Who sits on the empty throne?
This has got be the manifesto.
Beautiful essay. Sobering and yet, inspiring. Thank you.
I can't remember the reference right now . But I could find it. I was doing some stuff on ethics which I had to teach endlessly in Australia! But there was some interesting papers on the naturalness of ethical, or 'other centred' well-meaning behaviour in humans towards others. The thesis was that humans were 'hardwired' to be ethical, that is, naturally empathic to others and to the natural world.
But perhaps this inbuilt tendency has been corrupted somehow. There might be some reasons for this.
My thinking was that my experience of the world roughly agreed with this interesting idea of natural empathy. That is when I lived in small country towns or knew the people who lived around me. But it is obvious that even if true, the sense of empathy does seem to fail even if it is an inbuilt genetic trait of humans. I always wondered if it the problem of the loss of empathy was due to the loss of of the small community living on the same patch of earth, and all depending on it together, for life itself. Relying on each other to survive. Solidarity with others and the group was necessary for survival. And this was the way people lived since forever, until just a thousand or so years ago. So perhaps we are genetically wired for just such a low key existence, close to others and the earth.
It is very easy not to be ethical if you are so powerful that no-one can touch you. Not governments, not anybody. That seems to be the position of the capitalist oligarchy that we live in today. The mega rich don't need to depend on others. And they behave accordingly. Power. And wealth as power, determine how they can live, if so inclined. There are no consequences for their actions. The results have been a bit disastrous. For the natural world and for people, i.e., the ordinary people.
And then there is the modernist philosophy of 'Libertarianism', of just 'me myself'. It fits capitalism perfectly. There is no longer any felt obligation to the 'other' despite how wretched the 'other' lives. This philosophy of radical individualism that developed alongside the rise of capitalism in the rapidly industrialising West is a disastrous conception of how to live with others.
Having to depend on a job money and that provides money for survival, is also a factor. It gives you the capacity to not to have to be dependent on others or see the natural world as important. This can be seen when living in a big city. It can reduce the sense of community and empathy for those strange familiar people who live around you but who you don't know. It is the modern experience of living. Working in a job, sitting all day in front of a computer working long hours that leave you with little time to be who you really are. All these factors alienate oneself from community, even from one's intimate family and ultimately oneself.
Maybe living with others in a small part of the world we share is the most fruitful context of moral behaviour. The way that Christ lived, as you have written, seems to me to be exactly how we should live, ideally. Small and local, with obligations to the others around us, and being able to live without having to work just for money, rather than produce from the land around us.
Great stuff Paul. Wondered if you read Blair in the NS today - brazenly deifying The Machine which all must be oriented around....
You say of MacIntyre that his lodestone was Aristotle, but might I mention that he found his final space in Roman Catholicism, ie the Thomist fusion of faith with the Aristotelean inheritance? One other thing, within the tradition, the Fall is understood to be healed by Christ, not just once and for all on the cross but also repeatedly through the liturgy, which takes on the role of healing creation (both symbolically and truly) that was previously carried out through Temple Ritual - see the work of Margaret Barker for more detail. Or, in my preferred summary: the eucharist heals the world. Looking forward to more instalments.
Excellent post. I am in wholehearted agreement. Thank you.
I am currently reading Lewis Mumford's two-volume "The Myth of the Machine". I doubt Mumford was a Christian, but what he has to say is highly congruent with all that is said here. Here are two quotes to give some sense of his position (from the late '60s and early '70s):
"The beleaguered– even 'obsolete'–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, 'trivial accessory to the machine.' Technical surveillance and limitless data-collection—'an all-seeing eye' (Panopticon)—would monitor every 'individual on the planet. Ultimately, the totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its 'power-complex,' ignoring the real needs and values of human life, might produce a world 'fit only for machines to live in'"
and, perhaps more hopefully:
"But for those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out."
It may very well be that easy. I am, for one, unsure how to exit.
A short summary of The Myth of the Machine can be found here:
Thank you again for an excellent essay.
Western Christendom having long fallen; its pale replacement "Churchianity" having failed to find a "respectable" position within the Machine and currently crumbling to dust all around us; we are now in the position, perhaps, to find the wild, radical, uncontainable message Christ brought to us. Thank you, Paul, for helping to make this clear to me. The last, true rebellion indeed!
