dinsdag 30 juli 2013

Moral vacuum

Most of us, at least outside the bible belts, are not afraid anymore of an allmighty, punishing God who monitors all of our comings and goings. And as to the omnipotence of nature, we mostly feel (rightly or not) we manage to reduce it to acceptable proportions.

It feels like progress that we are more able to relativize the absolute demands of the high authorities of the past, so that there is no longer a massive set of rules that everyone must obey. We now believe that every person has a right to their own opinions and that other opinions should be respected, even if it produces a multitude of viewpoints.

But where does that progress bring us? Does this trend not necessarily end in a cacophony of opinions and touchiness, or otherwise in aimlessness and indifference?

The Dutch historian Thijs Kleinpaste treats that question. Indeed, he says, we accept each other's equality, but there are many indications that we hardly want to consider the implications. Because real equality would mean that we are aware of the tragedy associated with the collision of several conflicting but legitimate views. Plurality of views means that irreconcilable opinions rubb painfully against each other and that nevertheless you want to keep it that way, says Kleinpaste.

Michael Sandel discusses the same question. He notes that with the disappearance of the great moral legislators (God and Nature) also the moral debate has disappeared. Important issues are only addressed yet in a technocratic or administrative way. We are so aware of the fact that we think differently about the public good, that in the public domain we try to be as neutral as possible and set aside our moral convictions. Hence the embrace of the concept of the free market: that is supposed to be neutral also.

But meanwhile, Sandel says, people yearn for public debate on major ethical issues. He notes that with his students. During debate colleges their faces radiate because they feel included in a community by the debate. Precisely because of the respectful exchange of views, however different, a sense of belonging is created.

But apparently that happens too seldom, Sandel thinks. You might conclude that progress has not yet sufficiently advanced. We hang halfway: God and nature can not scare us any longer with absoluta, nor do they give us moral guidelines. But there is nothing yet which has come instead.

What could possibly take its place? What is needed so that we again get the feeling that something is at stake?

In line with what Sandel says, I think we can take each our own and other people's opinions more seriously. With the effect that we not just tacitly allow everyone to have his opinion, but that we more actively question each other's views. Not in a panting or sensational way, but definitely curiously and eagerly. Because strange enough, that creates commonality.

Also see Holy Fire, Polyphony and Secular Varieties

vrijdag 12 juli 2013


I do not know if it is true: that the Christian West has always opposed unworldliness and ethereal tendencies that can easily make a religion a bit vague or woolly.

This suggestion is presented in an article by the philosopher Ger Groot when he says that hostility to the world for Christian orthodoxy has always been a form of heresy. But in my opinion in the same article he provides examples to the contrary, such as the deep-rooted conception of truth as eternal and incorporeal, the love of theory, and the Christian hope of the final victory of mind over matter. Which last hope even in secularized form lives on in the pursuit of Stephen Hawking and other leading physicists to achieve a transcendent theory of everything.

One may wonder whether it is not rather the Jewish tradition that represents the resistance against that all-equalizing tendency which missionary religions like Christianity and Islam, but also the Enlightenment, incline to. It is quite a proposition which I formulate here, I realize, but it helps me to better understand a number of historical and social phenomena.

For instance, the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. It owed its genesis partly to the refusal of the Rabbinical Jewish leaders to accept the – in their eyes bizarre – Christian claims about a cosmic redemption. A bit more supportive evidence should be added to these claims, they reasoned. They were reproached for this sober rejection of lofty heavenly speculations, all through Western history.

From this perspective the earthly, rooted character of Judaism could, at that metaphysical level, at times also be a stumbling block to the secular successors to the lofty-theory-seeking Christianity – precisely because of its earthliness. That might explain why Hawking refuses to participate in the Israeli Presidential Conference of scholars. This refusal goes beyond a boycott of the settlements, which I could understand quite well. Rather, the absoluteness of Hawking’s total boycott demonstrates a metaphysical kind of discomfort with what Judaism stands for.

Then there is in somewhat obscure Western art circles the tendency to associate the Jewish people with the moon – and from there with night and materialism – and Christianity with the sun – and thus with celestial spheres and profundity. Now there’s possibly something right with that, because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and the Christian on the solar cycle. But still, such a theme and the unnecessary associations that go with it, are mainly a manifestation of the Western tendency to look to the skies.

Finally, when the current Pope as he took office warned that “the Church must keep far from worldliness, as worldliness is the devil”, that connects with foundational Christian texts like “You will be in the world but not of the world”. And then I am not sure whether Groots suggestion is tenable, and I feel confirmed in my view that appreciation of the physical and material world is rather a Jewish hobby.

I am sure, however, that my contention is not for  hundred percent true because in the Jewish tradition a certain kind of idealism thrives eminently well. Namely messianism, ie the expectation of a golden future for the world, not least in a moral sense. And not necessarily only reserved for the Jews but as a destination for all humanity.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line