My interest here in this blog is mostly ontology, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and religion. I’ve paid little attention to how my own views of these philosophical sub-disciplines, particularly the last, impact (or should impact) the social, economic, and political worlds in which we live. In particular what are the social and political consequences in the present-day of the theology sketched here?
We live in topsy-turvy times in which political and social thinking has gravitated to extremes. In particular, among the many seemingly contradictory political and social (not to mention economic) ideas seriously taken by some is the idea that God would support, or can be invoked to justify bigotry and socio-political intolerance. I am careful to say God above because religion as a socio-political institution, physical churches, congregations, and so forth have (though not universally) often advocated political and social ideas that are obviously in opposition to “the will of God”.
There is nothing historically novel in this. The history of religious institutions worldwide is steeped in violence sanctioned by the institution itself. To be sure, in all of this history and within all religious institutions there were other voices, people who stood against institutional intolerance intellectually and in theory, though often having little effect on the social and political course of the institution. But that was then.
Violence remains today. In the Western world this strikes us as obvious about institutional Islam. The Quran is ambiguous as concerns treatment of “apostate Moslems” and non-Moslems. There is no such ambivalence in Christianity portraying as a Father of the individual and all individuals equally. This portrayal is unique in Christianity. Hindu God’s have only occasional and accidental relations to individuals. Buddhism rejects the reality of the individual itself and in its origins was the only one of the world’s presently “great religions” that was strictly speaking Godless. Islam and Judaism, occasionally speaking to the individual, are oriented towards a “God of the tribe”. Christianity (broadly speaking) is the only one of the three monotheisms to teach, without equivocation, that God is the Father of the person.
If God is the Father of the person, he must be the Father of all persons equally. The relationship of Fatherhood is direct and with literally every person on Earth (I think also with people living on planets throughout the universe). If God is infinite and unified his relationship to every personal being in the universe must be the same. The implications of Christian theology lead invariably to this conclusion and even more so the implications of the theology sketched in my Prolegomena linked above. God cannot care about the various political orders that characterize our world (“My Kingdom is not of this world”) though some are more consistent with personal sovereignty (especially as concerns religion itself) than others. Importantly we do not always know, though we always think we know, which are the better ones other than by viewing the life of their citizens over generations of time.
A “true Christian” has to believe that every individual is a “child of God” and should treat them as a sibling. That means Christians should not only be free of hate, but also support an international order promoting life as a brotherhood worldwide. This does not mean we can do away with the present, often hate-inducing political order. Not until everyone (or almost everyone) in the world accepts the truth of universal brotherhood. Today, even those who do accept this truth must sometimes defend, violently, their way of live against threats from those who do not.
The “true Christian” is not like the “true Scotsman”. A Scotsman is one who is born in Scotland. Being born somewhere has no necessary bearing on any other aspect of individual character. This is not the case with a “true Christian”. Being a “true Christian” has nothing to do with national, cultural, or social identity; with where you are born. A person is not born a “true Christian”. A person becomes a “true Christian” by freely accepting and acknowledging, and not merely theoretically, their individual relationship to God the Father through Christ. One cannot be a “true Christian” without accepting, by an act of one’s own will, the actual and not merely theoretical relationship to God, of all persons on Earth. It is not enough merely to be a participant in the institution of the Christian church!
Equality as a person before God does not translate into equality in any other respect. The American declaration of independence’s assertion, that “all people are created equal” is misleading. “Nature and nurture” both ensure that people are not equal in any way other than their relationship to God. But if we are all equal, even in only that one way, we must therefore be related to one another as siblings in a universal family. It is logically inconsistent to assert that you believe in a universal God, and not accept that every person on Earth is a brother or sister. In particular, in the Christian interpretation of this relationship, what is asked of the believer by God, is that they love their siblings! Every person is a person no matter what their race, nationality, sexuality, economic status, and so on. It should therefore be logically impossible to be a xenophobic, homophobic, racist, or nationalist Christian!
Yet if all of this is so, how is it that today, in America, religion is used as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic, racist, nationalist, and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? How do millions of people who declare their belief in a universal God come to support political agendas that are plainly intolerant of individuals for reasons having nothing to do with their personal relationship to God? How do millions of individuals who claim to believe in a “Christian God” come to hate classes of individuals who are obviously persons and so related to God in exactly the way they are?
