An Exploration for an activist Interfaith Church of Christ

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Barack Obama has held up his Democratic end of the presidential campaign articulating clearly the policies of an equitable social democracy.  The true row to hoe is a complex one, involving the nature of corporate organization and power, and the widespread cultural role they have manipulated for themselves in many peoples' minds.  Many of the readers here are already well aware of these issues.

     My reflections on the subject of capitalism is how to reconcile the failures of Marxism with its truths, and the strengths of solidarity economics with the full range of cultural needs.  In Brazil I am aware that liberation theology lives on as the solidarity economics movement has become initiated over the last few years.  In the U.S., too, the movement has many related threads in many circles.  My part includes a spiritual path which values denominations like interfaith Unitarian Universalism, Twelve Step Groups, Tai Chi Taoism, Buddhism, and Christian Science, and a desire to integrate a modern scientific education with a religious perspective.  My search has lead me to identify St. Thomas Aquinas as offering a fundamental historical link to a modern unified Christian perspective, since Science's origins lie with his efforts.  Moreover, the Unitarian Universalists interfaith perspective appears to me to be a hairsbreath away from full expression of a modern religion.  Because honesty, integrity, justice, and healing are significant aspects of Christ's teachings and five new commandments of love under God, I recognize that he and his principles deserve credit as the underlying force behind St. Thomas Aquinas' efforts that underlie DesCartes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Freud, for example.  I therefore intend to gird my advocacy for Solidarity Economics and Sustainable Grassroots Development by developing a framework for a Modern Interfaith Church of Christ.  Both Sobol and Wilson have made important contributions to the concepts involved, and I post two articles below that I have recently become aware of.

The New Enlightenment
Published: April 26, 1998

The Unity of Knowledge.
By Edward O. Wilson.
332 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

Consilience, an arcane word that achieved some currency in the circles of mid-19th-century science, means at its roots ''jumping together,'' or, more smoothly, concurrence of results from different fields of knowledge. Edward O. Wilson uses it both to summarize recent trends in the natural sciences and to present an intellectual program that entails giant leaps of disciplinary integration. A professor emeritus of biology at Harvard, Wilson is one of the world's leading authorities on ant societies, evolution and sociobiology. He holds that consilience has been attained across a broad range of the natural sciences -- from physics and chemistry to geology, molecular biology and biochemistry -- but that the social sciences and the humanities have by and large remained aloof from the integration movement. It was the aim of the Enlightenment to form a grand union of knowledge built upon a set of universal laws, he observes. He contends that the humanities and social sciences need to join with the natural sciences, that the time has come to revive the Enlightenment vision.

Wilson's book sweeps across vast areas of learning in lucid, unpretentious, often eloquent prose. He begins with sketches of the Enlightenment vision and the Romantic turn against it, then, as though taking his cues from the more ambitious 18th-century philosophes, marches through sociobiology, human nature, genes and culture, brain science, social science, ethics and religion, the arts and some aspects of the humanities, including post-modernism. Wilson is the author of several previous books on some of these matters, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. In ''Consilience,'' he distills and integrates his ideas to argue that a unity of knowledge is possible -- and that it is sorely needed for more than purely intellectual reasons.

Indeed, Wilson's call for consilience not only articulates a scientific vision, it affirms a personal credo and preaches a biopolitical cause. Wilson tells us that he was raised a Southern Baptist and was ''more pious than the average teen-ager,'' reading the Bible ''cover to cover, twice.'' By then he was well into the study of nature, traipsing through the fields and swamps of his native Alabama. In college, reading about evolution freed him ''from the confinement of fundamentalist religion''; but, retaining a religious hunger, he embraced science -- a ''religion liberated and writ large'' that elevates ''a search for objective reality over revelation'' and makes the unification of knowledge its ''central tenet.'' A humane, well-intentioned scientist, Wilson maintains that without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences into the social sciences and the humanities, most of the world's major problems ''cannot be solved.'' Although he mentions vexing difficulties like ethnic conflict, overpopulation and endemic poverty, the issues that here, as elsewhere, most engage his attention and, seemingly, his passion are those connected with the degradation of the natural environment.

Wilson argues that in recent decades rapidly ripening research into genes, behavior and the brain has been bringing biology ever closer to the domains occupied by the social sciences and parts of the humanities, especially ethics and the interpretation of art. The core of his claim is this: Thought, ethics, creativity, culture -- indeed, mind in general -- are all materially grounded in the physicochemical activities of the brain and its interactions with the body. The modern brain sciences, particularly neurobiology and brain imaging, have revealed that the functions of mind are describable in terms of neurotransmitters, hormone surges, neural networks and the hundred billion intricately connected nerve cells that make up our three pounds of custardlike gray matter. To critics who charge that he is a rank reductionist, Wilson unashamedly responds, ''guilty, guilty, guilty.''

