Garbasaurus vs. Universal Civil Society

By John Taylor; 2006 July 05

As part of my decision to be more physically active, I have taken to listening to audio tapes while practicing table tennis. That is how I came to listen to Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, who is according to the blurb the most influential apologist for that faith in the last century. I learned a few things from these lectures, which were originally written for radio, do not get me wrong. However, as with Lewis's Screwtape Letters, I came away from the experience with a slightly creepy, clammy feeling. As always with Christians, you can listen all day to what they say and not a word of it makes sense. Their argumentation seems like the "Garbasaurus," a sculpture of a T-Rex made of flotsam from the Speed River that a bunch of do-gooder student volunteers at my Alma Mater, Guelph University, dredged out and put together in order to make a point about art, or recycling, or archeology, or something. You look at the Garbasaurus and try to think of it as art, as an image of a T-Rex, but you cannot get away from what it is literally, a pile of garbage. I do not want to sound insulting about anybody's beliefs, least of all the followers of His Holiness Jesus Christ, but that is just how I react each time I sincerely try to make sense of their logic.

Actually it is worse than that. Whereas the Guelph students tried to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, Christians make a sow's ear out of a silk purse by consciously isolating belief from its consequences. Not a word of what Lewis says in Mere Christianity has the slightest hint of social reference. To me the make-it or break-it question about any belief is how it answers this question: What difference does it make if I believe this, as opposed to anything else? By that I do not mean, what difference would it make to me, how good or righteous would I feel, but what difference would believing it make to the world, to others, to the social fact. To cut off any belief, even one as powerful as that of Christ, from its potential to change the world is to castrate it. It may change your heart but it is never going to mean thing to the salvation of the world until it understands social repercussions as essential conditions of faith.

Why Christian theology's doctrinal divorce from practicability? Why would any belief system go to such lengths to use its own rope to hang itself? The answer is clear: monasticism. Asceticism, isolationism, exclusivism, all are the mark of the beast, monasticism, the most pernicious and cancerous of all killers of meaning. This is what the Qu'ran warned against,

"O you who believe! most surely many of the doctors of law and the monks eat away the property of men falsely, and turn (them) from Allah's way." (Qur'an 9:34, Shakir Ali, tr)

By "eating away" property falsely is no doubt meant the notorious drain on the finances of Christians that the monastic orders sucked out of them throughout the Dark Ages. But the greatest "property" given by a teacher is his teaching, and the monks most importantly ate away at Jesus' most precious legacy, His ability to melt the barriers between hearts and change the social fact from within. Thus long after the monastics' financial burdens were eased in modern times, their doctrinal legacy lived on in the thinking of Lewis, who factored social good completely out of faith's equations.

It is demonstrably impossible to show forth virtue when you are alone. You may feel the brilliance of the divine, it may be a an intimate reality for yourself but as far as the world is concerned your precious light is lost, as if sunlight had hit a cloud and radiated back out into the darkness of space. Most Baha'is are familiar with what Baha'u'llah told the monastic orders of Christendom,

"Seclude not yourselves in your churches and cloisters. Come ye out of them by My leave, and busy, then, yourselves with what will profit you and others. ... He that secludeth himself in his house is indeed as one dead. It behoveth man to show forth that which will benefit mankind." (Summons, 1.136, p. 70)

Isolation, being cut off from people in a room or on a mountain top ends up as a kind of ethical suicide. `Abdu'l-Baha seems to be elaborating upon this moral dictum in a less well-known statement,

"People must live for one another, and not live in seclusion as do the monks and nuns. People should not live solitary lives. Light is of no value in an empty room. A tree is of no service to any one on the summit of a mountain, but should stand in a place where it will give shade and where its fruits can be gathered. The believers should be together as much as possible. Two lamps in a room give more light than one." (AB, in Baha'i Scriptures, p. 440)