There are many reasons in the end all resting on the psychology of individuals. Socially, and at its extreme, this psychology can be manipulated to result in a literal depersonalization (open or hidden) of individuals in the despised group; literally coming to believe they are not people. But my focus here is on the role (having an influential bearing on the psychology) of the distinction between religion as that orientation towards one’s individual relationship to God (and by extension all other individuals) and religion conceived as an institution, a church, or as an individual relation to such an institution; being a member of a church. Notice that being born into a Catholic family doesn’t count here. There are many such individuals who are atheists or have elected a religious path other can Catholicism. What counts is what an individual, at sometime in their life (perhaps many times) chooses.
This is not to say the “institutional Church” and the “will of God” cannot be aligned. In “Origins of the Political Order”, Francis Fukuyama credits the Catholic Church with the founding of “rule of law” in Europe. A transcendental God grounded the idea that kings, popes, and peasants, all “equal in the eyes of God”, should be subject to the same rules. That God’s law covered all was accepted in theory beginning in Roman times. God’s law, not its interpretation but the fact of it, aligns the institution of the Church, and the “will of God” as understood by a modern theology. Fukuyama notes that only cultures having a “transcendental religion” (Christian, Hindu, Moslem) ever developed the rule of law idea. China for example, where neither Confucianism nor Buddhism is transcendental, never developed the idea that political elites should be subject to the same rules as everyone else.
The Protestant Reformation changed the view of whom may legitimately interpret Christian (Biblical) teachings, but not the basic insight that all individuals are equally loved by God. Fukuyama again credits the Reformation with the relatively rapid development of democratic accountability in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Why? Because the requirement that each individual become his or her own interpreter of the Bible drove the Church to make the entire population literate, peasants included! But Protestantism did reintroduce another idea in conflict with this universality and that became the seed of the present contradictory relation between some Christian institutions and God’s universality. Virtually all the present American “religious right” are Protestant of one sort or another.
Certain Protestant denominations began to connect material (economic and social) success to “being favored by God”. This belief also influenced the Hebrews of Jesus’ time despite the Old Testament’s “Book of Job” explicitly rejecting any such idea. The Hebrews ignored the lesson of Job as do modern Protestants, but the problem goes deeper than the merely economic. The conflation of spirit and economic success leads to the idea that some individuals are favored by God over others and this begins the slippery slope from economics to social intolerance. If God favors certain individuals, he must withdraw favor from others and from this a small step to justified bigotry!
Human emotions and attitudes about the humanity of others (their worthiness as brothers) range from the inclusive to the outright exclusion of everyone not a member of one’s favored group. Of course institutional religion is not the only source of bigorty. There are atheists on both the political left and right. But if, given any leanings to bigotry, one joins in the activities of a physical church whose members are also intolerant, then religion, creedal dogma as taught to, and accepted by, that congregation, can justify bigotry on grounds of Biblical interpretation. Is every such teaching in direct conflict with the universality of God’s love as taught by Jesus? Yes it is, but some Christians (and Protestants are not alone here) become convinced that “universal love” applies only between the members of the “in group”! This is a false teaching but we find it everywhere reinforcing existing prejudice.
What about religious-institutional support of international conflict? How many times do we hear religion invoked in service of “the nation” and in opposition to other nations? Much money flowed from Irish Catholics in the United States to the IRA, overtly supporting Irish terrorism in the 1970s. In the present-day the world is divided into nations some of whom emerged over centuries, while colonial powers, the older nations, cast others together. The problem with the present order is that each nation represents itself to the world as a sovereign entity having rights to global resources. But the world’s resources are limited and if through disproportionate economic or military power one or a few nations act to pull resources towards themselves leaving other nations, their people, with too little.
Part of the problem over all is the number of people trying to live on the world, but this is not a problem any subgroup of nations can solve. More than half the world’s nations are demographically aging. The rest have more youth than can be productively employed at least under present political and socio-economic conditions. In today’s global environment, it is fundamentally bigotry that prevents rational, voluntary redistribution and retraining of excess population from one part of the world to another.
To the bigotry directed at people down the block or in the next town is added the bigotry of nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that not only do the people of my nation deserve a proper share of the world’s resources (morally defensible depending on the share), but it is also a nation’s right to set those standards for itself and to take, or preserve their self-determined share by force of arms if necessary. In today’s world this is nowhere better illustrated than in the South China Sea. A dozen nations should be sharing resources claimed more or less exclusively by China. Modern wars between nations are always about resources in one-way or another even if resources are not always a war’s immediate trigger.
