Monday, April 12, 2010

The Real Roots of Modern Moral Sensibilities

My post from last weekend discussed the origins of modern secular morality, and its relation to European Christian civilization. A reader named North Bridge tried to comment on that thread, but was unsuccessful, due to technical difficulties. He emailed me his post, and since I welcome alternative viewpoints, I am happy to present it here.

I don’t entirely agree with North Bridge’s restatement of my position, but I’ll let it stand for the sake of argument. Experts in Christian and secular moral philosophy should examine his points closely, and are invited to add their own opinions (civilly, mind you) in the comments.

I lack the expertise in ecclesiastical history to be able to engage his arguments and refute them — if indeed they can be refuted. And at my advanced age I’m unlikely to acquire the necessary knowledge, so I’ll defer to those who are more qualified and who may wish to discuss what North Bridge has to say:

If I can go back to the starting point of this debate, Baron made the point that our modern moral sensibilities (for lack of a better term) are shaped by Christianity. I believe his intent was to argue that even anti-Christians carry an imprint of Christianity insofar as they share in this modern sensibility, and that they should acknowledge this contribution. In simple terms, the argument seems to be: Even if you reject Christianity you should acknowledge that you are indebted to it in crucial ways.

The comments have been somewhat scattershot. Baron’s argument is a far cry from claiming that you are either a Christian or an advocate of human sacrifice. It seems to be more of an argument for understanding and acknowledging the contribution of Christianity to our intellectual heritage, whether or not you individually are a Christian.

However, I believe there is a skewed reading of history behind the argument.

As a matter of historical fact, Christians were the first to articulate a universalist ethics, based on the idea that every human soul is precious in the eyes of God. This is the heritage that Baron is alluding to.. However, the Christians also fervently preached the opposition of soul and body, with the body being an unworthy, despicable, temporary prison for the soul. Thus they had no compunctions about torturing, maiming, burning people’s bodies in an effort to save their souls. The wholesale slaughter of heretics, the burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition are all integral parts of the history of Christianity.
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To argue that the slaughter and havoc perpetrated by Christians does not represent “real” Christianity is disingenuous. It was not caused by a reliance of the Old Testament rather than the New, as some have argued, but by the rejection of the body and the physical world that was integral to Christianity from St. Paul in the 1st Century up to Aquinas in the 13th. Christians mutilated their own bodies, whipped and starved themselves to transcend the prison of the flesh — and it was just a matter of consistency that they would do the same to others to effect their salvation.. The bloodshed was completely consistent with Christian core doctrine. (It may be true that it was inconsistent with Jesus’ intentions, or any other particular individual’s intentions, but that is beside the point. The argument is about the contribution of Christianity, not of Jesus.)

The error here is an attempt to read modern moral sensibilities — the sensibilities Baron was talking about — into history in retrospect. You can’t claim that only those expressions of Christianity that pass muster with modern sensibilities represent “real” Christianity — or if you do, the entire argument becomes circular.

Our modern-day repugnance at human slaughter is not Christian; that is my key point. It is a product of the Enlightenment. It is a fusion product of the universal outlook that Christians introduced — with the Roman conception of law, and the Greek conception that mind and body are a unity (i.e., that the human body is as noble as the “soul”), and the Enlightenment view that all men are possessed of reason and capable of dealing with each other by means of reason and persuasion.

Modern-day, post-Enlightenment Christians are to a large extent secularized. They take for granted their civilized manners and respect for other men’s rights, their mild comportment and benevolent intentions, and imagine that all this is “real” Christianity — whereas, in fact, their moral sensibilities are primarily shaped by the anti-religious, this-worldly Enlightenment. Pre-Enlightenment Christians just did not have that moral repugnance at seeing witches go up in flames that Baron credits them with.

So Baron, I would say that you are committing a variant of the error you argue against. You fail to acknowledge the real roots of your modern moral sensibilities. Just as you are right to point out that pagan religions did not have the respect for human life that we take for granted today, so you are wrong to assume that Christianity did. “Respect for human life” is a very modern concept.

I could go further and argue that specifically Christian sensibilities (as distinct from the Enlightenment respect for other men’s rights) are the root cause of the West’s appalling weakness in the current conflict with primordial barbarians. “Turn the other cheek,” “Love thy enemy,” etc. But that would require another long post.

— North Bridge

16 comments:

Michael Servetus said...

