I’ve read Rod Dreher’s blog for awhile now, and while I’ve always found his entries interesting and thought-provoking, he’s been on a real roll for the past week or two. Here’s a small sampling:
…I hope Andrew [Sullivan] will recognize himself in his condemnation of the right-wing ideologues he rightly condemns here. He’s often an ideologue about the issues he cares most about, and abusively unfair to those he’s identified as his enemies. Is there any word more loaded and less meaningful than “Christianist”? It means, “Christians Andrew Sullivan doesn’t like.” It’s a way of slapping a label on that sort of Christian so their arguments and their concerns don’t have to be taken seriously. Andrew does the same thing, in principle, that he condemns others for. And guess what? So do I. And you, Reader, do too; if you don’t think you do, you are not examining yourself closely enough.
It’s human nature for us to make snap judgments of others, based on limited information and experience. I made a quick and emotional judgment about the Journolist thing based on what I know from personal experience about liberal bias in the media, and based on my own personal experience of very nearly being the professional victim of a group conspiring on its semi-private e‑mail list to destroy me personally and professionally because they didn’t like serious questions I was raising about their beliefs in my journalism. I still believe I am right about Journolist, but upon reflection, especially reflection about the Shirley Sherrod story, I wish I had waited to get more information before reaching a conclusion. The point, though, is that the facts in the Journolist case fit my personal biases like a glove, and I thought I knew what I was seeing. The truth is more complicated.
It is impossible to make completely objective judgments. We cannot possibly know everything about people. We do the best with the information we have. But if I’ve learned anything in the past decade of thinking and writing, it’s an appreciation for the limitations of my own judgment. This is a lesson I have to learn almost every day, and probably will keep learning until the moment of my death. It’s called humility, and it’s the unfortunate truth that we often have to be humiliated by our own foolishness and rashness to learn it.
A friend passed on an anecdote the other day. A friend of his was at a dinner party at which everybody around the table was discussing what they would do if they were an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. My friend’s friend said that the more interesting question is: What would you do if you were a Nazi concentration camp guard?
That really is the more interesting question. It’s a radical iteration of a moral dilemma that many of us face: what do you do if your livelihood depends on the contribution of your labor to an unjust, even an evil, system? It’s easy to say, “I’d quit, and join the resistance.” But would you really? What if your family might go hungry if you quit, or otherwise suffer? It’s one thing to be prepared to suffer personally for your convictions, but to put your spouse and children at risk is another. I’m not saying it would be right, obviously, to labor as a concentration camp guard under any conditions. I am saying, though, that some of us have jobs, or are involved in industries, that we know in our hearts are immoral. But we see no way out, because we have become enmeshed in the system. What to do? This is what haunts me when I think about what if I had grown up under segregation: what would I, a white person, have done? It turns out that it’s easier (at least for me) to imagine what I would have done as a victim of cruelty or oppression than as someone who was part of a system that perpetrates it.
Yesterday at the Foundation, I heard a presentation by Hyung Choi, a physicist, philosopher and theologian who is in charge of our grant-giving in mathematics and the physical sciences. Hyung said that the emergence of quantum mechanics caused a revolution in our entire understanding of the way reality worked. He said we are now undergoing a second revolution, building on the first: today, physicists are exploring the idea that the basis of reality is not energy and matter, but information. He gave a quote by Anton Zeilinger, one of the world’s great physicists, who said that the first syllables of the Gospel of John — “In the beginning was the Word…” actually tells us something profound about reality.
I am wondering, though, about the philosophical and theological implications of this work. It seems to me that information, to have any definition, must have a receiver (is a sound really a sound if it is not received?). In other words, information must have a knower to be known. Can the purpose of the universe, built into its very structure, be relational — that is, to know and to be known? Is consciousness the telos of Creation? For the Christian, of course, the point of our existence is to know God, our Creator, and to exist in transformative relationship with Him. Orthodox Christianity is panentheistic, meaning it sees God, in his energies, as immanent in all matter, though matter is not essentially God. In the Orthodox view of the Fall, humankind, through the exercise of its free will, disrupted the harmonious order of Creation; salvation for the Orthodox, then, is not a legal process, but one of regeneration and healing — restoring harmonious order to creation, spiritually and physically.
My friend David Rieff writes about how believing the lie about one’s own intentions can lead to all kinds of trouble, re: intervention in foreign people’s affairs. But what I find more troubling is the thought that one might be compelled to believe lies about the manifest destiny of one’s own culture, and the humanity of the enemy, in order to survive as a culture. If you were a Comanche in 1850, you didn’t have the luxury of being broad-minded and humanitarian towards the white man. He was coming to take your land, which would destroy your civilization. You had to fight; softness meant cultural extinction. So you fought the best way you knew how, which included gang rape of the enemy’s women, kidnapping, and gruesome tortures. A broad-minded Comanche was a dead Comanche. (Similarly, if you were an Apache, you couldn’t afford to stop to think about what the world must look like from the point of view of a Comanche.) If you were on the Plains as a white settler in 1850, you couldn’t afford to be thoughtful and humane about the Indians. That would have been a great way to die. Perhaps your father ought not have moved you and your family out to the territory, but there you were, and you had to fight for your life. The only way you could do what you had to do to survive, and ultimately prevail, was to cast out all doubts about your people and their mission, and to harden yourself against the enemy.
What does it mean for our political culture if people assume this cutthroat logic is permissible during peacetime? I mean, if people assume that things they value greatly are a threat, so anything they do to the Enemy for the sake of preserving their tribe is justified? Because guess what, we’re living in those times now.
On a sidenote, Dreher will soon be leaving Beliefnet and start blogging at Big Questions Online, a new web magazine from the Templeton Foundation — but not before he has posted 1,000 entries on his Beliefnet blog.