In modern times, nationalism is the disease that leads whole peoples to war. Like bigotry, nationalism need not connect up to religion. But as with bigotry, [some] religious institutions support nationalism on grounds the people of some nations are favored by God while others are, if not condemned, then less worthy. The logical contradiction between nationalism and the demands of religious universalism is identical with that between universalism and bigotry based on ethnicity, sexuality, and so on.
So we find ourselves a culture in which [some] religious institutions come to be in opposition to religion as such. They teach false doctrine, the “white race” or “straight people”, or “Americans”, are the “children of God”. The broader Church should publicly distance itself from intolerant or nationalist congregations unless it too bears false teaching. Too often it does not. Certainly not in Islam, but also within some Protestant communities in the United States and around the world. Those false teachings have come to be widely enough accepted that condemnation by the remaining universalist members of the community would result in serious economic and social dislocation for the wider Church. Here the social and economic realities of a material institution come to conflict directly with its spiritual mission.
I speak here largely of the cultural milieu in the United States. In his recent (September 2018) “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight” Slavoj Zizek notes that in Europe this overt conflict between Christian Universalism and intolerance manifests less in Christian intolerance than in a retreat from Christianity back to paganism! On one level this makes sense. There is no logical contradiction between bigotry (or nationalism) and paganism, but paganism doesn’t help craft solutions to what are very much planet-wide problems. It lacks, among other things, any global value compass.
This then is the negative side of our present. There are religious institutions that falsely link God’s love to a particular subset of individuals whether a race, nation, or other distinction in social identity. What then is the positive side? What politics, what political order should religious institutions support? What political order would be consistent with the universality of God’s love for every individual?
Begin with the sociological end point of such a world. What must God want? Some part of this can be easily drawn from a first principles theology. Every individual on the planet would love and treat like a brother every other individual with whom they interact directly or indirectly. They would do this of their own free will because they know that God loves each of them and that loving one another is what God wants us, freely, to do. When you love someone, you want to do good to them. Loving God is no different, but there isn’t any good we can do to God directly. He is infinite and complete. He needs nothing from us. What he requests, seemingly, what would be “good to him”, is that we freely choose to love his other children, our brothers.
Love here is not some abstract notion, but manifests in well motivated executive administration, economic fairness, and so on. The problem is not Capitalism as the left continues to insist. The problem with Capitalism is the capitalist who is not yet motivated to act fairly and preserve a level field for all. True, today, no one or even a few capitalists can act against the tide without suffering competitive disadvantage, but this will not be the case in the future when capitalists view their mission first as service to the global community and only secondarily in profit terms.
Obviously such a spiritually advanced world would have no bigotry, no crime, and no war. It would not merely suppress their exhibition, there would be none to be exhibited! For this to happen, even to approximate it (for example a war-free world in which not literally every person loved every other, a world in which there might, for example, be some criminal behavior), the peoples of the world would have to view themselves as “people of Earth” as well as members of other subpolities.
The division of executive powers in the United States serves as a good analog. The people of Iowa think of themselves as Iowan, but also as Americans. The Federal government controls the armed forces, and regulates trade between the States. Iowa, despite having a “national guard”, does not scheme to take land from Nebraska. At the same time, the existence of the Federal administration does not obviate State governments any more than State governments obviate county and city governments. All these levels of government are needed for the administration of a large polity like the U.S.
A world without bigotry demands the free-willed transformation of individuals, billions of them. But there are not billions of national governments with armed forces of their own, only a couple of hundred. To achieve a war-free world, even long before individual bigotry, crime, economic unfairness, and other socio-political problems disappear, it is necessary only that armed forces of all nations be given over to the control of some supra-sovereignty that encompasses the planet. In short a world government. Such a supra-sovereignty would not only control all the world’s armed forces, but also, like the U.S. Federal government regulate relations between nations. There would still be need for national and subnational polities, States or provinces, local governments, and so on.
Nations claim a sovereignty that is a fiction. They can be attacked physically, digitally, and economically. Their currencies can be debased not only by bad decisions nationally, but by decisions taken in other nations! By insisting on the national right to sovereignty war between nations is periodically certain. International relations between national States with armies are inherently unstable because no entity exists that can allot resources between them.
If a world government existed, there would be no one left to fight, no “national currency” to devalue. The world-government would be genuinely sovereign. This being the case, why would any need for “armed forces” remain? The reason has to do with the process of getting from where we are now to a fully sovereign world government. There will come a time in which most of the world does vest control of trade relations and armed force in a supra-sovereignty, but there remain nations with their own armed forces who might refuse to join.