It seems to me that the ending of this post contradicts what went before. To claim that Christianity was not averse to blood shed and that this is a result of the despising of the body, and then at the end try to hasve it both ways, saying that the root of today's problem in confronting threats is due to Christian love thy neighbor and pacifism is strangely ridiculous.

It seems North Bridge would have Christianity pilloried every which way he can without fear or knowledge of contradicting himself. Thus I would say I detect a bias and a secular interpreatation of history which does not due justice to the spirit of Christianity and its manifold expression and reach.
One shoould distinguish between stages of "Christianity". If one goes to the Early Church Fathers it is clear that early Christians disavowed violence and retaliation, not because they were sentimental softies but because ythey were hardcore in their hope in a promised land and spiritual inheritance reserved for them, gained by the obedience of faith in the Messiah.
If one looks at the catechismjk of Hypolytus from about 3rd century AD there is a requirement that those desiring baptism leave the army. Also all througout the Early Church Writings you will find rebukes of the pratice of baby exposure and gratuitous violence and torture, including the gladiator and arena spectacles.

What does this mean? It is obvious , especially when examining the reasonings the Christinas gave for their judgements on such things. So why did they separate themselves and not partake in the common practices of the contemporaneous cruelties? They had real solid faith. So does that define Christianity? Well according to North Bridge, he doesn't like that, no, the evils that came later in the name of Catholic government and some under Protestant government must define it. He says to say that some of the evils mentioned do not represent real Christianity is disingenuine. No sorry you are wrong, you can't conveniently pick and choose what you you want to represent Christianity either and it is interesting to see what you pick and why you pick it North Bridge, just as it is relevant to know what I pick and why.
I consider that I do love Christ and the Christianity that Christ is the head of and I do see her in her best light as those who suffer for righteousness's sake, and as a pure virgin, not in theory but in practice in reality, so no man is a Christian who merely professes the name just as the Lord of the name says and defines who is a Christian. to be continued below
That is my first argument.

Michael Servetus said...

ontinuation


...Secondly to simplisitcally summarize the ethos of Christianity as a dualism of spirit vs body is , well, too simple a predesigned grid to lay on top of it to get simply cut answers out of, although I am sure that suit you. What you are talking about was not consistently or universally practiced by all.
If that specious and revisionsit theory were true then why don't Christians continue to practice things this way? Again you will find a small part of the so called Church who indulge in such sentimentality and ideas. The Protestant Reformation, open to criticism, was not a reformation of Christianity but a going back to the true principles of Christianity, or at least a mighty attempt and a essential part of our secular freedom, tolerance and deliverance, all based on scripture and reason.
It is quite a silly thing to say that the idea of reason came from the enlightenment if one sees how much of a great use the early Christians made of it to reprove others and pagan mythology especially according to the logos doctrine.For instance check out Lanctatius in his Divine Institutes one amongst many.
As to your frivolous and unfounded claims, especially that pre-enlightenment Christians didn't have any repugance to burning people or whatever, first is disproved by what is already established in fact, not opinion, then there are more modern examples of the those enlightnment thinkers who were Christian. Consider John Locke for example and his letters on Toleration and his Treatises on Government, or Sebastian Castellio of Geneva, again just to name a couple.
That's what I have to say based upon what immediatley ocmes to mind.

EscapeVelocity said...

I was going to respond (not that Im an expert in these matters but I like to dabble and participate in discussions about them)....but Servetus got it in the first paragraph.

Furthermore, he is taking exceptiional Christian behavior, cherry picking as it were, and assigning that to the whole of Christianity/Christendom.

As I was writing before, it is very easy to cherry pick and rip Christiainity, but its not Enlightening. Pardon the pun.

Daniel said...

Christianity from the first century onwards rejected the hostility toward the body shown by Gnostics and others, insisting that everything God created was good; hence the appeal of the thought that evil is a privation. By the 13th century, Christianity was becoming Aristotelian, treating soul and body as intertwined. No mainstream Christian thinker justified cruelty. The flagellants, whenever they appeared, were always on the fringe, and I can think of nothing in any mainstream Christian writer that would justify the Inquisition or the savagery of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggles--most of which were short-lived, because they shocked even their practitioners.

IoshkaFutz said...

"...Our modern-day repugnance at human slaughter is not Christian; that is my key point. It is a product of the Enlightenment..."

