Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. L. Mencken, and the Uplift

Odd, that two men as different as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the New England Puritan, and H. L. Mencken, the infidel sage of Baltimore, were such kindred spirits when it came to what Mencken called the “Uplift.” Mencken’s loathing for the professional saviors of the world is well known. Here’s what Hawthorne had to say about the type, represented by Hollingsworth in “The Blithedale Romance.”
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“…Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be. And this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he had himself conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, at last-as these men of a mighty purpose so invariably do-he had grown to be the bond-slave. It was his philanthropic theory!”
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“He knew absolutely nothing, except in a single direction, where he had thought so energetically, and felt to such a depth, that, no doubt, the entire reason and justice of the universe appeared to be concentrated thitherward.”
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“…They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose.”
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“They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect-so cunning has the Devil been with them-that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.”
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…so Hawthorne, the novelist and prophet.
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hawthorne

Gregory of Tours, the Trinity, Gay Marriage, and Liberal Christianity

Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
I am the least spiritual of men, and believe in no gods or supernatural beings of any kind, my only deviation in these matters being a slight case of triskaidekaphobia. However, I do take an interest in history, and religious belief has certainly played a significant role therein. It’s interesting that the times most people would consider the most enlightened are not necessarily those coincident with the highest levels of sophistication when it comes to religious belief. In fact, some of the writings that have come down to us from what Europeans call the “Dark Ages” are hardly behindhand in that regard. To support this assertion, I call to the stand Gregory, Bishop of Tours, who wrote in the latter half of the 6th century A.D., a time when England was shrouded in a deep historical mist. Gregory was a chatty, gossipy, entertaining writer, who lived in and described firsthand the horrific scene in western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a time of warring petty states whose kings and nobility tortured, murdered, and robbed their subjects, of constant devastating plagues, natural disasters and famines, and periodic social chaos. If you want some real insight into what it was like, read Gregory’s “History of the Franks.” He won’t disappoint you.

In spite of it all, Gregory, scion of an old Roman senatorial family, somehow managed to acquire an education, and no mean skill as a theologian. In those days, the Goths, Vandals, and most of the other Christianized barbarian tribes had adopted a Unitarian version of the faith before Athanasius and his followers had managed to gain acceptance for their Trinitarian teachings. When the Trinitarians gained the upper hand in what remained of the Empire, the surrounded barbarians remained Unitarians, with the exception of the Franks. In the excerpt that follows, Gregory, an orthodox Catholic, describes a debate he had with a visiting Unitarian cleric from the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. What’s noteworthy about it is the subtlety of Gregory’s theological arguments. As you’re reading it, try to imagine a “modern” priest or bishop teaching a similarly sophisticated version of the Trinity. I rather suspect most of us have never heard anything of the sort. Turning it over to Gregory…

“As envoy to Chilperic (one of the Frankish kings who ruled part of France) King Leuvigild (Visigothic ruler of Spain) sent Agilan, a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument, but distinguished by his hatred of our Catholic faith. Tours (seat of Gregory’s bishopric) was on his route and he took advantage of this to attack me concerning my beliefs and to assail the dogmas of the Church. ‘The bishops of the early Church made a foolish pronouncement,’ he said, when they asserted that the Son was equal to the Father. How can He be equal to the Father, when He says: ‘My Father is greater than I’? It is not right that the Son should be considered equal to the Father when He Himself admits that He is less, when it is to the Father that He complains about the miserable manner of His death, when at the very moment of His death He commends His spirit to the Father, as if He Himself were completely powerless. Surely it is quite obvious that He is less than the Father, both in power and in age!’ In reply to this, I asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and if he admitted that He was the wisdom of God, the light, the truth, the life, the justice of God. Agilan answered: ‘I believe that the Son of God was all those things.’ Then I said: ‘Tell me now, when was the Father without wisdom? When was He without light, without life, without truth, without justice? Jast as the Father could not exist without these things, so He could not exist without the Son. These attributes are absolutely essential to the mystery of the Godhead. Similarly the Father could hardly be called the Father if He had no Son. When you quote the Son as having aaid: ‘My Father is greater than I,’ you must know that He said this in the lowliness of the flesh, which He had assumed so that He might teach you that you were redeemed not by His power but by His humility. You must also remember, when you quote the words: ‘My father is greater than I,’ that He also says in another place: ‘I and my Father are one.’ His fear of death and the fact that He commended His spirit are a reference to the weakness of the flesh, so that, just as he is believed to be very God, so may He be believed to be very man.’ Agilan answered: ‘He who does what another commends is less than that other: the Son is always less than the Father because He does the will of the Father, whereas there is no proof that the Father does the will of the Son.’ ‘You must understand’, I replied, ‘that the Father is the Son and that the Son is in the Father, each subsisting in one Godhead. If you want proof that the Father does the will of the Son, consider what our Lord Jesus Christ says when He come to raise Lazarus – that is if you have any faith in the Gospel at all: ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.’ When He comes to His Passion, He says: ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ Then the Father replies from Heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the Son is equal in Godhead, and not inferior, and He is not inferior in anything else.”

