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Instruments of Idolatry

STEPHEN AMES asks what responses to contemporary cultural contradictions are viable today and seeks answers in the Christian traditions.

How are we to respond to the new kinds of contradictions at the core of contemporary life? The contradiction on everyone’s mind today is the threat of climate change due to the rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A crucial point of scientific study is the estimated timeframe in which a substantial reduction of the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere must take place to avoid producing hugely destructive effects early and later in this century. The next ten years are crucial for achieving the reduction needed and must be followed up with longer term reductions — a common estimate is at least a 60 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 1990 levels, by 2050. The scientific projections, which I think need to be updated, lead to the widely shared view that we are risking life as we know it on planet earth if nothing is done.

The recent ABC screening of The Climate Change Swindle again made it clear that some very large businesses have taken up this challenge. They say the science was well enough established years ago, that the only question now is how to manage the risk. They are very hopeful of achieving a clean coal technology, hoping for a high degree of continuity between our present way of life and a future where the risk is vigilantly kept at bay. They say all energy solutions are on the table, but clean coal has priority. They also see it as needed by developing nations like China and India. A recent coal industry advertisement berates the federal government for lack of investment in pursuing clean coal technology and for not raising the requirements for the pursuit and use of renewables. Neither political party mentions the problem of peak oil, nor the problem of the greenhouse timeframe, nor the problem of possibly not finding a route to clean coal.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of good proposals for reducing greenhouse gases. Tony Juniper, the Executive Director of Friends of the Earth in England, has ninety-five proposals for doing just this. They do not depend on clean coal and they include a way to reduce dependence on oil for transport, if not the large dependence on oil for many other common goods.

With his ninety-five proposals, Juniper is deliberately invoking Martin Luther and a parallel between the need for reformation of the sixteenth-century Catholic Church and the need for reformation of the way life is going on planet earth today. Juniper wants to evoke the sense that a fundamental change in our collective worldview is needed to solve the really big issues. A technological fix will not do.

Juniper says his approach is not religious, that he does not espouse eco-theology or ideology, and this may be perfectly correct at one level, but he is calling for a profound conversion on the part of everyone. It would surprise me if religious themes were not evoked today because all the ‘big questions’ are yet again being opened up. Recalling Luther reminds me that Luther dismissed the manifest corruptions of the church as not being the real issue: ‘the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like — just trifles, rather than issues’. He commends Erasmus, leading Catholic layman and Renaissance scholar, as alone putting his finger on the decisive issue: Luther’s challenge to humanism, to human free will and reason. For Luther these were the vehicles of human arrogance. For him the real issues of human life operate well below the appearances of free will and reason. As an Anglican I stand in a tradition that seeks to be both Catholic and Reformed, with all the attendant risks. I would be very loath to give up on free will and reason, but nor would I assume that they stand pristine, without risk of becoming decadent. President Bush shows the way. He says freedom is exemplified in the choice to buy and consume in the free market. He also offers a contradictory logic, declaring, ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists’. Alas, no freedom for the ‘excluded middle’, who for good reason are neither with the terrorists nor followers of the coalition of the willing.

There may be more than ninety-five proposals for viably responding to the contradiction of climate change, but will we enact them in time? Are we up for a fundamental change in our way of life or are we enslaved to it? Was Luther right? Are we enslaved to the forms of life we produce, or as a biblical phrase has it, the work of our own hands. This is code for idolatry. Those who worship idols become like what they worship. They suffer amnesia, a self-seduction, by which they forget their construction of the idol and forget who they were. In the Bible idolatry degrades the humanity of the worshippers: they become children of a lesser god whose image cannot accommodate or bear their full humanity. Worship of an idol entails a contradiction, indeed a cultural contradiction, for every culture has its cult, by which worth is construed and distributed and the social order oriented, sanctioned, protected and repaired. By contrast, the worship of the biblical God authorises access to all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength, over against all who would limit or deny such access.

This account of cultural contradictions should not be thought of as pre- or anti-technological and so of dubious relevance. Within a biblical perspective, human beings, created in the image of God, are collectively given an original blessing — ‘dominium’ or sovereign power over the earth — in order to be fruitful and multiply. They are not given power over each other, nor are they to destroy the earth. On the contrary, they are to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God. The power is to be exercised as, or in the image of this God who, according to the story, is distinctive for creating the world without violence. Human beings deploy this power in many other ways, especially in violence, as in the audacious building of the tower of Babel in order to reach heaven, and not least in the form of kingly rule and associated cults. Despite the disorders of dominium, the original blessing is never revoked.

Is it accurate to interpret the form of life and its cultural contradiction exposed by climate change as a form of idolatry and, if it is, how does it help us with our theme of what responses to contemporary cultural contradictions are viable?

