Sunday, December 27, 2015

The source of the decline in violence - and perhaps a little case of prejudice.

'... A moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights. We force ourselves into the shoes (or paws) of other sentient beings and consider their interests ....

'This conclusion, of course, is the moral vision of the Enlightenment and the strands of humanism and liberalism that have grown out of it' (Pinker pp 572-573).

This is Stephen Pinker's main thesis -- humanism and rationalism has civilised the world, overriding several things including what he calls 'religion'. It's a grand and impressive argument.

I think, though, that he misses the truly original figure who defined this whole movement: Jesus Christ. Christ scrapped all the Jewish laws, food laws, customs and regulations, junking the lot to replace them with 'love God' and 'love your neighbour' -- the second being the very thing that Stephen Pinker attributes to humanism. Christ abolished the death penalty, and practiced and preached non-violence. It was said of him 'of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end' and Stephen Pinker's wonderful book documents the increase of peace through the centuries, much as predicted.

Pinker is also, uncharacteristically, rubbish on the subject of Christ himself.  'There's no direct evidence for anything Jesus said or did' (p15),  when every other document of antiquity that has come down to us is either a later copy of the original, or less well attested than the NT documents (or both). He doesn't answer the startling question of if Christ didn't say that stuff, what moral genius, operating in the narrow window between ad 30 and the first NT manuscripts a generation later, came up  with it all, and then managed to persuade the primitive Christian community, including people who'd met Jesus, to hang it all on the figure of Cbrist.

Then he gets a bit ridiculous, I'm afraid:  ' ... Jesus was by no means unique. A number of pagan myths told of a saviour who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice,  surrounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and symbolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality.' (p15)  Quite apart from everything else that's wrong with that sentence, I find my world crowded with followers of these other pagan myths, bumping against the two billion notional followers of Christ in the world. They also, like Christ, conquered the Roman Empire, and inspired law, art, literature, music, science and architecture for two thousand years. I mean it's appalling trying to get planning permission for a church when all these followers of Mithras are building their temples everywhere in the country, and followers of Orpheus in the Underworld are crowding out the market for faith schools, not to mention running all the hospices, recruiting street pastors, and helping the homeless off the streets.

Stop being prejudiced. Who said 'blessed are the peacemakers': Oh, that was Christ, not in an off-moment, not in an unplanned bit of mispeaking, but at the heart of his message and life. How can Stephen Pinker, so brilliant, so good to read, making me see the world differently after reading him, how can he miss this?

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