We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.

 

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Two Gods

Some years ago, when I was teaching a required course in great books that we called “Humanities,” I was discussing with the class the assigned reading, the Book of Job. The discussion was going  well, I thought, but my repeated reference to the “God of the Old Testament” apparently riled one of the students who spoke out: “it’s the same God as in the New Testament, you know.” Well, I didn’t know. The student was a Born Again Christian and I had only been born once. From my apparently stunted perspective the two Gods seemed miles apart, the Old Testament God a vengeful and even vindictive God who would throw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience and punish Job for bragging rights. He’s the God who said to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The God of the New Testament struck me as a forgiving God, a god of love and compassion. He is the God who said “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.” The two seemed, as I say, miles apart. But clearly I did not know what I was talking about.

In any event, in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel recommended by a good friend, I came across the same concern I had expressed, to wit, the reflection by one of the main characters in the novel that the two Gods were very different. The novel raises a number of interesting questions and, while disturbing in many ways, is a good read, focusing on a very twisted Baptist preacher who decides to do a year of missionary work and hauls his wife and four girls to the Congo to drag the natives out of the utter darkness (where they appear to be quite happy, thank you very much) and into the light that apparently only he can see. Needless to say, he botches the job, alienating the natives entirely while abusing and doing untold damage to his children and making life a living hell for his poor wife. But such is the enthusiasm of the “true believer” who is convinced that he (or she) has the truth and everyone else should shut up and pay attention. Our hero is a hellfire and brimstone preacher who hopes to save souls by scaring the shit out of them. His mania can be found just this side of insanity. He bases his world view on a reading of the Old Testament having, apparently, never gotten as far as the New Testament — except for the Book of Revelation. Yet he insists that he is a devout Christian.

All of which raises the deeper question of the untold damage “Christians” have done over the centuries in direct defiance of the teachings of their Founder. How on earth the message of peace and love got translated into a message of intolerance and hate defies reason, though it would appear folks are simply more comfortable with the Old Testament God. But, then, many things we humans do defy reason. The sad thing in this case is that so much good has turned rotten and so many lives have been ruined by well-meaning zealots who think they know all that needs to be known. Just like my student who knew that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, a conviction I knew better than to tamper with by trying to get her to think.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

Is Christianity Dead?

My blog-buddy, BTG, recently took exception to my claim that Christianity is dead — or if not dead, then rendered irrelevant by modern life. I want to defend my claim somewhat in this limited space, though I would say at the outset that even if it is true that Christianity is no longer a vital force in our postmodern culture, there are certainly many good people who profess to be Christians and attend church regularly. And there are Christian communities around the world that still share the deep beliefs of bygone days. Perhaps this is true even in this country, here and there.

But when we consider that a study conducted in 1993 concluded that only 19.6 percent of the Protestants and 28 percent of the Catholics in America were in church in any given week, we must pause. If we contrast this with that period of 1000 years in Western history when Christianity was a vital force, say, up to the Renaissance, I think I can make my case without repeating more than necessary what I have said in previous blog posts.

In the so-called “middle ages” atheism in Europe was practically unknown. The majority of men and women attended church regularly, sometimes daily and two or three times on Sunday. In addition, the invocation of saint-protectors, the cult of relics, the division of the day by the bells that sounded regularly from parish or monastic church permeated the air and threaded a sense of security through life’s many uncertainties. But one thing that was not uncertain was the assurance that a good life would be rewarded in heaven and a wicked life would be punished by eternal damnation. This was assured and it gave medieval people a center to their lives and a hope that is greater than anything we can compare it with these days. As Carl Gustav Jung said in his intriguing book Modern Man In Search of a Soul:

“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were the children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for blessedness; and they knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. . .

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brothers, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

Modern man, as Jung goes on to argue, seeks to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of this all-encompassing spirituality by amassing wealth and engaging in such fads as scientology, encounter groups, therapy, T-groups, creativity workshops, meditation, est seminars, and the like. These replaced the certainties of medieval life and the pervasive influence of the church with its many clerics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, lay members of various religious orders, all identifiable by their costumes — to the tune of from one to three percent of the entire population. The lives of these people were filled by the church and, as Henry Adams argued convincingly, much of the certainty they shared was due to the loving influence of the Virgin Mary whom they considered their own mother who would forgive them, regardless how great their sins, and lead them to eternal joy in the life to come.

There can be no question that religion generally pales today in contrast with the religion of those years. The causes of these changes cannot be identified with ease, but there do seem to be a series of factors that have brought about the retreat of Christianity and religion generally from the lives of the great majority of us Westerners today. As Adams argued, the Protestant Reformation severed the ties medieval men and women had with the Virgin Mary and, as a result, the Church began to retreat from their lives and seem somehow remote and abstract, though some might argue that the Great Schism and the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church created a sense of growing uncertainty. There was also the invention of the printing press, which made available to a great many more people the written word — especially in the form of the Bible which they could read for themselves: they no longer had to rely on someone else to determine how to live their lives. Further, the birth of modern science that lessened suffering and prolonged life on this earth while relegating religion to the dust bin of “superstition” had a powerful influence as well. And, of course, the birth of industrial capitalism, as I have argued in previous blogs, had a powerful impact, especially given the impetus of thinkers like John Calvin who insisted that material prosperity was a certain sign of God’s grace and love, whereas it had previously been regarded as a sign of earthly corruption. Add to this two world wars, recurring plagues and pestilence, especially as modern cities grew more heavily populated, and one can understand why many began to regard this world as “absurd” and ceased to believe in anything but what they could see, hear, and grab for themselves.

