The “Death of God” and the Scramble for a New Moral Order

friedrich-nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

A social media discussion about Patrick Deneen’s new book on the future of liberalism prompted some thoughts about the loss of faith that has occurred within the West over the last couple of centuries.

I think I’ve shared this account at least once before in this forum: Edward Pusey, a founder of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican faith, while undertaking study in Germany, was first acquainted with the remarkable insights gained from textual study of the Bible. He was shocked, knowing full well that these insights inevitably would cross the Channel and spark an acute spiritual crisis in England. And they did. Britain and the rest of Europe have been plunged into an existential crisis from which they have never fully recovered.

Of course, this crisis is playing out on this side of the Atlantic, too, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.

The scientific insights of Charles Darwin only exacerbated these doubts, contributing to an even deeper spiritual crisis.

If my scant knowledge of the history philosophy serves me adequately, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche perceived that this crisis of faith – this death of God – would create the opportunity for the formation of a new man, a kind of superman, who would be capable of looking beyond good and evil – indeed, one who would be able to invent a new ethos based on this emerging reality.
For my part, I wonder if a new man and a new ethos ever will emerge from the wreakage wrought by this acute spiritual crisis. The great fruit of the 18th century Enlightenment, secular liberalism – the putative slayer of all ideological comers, socialism, communism and fascism – has struggled to improvise solutions and, as Deneen has contended, has been the product of its own success.

Liberalism, despite creating a moral and economic order capable generating a multiplicity of rights and an infinite number of personal choices, will never manage to fill the existential void lost following the Nietzschean death of God.

This fact was driven home to me through my own study of networks and through my own formulation of a concept I’ve come to call the Noncoporeal Human Exoskeleton.

From the very beginning, our modern human and, very likely, our hominin ancestors have been constructing a work in progress – an exoskeleton contrived of language, culture and technology, all of which are networked, each part of which is contingent on the rest. And this exoskeleton, speaking within an abstract context, has provided us with a kind of covering or protective layer – hence the choice of the term “noncorporeal exoskeleon.” It has both protected us and pointed the way out of many the problems and challenges that have plagued us as a species. And closely interwoven with that exoskeleton is spirituality.

Spirituality or transcendence – this perception among the vast majority of our species that there is something apart from us and that guides us – is hardwired into our psyches, at least those of most of us. And this awareness has been inextricably bound up – networked – into our exoskeleton, the scaffolding that we have built over eons to guide our species across the vicissitudes of human existence.

And this intertwining of spirituality and our exoskeleton essentially expresses the dilemma we face today as human beings. Our philosophical and scientific advances have challenged some of our most basic notions of transcendence. Equally, of not more, troubling, from my perspective, is that they have rendered much of our exoskeleton obsolete. Conversely, though, we are so intricately bound up in our exoskeleton that we cannot abandon it.

This leads me to wonder: Given that we are so totally bound up with and dependent on our exoskeleton, which, in turn, is so intricately attached to ancient notions of transcendence and spirituality, will it even be possible for us, at least, the vast majority of us, to invent a new ethics bereft of spirituality and transcendence, at least as we’ve understood those terms across eons?

If I am convinced of one thing, it’s that this quest is more elusive than ever and that it may take centuries to restore the equilibrium that was lost in the West with the advent of David Strauss and Charles Darwin.

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Would Nazism Ultimately Have Devoured Itself?

Lebensborn

A nurse ministering to infants at a Nazi German lebensborn.

I just finished Laurence Rees’ new book on the Holocaust last week. He stresses early in the book how the Nuremburg Laws, an utter catastrophe for Jews, also portended an unusually regimented social order for so-called “Aryan” Germans.

Rees raises a remarkable point that is seldom considered.

I’ve often wondered to what extreme this Nazi obsession over racial purity ultimately would have overtaken the Germans themselves. Back to that perennial Tory argument about hard, zealous ideologies ultimately devouring their own tails.

Polish Christians knew that after the Nazis meted out their Final Solution to Polish Jews, they would be treated to their turn. Germans would ferret out the racially desirable Poles and consign the rejects to starvation or, at best, a life of serfdom.

This partly stemmed from a stark realization that had finally taken hold of the ham-handed Nazi policymakers: The sheer expense and logistics of colonizing central and eastern Europe with “Aryans” was a daunting enough undertaking, but as they soon discovered, there simply were not enough Germans to accomplish the task.

Nazis were frantically scouring the conquered parts of Europe to find ethnic German families for these colonization efforts, but this proved extraordinarily difficult. Many of the families had been separated from the mainsprings of German language and culture for decades, if not centuries. Many were not even German speakers.

