly be said to be subordinate. The individual is subordinate because except in and through communication of experience from and to others, he remains dumb, merely sentient, a brute animal. Only in association with fellows does he become a conscious centre of experience. Organization, which is what traditional theory has generally meant by the term Society or State, is also subordinate because it becomes static, rigid, institutionalized whenever it is not employed to facilitate and enrich the contacts of human beings with one another. [8]

Individuals are embedded in society in such a way that ideas, emotions, values, and other features of a healthy culture are transmitted and made “common.” As human beings join together in cooperative enterprises, they free themselves from static, rigid conformity and are enriched in the process of social progress. “Freedom for an individual means growth, ready change when modification is required.” [9]

Democracy and Education

John Dewey was not only a political philosopher; he was also, perhaps even primarily, and educational philosopher. In fact, his best-known work is on education, Democracy and Education. [10]  The fundamental premise of the book is that the reality of personal death requires that societies have systems of education. One generation succeeds another, and any form of social progress involves the transmission of past experiences to a future generation:

The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education. On one hand, there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group—its future sole representatives—and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group. On the other hand, there is the necessity that these immature members be not merely physically preserved in adequate numbers, but that they be initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members: otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life. [11]

The necessity for education born of human finitude is true of even the simplest of societies, but grows as a society, such as ours, grows more complex. Any society continues only so long as it transmits its underlying values to a new generation of its members. This brute fact explains a great deal of the difficulties our society is having at the present time. There has been a massive failure by our educational systems to transmit the underlying an understanding of an appreciation for the values of our society to the next generations. A focus on what was wrong with the American experiment and American society has been taken to such an extreme that the succeeding generations do not have an understanding of the history, democratic tradition, personal and social skills, and other elements needed for our society to endure. The result is growing authoritarianism in political thought, debate, and action.

Human beings and human society are dependent upon the communication of the aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge, common understanding, and the like, so that a functional degree “like-mindedness” comes to exist among members of the society. [12] Communication of all types, between parents and children, between children and adults, between teachers and students, managers and workers, artists and admirers, etc is absolutely necessary for a society to continue and prosper. In placing communication at the center of society, Dewey is not merely talking about communication of information, but also communication of meaning and purpose, a communication of the heart of a society as well as raw information about that society, its institutions, and past accomplishments and failures.

While all persons and institutions in a society bear some responsibility for the communication of the past to the next generation, in a complex society, there must be formal education. Certain institutions must be formed and persons recruited to undertake the transmission of what is important for society to continue. A complex society has no alternative but to create a system or systems of formal education:

Without such formal education, it is not possible to transmit all the resources and achievements of a complex society. It also opens a way to a kind of experience which would not be accessible to the young, if they were left to pick up their training in informal association with others, since books and the symbols of knowledge are mastered. [13]

Conclusion

As sympathetic a reviewer as Bertrand Russell noted that, in the end, Dewey’s philosophy is about power, and in that sense, “Nietzschean,” though not as crudely Nietzschean as that of Nietzsche. [14] Dewey’s philosophy is essentially “modern” in that is dominated by a kind of materialistic application of Newtonian and Darwinian principles to society and education. The idealism of James, Peirce, and Royce is missing, as is the recognition of limits in political matters. His emphasis on process is important, and it will be the subject of the next set of essays as we look at Alfred North Whitehead and the Process Philosophers whose impact would be felt throughout the 20th Century in both philosophy and theology.

From Peirce and James, Dewey has a “scientific and instrumental” view of knowledge that always includes a kind of fallibilism that recognizes that our ideas, however well attested by reality and however comprehensively accepted, can always be wrong and in need of revision. This excludes any sympathy for totalitarian undertakings in philosophy, politics, education or any other field of inquiry. This part of Dewey’s philosophy is of increasing importance in our society in which there are so many loud voices, left and right, who are certain of the truth of their own opinions and contemptuous of the opinions of others

Finally, his emphasis on and interest in education is perhaps his most enduring contribution to American thought. It is for all of us to remember that the accomplishments of the past and present will be lost unless they and the characteristics that made them possible are transmitted to a new generation, for all of us will eventually pass away and with our passing our capacity to form the future of the world.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Scott London,  “Organic Democracy: Political Philosophy of John Dewey” https://scott.london/reports/dewey.html (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[2] See, John Dewey, Individualism Old and New (New York, NY: Capricorn Books, 1930. This is one of Dewey’s more popular books and more clearly than others sets out his political and social prejudices and beliefs.

[3] John Dewey, Reconstruction of Philosophy (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company 1920), 187 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40089/40089-h/40089-h.htm#CHAPTER_VIII (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter referred to as “Reconstruction.”

[4] Id, at 188. The term “correlative” means  “related,” “reciprocal” or “corresponding” and is used to indicate that there is a relationship between individuals and community such that one cannot be found without the presence of the other.

[5] Id, at 200.

[6] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy” Wed Feb 9, 2005; substantive revision Thu Jul 26, 2018 at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-political/ (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[7] Reconstruction, at 202-203.

[8] Id, at 207.

[9] Id.

[10] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, transcribed by David Reed and David Widger (The Project Gutenberg EBook of Democracy and Education, by John Dewey https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter, Democracy and Education.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 827.

William James: the Politics of Pragmatism, Humility, and Smallness

William James (1842-1910) is unquestionably the most famous American philosopher. While C. S. Peirce founded pragmatism movement, James was its most famous popularizer, and his influence was felt in philosophy, psychology, and a number of disciplines. Like his friend Peirce, James was a member of Chancy Wright’s circle of friends and participated in the famous group of which Oliver Wendall Holmes was a member for a short time. Unlike Peirce, James was likable and successful in navigating academic life.

James came from a prominent American family. family. His father, Henry, was independently wealthy, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and a writer. As a child, James traveled with his family and met Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill as well as others. His brother, Henry James, was a well-known novelist and literary critic. His sister was and is well-known as a diarist. Never healthy, James suffered from a number of ailments in his younger years, ailments that prevented him for serving in the American Civil War.

James was not primarily a political theorist. His influence has been felt in political thinking, but he never wrote a scholarly work devoted to the subject. His political philosophy, therefore, must be gleaned from his other writings, a task that is more appropriate for a professional philosopher than a retired pastor. [1] However, because of his importance, it is impossible to pass over his work.

