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Friday, September 02, 2011  

The Evolution of Values

One reason clerical and intellectual types become bewitched with political power when it comes, somehow, under our noses is that many of us, perhaps most, harbor the suspicion deep down that what we do doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. In fact, I wonder if some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of priest, poet, or pedagogue aren't a wounded overreaction to this suspicion when voiced by others. Real power rests with the people who can start wars, build bridges, create social programs and so forth.

So it's heartening in its way to read Yglesias on "the primacy of values" when considering the historical context of politics. I've been engaged in a bloodless re-enactment of the Reformation with a Catholic and an Anglican friend on facebook, and it's striking that we can all inhabit the contested issues so fully without ever once contemplating the possibility that the argument might be worth fighting wars or burning heretics over. Not that we are without some understanding of the stakes back then and why a dispute among doctors of theology ended up ripping a continent in half and costing some horribly vast number of innocent lives (most of whom, it hardly needs to be said, had no interest at all in whether presbyters could only be ordained by bishops or whatever). And not that we don't think these arguments have some contemporary significance. But all the same, many, perhaps most of the assumptions that would have been shared by the warring parties of the age are ones that we seem uniformly to reject. We don't believe that the civil state is the proper guardian of religious uniformity, or that false teaching should be legally defined and punished with banishment or execution. We don't believe civil rulers are only legitimate if they accept the filioque. And so on.

One way for historically-minded Christians to look at our shared past is to lament the loss of doctrinal and visible unity as the Reformation's aftermath gradually made these assumptions impossible--not indefensible, not untenable, not categorically immoral, but merely and quite literally impossible. All these churches nowadays, all this doctrinal laxity, all these Church politics. And yet no one seems to want Arundel's Constitutions back. Most of us have to admit, in practice if not in theory, that the evolution in values since those days has been a good thing.

This is the problem with all nostalgic arguments about this or that matter of politics or policy or even worldview. Conservatives make them most often, but liberals are not immune. It's not hard to do. Find some aspect of the past that you admire and find wanting today, and then accuse the present of sucking for its absence. Oh, for the intact families of the Victorian age or the low taxes of the American 19th century. Well, do you also like debtors' prisons, mass orphanage, and a policy of expropriating land from indigenous populations? That's not to look back at the people who administered those monstrosities with moral condescension. But it's a reminder that history is not neatly divisible into noble and ignoble aspects.

So what about the thinkers and writers and preachers? Well, one could argue that people like Luther and Erasmus had their most long-lasting and beneficial impact on the world by arguing that it was foolish to burn heretics or preach rabid sermons against Jews. They did not give due honor to these convictions over the years. But perhaps as Europe exhausted itself with slaughter, those early, discarded arguments helped push the civilization's background values forward, even as the doctrinal disputes they hoped to settle for all ages managed to endure.

Which is only to say that the work of the scholar, preacher, and writer is, in part, to take a longer view than the day's partisan divisions and policy dilemmas will allow and to contribute to the humanizing of our culture in deeper, more resilient ways.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:13 PM
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