Tuesday, November 02, 2010

To Be Perfect is to Change Often

Some further thoughts on Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

One of Mead's central points is that "the choices between faith and unbelief did not appear as stark to much of the English-speaking world as they did elsewhere." Rather, here we have been able to maintain a creative tension between faith and reason, which forms the essence of "dynamic religion."

The dynamic religion of the Anglo-American sphere has not just been able to coexist with, but thrive upon, the same sort of skepticism that is so corrosive and ultimately fatal to static religion. In other words, the Anglo-American style of religiosity was well-suited not just to usher in science, but to then assimilate it and endow it with a transcendent meaning it cannot otherwise possess. Without this transcendent meaning -- or vertical orientation -- science can become something monstrous (just as can religion divorced from the natural/horizontal world).

People naturally seek the comfort and security of a closed system of thought, whether they call it religious or "scientific." In the West, we have been able to reconcile the absolute and relative, time and eternity, change and permanence, through the notion of progress, or evolution (understood in its broader, non-Darwinian sense).

Mead does a good job of showing how the Anglo-American world is animated by the spiritual deep structure of faith in the idea that progress is both possible and good. Thus, we can assimilate and make sense of change, whereas overly tradition-bound cultures see change as the enemy, and therefore reject the notion of progress.

At the same time, English society "decided that reason cannot stand alone as the basis for a human society." Indeed, it is a truism that "the 'scientific' societies of the Communist world, boasting of their objective grounding in rational and scientific truth... were considerably less flexible than the Western societies they opposed," just as "there was less freedom in France under Robespierre and his Reign of Terror than under the less systematic and less 'rational' revolutionary governments that preceded it" (Mead).

Virtually all of us in the Anglo-American world are progressives, which sets us apart from almost all cultures that have preceded -- and coexist with -- us. This is why a Raccoon believes in darwhiggian evolution. Of course evolution exists, as it is a necessary consequence of a creation separate from its Creator.

The only place evolution cannot occur is "within" (some might argue "beyond") God, or in the ground of the Absolute, which is necessarily outside time and therefore free of change. The leftist university tries to create a "shadow eternity," cut off from reality. But that is a temporary and and ultimately unstable condition that cannot endure, irrespective of their struggle against change and progress.

It is telling that Obama's entire fund of knowledge appears to consist of nothing but the leftist bromides and platitudes he absorbed in college, thus, his inability to recognize reality; rather, like all Marxians, he wishes to change reality before understanding it.

Progress can only exist in the light of permanence, otherwise it is merely random and arbitrary movement. The secular folks who go by the name "progressive" are in fact mere "changeists," since they reject that by which change can be objectively measured, i.e., God, the Absolute. So in this regard, Obama has certainly succeeded in bringing Change to Washington.

Mead notes that Milton was one of the first to recognize that "truth is revealed in a process," so that "knowledge of God [as opposed to God in Himself -- GB] must necessarily change and deepen over time." Of Truth, Milton wrote that "if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition," the perfect image of a closed system -- and only an open system is susceptible to evolution.

In the English-speaking world, change was eventually understood "as a permanent, necessary, and even sanctified element of true religion." This also plays a role in our inherent optimism, which is a kind of earthly analogue of Christian hope.

Mead makes the critical point that in the Anglo-American world, We are all Abraham now. The idea that we can and should have "a personal relationship with God" has "for more than three centuries been strengthening its hold in American life." That we must all "answer the call" and discover our own identity, vocation, and meaning, testifies "to the power of the Abrahamic archetype in the American mind":

"The Abrahamic believer, convinced that God is leading the way to an unknown future in a new land, is ready to accept not only the personal but also social consequences" of his freedom -- including his economic freedom. Those grounded in static religion naturally have difficulty accepting change, but "for the dynamic believer, change is both a sign of progress and an opportunity to show the growing virtue of faith." Thus, "with an energy that no centralizing power could ever summon or shape, millions of Americans through decades and centuries spontaneously" struggle to improve themselves and progress toward God.


In the last two sections of the book, Mead addresses the Lessons of History and the Meaning of it All. He largely rejects the postmodern view that "no single story line can capture the complexity of contemporary life."

As mentioned yesterday, there are three (or possibly four) mutually exclusive grand narratives in competition, 1) European style socialism (which subsumes such hideous developments as identity politics, multiculturalism, moral relativism, deconstruction, victimology, and the unintentionally ironic rejection of all grand narrative except for its own), 2) Islamism, and 3) Anglo-American classical liberalism.

Thus, we should not be altogether surprised at the de facto alliance between the left and the Islamists, as they share the common enemy of American liberalism and its foundation in Judeo-Christian principles.

