Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 30, 2016

the technological history of modernity by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian

When I think, as I often do, and will continue to do in a slow way* for the next few years, about a possible technological history of modernity, I am always aware that this account will be for me a theological account. That is, the history will be done from within, and on behalf of, a Christian understanding of the world. This poses problems.

In a brilliant essay called “Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusions of Cultural Universalism” (1980), Lezsek Kolakowski writes that the self-understanding of the Western world, or as he says Europe, that arose during the early modern period “set in motion the process of endless self-criticism which was to become the source not only of her strength but of her various weaknesses and her vulnerability.” Kolakowski is serious about those strengths: “This capacity to doubt herself, to abandon ... her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe’s development as a spiritual force.” But the West tends to tell this story of its own self-doubt tendentiously and inaccurately, as a move towards neutrality — towards a kind of detached anthropological curiosity that suspends or brackets questions of value.

For Kolakowski this is nonsense:

The anthropologist’s stance is not really one of suspended judgment; his attitude arises from the belief that description and analysis, freed from normative prejudices, are worth more than the spirit of superiority or fanaticism. But this, no less than its contrary, is a value judgment. There is no abandoning of judgment; what we call the spirit of research is a cultural attitude, one peculiar to Western civilization and its hierarchy of values. [N.B.: This is not wholly true.] We may proclaim and defend the ideals of tolerance and criticism, but we may not claim that these are neutral ideals, free from normative assumptions.

And it is not self-evident that this belief in the superiority of “the ideals of tolerance and criticism” is either inevitable or correct. Kolakowski tells a disturbing anecdote that everyone, I believe, should seriously consider:

A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well-known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region. Often, in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike coins with the image of the Emperor. I said to him, “you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archaeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile, religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior, it is because we are indifferent both to their civilization and to our own.”

It was banter, of course, but banter of a not entirely innocent kind. It may prod us into thinking about a question which could well be decisive for the survival of our world: is it possible for us to display tolerance and a benevolent interest toward other civilizations without renouncing a serious interest in our own?

Kolakowski puts this point most bluntly in this question: “At what point does the very desire not to appear barbaric, admirable as it is, itself become indifference to, or indeed approval of, barbarity?” A putatively neutral approach incurs costs; how might one decide when those costs have grown too high?

In any case, my inclination is to tell a more interested narrative, because I want to understand the relationship between the rise of the modern world, about which I am ambivalent, and the Christian Gospel, about which I am not ambivalent. I therefore keep Kolakowski’s essay in one hand while holding in the other Robert Wilken’s “Who Will Speak for the Religious Traditions?” I’ll close this post with words of Wilken’s which I have pondered in my heart for many years:

For too long we [scholars of religion] have assumed that engagement with the religious traditions is not the business of scholarship, as though the traditions will “care for” themselves. In the eighteenth century, when the weight of western Christian tradition lay heavily on intellectuals, there was reason to put distance between the scholar and the religious communities. Today that supposition is much less true and we must make place in our company for other scholarly virtues. [...]

If love is no virtue and there is no love of wisdom, if religion can only be studied from afar and as though it had no future, if the passkey to religious studies is amnesia, if we can speak about our deepest convictions only in private, our entire enterprise is not only enfeebled, it loses credibility. For if those who are engaged in the study of religion do not care for religion, should others? Without “living sympathy” and a “certain partisan enthusiasm,” Goethe once wrote to Schiller, “there is so little value in our utterance that it is not worth making at all. Pleasure, delight, sympathy with things is what alone is real and what in turn creates reality; all else is worthless and only detracts from the worth of things.”



* “In philosophy the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly.” — Wittgenstein 

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