Pragmatism

James accepted Peirce’s famous definition of truth as related to the conceivable courses of action an idea might imply. James’ own view was that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the actions one might be willing to take or refrain from taking based upon the idea. He is famous for his sometimes criticised notion that the truth of an idea can be described as its “Cash Value,” by which he meant what work it can be put to in day-to-day life. In his lecture, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” James famously observed:

Pragmatism … asks, “Grant that an idea or belief may be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” [2]

In a letter to Bertrand Russell, James gave a technical definition:

In a nutshell my opinion is this: that instead of there being one universal relation sui generis called “truth” between any reality and an idea, there are a host of particular relations varying according to special circumstances and constituted by the manner of “working” or “leading” of the idea through the surrounding experiences of which both the reality and the idea are part. [3]

Fundamentally, James pragmatic philosophy was a method for making decisions, of testing ideas for their workability, and of eliminating useless speculation. Like Peirce, he viewed philosophy as filled with false questions, and saw pragmatism as a way to limit endless discussion over metaphysical and epistemological problems by relating them to the process of reaching concrete decisions in life. To be a true statement in some way that statement must be capable of verification and use in life.

Pragmatism, as much as anything is an attitude, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ and supposed necessities and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” [4] Finally, and important for political decision making, there is not to be found “One universal relation, one true solution to a problem, for the circumstances that surround a problem constitute an always evolving reality in which truth is arrived at and decisions must be made. The best solution to a problem at a particular moment in history may not be the best solution in any other moment.

It is easy to see why such a philosophy would appeal to practical people, and especially to Americans interested in building a “new nation” free of the constraints and limitations of European politics, economics, and social stratification. For the purposes of this blog and its interest in relational thinking, it is important to note that for James, truth is a relational concept, dependent upon relationships and context. This leads James to a philosophy of humility and a recognition of human frailty and fallibilism.

Individualism and the Importance of Individuals

James’ version of pragmatism was emphatically individualistic. In a celebrated essay, “The Importance of Individuals” James sets out his individualistic ideals and their importance in life:

…I for my part cannot but consider the talk of the contemporary sociological school about averages and general laws and predetermined tendencies, with its obligatory undervaluing of the importance of individual differences, as the most pernicious and immoral of fatalisms. Suppose there is a social equilibrium fated to be, whose is it to be,—that of your preference, or mine? There lies the question of questions, and it is one which no study of averages can decide. [5]

There is a tendency in Fascism, Marxism, Laisse-Faire Capitalism. and in any purely materialistic evolutionary philosophy to regard social forces as primary and individuals as secondary. [6] James, on the other hand, believed that all positive social change and improvement in the human condition are the result of individual decisions. These decisions may be partially motivated by environment, economics, physical geography, social conditions, and other factors, but the importance of the individual and the individual’s personal responsibility for his or her own decision-making remains important. [7]

In a particularly important passage says:

The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the example of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, centres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction. [8]

In the end, it is individual human beings whose ideas, goals, aspirations, and dreams matter,

Preference for Smallness

A second characteristic of James pragmatist approach to politics is his dislike of bigness and defense of the small, particular, individual, and unique. In a private letter, James wrote:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself. [9]

This quote expresses James preference for small businesses, small organizations, families and individuals as opposed to “big business,” “big government,” “big empires,” and the like. Bigness is generally less human, less moral, and less connected to the deepest needs of the human heart that are small businesses, governments, political unites, bureaucracies and the like. Here is the way one commentator put James view:

The problem of empires, be they imperial national projects (such as the U.S.’s presumption to control the Philippines) or conceptual philosophical totalities (such as Hegel’s argument for the state form as the highest form of actualization), arises less from their content than from their size. The idea that any idea, polity, or system of meaning can encompass everything, everyone, and everywhere directly contradicts the aspirations of pragmatism, which is always provisional and partial. The politics of anti-greatness implies a turn away from totality, a theme with a special resonance in the contemporary political realm. [10]

Thus, James was interested in the smallest units and the elements that made up a complex system, such as a society or political organization, as well as the larger system itself. I would argue that one of the most important lessons contemporary Americans can learn from the pragmatic approach to politics is the importance of the small, of small steps to solve great problems, of small communities, such as families, small businesses, small social agencies and even small churches to human flourishing and social order. This requires restraint among political elites. As one writer put it:

James’s anti-imperialism was directly related to his fear of the effects of “bigness.” He argued forcefully against all concentrations of power, especially those between business, political, and military interests. He knew that such vested interests would grow larger and more difficult to control if America became an overseas empire. [11]

James would have agreed with the notion that “big things,” like nation states, cannot be stable unless the underlying smaller social units are healthy, nurtured, and allowed their own freedom. He was opposed to all forms of imperialistic advance to the detriment of families, local communities and smaller nations. In particular, he opposed Theodore Roosevelt in this intention to make of the United States an imperial power.

Pacifism

In one of his final essays, entitled, “The Moral Equivalent of War” published shortly before his death James takes an historical and pragmatic look at the institution of war. War is, James believed, a part of human history and flows from basic human agressive  instincts as they have developed over the ages. The competition of nation-states for people, land, power, wealth, and resources drives nations to war. (One might easily look at the current war in the Ukraine as an example of a war for land and resources.) Nevertheless, war is an expensive luxury the human race can ill afford:

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them. I see no reason why all this should not apply to yellow as well as to white countries, and I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples. [12]

One reason that James opposed the imperial ambitions of the Roosevelt administration was his clear realization that imperial ambitions almost inevitably lead to war.

Ideals and Action

Perhaps a good place to end this brief look at an important figure is to return to the subject of a pragmatic view of social life. In an essay entitled “What Makes Life Significant” James takes a look at the connection between our ideals and our actions. Not surprisingly, he is critical of ideals unaccompanied by action:

Of course, this is a somewhat vague conclusion. But in a question of significance, of worth, like this, conclusions can never be precise. The answer of appreciation, of sentiment, is always a more or a less, a balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will. But it is an answer, all the same, a real conclusion. And, in the course of getting it, it seems to me that our eyes have been opened to many important things. Some of you are, perhaps, more livingly aware than you were an hour ago of the depths of worth that lie around you, hid in alien lives. And, when you ask how much sympathy you ought to bestow, although the amount is, truly enough, a matter of ideal on your own part, yet in this notion of the combination of ideals with active virtues you have a rough standard for shaping your decision. In any case, your imagination is extended. You divine in the world about you matter for a little more humility on your own part, and tolerance, reverence, and love for others; and you gain a certain inner joyfulness at the increased importance of our common life. Such joyfulness is a religious inspiration and an element of spiritual health, and worth more than large amounts of that sort of technical and accurate information which we professors are supposed to be able to impart. [13]

For James, the most important qualities of a human being is the kind of values that allow a person to act with humility, sympathy, empathy, and appreciation for others. His underlying pragmatism show up in his conclusion that mere sympathy or empathy without the willingness to act is an empty thing. It is only when we get out of our own individualistic self-seeking and engage in loving service to others do we find true emotional and spiritual health. The kind of person that can escape the endless drive of self-centered, self -seeking is characterized by tolerance, reverence, and love for others.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For an introduction, see Joshua I Miller, Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

[2] William James, “Lecture VI: Pragmatism’s Conception of the Truth” in William James, Writings 1902-1920 (Library of America, 1987), 573.