Signor North Bridge has got his facts skewed. First of all the Inqisition really didn't kill that many people. Get a hold of Vox Day's free book "The Irrational Atheist" to get the figures. You'll be surprised.

Or just check out what happened in Vendeé France.

But the real issue is another. The Enlightenment changed the nature of violence and slaughter. For the Enlightenment and its heirs, murder and mayhem were not so much the result of hatred - as say - Christians vs Jews in Medieval Europe, but out of LOVE for causes.

In effect, the Enlightenment "spiritualized" murder and mayhem. The killing sprees of old were turned into rational campaigns.

The way was found to do the ugly work cold. And that ugly work became all the more effective. So in a way it is true that our modern-day repugnance is from the Enlightenment. But it is only repugnance towards the emotional (human / real) element in murder and mayhem.

When the still religious-cultural Serbs reacted to the Kossovars, who were taking over their land, homes, culture, ways... that violence was an Enlightenment sin because of its emotional (physical and real) component.

When (or if) instead the Enlightenment-inspired Neo-Cons decide to bomb Serbia or Iran or Afganistan or Iraq, causing much more death, then it is not a sin because it is done for a CAUSE, even though America might not have much of a physical dog in those fights.

The biggest Enlightenment killer of all time was the Great Leap Forward. As the name itself suggests: done for a cause. An honest-to-goodness peasant revolt would have never caused such a thorough hecatomnb.

Same goes for the Holodomir: the Kulaks were starved to death by the millions for a "greater good."

When it comes to murder and mayhem, all the Enlightenment really did was upgrade the manslaughter and second-degree murder (with intent, but without premeditation) into State sponsored, rationally inspired, coldly inflicted first degree murder.

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." That's Diderot, Enlightenment Philosophe.

So much for repugnance. Notice the combinations. "Men" (meaning humanity, not this or that group, EVERBODY); the worthy goal is "freedom" (which can mean anything); "last king" (all kings, not a bad one, all of them, the whole category. "Last Priest" (same as above, the whole category).

Far better and I would even say MORAL to at least truly and physically HATE actual people or sub-groups because you and your own have a real dog in the fight.

David said...

A Christian of stature and inspiration said well "... As Tagore, the poet of India, once observed, “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man” (Charles L. Wallis, ed., The Treasure Chest, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, p. 49). Children are the promise of the future. They are the future itself. The tragedy is that so many are born to lives of sorrow, of hunger, of fear and trouble and want. Children become the victims, in so many, many cases, of man’s inhumanity to man. In recent months we have seen them on our television screens—the children of Somalia, their bodies bloated, their eyes staring with the stare of death. More recently we have seen them in Rwanda, the victims of raging cholera and vicious and unrelenting hunger. Uncounted numbers have died.

These were the promise of a new and better generation in these lands, where disease, malnutrition, bullets, and neglect have mowed them down like tender plants before the sharp blade of the sickle.

Why are men so vicious as to bring about the causes that lead to such terrible fratricidal conflict? Great, I believe, will be their tribulation in the Day of Judgment when they must stand before the Almighty accused of the suffering and destruction of these little ones. I am grateful for kind and generous people of many faiths and persuasions across the world whose hearts reach out in sympathy, many of whom give freely of their substance, their time, even their presence to help those in such terrible distress. I am grateful that we as a church have done much of significance, as President Monson pointed out last night, in sending medicines, food and clothing, and blankets for warmth and shelter to those who suffer so terribly, and particularly to children who otherwise most certainly would die.

Why should they suffer so much in so many places? Surely God, our Eternal Father, must weep when he sees the abuse that is heaped upon his little ones, for I am satisfied they hold a special place in his grand design. That place was confirmed when his Son, the Savior of the world, walked the dusty roads of Palestine.

“And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.

“But Jesus … said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

“Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:15–17).

How great is our responsibility, how serious the responsibility of Christian people and men and women of goodwill everywhere to reach out to ease the plight of suffering children, to lift them from the rut of despair in which they walk.

Of course such suffering is not new. Plagues of disease have in centuries past swept across continents. War has caused the deaths of millions who were totally innocent. Children have been bartered and traded; they have been used as tools by vicious masters; they have mined coal for long hours day after day in the dark and cold depths of the earth; they have worked in sweatshops and been exploited like cheap merchandise.

Surely after all of the history we have read, after all of the suffering of which we have been told, after all of the exploitation of which we are aware, we can do more than we are now doing to lift the blight that condemns millions of children to lives that know little of happiness, that are tragically brief, and that are filled with pain.