These challenges prompted the Nazi racial engineers to begin mining among the captive nations – Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavians and other captive peoples for the specified desirable traits.

This led Nazis to undertake one of the most heinous forms of social engineering in history: the kidnapping off the streets, sometimes in the presence of their parents, of Polish children who, at first glance, were deemed racially desirable.

Those subsequently classified as evincing the right Nordic-Aryan traits were assimilated into German families or consigned to SS Home Schools. Those not considered ideally Nordic were sent to concentration camps where they were killed or forced to serve as living test subjects of German medical experiments.

Some 400,000 eastern European children were kidnapped and carried off to Germany, though the bulk of these seizures – some 200,000 – occurred in Poland.

In her book “The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections, Germany, 1938-2001,” Austrian-British biographer Gitta Sereny offers a heart-rending account of her post-war work as UNRRA employee, helping reconnect kidnapped children with their biological families.

All the zealotry bound up in the Nazi effort to create an Aryan effort leads me to wonder: If Nazis were so intent on altering the face of Europe – on transforming the continent to one increasingly occupied by tall, lithe, blond gods and goddess, how long before racial engineers imposed these exacting standards on Germans themselves?

Hitler conceived Nazism as a work of artistic expression, one that would be reflected not only in architectural works but also in human physicality.

What would have become of the legions of Germans who lacked these designed Nordic physical traits, who possessed dark hair, dark eyes and rather swarthy complexions?

Even a few among the Nazi elites fell short of these desired physical characteristics. As memory serves, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz doctor, were both Nazis with undesirable features: dark hair and complexions and brown eyes.

In the decades following a German victory or a negotiated peace settlement, would Germans with these physical characteristics these physical characteristics have eventually fallen prey, too – perhaps having to submit to sterilization to make space for Germans with more desirable physiological characteristics?

That would be a fascinating subject for a doctoral dissertation, needless to say.

Whatever the case, I have read far too much about the history of totalitarianism not to discount the virulent, long-term effects of ideological zealotry.

Countless thousands of loyal Communist Party members fell prey to Stalin’s ravenous efforts to create Homo Sovieticus, the ideal Soviet man. In relatively short order, the Bolshevik Revolution began to devour itself – and it’s children.

Nazism evinced similar heights of ideological zealotry, arguably even more. Six-million snuffed out Jewish lives attest to this zealotry. And after finishing off the Jews and millions of racially undesirable Slavs, one wonders how much longer before the Nazis imposed this same ravenous zealotry on its own people.

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Saving Revolutions with Mid-Course Corrections

apostolic-succession

An Orthodox bishop ordains a priest.  The historic Christian doctrine of Apostolic Succession has been regarded as an essential means of propagating the faith from one generation to the next. (Photo: Courtesy of Lipsio.)

As an amateur student of history, the thought has occurred to me that all great secular and religious movements transition from a founding to a kind shoring up mode – an essential mid-course correction, an attempt, often a desperate one, to deal with new contingencies.

Call it a reality check – the point in the journey when the revolution ends or the visionary leader departs the scene and the inheritors of this great transformation are left with the task, the often thankless task, of marshaling and sustaining the movement into the future.  This often involves reinterpreting, altering and even compromising the founding principles of the movement.

Faced with mounting debt and external threats from Europe, our American Revolutionary ancestors were eventually challenged to scrap the Articles of Confederation and to conceive a more centralized federal system better equipped to secure these ends.   The colonists had originally declared their independence as separate separate and fully sovereign independent states in 1776.  In the view of many, the Constitution of 1787 that finally was ratified by all 13 states by 1789 represented a conceptual leap and, in the view of some, a betrayal of revolutionary principles.

The French undertook several futile attempts to shore up their revolution, some appallingly bloody, finally culminating in the ascent of Napoleon in 1799.  Whether Napoleon’s stewardship was regarded as advancement or a betrayal of these revolutionary principals, he managed to export these ideals throughout Europe.  (The late Chinese Premier Chou en-lai once affirmed to Henry Kissinger that the French Revolution has yet to be resolved, but that’s another story.)

Beset with severe economic upheaval and ruin following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin instituted his New Economic Policy, a reintroduction of market economics in the form of state capitalism, which, in the view of many Bolsheviks, represented a stark betrayal of Bolshevism’s founding principles.  Yet, Lenin was convinced that without this restoration, the Bolshevik experiment ultimately faced collapse.

Religious movements have proven no exception.

