donderdag 24 december 2009

That makes sense

That makes sense, I thought, when a headline reported that Moscow and the Vatican want to strengthen their mutual relationship. Because, when I read that, I took 'Moscow' as a reference to the ‘Russian soul’. And that soul stands for mystical experience and not for a political or diplomatic authority. With that interpretation, I was not too far wrong, as the message appeared to be about a rapprochement between the Russian Orthodox Church - the guardian of that soul - and the Roman Catholic Church.

Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have a lot in common. They both cherish warm music and a sheltering mysticism. This is no wonder, because their cultures both stem from a time when reason was not yet as almighty as she was from the seventeenth century. They survived the blow that rational thinking has struck and which made Protestantism feel so cold and scanty. That shared ancient warmth makes the liturgies of Rome and Moscow very enjoyable and their mystique - whatever it is worth - so real. Probably they recognize and appreciate this in one another.

In addition, they both are not very fond of enlightenment and democracy. In Russia, they are surprisingly open about that. Many nationalists, including Solzhenitsyn, believe that the autonomy of the individual clashes with the mystical experience of the unity of God and country in Russia. And according to the Russian philosopher Alexandr Tsipko the Russians don’t connect very well to liberal ideas.

The Catholic Church is not equally open about this, because nowadays this church is rooted too much in modern Western society. In some countries she even has benefited a lot from modern liberal views on religious freedom. In the Netherlands for instance that made possible the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1853.

Nevertheless in my estimation lay participation and democracy are not in the DNA of the Catholic Church, the real match is lacking. The church is not strongly opposed to them, and certainly has an eye for the blessings that democracy and the constitutional state entailed. But she does not get really enthousiastic about it. The relationship rather resembles a marriage of convenience.

Also of that the Netherlands offer a good illustration. Because from the moment that in the sixties the experiments started with influence from below, with a more understandable liturgy and a place for women and lay-folk, it went downhill with the church. The national, broad Dutch folk church seems not to survive its internal democratization. What remains are the more conservative Catholic groups. These are small, but vital. The real Catholicism, it appears, is strongly tied to hierarchy and classical piety, in a traditional style. Exactly as archbishop Eijk would have it.

This strengthens my preference for a tradition with which democratic thought and shrewd reasoning are in the genes, combined with warm music and ancient rites.

dinsdag 1 december 2009


The British sociologist Frank Furedi was in Holland lately and he spoke and wrote about authority. But his line of thought was not really clear to me, neither during his Thomas More-lecture, nor in his NRC-article.

The tenor of his contributions is mostly bleak. Furedi gets pessimistic about the fact that society today has lost something it cannot miss, namely authority. No society can survive without the presence of authoritative institutions, a form of collective authority is required. Once that authority existed in the shape of the self-confidence of professionals - teachers, judges, scientists and doctors - and the confidence that the population as a whole had in those professionals. That was something a society could build upon. Such firmness is wanting nowadays. Professionals no longer believe in themselves, they prefer to hide behind procedures and 'experts'. And people no longer trust the professionals. Hence the proliferation of rules and procedures. Those should fill the authority vacuum, but actually tend to undermine authority only further.

But at the same time Furedi points out that those expert advices have only a shaky reputation. This is apparent "from the continuously fierce debates on subjects like education, health, lifestyle". Many citizens have an aversion against the exagagerated rules and the procedural society. They prefer to believe in themselves. It is true that this causes erosion of traditional authority but if – in line with Furedi's own formulation - authority has to do with belief in yourself, then that civil empowerment may be seen as a new form of authority. Indeed, should not this observation make Furedi a bit more optimistic?

I feel encouraged in that last thought because of the fuss surrounding the Dutch vaccination campaign against the Mexican flu. According to the pessimistic view that campaign does not proceed well. There is cause for concern because the Ministry and the medical profession don’t succeed in getting large groups of people to be injected. They don’t have enough authority.

But authority, defined as the radiation of faith in yourself and getting the respect for it, is present indeed. The person who refuses injection can be considered as the self-conscious person who rejects the patronizing society and overdone legislation which Furedi detests so much. He believes in himself and from that standpoint arrives at relativizing the rules.

And our national vaccination doctor, Mr. Coutinho, and his colleagues believe in themselves no less. They stand for the message they bring and they don’t blame failing communication strategies or stupid citizens for the lack of response. From that perspective, they are no less authoritative than are the refusers. Indeed, there almost is a surplus of authority, at least when you describe authority as ‘to stand for what you believe in’.

What is clearly lacking, especially compared to earlier times, is authority in the sense of control over society as a whole. Like something which a complete collective listens to. If Furedi wants to stick to that idea of authority - he almost approvingly cites Odysseus and Plato when they argue for collective authority under a single leader - he has reason to be pessimistic. But the question is whether that’s not an outdated idea. Until halfway modernity nation states could keep themselves going with that, at the national level citizens rallied behind their leaders. That does not work any longer.

Thijs Jansen and Loet Leydesdorff (in the newspaper Trouw) think we have reached the situation that no longer the entire population of a country can be convinced of the use of for instance such a vaccination campaign. At its best that may succeed in small, overseeable communities. Differences of insight will, thanks to scientific progress, remain with us. Indeed, they say, the awareness has been firmly established that knowledge is often only provisional. In former days people were not affected by that thought.

I want to add yet another factor, that has nothing to do with science or (post-) modernity. That factor is as old as the world and consists in the possibility people have to just say No. It has been frequently shown that the contents of an actual issue is completely irrelevant when it comes to such a refusal. It may even be that people agree with the contents of a plan and still refuse to accept it. Simply because someone else created it and thought in your stead.

Also see Parrhesia