Climate change exposes a cultural contradiction carried by a virulent, encompassing form of social life, which the Arena group has been analysing and critiquing over many years — a critique I share. On the one hand, every critique has its point of departure and this critique privileges copresence; face-to-face embodied relationships between people. The guiding sense of what it is to be human and the sense of value are both found in and grounded in the daily practice of such relationships. On the other hand, this critique highlights the contemporary contradictions of the conditions of possibility for human life. The contradiction arises in the application of intellectual practices to an ever- increasing span of human activities, especially the way human beings take hold of nature via the natural sciences and their consequent technologies. This leads to a social form that carries the abstract character of intellectual practice, marked by the increasing absence of people to one another, even though intellectual practice did and does still think of itself as a community of learning, with many opportunities for face-to-face engagement.

I expand this critique by adding the thought that this social form has also inherited the dynamic introduced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, of privileging a mode of inquiry that disturbs the environment and observes what happens. This dynamic eventually becomes a vast, accelerating change process that disadvantages individuals and communities whose resources are deployed in forms of life adapted to a stable environment, and advantages those whose resources provide greater adaptability to a changing environment. The latter extend their advantage by further destabilising the environment, by deploying some of their advantage to increase their adaptability, and expanding every means to protect their advantage and the resources it requires.

The emerging social form is a virulent life form that takes over and makes over earlier forms of social life in its own image and, while saving a place for them, insinuates and suffuses everything with the idiom and dynamisms of the techno-sciences, notably in the linking of inquiry, production, market exchange and communication. The idea that rapid, turbulent social change is the only thing we can be certain about is now so taken for granted that it is treated like a force of nature. The ‘naturalising’ move was always just a convenient ‘truth’. But this accelerating social change is humanly constructed, and nothing shows that more clearly than the way human activity has impacted on the forces of nature to shake the foundations of our way of life. However, the ‘naturalising’ move points to the way this life form seems to have acquired a life of its own, more living through us than being lived by us.

This form of life aspires to sovereign power, that power of which there is none greater on earth. It defines reality, and as I said it takes over and makes over other forms of life in its image, including religion, while granting them all some revised place within its expanding market economy. It blesses an elect, feeds off the many, and punishes those who do not fit in. It spreads its two great commandments concerning value to more and more of life: you only have value if you add value; you only get value if you pay for it. Its ‘divinity’ is also shown in the vision of life with ‘no limits’ — the mark of a certain kind of infinity.

By contrast, I think the story Arena tells upholds an embodied relational ontology, in which persons are fundamental and co-presence more than a trace, with value that is intrinsic, which is to say unconditional, and therefore, at least in my view, open to being properly understood as the mark of a different kind of infinity, of a different kind of divinity, albeit incognito.

This neglect of intrinsic value and the privileging of instrumental value is no accident. The techno-sciences produce a vision of the physical universe as intelligible, but at the cost of being more and more pointless, claims Steven Weinberg, and without any intrinsic purpose, says Richard Dawkins. I believe the resulting social form also carries these marks of the forces that sustain it and drive it on. Furthermore, it is the loss of the intrinsic and unconditional value and purpose in the universe that is essential for the way this social form interpolates in people the ‘image’, the ‘freedom’, the ‘rationality’; in short, the identity of a consumer who can never have enough, in an economy oriented to the myth of endless growth, the surrogate for this loss.

A theme I cannot pursue here is whether Weinberg and Dawkins are correct, or whether an immanent critique from within the natural sciences, both as a view of the world and as forms of inquiry, yields a different conclusion from theirs. Likewise I cannot pursue the question of whether the idea of ‘intrinsic’ value is credible, given the way it is so widely denied in thought and practice or in any case only appears under very particular social conditions. All I would say here is that these cannot work as counter-arguments, for they invite rather than answer the question as to whether the judgement about intrinsic value is correct.

To recall my two questions from a moment ago: is it accurate to understand the dominant form of social life and its cultural contradiction exposed by climate change as a form of idolatry and, if so, how does it help us with our theme of what responses to contemporary cultural contradictions are viable?

Without denying the accuracy and relevance of other interpretations, I think this idea quite accurately illuminates what might otherwise be hidden. It draws attention to the way the assumptions, beliefs and values that inform the social form producing the cultural contradictions function as a surrogate ‘divinity’, even recruiting available forms of religion in various ways. It highlights the religious character, indeed the parody of religion, hidden in the secular assumptions and structures of this social form, as well as the dynamism of its imperial power. I take this to be one reflection of the way Christianity, through its own failures, ‘ushered in the modern secular — first liberal, then nihilistic — world’.