[3]  Letter to Bertrand Russell, (May 24. 1908).

[4] Id, at 510.

[5] William James, :The Importance of Individuals” (890) at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/The_Importance_of_Individuals (downloaded, April 23, 2022).

[6] This is one reason that Peirce felt “Agapism” was a necessary and important feature of his system.

[7] William James, “Great Men and their Environment” at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/Great_Men_and_Their_Environment (Downloaded April 23, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] William James, “Letter to Mrs. Henry (Elizabeth) Whitman, June 7, 1899.—The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, p. 90 (1926).

[10] See, “Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism” reviewed in

Contemporary Political Theory (2018) 17, S6–S8. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-017- 0103-5; published online 7 March 2017 (downloaded April 21, 2022)

[11] Zach Dorfman What e Talk About When We Talk About Isolation Dissent Magazine https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-isolationism (May 18, 2012, downloaded April 23, 2022)

[12] William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” in William James, Writings 1902-1920, at 1289.

[13] William James, What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jsignificant.html (Downloaded April 23, 2022)

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Social Darwinism on the Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) holds a special place in American jurisprudence. [1] He taught law at Harvard Law School, and practiced law privately in the area of admiralty, among others. In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced his famous dictum: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [2] He served on the United States Supreme court from 1902 until 1932—the longest tenure of any justice to date.

Brief Biography

Holmes was born into a famous American intellectual family. His father, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., was a noted poet. His family situation meant that he was introduced to all the best families in Boston. He graduated from Harvard as an undergraduate in 1861 and immediately enlisted as a soldier in the Massachusetts militia, where he served with distinction. Holmes saw action as an officer in the Peninsula Campaign, the Wilderness Campaign, and was wounded during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. In the end, Holmes was breveted a Colonel in the Army, and returned home in 1864 weary and sick.

As a Bostonian from a prominent intellectual family, Holmes was well-acquainted with the early pragmatists. He was a close personal friend of William James. He attended a study group known as the “Metaphysical Club” with James, Charles Sanders Peirce another lawyer, Nicholas St. John Green, and Chauncy Wright. It is quite likely that Holmes was present when Peirce read his classic paper, “Fixation of Belief” in which he outlined his pragmatic theory of truth. Holmes attended some of Peirce’ s lectures, on science and inquiry, at the Lowell Institute in 1866.

It is my view that Holmes jurisprudence was substantially impacted by his experiences in the Civil War. His occasional ruthlessness and friendliness towards Social Darwinism evidence the impact of the “Great Crusade,” on his life and thought. A quote I ran across makes this point:

For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do—as the World War I would do for many Europeans 60 years later and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans 100 years later—the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.[3]

The author of this quote was speaking about Holmes and the other members of the Metaphysical Club of which he was a member and Chauncy Wright the leader. Holmes came out of the suffering and tragedy of Civil War an ardent materialist, a Darwinian evolutionist, and a religious and moral skeptic. He took these views with him to the United States Supreme court. [4]

In 1864, Holmes entered Harvard Law School. In those days, a three-year law degree and admittance to the bar by testing was not the norm. Holmes attended lectures for a year, read theoretical works extensively, and then clerked for a year in his cousin’s law office. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1866. After traveling to London to complete his education, he practiced law in Boston, where he was a commercial and admiralty lawyer. Holmes taught at Harvard Law School and was a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1899-1902, when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1902 until 1932.

Holmes as a Pragmatist

In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced an empirical theory of the law, saying:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. [5]

Law as Experience-Based. In the quote from The Common Law, we see the empirical, pragmatic basis of Holmes thinking. The law is something that results from human experience. That experience included the felt necessities (or political pressures) of the day and time in which law is made, prevalent moral theories, political theories and ideas of public policy, all the ideas and prejudices that a given society has internalized over centuries of time. The judge is a kind of “legal scientist” who along with all other members of the bar are in a common activity examining the facts of cases, looking at the results of prior similar cases, examining the legal and public policy ideas and prejudices attempting to create a coherent and practically effective set of laws to guide society.

Law as a Communal Task. As such, the law is a tradition of inquiry, a common undertaking of lawyers, judges, legislatures, and officials, all of whom participate in the development of the law. The law grows over time as the participants in the legal community work together to apply existing law and adapt it to the demands of the day and time within which they live. In other words, law is a communal undertaking, much like the communal undertaking of a community of scientists, an ideal that Holmes would have heard from Peirce.

Law as Fallible. There is also in Holmes an element of Peirce’s fallibilism, for the law grows also by a process of trial and error, in which there can be doubt, conflict, and missteps that must be corrected over time. [6] Judges and courts can and do make mistakes, as do legislatures, administrations, and permanent bureaucracies. It is the willingness to hold one’s ideas firmly, but with a willingness to learn, change them, and adapt to new information and ideas that is the mark of a fallibilist. Only if courts and legislatures are aware of their limitations and tendency to err can a government be truly pragmatic.

Legal Realism

In a famous essay entitled, “The Path of the Law,” Holmes more clearly set out his notion of legal realism. [7] In this essay, which was originally a lecture, Holmes set out three views that characterize much of the legal realistism movement of his day:

  1. A “Predictive Theory” of justice;
  2. A “Bad Man” theory of law.
  3. An opposition to the conflation of law and morality; and

A Predictive Notion of Justice. Holmes begins his analysis by defining a legal duty as nothing but “a prediction that if a man does or omits certain things he will be made to suffer in this or that way by judgment of the court; and so of a legal right.” [8] In other words, law is a kind of prophetic activity by which lawyers advise clients as to what may or may not be the consequences of a particular course of action. Notice that ideas of natural law and justice disappear from view in this analysis. What is left is reflection on the power of the law as administered by the courts.

A “Bad Man” Theory of Law. Homes then goes on to introduce his Bad Man theory of law, which will be used to distinguish law and morality:

You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. [9]

Here we see set out the basis of a distinction between morality and law. While good people want to abide by the law and act with justice towards others, bad people have no such moral impulse to be law abiding citizens. They do, however, want to avoid punishment and the expense of litigation and the payment of damages. Therefore, the law is of interest to all people, good and bad, but for different reasons. So far as it goes, both Christian and a natural law thinker can agree with Holmes on this point. The law is different from morality. Not everything that is moral is legal, and not everything that is immoral is illegal.

The law, as a practical occupation, must take the human race as it finds it. The law has to be constructed so that good people and bad people are both alike instructed in the behaviors that are permitted and for bidden by a society. Thus, Holmes notes:

I have just shown the practical reason for saying so. If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience. [10]

Note Holmes’ distinction: If what you want to know is the law and nothing else, look to that person who is unconstrained by morality. Good men act properly from broader motives than law, and have reasons for good conduct that the bad person does not have.