Islam dealt with its own challenges following Muhammad’s death, as his successors undertook the daunting task of determining which of the sayings ascribed to the Prophet actually were his.   They also assembled the Hadith, a collection of the words, actions and tacit approvals of the Prophet, one that ranks within the Islamic faith second only to the Qur’an.

At approximately the same time, Christianity was beset with somewhat similar challenges. Early Christians had assumed that the coming of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth was imminent. Over time, though, following the passing of the Apostle Paul, a growing number of Christians concluded that Christ’s return would be delayed and began improvising new theologies and systems of church governance to sustain and safeguard the faith.

We owe the canonization of the scriptures to this process. Moreover, as Roman attitudes to the church hardened, church leaders deemed it important to establish a network of bishops throughout Mediterranean Basin to safeguard the faith.  And as a further safeguard, church leaders developed a tradition that came to be known as Apostolic Succession, requiring every bishop to be installed by a previous bishop representing an unbroken episcopal chain, purportedly leading all the way to St. Peter.

Elaborate liturgies were also developed across time to ensure that the faith was accurately propagated from generation to generation among the largely illiterate laity.

These refinements ultimately culminated in the the Nicene and, later, the Apostles’ creeds, which essentially amounted to episcopal-sanctioned encapsulations of Christian doctrine.

Yes, all of these innovations were entirely that – innovations – that departed significantly in many respects from the early Christian understanding of faith.  But they amounted to essential, in if not unavoidable, responses to the contingencies Christians faced in the decades following the passing of Paul.

Having grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition, a frontier faith that emphasized the primary of scripture over all things, I initially regarded most of the trappings of historic Christianity – the episcopacy, liturgy and creeds – as the those of an apostate church.  But that was long ago.  I’m much better informed and wiser now.

From from amounting to apostasy, these innovations amounted to essential scaffolding. Without these innovations, Christianity very likely would have ended up an obscure folk religion, bearing little resemblance to the global, theologically refined faith that we know today.

Indeed, all transformative movements are constructed on earlier platforms and are challenged by contingencies to improvise and, to one degree or another, evolve beyond the vision and expectations of their founders.

Christianity proved no exception.

 

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Apollo 8: One of History’s Most Conspicuously Courageous Acts

Apollo-8

The Apollo 8 Mission Crew

I noticed a book is out now about the history of Apollo 8, which marks the first time human beings traveled beyond the bounds of the Earth. It is arguably one of history’s most conspicuously courageous and heroic acts. It was also one of the most improvised programs in the history of NASA.

NASA officials decided to advance the first translunar fight after reconnaissance revealed what appeared to be a translunar Soviet space vehicle on a launch pad in Kazakhstan.  Another hitch contributed to the decision to advance the schedule for the first translunar flight: The original mission called for a lunar module/command model flight test in elliptical medium earth orbit, but a lunar module could not be procured for the flight.

Some feared this highly improvised flight would end in tragedy.  In fact, NASA secretly assigned only even odds of the space craft’s returning safely to Earth.  Susan Borman, wife of Apollo 8 mission commander Frank Borman, had even planned a memorial service without her husband’s body.

 
earth-riseTo complicate matters, Borman developed a stomach virus hours into the fight accompanied by both diarrhea and vomiting. One can only imagine the conditions those symptoms created in the zero-gravity conditions of a space capsule. Yet, the crew persevered, aware that too much was at stake to scrap the mission and return to earth.
 
The famous earthrise picture, snapped by crew member William A. Anders shortly after the completion of the command module’s perilous maneuver around the dark side of the Moon on its return to earth, captured the hearts of millions of Americans and instilled hope during one of the bleakest years of American history – 1968. This image turned out to be one the most tangible legacies of the Apollo 8 mission.
 
Crew member Jim Lovell, returned to space two years later as commander of a mission to capitalize on the stellar successes of the previous two lunar landings. That mission, of course, already has been immortalized by Ron Howard’s iconic film Apollo 13.
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The Rise and Fall of a Socialist Fun Palace

palast-der-republikThis hopefully will serve as an interesting follow up to the piece I posted last week about socialist and National Socialist megalomania. In mid-1970’s, the East German government, already financially cash-strapped and heavily indebted to West Germany, undertook construction on a sprawling complex dubbed the “Palast der Republik” (Palace of the Republic).

In addition to serving as the headquarters of the Volkskammer (the East German rubber-stamp parliament), the facility was also designed to function as a sort of socialist fun palace, featuring 13 restaurants, a theater, galleries, a bowling alley, a post office and a discotheque.  It was conceived as a sort of upscale, high-tech version of a house of the people in the tradition of the German labor movement.