Wilson's case for a universal consilience rests on several interlocking elements. Genes, themselves biochemical in their operations, arrange for the structure and development of the human organism; 3,195 of them are known to be involved in the development of the brain, 50 percent more than in any other part of the body. Some number of genes have been selected over the course of human evolution to predispose us to particular social behaviors. These genes have coevolved with our cultural and physical environments, interacting with them through what Wilson calls ''epigenetic rules'' that are anchored in neural pathways and in regularities in mental development that the genes prescribe. Natural selection has favored the epigenetic rules for behaviors that foster our survival -- for example, investment in children, status striving, the ability to recognize and name colors, signaling with facial expressions, like the smile, and contractual agreement. It has thus created a human nature, the embodiment in all of us of certain norms of behavior or modes of action that are the building blocks of culture.

Wilson's sociobiological-cultural claims are, to say the least, controversial among biologists, and one suspects that he overstates the consilience of the natural sciences. It is difficult to see, for example, how particle physics jumps together with organic evolution. Wilson himself concedes that no one knows much about how genes actually control behavior, or how neural networks make for perception and knowledge, or how the complex system of the brain works to create consciousness. He recognizes that culture has tended to change at an enormously faster pace than genes evolve, which suggests that culture has an independent dynamic of its own. He acknowledges that much of his program is speculative; he several times avows disarmingly that he could be wrong, even praising post-modernists for reminding scientists like him of that possibility. Yet he is confident enough of his views to insist that the social sciences and the humanities could well benefit from what genetics, sociobiology and neurobiology have already begun to reveal about human attitudes and actions. He holds, for example, that sociobiologically generated norms must figure in the establishment of ethics, that explorations of brain function might assist in understanding creativity and interpreting its products.

Einstein sought to unify two branches of physics -- gravity and electromagnetism -- that were both robust. For Wilson, biology, now established on a molecular and biochemical basis, is solidly a science, but the social sciences and the humanities are intellectually inadequate. They need science to become fully fledged. Wilson's observations about these other areas of learning are free with questionable obiter dicta. To cite just a few:

The quality of the arts is measured by the ''precision of their adherence to human nature'' -- which makes one wonder why some great art ever offended anyone's sensibilities. When ethnic conflict broke out after the collapse of the Soviet systems, social scientists were ''genuinely startled'' -- an assertion that would surely surprise many students of Eastern Europe -- partly because of their ignorance of biology and psychology. The ''most original and valuable'' humanistic scholarship ''is usually the interpretation and explanation of already existing knowledge.'' So much for any history or biography that rests on primary sources ranging from archives to icons.

Wilson aims most of his animadversions against the social sciences, charging that parts of them suffer from ''ideological commitments,'' tribal devotion to past masters, reliance on folk psychology -- indicting them for being ''only slightly advanced over ideas employed by the Greek philosophers.'' He expresses grudging admiration for economics, the most mathematical of the social sciences, saying that it's headed in the right direction. But he judges that while it has scored some successes, ''it is mostly still irrelevant'' because with some exceptions it ignores serious psychology and biology in analyzing how people behave. He faults it even more for a special myopia, ''its general failure'' to incorporate environmental costs in its calculations of profit and loss.

Although Wilson's reach too often exceeds his grasp, he is not entirely off the mark about the social sciences and the humanities. Some psychologists and philosophers are seeking ways to incorporate the neural sciences in their analyses, and some economists are acting to deal with the weaknesses in their discipline on the biopsychological and environmental fronts. However, even Wilson's sympathizers might suggest that, given his root social and environmental concerns, most of his censures are misplaced. What prevents us from coming to grips with environmental decay or the rest of our social bedevilments has less to do with a lack of consilience in learning than with the interplay of interests and power. Wilson hardly touches on such issues. He writes that ''ethics is everything,'' that what we need is ''a powerful conservation ethic'' and that by exploring the biomaterial basis of ethics, ''we should be able to fashion a wiser and more enduring ethical consensus than has gone before.'' In the end, ''Consilience'' is an evangelical book, an arresting exposition of Wilson's religion of science and a kind of sermon -- forceful in delivery if shaky in substance -- intended to assist in the reform of the world.

Daniel J. Kevles's books include ''In the Name of Eugenics'' and ''The Baltimore Case,'' which will appear in September.

Exploring Religion, Shaped by the Enlightenment

Published: October 10, 2008
Why can?t religion and the Enlightenment be friends? What?s that, you say? They were friends? Why didn?t anyone tell us?

Well, David Sorkin has. A professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin, he argues in a new study that religion and the Enlightenment were even more than friends.

?In the academic as well as the popular imagination,? Dr. Sorkin writes, ?the Enlightenment figures as a quintessentially secular phenomenon ? indeed, as the very source of modern secular culture.?

But contrary to this ?secular master narrative,? he argues, ?the Enlightenment was not only compatible with religious belief,? it actually generated new formulations of that belief.