Opposition to Conflation of Law and Morality. Having begun by distinguishing law and morality, in hopes to avoid confusion in matters of law, Holmes then attacks misguided attempts to confuse law and morality. In my view, it is this portion of homes argument that is both often misunderstood and partially ill-advised. Holmes begins his analysis with the following disclaimer:

I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men. When I emphasize the difference between law and morals I do so with reference to a single end, that of learning and understanding the law. [11]

Commentators often miss this limitation on what Holmes is saying. He begins by stating clearly that he does not want to be seen as a defender of moral cynicism. Law is connected to morality, because it is the “witness an external deposit of our moral life”. In fact the law contains (or should contain) within it a history of human moral progress. In addition, as a practical matter, law tends to make people better human beings as well as better citizens. However, morality is not law, and in order to understand the law and apply it, it is necessary to hold the two ideas separate for purposes of analysis. This separation is pragmatic and theoretical not as a matter of life in its wholeness. Thus, Holmes goes on to say:

I do not say that there is not a wider point of view from which the distinction between law and morals becomes of secondary or no importance, as all mathematical distinctions vanish in presence of the infinite. But I do say that that distinction is of the first importance for the object which we are here to consider—a right study and mastery of the law as a business with well understood limits, a body of dogma enclosed within definite lines. [12]

The distinction between law and morality is a practical one as it enables us to focus on law and to create a coherent body of law within defined limits, being the limits of what the state is and is not willingness to enforce. It is also a theoretical distinction because it enables an analysis of law as law. [13] What Holmes is not saying (or at least in my view should not be saying) is that morality is irrelevant to the actors, legislators, administrators, bureaucrats, and judges who administer the law. It is the law that is different from morality, not people who should be bound by some moral vision. In fact, Holmes seems to be aware that “from a broader point of view” the distinction between morality and law might disappear.

What Holmes means is difficult to grasp, but I think this may be a point at which he was influenced by Peirce and his version of pragmatism. For Peirce and Royce, while within the boundaries of history there is little prospect of human agreement on certain points of law or other communal activities, the goal of any community of inquirers is to seek that point of agreement that they have discovered the truth about a matter under investigation. This, at the end of history, one can hope that any disagreements between law and morality would disappear. In the meantime, on many points further inquiry and careful experiment may result in such agreement.

Conclusion

Holmes was a complex thinker and not systematic in his approach to legal or philosophical issues. As a materialist, he lacked Peirce’s faith in the reality of such abstract universal notions as “Justice.” As a committed evolutionist, he saw the law as a constantly evolving body of rules for human behavior. As a Social Darwinist, he was inclined towards support of the powerful and socially successful as against the weak, poor, and powerless. [14]. Consistent with this overall view of law, he attempted to keep that search within the boundaries of the law as enacted by the people, the legislatures, and courts.

His attempt is to build a coherent body of law without reference to natural law and some ideal of human flourishing is, in my view, useful theoretically but dangerous practically. It is a short step from Holmes to the kind of legal nihilism common today in which law is “nothing but what the judges say it is.” A better jurisprudence is one constrained by notions of law and justice developed over centuries, and in the case of American Constitutional Law, over the history of the United States of America. The ideal of justice is a universal ideal that continually reveals itself as the members of the legal community embark on a shared journey seeking justice and the common good in the practice and theory of law.

Such an undertaking is not a journey of certainty but of measured attempts to achieve public wisdom and the public good under the constraints of human fallibility The courts are but one link in the chain of reasoning toward the public good. Legislative bodies, administrative bodies, and others have a role to play along with the judicial system. I would argue that the notion of Natural Law and ideals of justice and common good are more important for legislative bodies for they are the groups who in the first instance are to make laws and embody notions of morality and justice in their decisions.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For those who wish a longer and very favorable treatment of Holmes’ life, I can only recommend Catherine Drinker Bowen’s work, Yank from Olympus, which has been the most popular of his biographies. I have relied on Wikipedia for some of the details of this introduction. See, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr. (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[2] Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Common Law Mark D. Howe, ed (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co., 1881, reprinted 1963).

[3] Thomas B. Silver quoting “Pragmatism’s Four Horsemen” in Clairmont Review of Books, Volume 1, Number 4 (Summer 2001)at https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/pragmatisms-four-horsemen/ (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[4] See, Sheldon M. Novick, Justice Holmes’s Philosophy 40 Washington University Law Review No. 3 (1992) for a very fine analysis of the philosophical interests and commitments of Justice Holmes.

[5] Common Law, previously cited.

[6] This was suggested to me by a paper by Cheryl Misak, “A Pragmatist Account of Legitimacy and Authority” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a47c831be42d6e6324a04f5/t/5a48fb758165f54918c12f2e/1514732410344/PRAGMATISM-AND-AUTHORITY-FINAL.pdf (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[7] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, The Path of the Law 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897), reprinted in Milton R. Konvitz, ed, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland, OH, Meridian Books, 1970).

[8] Id, at 145.

[9] Id, at 146.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id at 146.

[13] . Holmes goes on to note “The theoretical importance of the distinction is no less, if you would reason on your subject aright.” Id, at 147.

[14] See, Seth Vannatta, Justice Holmes the Social Darwinist 14 The Pluralist 1 (Spring 2019). This aspect of Holmes philosophy is by far the most often critiqued.

Pragmatism 4: Agapism and Political Thought

This week we take a final look at the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s life was something of a tragedy. He was a prodigy, reading Kant as a youth, studying under his famous father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and acknowledged to be one of the greatest and broadest minds of his day. He divorced his first wife and lived with his second wife before marriage. He lacked social skills and good political instincts. As a result, he was exiled from the most prestigious academic posts in America. He made a bare living writing articles for journals, lecturing and teaching where he could. For a time, he worked as a practicing scientist for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey, which is where he developed his theories of verification and his dislike of a kind of speculative philosophy he regarded as untrue to how human beings actually think. In the end, his suffering produced a rare, lovely, and brilliant character.

A Guess at the Riddle

If political life is to be essentially communal, and characterized by a communal search for a just social order, then some kind of unselfish, community-creating and community-sustaining ethic must be present. Peirce held that the evolution of the universe, and therefore of every society, involves a kind of love that expresses itself in a devotion to cherishing and tending to people or things other than oneself, as parent may do for offspring.

During the period from 1891 to 1893 Peirce wrote a series of articles collectively known as “A Guess at the Riddle.” [1] In these articles, Peirce sets out a system of understanding the world based on Chance, Necessity, and Love. This is to say that the process of evolution, which lies at the basis of much of his thought, involves, among other things, the response of the creature to the circumstances of existence, the orderly evolution by natural law, and the impact of love. Here is how Peirce describes these three modes of evolution:

Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love. We may term them tychastic evolution, or tychasm,anancastic evolution, or anancasm, and agapastic evolution, or agapasm. The doctrines which represent these as severally of principal importance we may term tychasticism, anancasticism, and agapasticism. On the other hand the mere propositions that absolute chance, mechanical necessity, and the law of love are severally operative in the cosmos may receive the names of tychism, anancism, and agapism. [2]

The term “Agapism” is the term Peirce uses for that cherishing or self-giving, sacrificial love that is at work in creation and in all human endeavors.