…and so on. As noted above, I’m not a believer, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in church. I’ve never heard the Trinity discussed by pastor, bishop, or priest with anywhere near that level of sophistication. I grew up in the Methodist church, and one of our pastors in my early youth was a throwback who took theology seriously. He is the only Christian teacher I’ve ever heard who so much as made a serious attempt to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to his flock. However, his sermons never approached Gregory’s level of subtlety or refinement. What’s the point? I guess that, when one compares intellectual development in the “Dark Ages” with that in modern times, one should answer the question, “What kind?”

The “kind” of theological debate Gregory excelled at no longer exists outside of obscure seminary classrooms because the conclusions of that debate have become irrelevant. Today, the “theology” of the more liberal sects of Christianity is a mélange of badly digested “progressive” ideology. To the extent that the Scriptures have any significance at all, they are rifled through in the search for verses that appear to support some already foregone conclusion, borrowed from the realm of politics. The “doctrine” of the church conforms to a prevailing political fashion, and not vice versa, limited only by the reluctance of the clerics’ more conservative flocks to go along. This is what one might expect. Modern “in-groups” and “out-groups” are far more likely to be defined by politics than religion in first world countries with a European background. (See my post on the significance of in-group/out-group behavior in the archives.) If one wants to play a role in a group that has relevance in modern society, one must conform to the fundamental doctrines that define the intellectual boundaries of the group. If the groups happen to be political, then so much the worse for religion. Its “teachings” must conform to politically derived ideological doctrines, regardless of what the contents of its written scriptures might be. Thus, for example, one finds a number of Christian sects embracing gay marriage, in defiance of the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual acts. The sophistication of Gregory of Tours and the “Dark Ages” is exchanged for “Christianity Lite.”

As an infidel, I offer these remarks as an observation on the human condition, and certainly not to support or condemn gay marriage, or any other aspect of Christian belief. As for the battle between Athanasius and Arius, I am content to let sleeping dogs lie.

In Groups and Out Groups

 It would be difficult to overestimate the role of what Robert Ardrey called the Amity-Enmity (AE) complex in our development as a species.  It is an aspect of our behavior and our nature whose expression is ubiquitous in our relationships with other individuals and other groups.  It is fundamental to any coherent understanding of human history.  Why is  the AE complex important?  Among other things, it has played a decisive role in motivating, provoking, and/or justifying virtually every one of our countless wars since the dawn of recorded history, and, presumably, long before that.  It is the reason we associate good, justice, honor, heroism, and similar positive qualities with our in-group, and evil, impurity, dishonesty, and corruption with our out-group(s).  It affects the way in which we perceive and categorize every other human being on the planet.  Indeed, we have categorized many manifestations of AE behavior, such as racism, patriotism, and religious bigotry, and assigned them “good” or “evil” connotations, without ever understanding the one basic predisposition at the root of them all.  It is impossible to correctly understand our group and individual behavior without taking it into account.  Given the decisive role it has played in our past and will continue to play in our future, it certainly behooves us to study it and understand it. 

 

Unfortunately, there are aspects of our nature, including the AE complex itself, that hinder an objective approach to the subject.  For example, many in-groups are defined by ideology.  Beliefs in certain ideological notions are the touchstones for membership in the group.  Some in-groups must believe that human behavior is entirely determined by environment, and lacks any innate component, hard-wired in our brains.  To believe otherwise would challenge the ideological construct that defines the in-group itself.  For example, Marxists in the former Soviet Union believed they could call forth the “new Soviet man” merely by providing a “correct” environment and educational system.  The “new Soviet man” would fit perfectly into the Communist future that they also believed in as a defining concept of their in-group.  The reality of innate predispositions would make the “new Soviet man” impossible.  The reality must, therefore, be denied.  It has been denied, by Marxists and others whose ideologies have been challenged by its implications, with a fury that is difficult to understand unless one understands its in-group based ideological motivation.  One may find interesting examples of this denial in the works of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, both of whom enjoyed significant “scientific” credibility, and there are many others like them.  When writers like Ardrey insisted that the AE complex existed whether they chose to wear ideological blinkers or not, they did not limit their responses to dispassionate logical arguments.  Rather, they vilified anyone who proposed such arguments, claiming they were fascists, racists, or associated with some other evil.  In other words, they assigned qualities to Ardrey and the rest that they associated with their own out-groups.  In doing so, they proved his point.