The last point comes from John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Beyond Secular Reason, where he introduces a discussion of Saint Augustine’s City of God and his counter-interpretation of the Roman Empire, its history, mythos, ontology and virtue. Augustine points to Rome’s own story of the founding of a city, a political order established by military force — the violent limiting of a prior violence, against which it always stands guard. This ontological antagonism is contrasted to the ontological peace on which, for Augustine, the city of God is founded. The ontological priority of peace over conflict is the principle undergirding Augustine’s critique of the Roman Empire. Augustine does not reach this priority by the exercise of universal reason. Rather, it ‘is grounded in a particular, historical and mythical narrative, and in an ontology that explicates the beliefs implicit in this narrative’.

Above, I highlight the founding assumptions of the virulent form of life that is today producing ever more obvious cultural contradictions as the assumptions of a world without intrinsic purpose or value. I want to contrast that assumption to what I obtain from the same narrative that inspired Augustine, and which I see intimated in face-to-face relationships that mediate the recognition of the intrinsic worth of human life, despite its violent denial in relationships that are no less face-to-face.

How does this interpretation of contemporary cultural contradictions as an exposure and expression of a vast form of idolatry help us consider the viability of the responses to these contradictions?

Juniper has ninety-five proposals for addressing climate change. He also thinks some profound change is needed if they are to be enacted. This discussion is about contributing to the viability of making that kind of change. It suggests that despite our apparent freedoms we are in the grip of, and are attached to, a form of life that has the character of worship, something that our secular society does not recognise. This is not worship in the sense of a particular religious rite, although my meaning is conveyed by the rite of the institution of marriage from a previous era, when the man said to the woman, ‘with my body I thee worship’. Worship refers to the myriad of daily practices, which embody what counts as value under the virulent life form by which everyone on this planet is affected. The worship is a vast fabrication of worth to cover the founding assumption, which is the loss of intrinsic worth. The parody is perfect: the desperate, relentless, restless worship of the intrinsically worthless.

A relevant biblical story is the parable of the prodigal son who asks his father for half the inheritance and goes and squanders it in a strange country, ending up in a pigsty. In that context, he starts to come to his senses. The costliness of the form of life he is living finally comes home to him, albeit in distorted form. In the parable, the son devises a spiel that he will recite to his old man as a way of coming back; the old man cuts off the spiel and welcomes the son home. Climate change has started to shake us and to bring us to our senses. The above discussion shows us something of the nature of the pigsty we are in. It suggests the shaking needs to reach ourattachments to the way of life that has brought us to this point. I am suggesting it is a way of life that has lost touch with the intrinsic, unconditional worth of life and lost touch with the transcendent ground of this worth. The way out of this pigsty is something better than a spiel. Spiels are made by those who do not take the threat of climate change seriously — as if there is no urgent timeframe involved. The way out of the pigsty for us all, whether standing in secular or religious traditions, is to turn our lives around; biblically, the term is ‘metanoia’. It means recognising how deeply we are gripped by one form of life and yet might turn toward … what? A part of the answer is this: the intrinsic worth of my neighbour whom I meet today when, through many interconnections, the neighbourhood is in fact the whole planet. I recognise my neighbour by kindness, by acting justly, by forgiveness as needed, by the limitation of myself and the extending of myself on behalf of my neighbour. (This is also relevant to the need for the affluent minority on the planet to live much more simply, in order that others may simply live.)

‘Metanoia’ means to recognise how deeply we are gripped by one form of life and yet might turn toward … what? Part of the answer is the intrinsic worth of my neighbour whom I meet today when, through the many interconnections, the neighbourhood is in fact the whole planet.

By these acts we knowingly and deliberately undermine our attachments to a form of daily worship that has produced the cultural contradictions we all face, not least climate change. Then we will have a new freedom to daily envisage and act on the many new things that are needed individually, socially and institutionally to accomplish Tony Juniper’s ninety-five proposals, and much more. This marks out the way home, which includes a form of life for all that is locally and globally at home with the planet.

Finally, this discussion strengthens the possibility of cooperation between secular and religious traditions, leading, one might hope, to a more viable response to contemporary cultural contradictions. A lingering hesitation might be that surely religion, not least Christianity, is fundamentally ‘other worldly’, with an eschatology focused on eternal life beyond death. This is not correct; it is one of Christianity’s pathologies. Christianity has a present–future eschatology, which celebrates the coming of the reign of God through Christ, now in anticipation, finally in glory. The alternative worship I have been discussing is a good that works to redeem God-given human power from its pathologies and so anticipates a still greater good.

Stephen Ames is an Anglican priest and teaches at the University of Melbourne in the School of Philosophy.

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