In Peirce’s view, all order emerges from chaos or what we might call in today’s quantum language, “pure potentiality.” This potentiality exists before the laws of nature and is the source and ground of whatever is. [3] In “A Guess at the Riddle,” written in the late 19th Century, Peirce expounds a theory of creation that anticipates modern “Big Bang” cosmology, and in which he sets out his view that there is at work in creation an evolutionary principle that we can call love.

As one author puts it

“Evolutionary Love” is one of Peirce’s most fascinating philosophical writings. It describes the existence of a cosmic principle of love throughout the universe creatively supporting the formation of new evolutionary forms. This love is a cherishing form of love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce calls his new theory “agapism,” and he contrasts it with evolutionary theories that are based on a selfish form of love; these preach “the Gospel of Greed.” Peirce points out the occurrence of such selfish, greed-based thinking in the modern politico-economical structures, and in Darwin’s biological principle of natural selection based on the competition of private interests. On the other hand, agapism promotes a devotion to helping one’s neighbors, and is a true doctrine of Christian ethics. [4]

This quotation by Nicholas Guardiano sets out the reason which Peirce’s Agapism is important for this blog: Peirce is partially motivated by a desire to overcome a kind of excessive laisse faire capitalism prominent at the time by setting out his own, Christian view of the role of love in society. However, underlying this position is the notion that the universe itself is characterized not just by competition, but also by love.

Agapism

For Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and love. In order to understand what Peirce is trying to say, it is important to understand what he means by the term “Agapism.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines this love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [5]

According to Peirce, Agapistic Love manifests itself in three specific ways:

  1. Agapistic Love may affect a people or a community and its collective personality as an idea or experience is communicated to individuals who in sympathy with the common connection of the collective mind of the group.
  2. Agapistic Love may affect an individual enabling that individual to apprehend an idea or appreciate the attractiveness of an idea due to an increase in sympathy with his community under the influence of a striking experience or development of thought.
  3. Agapistic Love may impact and individual independently of a human affection by virtue of an attraction exercise directly upon the mind prior to comprehension. [6]

As examples of the three kinds of experience of which Peirce is speaking, consider the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the crucifixion. This was a striking appearance to a group in sympathy with one another such that the group as a whole was enlightened and changed. Secondly, and an example Peirce uses, consider the experience of Paul on the Road to Damascus, a striking event that brought Paul into sympathy with the Christian movement. Peirce calls the third kind of example, “the divination of genius” by which a single individual is struck by an idea that immediately attracts the individual. Perhaps the famous incident of an apple falling at Isaac Newton’s feet, which gave him the immediate notion of gravity is an example.

From the perspective of political thought, all three characteristics of agapistic love are important. First, there are incidental moments of genius by which political thought is moved forward. This might for example, be seen in some of the great philosophers this blog has studied. Second, there are times in which an individual who is not in sympathy with a society or political system is struck by some virtue in that system and immediately grasps its importance. This might be seen in, for example, some of those who were in favor of communism but whose faith in freedom was kindled by contact with democracies. Finally, there are times when an idea impacts an entire society, as perhaps when the ideals of the Enlightenment impacted the American nation leading to the American revolution and national freedom.

Agapism and Politics and Morals

It is important to note that Peirce believes that Agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance and necessity, are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic for the creation of the world and of human societies. It is not an “add on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context I have called the kind of love to which Peirce is referring, “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [7]

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with with quotations from the letters of John in which he says that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). He then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. After introducing this theme, Peirce proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ. He then begins to discuss its application to evolutionarily theory.  What is important in Peirce’s approach is that he gives an ontological basis for morality and politics: It is built into the nature of creation.

I, however, would like to approach agapism from a different point of view. Peirce wrote before modern relativity and quantum theory and before the abundant proofs in science that relationality is built into the universe. Beginning with Einstein’s insights, the notion of the world as built upon independent unites of matter related only by forces acting upon them was undermined. Time and Space are relational phenomena. According to the best science available, particles are waves or “excitements” in a universal field that permeates the universe. Both the quantum phenomenon of “Entanglement” and Chaos theory point towards a relationality of creation embedded in the universe, whatever one’s theory of creation may be. [8] The physicist Argyris Nicolaidis puts it this way:

In conclusion, a mode of thinking has been reached where the primacy focuses on an “interactive being,” a being constant in relation to the other and being in continuous ex-stasis to reach the other.  This relational mode of existence, which has been associated with creative growth, novelty, and free development is qualified as agape. Agape then is something more than an emotional state or sentimental experience it is a very principle of existence…. [9]

In defending an agapistic ethic, I would move from the phenomena of relationality within the creative order, a kind of Deep Relationality, to the emergence of the various kinds of love best captured from their Greek forms as a part of the process of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection ( στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love ( φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα).
  • “agape” or self-giving love ( αγάπη),

These loves emerge out of a loving relationality at the root of creation. This loving relationality has evolved as human consciousness and human society evolved into new forms, forms that are not possible without the existence of the human race, for in the human race the inherent capacity for these loves has evolved in new and wonderful ways. From a Christian point of view, the created loves described above are derivative from and point to the uncreated love of God, reflected in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all the loves have some meaning, but three perhaps are important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which considers the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerance in sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

Love and the Gospel of Greed

Although this blog is getting long, I would be untrue to Peirce if I were not to return to his original thought that his theory of “Agapism” can be contrasted to the “Gospel of Greed” that he found present in American society, and which he thought unworthy of human society. Peirce was appalled at the way in which Social Darwinism had used the scientific principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify a social organization and social policy based upon unlimited, selfish striving for power and position, which he called “the Gospel of Greed.” He felt that the kind of political and economic structures that this way of thinking promoted were immoral. This does not mean that Peirce opposed free enterprise, just a particular form of free enterprise that operated without an underlying morality based on love.

Against this “Gospel of Greed,” Peirce posited his own “Agapism” as involving devotion to other people and a personal and social ethics built upon a personal and communal ethic of love. Human beings do not find their fulfillment in unlimited self-promotion, but in as participants in a community of persons who are engaged in a common endeavor. In the case of American democracy, the creation of a society based on freedom, equality, and a search for the common good.

Conclusion

This is Easter Week, and it is appropriate that I deal with Agapism on the week when Christians celebrate the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection as the assurance of his victory over sin and death. I will give the last word to the Apostle whom Peirce refers in his work:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (I John 4:7-12).