This is no different from the early times of evolving national organizations from smaller polities who used force of arms to resist (ultimately unsuccessfully) emerging national polities. Older and less inclusive social organizations, bands to tribes, tribes to limited states, limited states (even cities) to larger states, have always resisted and still resist the evolution of wider polities.
Once the entire world is genuinely on-board, once it becomes unthinkable that a nation, small group of nations, or collections of individuals, would raise their own armies and seek to break away from or resist belonging to the world government, then need for any international armed force fades. Eventually even police forces also fade as individuals of the population advance further towards the social endpoint.
The question posed above was: how is it that today, in America, we have a situation in which employs religion as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? I have not concerned myself with bigots and nationalists who are not also religionists. As with paganism, there is no logical inconsistency between atheism and nationalism even if the latter remains a bad idea and always, eventually, leads to war unless nationalistic leanings are curbed before war grows imminent.
Nor is it necessary for religious institutions to address politics directly. A “religious institution” may abjure politics altogether. Of course the institution’s participating individuals are immerged in the politics of their locale as well as the nation-state. Churches (congregations or taken more broadly) have in theory only a spiritual mission, to help the individual believer to understand and freely choose to do God’s will, which at the cost of repetition can only be to love one another.
Because individuals are political, politics always affects the relationships between individuals in any congregation, and their ministers are no less immune to this effect. If a side must be taken, that side most aligned with God’s equal love for all, the side that most treats everybody involved like a brother in a loving family is the only choice consistent with God’s universality. Any church that, having taken a side, takes the side of intolerance and isolation, of nationalistic “us vs them”, that does not say to its members “go and love them also”, is from the viewpoint of the “spiritual mission”, in contravention of the will of God!
But if Churches can, in theory, ignore politics, if they can ignore nationalism, they cannot ignore individual intolerance. If the institution’s mission is to teach love they cannot support, even covertly, intolerance between any class of individuals. Our present situation regarding institutional religion is ultimately the result of the failure of those institutions to stick to the mission of teaching that God’s love is universal.
So what are we to do about this? From the viewpoint of alignment with Deity, it is never wrong to continue the mission as best can be managed in circumstances. Become an institution or take part in an institution that respects the relationship between man and God and so man and man. Is that going to solve our problem here? Is that going to convince religious institutions now on the wrong road to change their path?
History does not bode well for any such optimistic outlook. Intolerant people who yet think of themselves as religious will gravitate to congregations of like-minded individuals. Values reinforcement is an outgrowth of congregating (religious or not), and not limited to reinforcement of positive values. Any student of history will cite many examples down through the recorded centuries lastly ending in the stance the Hebrew Sanhedrin took on Jesus. With everything else Jesus is the quintessential demonstration to the universe that once history has set a course, once enough men are willfully and in concert arrayed against love, no amount of the Father’s love will prevent the socio-political disaster at that point made certain. Forty years intervened between the death of Jesus on the cross and the Roman destruction of the second temple. Jewish nationalism, already plain in Jesus time and a factor in his persecution, made the event of the final destruction forty years later certain despite the voices of universalism in the expanding Christian message [see note below about Paul].
There are now, in this world, more than enough of the intolerant and hateful, religious or otherwise, to have set the historical course for the next few decades, perhaps a century or more. It might yet be another thousand years, or five thousand, before enough people wake up to the reality of the need to take the compass given by values seriously. But if the message is not carried through that interval, there will be nothing to awaken to. I do not know if the progressively polarizing world will result in another global war, but some global catastrophe, ecological or economic, probably both, is going to sweep over the human race in the next hundred, or maybe only twenty, years.
Will the human race extinguish itself? No, unless possibly the disaster becomes global thermonuclear war. Will the promised land of love manifest after this next global catastrophe? Not likely. There will be yet something else, and then another disaster, and so on, until such time as a true global government evolves. Only then will conditions make the further evolution of universal brotherhood possible. Only one thing can be said with certainty. God’s will, the evolution of universal love on this and every other world, must eventually, in some distant future, come to pass.
Note: If anybody, Paul set the stage for the Western conflict between institution and universal relationship by aligning his version of Jesus’ message with the existent Roman “Cult of Mithras”, the largest institutionalized “Roman Church” of that time. That institution became the Catholic Church and for the sake of secular power, the message altered from the brotherhood of all human beings to the brotherhood of Catholics.