Your last paragraph resonates with me. As a lay oblate (that fails miserably & always begins again) The Rule of St. Benedict is a way of listening (stillness) and discipline in daily life. And yes we do need saints!
excellent piece! I also read the linked article on your conversion to Christianity. I wish to share another bit from my friend George MacDonald that I think you'll like.
“Those who cannot see how the human will should be free in dependence upon the will of God, have not realized that the will of God made the will of man; that, when most it pants for freedom, the will of man is the child of the will of God, and therefore that there can be no natural opposition or strife between them. Nay, more, the whole labour of God is that the will of man should be free as his will is free—in the same way that his will is free—by the perfect love of the man for that which is true, harmonious, lawful, creative. If a man say, “But might not the will of God make my will with the intent of over-riding and enslaving it?” I answer, such a Will could not create, could not be God, for it involves the false and contrarious. That would be to make a will in order that it might be no will. To create in order to uncreate is something else than divine. But a free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the very face of otherwise overwhelming impulse. There lies freedom indeed.”
– George MacDonald. From Miracles Of Our Lord.
Thank you for your thoughts. This is a wonderful essay. Your line, "Ultimately, without that higher purpose to bind it - without, in other words, a sacred order - society would fall into 'emotivism', relativism and ultimately disintegration." brought to mind Flannery O'Connor's warning; “If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” (Flannery O’Connor, Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann). O'Connor too saw the direction of society and knew the danger ahead.
We are waiting for Benedict. You may want to read Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and his recent “Live Not By Lies”. Rod tales as his starting point the last sentence of “After Virtue”
Mary McG. Great essay thank you. Sent me in quest of a song ...check out Colum Sands 'Talking to the Wall' on YouTube. It will raise a smile!
In the 1980s, sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote two monumental books, "A Theory of Religion" and "The Future of Religion", that postulated (and provided evidence for) the idea that common belief in the supernatural was an inevitable consequence of the human condition. These books have now been forgotten. Bainbridge did not get tenure, and Stark has moved on. But to me, raised Catholic but turned atheist by age 15 (I am now 65 and still find belief in the supernatural completely impossible), they explained thoroughly that which I could not understand: why religion, so obviously wrong, was so commonplace. Bainbridge wrote a short article summarizing their ideas in the humanist journal Free Inquiry that can be found here:
If Bainbridge and Stark are right, a religious revival is on its way, though it will take a long time to establish itself. Their most likely candidate (at the time of their writing) was Mormonism. This still seems likely to me.
Can I recommend Colossians Remixed - Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat. They identify empire in four ways
1) Built on systemic centralizations of power
2) Secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control
3) Religiously legitimated by powerful myths
4) Sustained by a proliferation of images that captivate the imaginations of the population.
And they argue we are living in a time of global capitalist empire or as you call it Paul, the Machine. What is necessary is something that subverts, that quietly undermines the power and might of Caesar or to switch metaphor, stick a spanner into the cogs of the machine.
Anyway, thanks for the essay - it's got me really thinking.
This is a marvelous post with lots to chew on, thanks. But the comments are also of extremely high quality and such a needed refreshment after nearly perishing having wandered in the wastes of what passes for internet discourse recently.
I hope more good people with contributions and ideas continue to find this space.
"Eat the fruit, it's your right, you're worth it"....I am loving this essay. Yes, it's personal or it's nothing. It comes down to that. I am still reading... history, these essays, other things, but it's all straw if we turn the thoughts or the past into idols in our minds, isn't it? Walking in the ruins, this is what needs to be said - what you have said. And reading this I realise more fully how ruinous these ruins are. I'm picking through them for clues...which seems wise. But sometimes, when I am doing the washing up and focussing on what Jesus wants, and not on how to think my way to something or other, but just to serve, there comes this surge of joy (which feels like an ancient memory), like a fountain through the cracks. You can't make it come, but it comes with tremendous power. There is this new-every-morning thing, walking in the ruins. It is like the beautiful plants that grow where the pavement is broken.
"Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the LORD God is a sun and shield.."