Now, a Raccoon has his own "grand narrative," but it is cosmic -- even metacosmic -- as opposed to global. To be perfectly accurate, he places global events in the larger framework of cosmic evolution, of the 14 billion year drama of cosmogenesis-to-cosmotheosis, AKA the arc of salvolution. This is the true Meaning of it All, and the only real way to comprehend both the Meaning and the Lessons of History. Otherwise you are within history, a conditioned subject of your own narrative.

To put it another way, the meta-cosmic narrative is the only one grand enough to comprehend us, rather than vice versa. In other words, if your grand narrative is rooted in mere reason, it will explain everything but the grand narrator, who is the most important part. How grand can one's narrative be if it doesn't even explain oneself?

Mead writes that "History as we know it began about three or four thousand years ago," when "a wandering herdsman named Abram heard what he believed to be a call from God."

But in our view (and the view of Genesis, properly understood), History actually began 13 or 14 billion years ago, when an ordered cosmos uniquely suited to the development of life and mind sprang into existence from "nothing." True, Abram took the mysterious call, but it was from the nonlocal Author of this mysterious cosmos, not just some local tribal deity. Of course, he couldn't have known that at the time, but still, this means that there is a thread that connects the origin of the cosmos to the origin of America and ultimately to the destiny of the world.

Put it this way: in order for Alpha and Omega to meet in the herebelow, the emergence of ordered liberty is absolutely necessary. For to err is genetic, to evolve divine.


Van said...

"Put it this way: in order for Alpha and Omega to meet in the herebelow, the emergence of ordered liberty is absolutely necessary. For to err is genetic, to evolve divine."

Ah... I like that... the best and most laughty lines come from those that are most True.

Tigtog said...

To Gagdad re:

a "trinity," a three part dynamism that Mead calls tradition-revelation-reason.

I am home playing Mr. Mom while sorting out job offers. I thoroughly enjoyed your last couple of missives. I could not help but wonder when considering Meads' trinity that he is, and you are describing three dimensions. Hate to be a nag, but I have always felt your model (horizontal and vertical world view) needed a third dimension to complete it. My gut instinct has always been towards the intergenerational personality of man. No one is a true orphan. I guess this would be described by Mead as tradition. Hope all is well.

julie said...


Speaking for myself I've always pictured the horizontal and vertical as a spherical model - that is, within the horizontal there are both an x and a z axis, while the vertical pertains to the y axis. Don't know if that helps, but the horizontal/ vertical imagery isn't something Bob pulled out of thin air, it's a concept pretty well developed by a great many metaphysicians and theologians from what I've seen.

Describing graphs in a visual format pretty much necessitates drawing them in 2 dimensions, and it's a way of simplifying things, but that doesn't mean the concept is only two dimensional.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

Gaghdad Bob, I've come across a mention of this book before in the circle at church, and I'd like to accept the thesis. The only difficulty with it (and it is a difficulty I also have with your posts, profound and generally helpful as they are) is that I am skeptical about the possibility of having this Anglo-American "progress" and maintaining Schuon's center. I've been a little bit influenced here, by Guenon & Evola & others, and tend to agree with PK Sorokin that the "synthesis" of faith/reason or ideal/ideational over time naturally devolves (rather than evolves) into a sensate culture and society. I applaud your intention to prevent such from happening, but it is difficult to see how the American synthesis can sustain itself, concretely, along these lines, much as this would be better than what we are headed towards. Instead, we seem to be sinking into an era of Quantification and mass that will swamp any discussion of anything else, let alone submit to being integrated or subordinated to the Center...

ge said...

President Palin!
get used to it

Gagdad Bob said...


I don't disagree with anything you said, except that history demonstrates that it is quite difficult to maintain any dynamic synthesis over time. Even if Guenon were correct about the necessary deterioration brought about by time -- and I reject that thesis entirely -- there is no virtue in simply surrendering to entropy. Nor do I think that we should in any way devalue the historical time into which we are born, which is as providential and valuable as any -- or, it is our duty to render it so.

Tigtog said...

To: Julie
Re: "I've always pictured the horizontal and vertical as a spherical model"

Me too, thats why I am hung up on the two axis polemic. As I have said before, the z axis is probably intergenerational and interpersonal. This could be described as history, tradition, or simply to the many forms of personal responsibility you accept in life (e.g., child, son, father, etc.). It is the singular conscious mind interwoven with others through time. We are traveling agents with responsibilities. The vertical is uniquely singular as is the horizontal, the z axis offers a complement to two largely singular phenomena, it offers us play time with others, should we choose to select it.

I think of it as snowflakes, each similar, yet each unique.