And we need not travel halfway across the earth to find weeping children. Countless numbers of them cry out in fear and loneliness from the evil consequences of moral transgression, neglect, and abuse. I speak plainly, perhaps indelicately. But I know of no other way to make clear a matter about which I feel so strongly." Gordon B. Hinkley,
1994

David said...

"As Tagore, the poet of India, once observed, “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man” (Charles L. Wallis, ed., The Treasure Chest, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, p. 49). Children are the promise of the future. They are the future itself. The tragedy is that so many are born to lives of sorrow, of hunger, of fear and trouble and want. Children become the victims, in so many, many cases, of man’s inhumanity to man. In recent months we have seen them on our television screens—the children of Somalia, their bodies bloated, their eyes staring with the stare of death. More recently we have seen them in Rwanda, the victims of raging cholera and vicious and unrelenting hunger. Uncounted numbers have died.

These were the promise of a new and better generation in these lands, where disease, malnutrition, bullets, and neglect have mowed them down like tender plants before the sharp blade of the sickle.

Why are men so vicious as to bring about the causes that lead to such terrible fratricidal conflict? Great, I believe, will be their tribulation in the Day of Judgment when they must stand before the Almighty accused of the suffering and destruction of these little ones. I am grateful for kind and generous people of many faiths and persuasions across the world whose hearts reach out in sympathy, many of whom give freely of their substance, their time, even their presence to help those in such terrible distress. I am grateful that we as a church have done much of significance, as President Monson pointed out last night, in sending medicines, food and clothing, and blankets for warmth and shelter to those who suffer so terribly, and particularly to children who otherwise most certainly would die.

Why should they suffer so much in so many places? Surely God, our Eternal Father, must weep when he sees the abuse that is heaped upon his little ones, for I am satisfied they hold a special place in his grand design. That place was confirmed when his Son, the Savior of the world, walked the dusty roads of Palestine.

“And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.

“But Jesus … said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

“Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:15–17).

How great is our responsibility, how serious the responsibility of Christian people and men and women of goodwill everywhere to reach out to ease the plight of suffering children, to lift them from the rut of despair in which they walk.

Of course such suffering is not new. Plagues of disease have in centuries past swept across continents. War has caused the deaths of millions who were totally innocent. Children have been bartered and traded; they have been used as tools by vicious masters; they have mined coal for long hours day after day in the dark and cold depths of the earth; they have worked in sweatshops and been exploited like cheap merchandise.

Surely after all of the history we have read, after all of the suffering of which we have been told, after all of the exploitation of which we are aware, we can do more than we are now doing to lift the blight that condemns millions of children to lives that know little of happiness, that are tragically brief, and that are filled with pain.

And we need not travel halfway across the earth to find weeping children. Countless numbers of them cry out in fear and loneliness from the evil consequences of moral transgression, neglect, and abuse. I speak plainly, perhaps indelicately. But I know of no other way to make clear a matter about which I feel so strongly."

Gordon B. Hinkley, 1994

Damon said...

My small contribution (and me an agnostic atheist as well!):

I find North Bridge’s characterisation of Christianity (all of it, all the time except for recently) as "dualist" in the sense of soul/good:body/evil to be bizarre in the extreme. While there certainly were (nominally) Christian sects that held this view, the Church very early on repudiated it. Jesus himself didn't seem to hold that view -- surely he taught that the body was ultimately unimportant, not evil.

As to "Christians mutilated their own bodies, whipped and starved themselves to transcend the prison of the flesh" -- St Benedict (in his Rules) heavily discouraged such behaviour.

Other posters have pointed out that the "Spanish Inquisition" did not in fact kill a lot of people. There is absolutely no doubt that groups such as this, and the Protestant zealots, could be violent -- but this was a general feature of medieval life, not of Christianity itself. The standard punishment for theft was generally hanging in most of the medieval world.

juliagwin said...

Christ, who is the author of all creation, who holds all things together (dark matter / missing mass) and who sustains our every breath, chose to become incarnate. He lived and died in a physical body that became tired, slept, ate, perspired, etc. He rose from the dead also in a physical body that could be handled, touched and could eat. The Gnostics embraced a Christian heresy, teaching the physical was evil and only the spiritual was good. This was, in fact, an ancient philosophy in new clothes, syncretizing itself with the rise of Christianity. There is really nothing new under the sun.