Copyright, 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Happy Easter

[1] C. S. Peirce, “A Guess at the Riddle” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp158-360, hereinafter “Guess,” at and page number.

[2] Id, at 245. These three terms are derived from Greek terms meaning chance or fortune (τύχη), Greek (ἀνάγκη) necessity, and agape, or love (ηγαπ).

[3] At the moment of creation, this “first” was followed by a “second” in which a kind of mediated habit begins to be formed due to reaction to the first, this is followed then by a third, involves reflection, reaction, and the beginning of cause and effect which forms a habit, law, convention, or rule of action.

[4] See, “Evolutionary Love” in “ Nicholas Guardino, Charles . Pierce and the open Court, 1890=1893:  Promoting an American Metaphysician at https://scrcexhibits.omeka.net/exhibits/show/charles-s-peirce-open-court/-evolutionary-love- (downloaded April 11, 2022).

[5] Guess, at 249-250.

[6] Id, at 251-252,

[7] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[8] See, John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). This volume, in which Polkinghorne is a contributor and editor, contains a variety of articles by scientists and others on the theme of relationality in the universe.

[9] Argyris Nicolaidis, “Relational Nature” in The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, at 106.

Peirce and Pragmatism 3: Politics and a Community of Seekers

As mentioned in prior blogs, in addition to founding pragmatism, Peirce struck what might be called the final intellectual blow to the kind of idealism represented by Descartes, and his essentially individualistic standard of truth. For Descartes, what was true was that which could not be doubted by any reasonable person. His argument, however, began with a fundamentally individualistic premise, “I think therefore I am.” Notice the “I.” For Descartes and much of the modern movement he began, the ideal was the solo individual, thinking on his own in the solitude of his or her study, reflecting on life and solving problems as a solitary individual.

Peirce’s philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a fundamentally communal, semiotic, communication-oriented standard of truth: truth is a matter of the correspondence of our ideas, which are inevitably expressed in signs, with some external reality we and others are trying to understand. Because human beings are inevitably controlled by their presuppositions, prejudices, limitations, and the like, no one human being can ever know the full and complete truth about any important matter. This drives Peirce to a theory of knowledge that is essentially communal. The truth is not known in solitude but as part of a community of inquiry, or what I have called a “Community of Seekers”.

If for Descartes and much of the modern world the ideal was the solitary individual deciding for his or her self, the ideal for Pearce is the individual scientist who, as part of a team of scientists is trying to solve some problem of science or medicine. Think of a research laboratory with many scientists in constant communication in the laboratory and in their private life, who read and comment on each other’s work, and who are in a common pursuit of a breakthrough in science or medicine. For Peirce, all knowledge is the result of this kind of a community of inquirers who work in both competition and in cooperation with each other.

We human beings are part of an infinite number of such communities. For example, I am a member of a family, and I have to understand my family and its relationships in order to solve problems. So does every other member of our family. I happen to be a lawyer and member of a bar association. As such, I am part of a community dedicated to the understanding the principles of American and Texas law. I’m also a pastor, a part of a community that is interested in the knowledge of God. I’m a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, interested in San Antonio and Texas and understanding its culture, laws, and government. I am a citizen of the United States, interested in the government and policies of our nation. My father, in addition to being a part of some of these things, grew roses. He was a member of the Rose Society interested in the methods and means of growing the best and most beautiful roses possible. Members of my family are farmers who beloing to various farming groups interested in the best methods of growing corn, soy beans, wheat, and other crops. You can see that all of us are members of many communities seeking understanding.

In a paper published in 1868, Peirce described philosophical inquiry as essentially social, claiming that, “We cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.” [1] At the end of the same essay, Peirce concludes:

Finally, as to it anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is only by virtue of addressing a future thought that is in its value as thought identical with it, the more to be developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends upon what is to be here after so that it has only a potential existence depended upon the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only in ignorance and error, so far is he is anything apart from his fellows and from what he and they are to be is only a negation. This is man. [2]

Notice that for Pierce, the acquisition of knowledge is essentially communal. Twice in the passage quoted he speak of the “decision of the community” and “the future thought of the community.” He speaks of “the ignorance of human beings apart from their fellow human beings”. For Peirce, knowledge is the end result of a community’s process of reasoning not simply the result of an individual’s individual thoughts and reasoning.

Secondly, Peirce speaks of the dependence of the community not just upon its current thought, but upon the future thought of members of the community. In other words, there is no end within history of the expansion of meaning and progress of thought, for their will always be “future thought of the community.” As to political thought, there is no “end of history” in which a certain political theory or organization will be final and complete, for the communal process of understanding will continue so long as history continues. We human beings are essentially oriented both towards the past, the present, and the future. We emerge from our past. We live in the present. And, we seek a desirable future.

Community and Growing Political Wisdom

For the pragmatist, truth is never absolute in the sense that it cannot be revised based upon new information and insight; however, the goal of a pragmatic, scientific approach to learning is that it is possible that a perception of the truth will be accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community and will be proven by such adoption to have approached a kind of “operational (or pragmatic) certainty.” As demonstrated above, the most important analogy between science and politics is the fact that science does not take place among isolated individuals, but rather in communities of scientists who most often are engaged in programs of research requiring cooperation and interchange of information.

Despite the disputes remaining between participants in quantum research, there’s no doubt among scientist the Quantum physics is an improvement over Newtonian physics and has a deeper insight into reality. Although one cannot eliminate the possibility for a radical change in quantum physics, most scientists expect that any further progress will be made within the boundaries of the fundamental view of quantum physics. Disputes between the so-called “Copenhagen” approach and the “Hidden Variable” approach to the problem of indeterminacy are all conducted within a community that is working from the same general scientific data and involved in similar research programs designed to resolve the issues between them.

Politics operates in the same way. Politics is a communal effort and requires a community, bound together by common principles and a common set of values seeking to build a society for the benefit of all. In American society, those fundamental principles are set forth in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the various decisions of policy makers and courts interpreting these fundamental principles. This is the past from which we live in the resent. The application of these principles to contemporary problems is the process of inquiry in which we are engaged as a society as we seek the common good for all participants in our society.

The problem we face in America and in much of the West is that, under the impact of Enlightenment distrust of history and tradition, we have been unable to maintain a consensus as to fundamental aspects of human life and human thriving that we all agree are necessary. We have lost that sense of a communal participation in a living tradition that is essential for maintenance of any society. At the same time, so-called “negative politics” and the search for a final victory over political opponents has undermined our ability to function as a cohesive society. This is a failure of our educational, media, and other institutions. There is no way forward unless and until we can recover a sense of communal solidarity in the search for “liberty and justice for all” or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [3] or as the Consitution puts it:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [4]

These are the foundational ideals of the American community of which we are all a part.

Political Life as a Tradition-bound Process.