As it turns out, roughly 90 percent of events held at the Palace involved concerts, shows and cultural programs, though ideological indoctrination was a focus, too.   Meetings of the Socialist Unity Party were held in its Grand Hall, and the facility served the principal architectural showcase of  the East German state during official visits of foreign heads of state.   Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was present at the Palace to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of East Germany in October, 1989, only a few weeks before collapse of the Berlin Wall. 

Ironically, the palace ultimately served a purpose that its socialist patrons scarcely could have anticipated: as the site of the post-communist Volkskammer’s historic decision in August, 1990, to reunify with capitalist West Germany.

Consequently, a building designed to stand for centuries not only as as a monument to socialism’s achievements in Germany but also to its inevitable victory throughout the world served its intended purpose as East Germany’s socialist showcase for less than 20 years.

Shortly before unification, it was discovered that the building was widely contaminated with asbestos.  The outgoing East German Volkskammer voted for the immediate closing of the facility in September, only a month before unification.  Following unification, the German Bundestag (Parliament) voted to dismantle the structure and to construct a replica of the old Berlin Stadtschloss (City Palace) in its place. This older building, damaged heavily by bombing in WWII, was demolished in 1950 after the East German government concluded that it lacked the funds to rebuild it. the old Stadtschloss also presented the socialist government with a bit of a symbolic hot potato, having been regarded as one of the preeminent symbols of Prussian imperialism.

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Pentecostalism as the Second Protestant Reformation

praise-worship2A few years ago, I followed a fascinating social media discussion about the use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christians regard images of Christ and the Apostles blessed by a priest as representing the actual presence of these revered individuals in the home.

The conversation sparked a memory from several years earlier of interviewing a farmer in his rural north Alabama home. I noticed that his entire living room was adorned with angels — all kinds of angelic figurines and pictures — that were arranged in much the same way that a Russian, Greek or Serbian farmer would display icons in his home.

In the course of the conversation, I learned that the farmer was a minister in one of the Pentecostal faith traditions. I was so intrigued by that encounter that I spent the trip home struggling to account for why this angelic display bore such a close resemblance to Eastern Orthodox piety.

The thought eventually occurred to me:  The Pentecostal legacy represents a genuine sundering within Protestantism, not unlike what occurred within Christianity following the Reformation.  It was as if a cloth partition that separated the tangible from the ineffable within Protestant Christianity was ripped apart.

Luther’s Reformation may have have been grounded in a mystical experience somewhat similar to the Apostle Paul’s following his Road to Damascus experience.  But for Luther, this experience ended up driving home what amounted to an existential truth to Luther: that he was powerless in the face of God and that only through the atoning power of Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross was he saved from an eternity of fiery perdition. This conviction became a central tenet of Protestantism, one that has has tended to crowd out the mystical shoots that sprouted out of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and that across time have formed such lush canopies within these faith traditions.

Curiously, this has contributed to an anti-mystical inclination within Protestantism across time.  Luther’s experience of the atoning grace of Christ was so powerful, so palpable a presence, that he ended up discounting the institutional primacy of the church. He would come to emphasize scripture over episcopacy, liturgy and ritual.

Over time, Protestants, with their emphasis on scriptural authority, discovered a natural affinity for the rationalist sentiment that grew out of the Enlightenment.

And this rationalist sentiment was reinforced across time, through the theology of Calvin and his spiritual adherents, Puritans and Separatists who eventually crossed the ocean and established beachheads of faith in North America.  These predispositions underwent further re-enforcement on the post-colonial frontier, as settlers abandoned older confessional traditions and polities, ultimately placing even greater emphasis on biblical authority, culminating in the rationalist bibliocentrism that underpins so much of contemporary evangelical Christianity.

Protestants compensated for the loss of mysticism in a couple of remarkable ways.  The popularity of Masonry attested to the deep hunger among many frontier evangelical Christians for the mystical and ineffable.  And this hunger was also reflected – arguably, at least – in the strong Back Country affinity for fraternities that were organized on many of nascent college campuses.

Yet, the Azusa Street Revival, which gave birth to Pentecostal Christianity, amounted to an eruption like no other within Protestant Christianity.  It was a spiritual awakening, yes, but one that amounted to a reintroduction of a deep mystical yearning into a faith that had become excessively rational and, in the view of many, a bit hidebound.