 

Why does the AE complex exist?  Like all of our other important characteristics, it evolved, because, at least at some point in our existence, it helped us to survive.  AE behavior is seen in other primates, and has likely been around since before our emergence as a species.  When we lived in small groups of more or less closely related individuals, such behavior tended to spread us out so as to take maximum advantage of the available resources, and increase our chances of surviving local depletion of resources or environmental catastrophe.  Unfortunately, evolution cannot plan ahead, and it could not foresee the emergence of nation states containing populations much larger than the small groups of hunter gatherers that had been the rule for many thousands of years.  Perception of the others of our species in terms of in-groups and out-groups results from an innate predisposition.  It was not a manifestation of conscious, logical thought when it evolved, any more than it is today.  However, in a world of nation states armed with nuclear weapons, AE behavior’s value in promoting our survival is dubious at best.  In fact, our survival is threatened unless we finally grasp its fundamental impact on our thought processes and our actions.

 

Writers throughout history have commented on the seemingly illogical and absurd manifestations of the complex.  The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a visit by Christian clerics motivated by a dispute over points of doctrine, remarking that the matters at issue were so absurd that he declined to record them.  AE behavior often assumes a façade of rationality because the members of human in-groups are able to use ideological markers to distinguish themselves from “the others,” in addition to the physical traits our primate cousins must rely on.  For example, Procopius also recorded the antics of the “Blues” and “Greens” of the circus.  Later historians have claimed to “understand,” and, occasionally, justify their seemingly irrational mutual slaughter by pointing out that one side or the other associated itself with demands for lower taxation, less oppressive government, etc.  The manifestations of the AE complex in our own day, similarly shrouded with ideological camouflage, have become increasingly destructive.  Instead of relatively harmless assaults of one group of a few score primates on another, similar group in an adjoining territory, we have seen the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis, tens of millions of bourgeoisie by the Communists, including the decapitation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and the butchery of the Tutsis by the Hutus.  It has been difficult for us to understand the fundamentally irrational and emotional nature of this mayhem because all of us are subject to the same primal predispositions.  Once we have made the subjective identification of the victims as “others,” it becomes an easy matter to rationalize mass murder by simply buying into the ideological façade.  Henry Ford and countless others like him were able to accept and justify the Holocaust as a “reasonable” response to the “Jewish world conspiracy.”  Hundreds of thousands of Communist sympathizers accepted the mass murder of millions of innocents once they had convinced themselves that the victims were “bourgeoisie.” 

 

Meanwhile, the mayhem continues.  It will not end until we are able to understand ourselves, grasp the nature of our behavior, and finally undertake a conscious effort to control it.  We cannot make our predispositions disappear, because they are every bit as much a part of us as our arms, legs and other physical characteristics.  Evolution has hard wired them in our brains.  As a result, we must belong to in-groups, and we require out-groups to serve as the evil enemy.  If one in-group no longer serves, and begins to disappear, another invariably emerges to fill the vacuum, as, for example, political Islam emerged as a potent force in the world following the demise of Communism. 

 

What is to be done?  First, we must understand the nature of in-group/out-group behavior, and grasp its immense significance.  We must begin to see clearly the decisive and destructive role it has played in our history.  The solution will certainly be easier once we understand that we are all potential victims, and that we are all threatened, and that we ourselves, and not just the “others” might easily belong to the next out-group slated for mass slaughter. 

 

It will also behoove us to devote every effort to understanding the function of our own brains at the most fundamental level.  We must seek to explain the physical basis, not only of in-group/out-group behavior but of human morality and all the rest of the emotions that shape our behavior, our perceptions, and our relationships so decisively.   We face no scientific challenge more grand than this.  Our survival as a species may well depend on our ability to find the answers we seek.