God created a physical world, with physical bodies and pronounced it all "very good." This creation shall be redeemed, not repudiated. God's purposes have not been thwarted by us.

The overwhelming testimony of Christianity is one of great goodness. Christians stay when the plague rages and all others have fled. Christians build orphanages and hospitals. Christians minister to the sick, the friendless and the needy. When we do otherwise, we do not live in harmony with our sacred text.

On another topic, I find murder without passion to be the more wicked. This kind of murder that is done by secular regimes - cold, intelligent, planned, efficient.

On yet another topic, I find the persecution of Christians troubling and fearful, for it is a sign of perdition / destruction (See Philippians 1:28).

Anonymous said...

This discussion has gone off track.

What is the root of modern moral sensibility? Prosperity. Hungry people, with hungry kids, don't worry so much about other people's rights and sensibilities. Or whether they themselves are leading a fulfilling and self-actualized life. Or about what rights animals have.

Roman culture in the late empire was similar. Feminism and women's rights was an ongoing issue in the Caliphate before the Mongols smashed it to bits. Christianity and Christian societies are not unique in this regard.

We can expect that, as prosperity disappears, the current moral sensibility will too.

linbetwin said...

Well said, Rollory!

I, too, think that a society's economic and social situation is the main factor that influences its moral structure. People give ideology too much credit. They like to blame the liberals, the Marxists... But ideologies arise from the "reality on the ground". Feminism wouldn't have too many adepts in a society in which physical strength and martial skills are vital. PETA didn't exist in the days when animals posed a real threat to people, crops and livestock and hunting was dangerous, yet essential for survival.

Women can afford to be feminists today, people can afford to be kind to bears. We can afford to be tolerant of almost anything because we're better fed, healthier, more secure and happier than at any time in the history of our species.

But let's see what happens when/if countries default, benefits run out, food and energy prices skyrocket and so on...

Evanston2 said...

Daniel and Damon are absolutely right, the Bible does not support dualism (or another gnostic heresy based on it -- docetism). North Bridge's other anti-"christian" arguments are, in fact, directed toward practices that are not Christian. The Roman church's syncretism produced counterfeit "christian" actions such as holding to Greek "science" to oppose Galileo, embracing pagan asceticism and self-flagellation, and coercion (the Inquisition) to promote "belief" and suppress people's knowledge of the Bible. Read the Bible so you know the real thing when you see it...or get taken by the peddlers of counterfeits.

EscapeVelocity said...

I get my information on Christianity from the Christian scholars, Dawkins, Grayling, Harris, and Hitchens.

IoshkaFutz said...

"....Read the Bible so you know the real thing when you see it...or get taken by the peddlers of counterfeits..."

With something like 33,000 protestant churches and counting, telling people to simply "read the Bible" to get the real deal, is undoubtedly well-meant, but self-evidently flawed. Sola Scriptura has turned into anyone-and-his-uncle's "lectura". This is not me being snarky, it's clearly in the numbers.

IoshkaFutz said...

"....But let's see what happens when/if countries default, benefits run out, food and energy prices skyrocket and so on......"

And yet different religions with opposing values cropped up in identical milieus. Surely the environment plays a role, but what you suggest seems better suited to the animal kingdom than to man who has a conscience and a free will and is provenly quite fond of overcoming the imposed difficulties. Some turn pastures into deserts and others deserts into pastures.

Actually the "see what happens when/if" approach is valid even in times of great material wealth and comfort. There is also a thing noted as "poverty in riches"... as a matter of fact, that seems to be the bigger problem at the moment in many fine countries.

Evanston2 said...

IoshkaFutz, Regarding the number of different denominations, I used to make the same argument myself against Christianity. You will find, if you care to read the Bible, that its teachings are main and plain. The apparent "splits" among denominations and congregations often have more to do with governance (that is, organization as an institution) or worship style than with belief. Sadly, just as often there are splits due to a reliance on extra-Biblical sources of "authority" that fail to complement the Bible and actually contradict it. I respect your skepticism, any teaching that demands the dedication of your entire life should be held to the highest standards. That said, I recommend you read some books or listen to downloads of talks by RC Sproul or John MaCarthur or Ravi Zacharias. This may not be true of you, but most people I meet "learn" enough about the Bible to not believe it, and then quit...and even then, what they "know" is faulty (as were the defects in the comments by North Bridge).