President Obama is now fifty years. And therefore no longer a young man (have you noticed how he had gotten grey). Yesterday my country celebrated – officially - 49 years of being a Sovereign state, but in the grand scale of things, we are still a relatively young state. But not too young to engage in serious reflection on the state of our society. The missed opportunities. The many achievements. And the challenges ahead.
. The more I read Robert Royal's account of history, about which I wrote in an introductory form last week, and learn about the search for the truth - in philosophy, in science and in drama, all wonderful gifts to modern society from the Greeks and the Romans ( Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Marcus Aurellus,) and Christian thinkers ( Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther) ; the more I reflect on a perspective as revealed in the following extracts from the Royal, and wonder how much further we could have advanced as a society, if those who had been given the privilege of shaping a young nation, had not been so selective in absorbing ideas and thoughts from antiquity, much of which have had profound effects on the history of the west, of which we are so firmly a part.
"... The opposition between a supposedly rational Greece and an uncritically religious Judeo-Christian tradition, is of course, a strong current in recent Western thought. As early as the second century A.D... The Christian writer Tertullian could famously ask from the other side of the supposed divide: Quid Athenae Hierosolymis? (What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"), though he meant something different by it that a conflict between reason and revelation. And the answer to his question, historically at least, proved to be: quite a lot, in spite of the different views of the world that arose in the two illustrious cities. Jerusalem gave Athens something that it conspicuously lacked: a popular conception of God worthy of the notable poetic and philosophical search of the Greeks. And Greece, as it did for many other cultures, gave Jerusalem singular intellectual tools, which proved their value in the Jewish and Christian thinkers in the centuries before and after Christ who, historical myths notwithstanding, used reason to analyze, expound, and advance revealed truths in ways that Socrates and Plato might well have appreciated (Is this a reference to the use of parables - my question).
That fruitful interplay ( between church and state) was never wholly forgotten even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, though it sprang into new life in the High Middle Ages as soon as Greek authors became available in Latin translations. Another wave of Greek influence arose in the Renaissance with the recovery of the Greek language in the West, partly owing to the Greeks fleeing the Muslim invasion of Byzantium after 1453. The discontinuity in the older tradition, however, led some later thinkers to see the Greek heritage not as something already incorporated into Western thought by way of Jewish and Christian speculation, but as a radical alternative to it. This reconceptulalized Greece took on an idealized and highly selective form. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German scholars and romantics, especially the historian Winckelmann ( never heard of him) and the poet Goethe ( introduced to him by Bonhoefffer), thought they saw in the Greeks the perfection of " nature" as opposed to a degenerate Christianity. This anachronistic view had no little influence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among people who thought Christianity was finished, and it even found its way into Anglo-American education until the mid-1960:
" Ancient Greece as interpreted by the new scholarship became an ersatz religion. Greece was adopted by the modern West as, in part, a replacement for Christianity. This was not the actual Greece of two thousand five hundred years ago. however, but the Greece re-created by adoring scholars, mostly in Germany and England, starting around 1770.' From Grace Davie, " Europe: The Exceptional case: Parameters of Faith in the Modern World".
Arguments like this make many people nervous because they appear to join in the deconstruction of Greece and other Western foundations that has been standard motif of feminist, Marxist, multiculturalists, post-modernist, post colonialist, and other radical intellectual currents. But the ancient Greek legacy is quite strong enough to withstand all such assaults, and we need to be careful not to falsify the real historical achievement by recasting them in our own image".
This re-write of history clearly debunks the popular notion in the minds of some of the intelligentsia in Jamaica and other western countries, especially in Universities and in the media, and in the political arena, that matters of Church and State ought properly to be
quite separate……but there is more. Much more.
”The ancient Greeks.......had a deep sense of the world's order and the need to reflect that order in human life. In one crucial respect then, the Greeks resembled the ancient Hebrews more than they do a modern European or American. The Jews believed that they had been given the Law - the factory instruction manual, so to speak, for how human beings ought to behave - by the Creator himself. The Greeks, it would be fair to say - and Saint Paul said it more than once in his letters - believed that what constituted the good life could be discovered through rational inquiry into the nature of the god, man and the world. What Greeks and Hebrews agreed about, above all their differences was that there is simply a common and fixed human nature that sets a limit on the path that leads to good human lives. In other words, they denied what large numbers of people living in advanced societies think of their rights or as their pursuit of happiness. And in both instances, their view was rooted in a larger religious vision of the world.