And it’s remarkable to think of how this immense spiritual awakening was sparked by an African-American preacher, William J. Seymour, a meagerly educated preacher and former Roman Catholic, whose preaching galvanized a congregation of very humble, marginalized people meeting across several weeks in a weathered, clapboard structure, located on 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, during the spring of 1906.

In less than a half century, a sort of middle-class version of this movement, known as Charismatic Christianity, began gaining footholds in many mainline Protestant churches.

Some religious scholars have argued that the Azusa Street revival has proven every bit as significant to the history of Christianity as Luther’s so-called Tower Experience. Whatever the case, it is remarkable to consider that in less than a century, Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as the dominant form of Protestantism throughout much of the developing world.  And that is why this revival should be remembered as one of the most pivotal occurrences in the history of Christianity, transforming the experience of the divine not only in America but throughout much of the world.

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If Only Reporters Were More Intellectually Curious

open-booksRecently I ran across this quote, ascribed to novelist Stephen King, on a social media site:  “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot, and write a lot.”

Whether not not those words originated with King, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this maxim. Early in my career, I paid several visits to my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Alabama, to speak to communications undergraduates.  I would always offer the following affirmation: “Read! Read! Read!”

The secret of an outstanding journalism/reporting career is to be the most intellectually curious and best informed professional in the newsroom.

I tried to carry that thinking over into my own career as a Cooperative Extension news and public affairs professional.  In addition to producing my own news products, a big part of my work was pitching story ideas to print and broadcast reporters.

With that in mind, I tried to cultivate a deep understanding of everything related to Extension work – agriculture, food science and nutrition, to name a few –  so that I could pass along compelling story ideas to reporters.   While in graduate school, I cultivated the habit of rising early in the morning to eat breakfast at an off-campus diner, where I devoured as much as I could of the New York Times in an hour.

After graduate school, I carried that daily NYT reading habit over to work.  I would clip the most promising articles, make notes and, based on these, pitch articles to local and regional reporters.

A few of the more perceptive reporters appreciated this deeply. I came to be  good friends with one of them who came over to Auburn from Columbus, Ga., regularly to follow up on my suggestions. Yet, in the latter years of my career, I was troubled by the numbers of reporters who seemed to evince little, if any, curiosity about anything. They saw their work simply as that – work, if not drudgery. I really pitied them.

Incidentally, one of my most memorable interactions with a reporter occurred roughly in the middle of my career and involved a virulent mite that threatened Alabama queen bee producers – the Varroa mite. (Some 30 years ago, Alabama was once a major international producer of queen bees, which were shipped all over North America to propagate new bee colonies.

Alabama state agricultural officials were doing everything in their power to contain an outbreak of the mites, working closely with bee producers to monitor for signs of the pest.

I found this to be a compelling story, and I pitched it to a young Montgomery reporter, who seemed deeply intrigued with the subject matter. I also set him up with an usually articulate, knowledgeable and highly successful local beekeeper, whose apiary supplied a perfect visual backdrop for the story.

A day before his visit, I briefed the reporter diligently, stressing to him that a strong distinction MUST be made between tracheal mites, which had already arrived in Alabama and were treatable and manageable, and varroa mites, which had not yet arrived in the state but that could ultimately prove catastrophic to the bee industry, if detected.

I raised this distinction several times during the phone conversation – to the point where he seemed to grow irritated.

What did he do? He promptly went out and reported that Varroa mites had arrived in Alabama, predictably causing a panic throughout the state bee industry. And after an official with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries called and threatened to take legal action against his station, he called and threatened me, stating that his news director would be contacting my department head to file a complaint.

I  responded to this indignity with all the professionalism I could muster, but this is what I really wanted to say to this young reporter, “If you had followed this story line a little more diligently instead of regarding it as another day of sausage making you wouldn’t be in this fix.”

Reporters, especially young reporters, certainly at the local level, are prone to do all sorts of stupid, careless things. As reluctant as I am to admit this, many of the people who pursue communications degrees, particularly Radio-Television-Film  and Broadcast Journalism degrees, well, often leave much to be desired in terms of genuine intellectual curiosity and professionalism – and I speak with some authority on the subject, holding two degrees in that field.

For me, one of the great joys of life has been bound up with learning things. I’m never depressed because I’m always focused on learning the next thing. It drives my wife crazy at times, but I just can’t help it.

My oldest daughter is an aspiring writer and I take great pride in the fact that she is carrying her intellectual curiosity and deep passion for learning over to her writing. I have every confidence that she will become a successful novelist some day.

I just wish I could bottle up some of her enthusiasm and share it with reporters.  Print and particularly broadcast journalism would benefit immeasurably.

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