Thursday, November 13, 2008

Taking a Line III - 'State of Fear'

Michael Crichton

The author Michael Crichton, perhaps best known for Jurassic Park, recently died of cancer, aged 66. His novel State of Fear (published in paperback in 1995) is a well-researched thriller containing a strong strain of scepticism about the currently-fashionable nostrums of the anthropogenic global-warming school. It’s well worth reading. As I was recently reminded, in the course of the book he has one of his characters say this about Lomberg’s The Sceptical Environmentalist.

Throughout the long controversy, Lomborg has behaved in exemplary fashion. Sadly, his critics have not. Special mention must go to the Scientific American, which was particularly reprehensible. All in all, the treatment accorded Lomborg can be viewed as a confirmation of the postmodern critique of science as just another power struggle. A sad episode for science. (597)

‘The post-modern critique of science as just another power struggle’. I was struck by this. It is of course a tenet of post-modernism that knowledge–claims are disguised claims to power, and there is something in this. Some knowledge-claims may well be. Supporting this post-modern thesis is scepticism, the claim that all knowledge-claims can only be knowledge-claims, for they can never be justified. So all knowledge-claims are a claim to occupy a certain intellectual territory, and the claim is an attempt to dominate the surroundings from there, rather like an insurgent army might capture a city and control the hinterland from it. This is plausible, partly because ‘know’ and its cognates have a strongly positive evaluation. Knowledge, like freedom, is generally regarded as a good thing. Who does not to want to possess the truth, and to be in alliance with, and to rely upon someone who has a unique and secure access to it, or has plausible claims to have? If we give ourselves, our minds, to such a person, we become part of his territory. All this seems plausible as a matter of fact.

Yet to my mind this post-modern claim, while making this plausible point, also says both too much and too little. (Here I do not wish to dwell on the question of whether the claim itself is in danger of self-refuting. For if there is no knowledge, then there is no knowledge that there is no knowledge. But perhaps the post-modernist is content with this conclusion.) It says too little because there are also many who are not post-modern in their epistemology who nevertheless use their knowledge-claims deliberately to exercise power. It says too much because there are instances where knowledge does not lead to controlfreakery.

Richard Dawkins is certainly not a postmodern. He holds to an objectivist account of truth and knowledge. Yet it is obvious that he uses the theory of evolution by natural selection, coupled with his gifts for ridicule, sarcasm and invective, to couple it with attacks upon religion, and the Christian religion in particular, even on those Christians who themselves have a generally evolutionary outlook. Knowledge, or knowledge claims, are used deliberately to attempt to annex territory. While objective in his account of truth and knowledge, Dawkins is not neutral or indifferent in his attitude to those who (he thinks) do or must differ from him. The Scientific American seems to have behaved to Lomborg in a similar way.

Closer to home, over the centuries the leaders of the Christian faith, with its distinctive knowledge-claims, have seen no incongruity in a formal alliance between their religion and state power, and have shamefully used its knowledge-claims to further (if that is the correct word) and to buttress the interests of the cause of Christ by attracting state sponsorship. Though I do not wish to speculate as to what the course of western history would have been like if there had been no Constantinian settlement, there is no doubt in my mind that that settlement was disastrous. The ecumenical creeds were in fact formulated only because of state sponsorship; so was the Westminster Confession. But could they or their equivalents not have come about by some other course? However, there is little point to such speculation, simply because the alliance between Christianity and the later Roman Empire, and (in the west) the growth of the Papacy, and then successive alliances with European city and nation states, have had such a fundamental effect on our history that an alternative, non-Constantinian history is almost unimaginable.

The knowledge claims inherent in the Christian gospel were corrupted by the modelling of the Christian religion as a continuation of the regal system of the Old Testament, a regal system with a Christian priesthood alongside it which was itself modelled on the Levitical priesthood. ('Zadok the priest.....') Being backed by a privileged alliance with the state, by the support of the judicial system, by the force of arms, Christians, particularly establishment-friendly Christians, used their state alliance to annex religious territory; state has helped church, just as church has helped state, often by propounding a moralistic version of the Christian religion in an effort to promote ‘order’.

So there are many who are not post-modern but pre-modern in their epistemology who nevertheless make and have made knowledge claims in an effort to annex territory.

Reading the pages of the New Testament, who would have believed that such things could come to pass? (I don’t deny that having come to pass Christians who dissent from the ‘Christendom’ idea may have incidentally benefited from that arrangement, just as they have been viciously discriminated against through it, like poor John Bunyan languishing in Bedford gaol.)

But of course dissenting from Constantinianism (or from post-modernism) does not inoculate anyone from attempting to gain power through making public knowledge-claims on behalf of the Christian faith. There are many cases of local churches in which leaders have dominated their congregations through the pulpit, by dogma or charisma or both, claiming an infalliblity that wasn't theirs. A similar sort of thing is observable in seminaries and colleges. Such behaviour also runs counter to the New Testament teaching, though maybe not in so blatant a way as in the case of the Constantinian alliance.

What's the answer? The answer, in a word (or two) is ‘service’ or ‘servanthood’. ‘I am among you as one who serves’. 'It shall not be so among you.'‘The servant is not greater than his master'. ‘I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling’. ‘We teach not ourselves but Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’. Diotrephes ‘loved to have the pre-eminence’. ‘Do not lord it over God’s flock….’ And more, and more. Such servanthood is not the fruit of indecision, or of skepticism: ‘I know whom I have believed….’. “We know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were destroyed we have a kingdom not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’. And more, and more. You get the picture; servants of the servant king.

But this answer has a price-tag attached to it. Those who successfully adopt such dispositions in their Christian work must for ever surrender the idea that they are there to control the lives of men and women, or of boys and girls. They must view the consequences of their work with a kind of indifference, even though this is hard, sometimes very hard, to swallow. It is not simply a matter of recognizing the difference between sowing, and watering, and the giving of the increase, though there is that. A nod in the direction of the fact that the Spirit of God is like a wind which blows where it wants to, will not by itself do the trick. That fact has to be believed, to rule. As a consequence there must be a certain detachment in the work; ‘Whether they hear, or whether they forbear’. Was Jesus a control freak? No, he was not: 'Will you also go away?' 'Leave them alone; they are blind leaders of the blind'. For the tragic paradox is that the moment of success in controlling other people is also the moment of failure. The people who successfully control others usually also come to be in their thrall, to be controlled by them. Controlfreakery sticks like tar. They need the admiring following as much as their following comes to need them.

There’s also an ethical dimension to this.

But discussion of that must wait for another occasion.