And......It was quite odd that long before this “Roman" model of cultural complexity and stability was much understood, Virgil allowed his Zeus to promise “imperium without end" to Rome. There were many different schools of thought in the ancient world, but one thing almost all agreed upon, on the basis of repeated human experience, was the impermanence of all things earthly..........
In political affairs, the one exception seemed to be the notion that human life shows a tendency to move in cycles, what the historian Polybius and later writers would call anakuklosis. It is clear from human history, they all thought, that young, vigorous people's with multiple virtues achieve success as a result. Success leads to wealth, ease and a decline in the hardier virtues that made success possible. Decadence ensues, and with it public disorder and new hardships, to such a degree that the cycle starts all over again. People develop virtue once more in order to deal with their difficult conditions, and they begin their rise to success again, eventually producing conditions that will lead to another round of decadence. There seemed no way out of this continuous cycle any more than there is any deliverance from the cycles of the seasons or the perpetual motions of the stars in the sky.
The seemingly inescapable problem of the virtue-vice-virtue cycle exercised many intelligent minds for centuries after Virgil, mostly within the civic-republican tradition of the renaissance, including Machiavelli. But it was a worry for the sober and practical men who founded the United States as well. They clearly looked for the many benefits to be had from the institution of a commercial republic, but even after the new nation had been created and seemed to be functioning well, the most astute among the early leaders recalled the sad history of antiquity. For example, in 1791, John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?”
One of the most profound problems affecting Western democratic states, even if people do not wish to admit it, and which malaise is spilling over even into places like Jamaica where we are still struggling to achieve success, is the extent to which decadence, and the resultant lack of virtue is sapping the energies of societies, destroying once stable family life and affecting entire communities. The obsession with sex and the associated lewdness – pornography is the number one request on most search engines in the USA; the “ nakedness” of our women; the unfettered and unapologetic use of expletives in books, movies, music and in general conversation both publicly and privately; the insatiable desire for, and show of, luxury even, and perhaps especially among those unable to afford it; the widespread engagement in gratuitous and horrific acts of violence; are all manifestations of this terrible disease about which the founders of the American state were concerned. And which concern goes back to antiquity among the early philosophers, from whom we appear to have learnt only in selected areas. All of which has taken place because in pursuit of , “ freedom”, whose roots we either failed to understand or ignored completely, we have delinked the connection between stable orderly and free societies, from their original base – religion and the pursuit for truth and transcendence.
…….The political point here contains a philosophic and religious vision. Saint Augustine, who clearly loved Virgil, often quoted him against the real behavior of the Romans. In his City of God, he accused the Romans of having made idols of themselves under the guise of religious submission. Nevertheless, Virgil had posed a question that would occupy Christian thinkers and rulers also in subsequent centuries: how much of any political system partakes in the sacred ordering of human life and how much is merely the necessary apparatus of earthly life in community? Virgil makes the sacred connection a strong one because he sees the alternative as unleashing passions and forgoing the best means to curb them.
......” unleashing passions indeed”. How much of our political culture here in Jamaica, and indeed in other western states, has been affected by the unbridled lust for power – manifest in the kind of debate over the “ debt ceiling”, recently in the USA, and which “ aftershocks”, even after a last minute compromise bill, threaten to derail an entire global economy. A situation not unfamiliar to my country, but where, sadly, unfortunately one the most pervasive strategy employed to gain power, thankfully to a lesser extent in recent times, has involved the use of violence, rather than policy measures – with equally catastrophic results. All again on account of the fact that we have ignored these fundamental lessons from the Greek and Roman societies and philosophers. And elected to “use the best of these historical lessons”, without understanding the vital connections and interplays.