This clear and emphatic teaching of the Baha'i Faith is based upon sound principles, the same from which Christ derived the parables of the talents, of the light and the bushel, and several others. Unfortunately that did not save Christianity from being brought to its knees by monastic movements, in the first thousand years of its existence financially, after that only doctrinally. A similar thing happened with Sufism in Islam, in spite of the Qu'ran's explicit disapproval of monastic leanings. The great Rumi' explains why the removal of temptation cannot by definition help the problem of lust that isolation from the world purports to solve,

"Hadst thou no concupiscence there could be no abstinence.
Where no antagonist, what need is there of armies?
Ah! make not thyself an eunuch, not a monk,
Because chastity is mortgaged to lust.
Without lust denial of lust is impossible
No man can display bravery against the dead."
(Mathnavi of Rumi, E.H. Whinfield tr., Vol. 5)

Immanuel Kant also recognized the importance of this principle in the fifth thesis of his 1784 "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View," which he capsulates thusly:

"The greatest problem for the human race, to the solution of which Nature drives man, is the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men."

Only in a society with maximum freedom, the freedom that comes of being ruled by law, not by rejecting law, can nature attain to its ultimate end, Kant goes on to explain. The purpose of our nature requires that there be "mutual opposition" among our members, something that can only happen when coupled with "the most exact definition of freedom and fixing of its limits..." Doing that is the job of "a perfectly just civic constitution;" I think this constitution must be what Rousseau had called the social contract, and what Baha'is call the Covenant. This common constitution moderates what today we might call competitive, dog eat dog instincts and domesticates them for the common good. He says,

"Thus a society in which freedom under external laws is associated in the highest degree with irresistible power, i.e., a perfectly just civic constitution, is the highest problem Nature assigns to the human race; for Nature can achieve her other purposes for mankind only upon the solution and completion of this assignment. Need forces men, so enamored otherwise of their boundless freedom, into this state of constraint. They are forced to it by the greatest of all needs, a need they themselves occasion inasmuch as their passions keep them from living long together in wild freedom. Once in such a preserve as a civic union, these same passions subsequently do the most good." (Idea for a Universal History, translation by Lewis White Beck. From Immanuel Kant, On History, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963)

Kant then compares this social domestication of individual competitiveness under the rule of law to a forest. There, each tree is constantly fighting with its neighbor for sunlight, but at the same time it depends upon the trees next to it for shelter from the elements. Forest trees grow tall and straight, isolated trees end up stunted and deformed. I was intrigued by this comparison, and since we have the bounty of living in a rural area and I have been driving the kids to and from soccer games in Cayuga, Caledonia and Hagersville lately, I have been observing the trees and how they turn out with this in mind.

On the whole I have confirmed what Kant says, with qualifications. In his time trees grew more naturally, and now of course in a farming setting like here in Southern Ontario almost every tree was artificially planted by somebody. They do not come up as they would in a competitive ecosystem. And in extreme climates, trees do end up very stunted, in fact miniature "Bonsai" trees are so twisted and tiny that they last thousands of years and become prized works of art, which of course is leading to their virtual extinction. Even around here although you do see tall trees growing in isolation, and they are as straight and healthy as they would be in a forest, there are still fewer tall ones than in woodlots, and to my eye they spread out more, and do seem to be more crooked, though perhaps I am imagining it. Again, without human help they would never make it, they would have been crowded out by rapidly growing bushes as saplings. In nature tall species only are found in a well protected, mature forest. Anyway, here are Kant's exact words ending the Fifth Thesis:

"It is just the same with trees in a forest: each needs the others, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature, while those that live in isolated freedom put out branches at random and grow stunted, crooked, and twisted. All culture, art which adorns mankind, and the finest social order are fruits of unsociableness, which forces itself to discipline itself and so, by a contrived art, to develop the natural seeds to perfection."

Let us compress Kant's analogy into an aphorism: the fruits of unsociableness bear the seeds of perfection. Garbasaurus will never move, never have life, will never even be a work of sculpture because it comes out of a system that until now has fallen short of and even rejected its perfect civic constitution.

John Taylor

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