The modern world was inclined to also believe in a kind of “tradition-free” thinking that a scientific approach to political philosophy undermines. Peirce and other philosophers of science point out that all thinking takes place within a tradition of inquiry conducted by a community of persons. At any time in history, that community has an established “world-view” and establish principles within which reasoning takes place. While there can be and are revolutionary changes of scientific insight, such as the change from a materialistic to a quantum way of viewing reality, these changes are not part of the ordinary operation of science.

The same is true of government. While revolutionary ideas cannot be rejected as a matter of course, it can be realized that they are not part of the ordinary function of government. Because revolutionary changes in approach cannot be ruled out, freedom of thought and speech is important so that the public square can hear and be informed of all possible approaches to public issues.

Consensus, Conflict,  and Hope in Community

For Peirce the process of inquiry of the community always seeks a consensus such that all members commonly recognize a position or theory as true. This is the hope of any community of inquiry: that doubt will be eliminated for all participants. However, this consensus is normally a future hope, not an experienced present reality. This would be especially true in the political arena. In a private letter to a critic, Peirce acknowledged this essentially incomplete and future-oriented hope of any community:

We cannot be quite sure that the community will ever settle down to an unalterable conclusion upon any given question. Even if they do so for the most part, we have no reason to think the unanimity will be quite complete, nor can we rationally presume any overwhelming consensus of opinion will be reached upon every question. All that we are entitled to assume is in the form of a hope that such conclusion may be substantially reached concerning the particular questions with which our inquirers are busied. [5]

No community of inquiry devoted to a subject like government is ever complete within human history as regards things that are complex and not subject to unanimous decision. As I have mentioned in the past, such an endeavor is a fool’s errand that dooms the society that undertakes to end debate to decay and despotism.

Conclusion

In a very fine ending to a dissertation entitled, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self” Jacob Librizzi makes the following point:

No one is radically independent and self-supporting in this life. Rather, we are all sentimentally entwined with others in our thoughts and deeds. As such, to treat the memories of others poorly as means alone, and not equally as ends in themselves, is to falsely acknowledge one’s own existence as merely a means toward an end indifferent to its makings. Such a paradoxical, life negating thought—seeking radical independence and autonomy—achieves only to explain the self by explaining it away in isolation. [6]

Much of modern politics, left and right, is guilty of exactly this mistake, the mistake that St. Augustine pointed out so long ago: Treating those we should love as ends in themselves as means, and thus cutting ourselves off from the essential communal aspects of human life. [7] Isolated individuals, unconnected to a greater community, but only responsive to the needs of those who think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, are always unwilling and unable to act in the best interests of all members of society, for they lack the vital social connection necessary for such a task.

The greatest challenge political philosophy and theology face is the recovery of a kind of communal love that can sustain a democratic and free society while protecting minorities of all kinds. We need to find a way out of our cultural fixation on radical independence and autonomy, which increasingly makes us unable to solve serious social challenges, and into a community of seekers bound together by a kind of love in a common project to achieve the common good for all.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy,1868 as reprinted in Charles S. Peirce, Essential Writings Edward Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), 87.

[2] Id, at 118.

[3] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[4] United States Constitution (US 1789).

[5] Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vols. 1 and 2. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), at 6.610. (Private letter to Paul Carus) I am indebted for this quote to Librizzi, Jacob, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self”(2017). All Theses & dissertations. 317. https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/etd

[6] See, Jacob Librizzi, footnote 3 above, at 51.

[7] See, St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 28 First Series, Volume 2. 1886–1889. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 528-534.

Crisis of Discipleship Published

Dear Friends:

I recently finished and now published a book on Disciple-Making, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making. As I say in the Preface, “Both my wife, Kathy, and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, Kathy participated in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study made up of young people who were new Christians or seeking God. Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes, businesses, schools, and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [i] Salt & Light provides one simple, practical lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to make self-replicating disciples in an orderly and effective way. We continue to share our lives with others in discipleship groups.

This past weekend, we were in Houston for a reunion of that little group after forty or more years. It was a precious time of sharing, remembering, and fellowship–a taste of heaven as one person said. It was this little group that first shared Christ with me and helped me grow as a new disciple of Jesus.

The Great Commission was not just given to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. Every Christians is intended to share the Good News and make mature disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship clarifies some of the causes of the crisis of disciple-making in our culture and suggests a possible strategy to respond. Hopefully, readers will be empowered to understand the crisis of discipleship more deeply and more effectively share their Christian faith with others as well as lead other church members in the way of Christ.”

You can find the book at:

https://virtualbookworm.com/products/crisis-of-discipleship?_pos=1&_sid=c8bd27c55&_ss=r

and at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/crisis-of-discipleship-g-christopher-scruggs/1141298125?ean=9781638680567

The ebook is or soon will be available at VirtualBookWorm, Amazon, and Apple IBooks.

[i] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017), hereinafter, “Salt & Light.”

Pragmatism 2: Logical Decision-Making, Fallibilism, and Freedom

Occasional readers of this blog will wonder why so much time is being given to the work of someone who was not a political philosopher nor well-known to the general public. As mentioned last week, C. S. Peirce was a seminal figure in philosophy and particularly in the fields of logic, semiotics (signs), and philosophy of science. Last week, we focused on Peirce’s development of pragmatism. This week, we explore his “logic of abduction,” which is central to the pragmatic way of thinking. Pragmatism begins with the “Pragmatic Maxim” first developed and published by Peirce:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object. [1]

For Pierce, this maxim was a “logical principle” connected with his ideas of what counts as reality (metaphysics), the proper methodology for philosophy to undertake to resolve its quandaries (epistemology), and even moral and other questions (ethics and aesthetics).

The maxim was designed to cure philosophy of the habit of channeling energy towards disputes with little or no practical value in the search for indubitable truth. In particular, Peirce opposed Descartes’ program of “doubt leading to certainty” via indisputable ideas. Pragmatism (or what he called “pragmaticism” to distinguish his personal program) has been many things to many people, but for Peirce pragmatism was the core principle of a way of doing philosophy and of solving philosophical problems in a more “scientific way.” [2]

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a rule designed to clarify our conceptions by directly relating them to actual or anticipated experience. In very broad terms, the pragmatic principle urges that thinkers anchor concepts and ideas in their potential practical application in actions to be taken, including “rules or modes of action” to be adopted as a result of inquiry. Transported into the language of politics and political philosophy, this maxim might be rephrased as follows:

In evaluating any aspect of a political philosophy, the inquirer should consider what practical impact the adoption of a given philosophical conception might have for the government of society, and the impact of such a conception would have on some action to be taken is key to understanding that concept.

Thus, a “Peircean approach to political philosophy” finds its ground in the potential application of its ideas to substantive problems and actions to be taken to solve them.