….” Occupy Christian thinkers and rulers for centuries?”…..I can’t recall listening to a discussion on this issue – how much of any political system partakes in the sacred ordering of human life, and how much is merely the necessary apparatus of earthly life in community - in my country, whether in church circles, on the campaign trail or in the nationally televised debates. The state of the economy yes; the need for more jobs yes; the need to get rid of corruption yes: but the proposition that there is a vital and organic link between political arrangements - western style parliamentary democracy - and religion. I cannot recall, And if I am correct, whose fault is that? Our noble journalists, most of whom who have been in the vanguard of the struggle to prevent Jamaica falling prey to the excesses of many of our post Independence Leaders? But who themselves, despite their commendable actions as guardians of our beloved democracy might have fallen prey to the pressures of the post modern philosophy, about which Royal writes. Perhaps the church, though once a standard-bearer of the Cross of Christ during the period between the enslavement of our people by the colonial powers and the post-emancipation era, and which according to the hymn writer ought to “ stand up for Jesus” who must not “suffer loss”! But which now can be guilty of the accusation of being increasingly infiltrated by elements representing a myopic and far too pietistic church with little vision and scope of the role of a church in any society and which is apparent unaware of the power of God to make disciples of all people and be present in every aspect of human affairs? A political class steeped in the virtues of ideology, the pursuit of which “mountain top experiences - whether it be Federation, Western style Capitalism, Democratic Socialism, the “Third Way, Market Driven economics – has brought us mixed results as a nation; and which pursuits for the most part has not involved any major discussion on what drives ordinary human beings, and how best to incorporate such “speculation” – the basis of philosophy - in charting a way forward for our people. A business class striving to amass personal wealth and in so doing building an economic base for a nation, but largely unconcerned and unfamiliar with the age old virtue-vice-virtue cycle debate? An unsophisticated middle class, once the driving force of a nation, but now beleaguered and ravaged by socio-economic forces, and migration, and now just content with survival – watching cable television and playing golf on a Sunday morning? Or an undemanding working class more concerned with trying to eke out a living, dodging bullets, and paying the light bill, than being preoccupied with matters about which they know little, care less, and make no connection between their desperate situation and the kinds of philosophical currents which inevitably and inexorably affects their lives. While on the other hand, an uninfluential, and unheeded humble class of Jamaicans who trust in God, depend on Him for everything – protection from gunmen, food, education for their children, upward mobility on life - are concerned about their neighbor even in their difficult situation, try to convince others to live right and pray, many of whom have been pioneers in trying to build an orderly and peaceful society, but whose lifestyle of trusting completely in the God of Abraham, the God of Marcus Garvey and Sam Sharpe – two of our National Heroes – sadly goes, for the most part, unheralded.
Little wonder then that St. Paul who lived and evangelized among these philosophers who would be later be so influential in western societies, could write with authority and power that:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
Where is the wise man? Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through it wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than any than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thing – and the things which are not – to nullify the things which are, o that no one may boast before him. It is because of him why you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”. 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31. NIV
For me, there is nothing that could more beneficial to my country, and even for middle aged Obama’s America, than a resuscitation, of at least, an ongoing conversation about the role of Religion in the affairs of a nation. We in Jamaica have a far way to go to achieving equity in opportunity, in Justice, in education. We have a far way to go in achieving economic independence which has been the goal , and burden of my generation – others having striven and sacrificed much to achieve political independence and to put an end to the terrible period of enslavement of our forebears. But there is an even greater task at hand, which the ancients had the foresight to envision and to seek for - the quest for transcendence. A built in desire in all mankind as suggested by Royal in his opening sentence:
All people by nature search for meaning and even for truth, and almost all of them conduct that search through some form of religion…. Robert Royal. Page 1
And which profound issue is raised by none other than our Blessed Savior; ‘What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.
As the reality is, whether we wish to discount it or not, and the ancients agreed in their limited fashion, that “man (indeed) shall not live by bread alone but by every word that come from the mouth of the Lord. And therefore the achievement of Independence – political or economic – ought not to be the “end game” of a nation or civilization, but a knowledge of the truth. And we the children of the God of all ages, believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and indeed the life. Therefore, only when we become obedient to His commands to love Him with all our heart and to love our neighbours as ourselves, will we achieve any kind of lasting success that the Romans craved, and about which Virgil prophesied in his epic poem Aeneid………” the imperium of Rome…..without end, but which the Bible states only the Word of God lasts forever. Ultimately, however, as the power of God manifested in the extraordinary growth of the church from 120 at the time of Jesus, to an estimated 30 million by the time Christianity became to official religion in Rome 300 years later, it is the church’s responsibility to encourage a society to draw near to God in Jesus Christ. It is the church on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come in its mandate given by our Blessed Savior, to make disciples all people across the world. It is this universality of the scope and breath of the mandate of the church which escaped the early philosophers, and unfortunately too many of the church’s members in the 21st century. And what God did in ancient times, He certainly can do again in this great country of Jamaica. We just have to learn to trust and obey, love God and neighbor, both which features of the church greatly encouraged its growth during antiquity, and will certainly serve it in this age. Happy Independence!