Such theological formulations were no less an essential part of Enlightenment thought, he insists, than the deist, materialist or antireligious ideas often identified with it and regularly wheeled into the front lines of today?s cultural and political wars.

In ?The Religious Enlightenment,? a book published in August by Princeton University Press, Dr. Sorkin aims at nothing less than ?to revise our understanding of the Enlightenment.?

Building on recent scholarship highlighting the ideological and geographical diversity of 18th century thought, Dr. Sorkin posits a specifically religious Enlightenment that not only shared characteristics across confessional lines as well as national borders ? hence his book?s subtitle, ?Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna?? but also ?may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment.?

Leading thinkers of this religious Enlightenment, he explains, sought a ?reasonable? faith that was answerable to contemporary science and philosophy, and not grounded merely on dogmatic authority, pure emotion or fascination with the miraculous.

These thinkers agreed with deists that there was a kind of ?natural religion,? basic truths about God and morality accessible to reasoning people. Natural religion was not a rival or alternative, however, to revealed religion. It was a prelude, a necessary but insufficient foundation for belief. Without a further belief resting on revelation, reason was likely to end in skepticism and immorality.

To interpret this revelation, a.k.a., the Bible, leaders of the religious Enlightenment generally employed the principle of ?accommodation?: the conviction that God had ?accommodated? humanity?s limited understanding by using language, imagery and stories suited to particular ages and cultures. The transcendent truths of sacred texts had to be extracted from what was historically conditioned.

The standard-bearers of the religious Enlightenment championed religious toleration and the freedom of religious minorities, although they stopped well short of calling for state neutrality in religious affairs.

They believed in established churches that fostered public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters. Like their secular counterparts, they were eager to put in place their reforming ideas through the power of enlightened monarchs.

Also like their secular counterparts, the leading figures of the religious Enlightenment were active in the newly emerging public sphere, the so-called ?republic of letters.? These religious writers shared and shaped ideas through wide-reaching networks of acquaintance, correspondence and publishing.

They were engaged with secular concerns; wrote about history, philosophy, politics and current affairs; and crossed intellectual paths ? or swords ? with Enlightenment giants like Montesquieu, Voltaire, d?Alembert and Rousseau.

Dr. Sorkin?s book is something of a sandwich. In the opening and concluding chapters, he sets out his programmatic proposal for restoring religion to the conventional portrait of the Enlightenment. In between are detailed studies of six representatives of the religious Enlightenment.

William Warburton was a learned and pugnacious thinker within the Church of England. Jacob Vernet reigned over Calvinism in Geneva. The Lutheran theologian Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten was praised by Voltaire as ?the jewel in the crown of German scholarship.?

Moses Mendelssohn, a paragon of Enlightenment Judaism, translated the Pentateuch into German, and advocated Jewish emancipation. Joseph Valentin Eybel promoted Catholic reform under the Hapsburgs. Adrien Lamourette, Catholic priest and political pamphleteer, was elected bishop of Lyons in the Constitutional Church of the French Revolution.

These are hardly household names, not even in households boasting advanced degrees in history or theology. And these are formidable chapters that may challenge even some scholarly specialists, so dense are the references to religious politics and theological ?isms? as the author works his way from Protestantism (in Anglican, Calvinist and Lutheran flavors) to Judaism and Catholicism and across the continent from Hanoverian England to Hohenzollern Prussia and Hapsburg Austria.

Dr. Sorkin acknowledges that he has focused on ?second-rank figures,? however prominent in their day, although being second rank may make them more representative rather than less so.

He stoutly rebuts the assertion that these thinkers were not ?sincere believers and apologists? but ?trimmers? looking for a comfortable perch partway down the slippery slope to unbelief. It is a charge, Dr. Sorkin believes, resting on the assumption that the only viable alternatives were the existing orthodoxies or total secularization.

Today?s advocates of religious toleration, historically informed interpreters of Scripture and open-minded engagement with the full range of contemporary ideas will naturally feel a link to these earlier thinkers.

Still, these six individuals make a less-than-winning case for the viability of the religious Enlightenment. For one thing, they constructed their theories on what now look like questionable philosophical foundations provided by Descartes, Locke and Christian Wolff.

More seriously, their alliances with state power seem to taint the independence of their thinking. And anyone trying to gauge their religious import may long for more glimpses of inspiration in their spiritual and personal lives behind Dr. Sorkin?s exhaustive account of their ideas.

Most of their stories end sadly, as new generations push aside the pioneers of the religious Enlightenment. The final and extreme case was Lamourette, who tried to slow the French Revolution he had promoted. In 1794, he was guillotined.

The French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath not only destroyed the religious Enlightenment in practice; it also created, as Dr. Sorkin notes, a ?religious-secular dichotomy? that condemned this side of the Enlightenment to historical obscurity.

Rescuing it from that obscurity, he insists, is of much more than academic interest.

?The twenty-first century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers,? Dr. Sorkin writes. ?One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief?s critical and abiding role in modern culture.?