Three Methods of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic, which he called “Abduction.” Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain, in light of accumulated evidence. For example, suppose I use bleach on my sink 1000 times, and then conclude from experience that bleach is a good cleaner for sinks. This is an example of inductive thinking.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning starts with the assertion of a general rule and proceeds from there to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. In deductive reasoning, if the original assertion is true, the conclusion must also be true. In my example above, suppose I start with the general principle (A) that bleach is a good for cleaning porcelain objects. Then, I observe (B) that my sink is a porcelain object. The conclusion (C) is then logically certain that my sink can be cleaned by bleach.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experience has revealed. Let us suppose that I want to clean my sink with the best possible cleaner acceptable to my family as a whole. I might use plain soap, an all-natural soap my children recommend, a cleaner my wife recommends that contains hydrogen peroxide, a cleaner labeled “for porcelain” the woman who cleans our home prefers, or a cleaner which includes bleach which I prefer. Each of these options have a proponent in my family who strongly support its use. I initially prefer the cleaner containing bleach because my mother recommended it; however, I also try out all the other cleaners recommended before concluding that, given all the concerns of family members, the hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner is best choice. This is an example of abductive reasoning, which we consciously or unconsciously use in everyday life.  Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Abductive reasoning is at the center of any scientific approach to understanding. In all scientific inquiry, science begins with a problem that needs solving and one or more hypotheses or ideas about what might be the best solution to the problem at hand. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of sciences as based solely upon “facts alone”. Science is interested in developing and analyzing facts, but those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical framework, a hypothesis or theory about how the world is actually organized.

The ability of a thinker to engage in a pragmatic philosophical endeavor involves the ability to think in what Peirce called, a “scientific manner” about problems, which leads directly to an understanding of abduction as a logical method intimately connected to a pragmatic philosophy. In fact, the pragmatic approach is applicable in many situations where logical certainty is impossible, as is always the case with politics, where information is inconclusive and different approaches have support.

In the first stage of an abductive inquiry, a hypothesis is created. (For example, “I believe that shrinking the national debt without social instability is best achieved by selective tax increases on the wealthiest segment of society.”) In the second stage, deduction is used derive predictions. (“If selective tax increases were to work, small but significant increases in tax rates on the wealthy should bring down the national debt without increasing social inequality.”) In the third stage, induction is used to verify the assumptions by searching for facts. (“After enactment of a small increase in tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans, it was noted that they deficit fell by “x” while lower and middle-class incomes and purchasing power remained stable.”). When and if the process does not yield sufficiently fitting facts to validate the hypothesis, the abductive cycle is to be repeated until it a verified theory or course of action is established.

Abduction and Political-Decision Making

More than one author has worked out implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. [3] This is important because abduction is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty.

Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering.

One implication of this kind of approach to political decision-making is the observation that policy makers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality as they test the results of their policy choices. Small adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can established.

I have used a contemporary example of the importance of incremental approaches to policy formulation and implementation in the results flowing from the enactment of what was known as “Obamacare.” The time the proposal was made, most people familiar with a medical insurance business understood that charging lower than average rates for the highest risk category defied the logic of the insurance business as a whole. Congress, determined to make a radical change in the way Americans receive medical care, enacted the proposal as developed solely by the party in power without considering the views of the minority or experts who disagreed with their approach. There was little or no attempted compromise and policy adjustment. Once enacted, the problems that were foreseen by experts occurred and the program failed in many respects. The party which enacted the program suffered multiple electoral losses. A more graduated approach toward change, might have avoided successive election losses by the party that produce this legislation.

Having used an example of relative to a decision made by one political party, let us take another in which the other party was a leadership. After the bombing of the Twin Towers there was a political consensus that America had to go into Afghanistan and eliminate the terror base of Osama Ben Ladin. There was massive political unity that this was a proper policy to follow. However, following the successful initial invasion two decisions were made that did not have widespread acceptance nor did the majority of the members of government believe the wisest course of action. The first decision was to stay in Afghanistan for a long period of time engaging in “nation building” in a society with little commitment to democratic principles. The second decision was to invade Iraq with the same objectives. These policies were not enacted after extensive dialogue and with a sense of national unity and were ultimately unsuccessful. The party of the institutors of this policy suffered electoral defeat.

Both of these policy failures illustrate the importance of a dialogue, compromise, and rational adjustment among members of the political community in responding to national problems, including considered attempts to meet objections and adapt policies to factual circumstances, rather than take ideological grounded actions on the basis of preconceived notions.

Fallibilism and Freedom

The fact that abductive reasoning takes place under circumstances where there is a diversity of opinion, are many facts to be explained, and no absolutely certain decision available, leads to another principle central to Peirce’s way of doing philosophy: Fallibilism. In his view, the kind of truths that pragmatism is able to generate is never absolute, and always subject to revision based on additional information or a better explanation of the information at hand. In other words, where rules of action are involved, all opinion is subject to change and any theory or explanation of the facts could be wrong. In political terms, this principle of fallibilism means that any decision made by those in leadership in principle could be wrong and require adjustment, however certain we may be at the time a policy is adopted. [4] Fallibilism is a principle of humility—a characteristic notably lacking in much contemporary political conversation.

Fallibilism is also important to another value of our society: Freedom of Thought and Speech. If I think I possess the unquestionable truth about matters of policy, then I may ignore, suppress, or distort others positions, since my opponents are obviously wrong. If, however, I understand that I am fallible in my opinions and policy preferences, then it is important and essential to my own participation in political life and to the operation of our political system that other views be able to access the public square, so that policy-makers, and in a free society, citizens, can make wise judgments about matters of importance.

Freedom finds its most secure grounding in a sense that no one person or group has access to the truth about matters of public policy nor is everything a matter of “Will to Power” as the Nietzscheans would have it. Instead, our understanding of political reality is of necessity limited and subject to incompleteness and the necessity for change and adaptation.

Conclusion

Our political system is subject to rampant irrationality, increasing intolerance, emotional and social manipulation and a host of evils that can be and should be ameliorated by a pragmatic approach to decision-making. In politics, there is rarely certainty or complete consensus. There is always conflict to some degree. It is the function of leadership to mitigate the weaknesses of a democratic system by wisely considering and discussing policy matters with a willingness to make slow, incremental, and rational changes for the public good. The great challenges we face as a society cannot be healed by irrational conflict, public anger, demonstrations and other similar programs. The greatest single change we could make in American politics is to embrace a pragmatic and logical approach to policy making at all levels of government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 105, hereinafter, “AP.”

[2] Peirce was in disagreement with the ways in which Dewey and James developed pragmatism, especially as to the reality of universals, and so he coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his approach.

[3] See for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/publicservice_etds/41 (down loaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[4] Fallibilism sits under any “critical realistic” philosophical position. This blog often defends critical realism as a philosophical position. It is the view that all of our opinions are subject to critique and change, but that the theories we develop are, nevertheless, insights into reality.