What resulted was a growing unwillingness to make personal sacrifices together with the retreat, slowly but surely, of a life centered around thoughts of the world to come as a release from the suffering that seemed inevitable in this world. These were replaced by a world view centered on the self and the security in this world that could only be assured by wealth and a solid social structure shielded by a strong military presence. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Christianity (if not all of religion) is “dead,” because, as noted above, there are sincere believers who seek to live good lives according to the commandments of God. But the number of such people has shrunk to meager proportions as the desire to gain material advantages has increased and spread throughout the Western world. To be sure, there are pockets of resistance to the spread of materialism, and entire communities that can still be called “religious” in a meaningful sense of that word — especially in what we derisively call the “third world.”  Furthermore, there are certain elements of the Christian religion lying buried in whatever is left of our sense of charity, duty, and right and wrong. But as a generalization I think the case can be made that religion, for the vast majority of people alive in this century, is a faint shadow of what it once was: it simply does not comprise the center of most lives; it survives, if at all, on the periphery.

Playing With Fire

In the Wikipedia discussion of nuclear weapons, we are told that “A thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg) can produce an explosive force comparable to the detonation of more than 1.2 million tons (1.1 million tonnes) of TNT. Thus, even a small nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation.” We are also told that there are approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons worldwide.

While you surely know about the concerns world-wide over the leak of nuclear waste from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan not long ago, you may not have read about the revelation that a near-calamity was avoided when, some years back, a plane carrying two nuclear bombs had engine trouble and had to release its bombs in North Carolina where they fell harmlessly to the ground. Apparently there are three “triggers” that must be tripped before the bomb will ignite but they discovered that two of the three triggers in one of the bombs had tripped leaving only the third one as a last-ditch safety measure against certain calamity. As the Guardian recently reported:

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Goethe's version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Goethe’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

You may also have read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that focuses attention on the determination of one man to create another in his image: Jacques Ellul called it the “technological imperative.” If we can do it we should do it.” This is the reverse of David Hume’s formula for ethical action: “ought implies can.”  If a person cannot do something we cannot say he or she should have done it — save a child’s life if they cannot swim, for example. The technological imperative reverses this formula and tells us that “can implies ought.” If we can do it, we should do it. Ethical questions are simply not raised. Thus is born the determination to create another human being, as Shelly suggests. The genie comes out of the bottle, the sorcerer’s apprentice messes with things he doesn’t fully understand and creates a broom to do his work that goes completely out of control. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. In a word, we have gone so far down the path toward control of nature and the determination to demonstrate our own technical ingenuity that we are now unable to put the genie back into the bottle. We are very good at asking the question “how?” but we completely ignore the basic question, “why?”

I have always wondered if the story in the Bible about the Garden of Eden was a parable for our times. The earth as we have come to know it is the Garden in all its glory. But we have eaten of the apple of knowledge (technical knowledge) and are about to destroy the beauty around us and ourselves in the process. We will not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, we will annihilate ourselves in the process. It’s a sobering thought and one that is hard to dodge when we read about nuclear accidents and near-misses like the case of the nuclear weapon that nearly went off in North Carolina not long ago and which would have caused untold human and animal life. And to what end, we might ask? But that is a question that is never asked by the technical experts. They only ask: can we do it?

Creationism As Science?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, think science and technology are the same thing.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism incompatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible.  Of course if there were conflicts Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But in any case it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

Pandora’s Box

The Supreme Court recently indicated that it will address the question of campaign spending limits. We have already seen how the court leans on this issue in the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” case in which the court, in its wisdom, saw fit to insist that corporations are persons and in the name of “free speech” should be allowed to contribute to politicians as much as any wealthy individual would. The current case will determine whether there are any limits whatever on what a person (or a corporation) can give to a political candidate and, given that the court agreed to hear the case, the bets are that the court will remove those limits entirely, which are minimal as things now stand. As we are told in a recent HuffPost story;

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor’s free speech rights.

The present court has tended to lean to the right on issues such as this since Sandra Day O’Connor left the court. Thus, despite the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, which upheld limits set in 1971 on how much money an individual could give to any one candidate, the present Court is almost certain to lift those limits entirely in the name of free speech. Many believe it is a foregone conclusion. But then so was the decision regarding the Affordable Care Act which the Supreme Court upheld to the surprise of nearly every student of the history of the Court. So there is hope.

The problem stems from the fact that the Constitution was written at a time when the major concern was the abuse of power on the part of the Executive. The framers understood power and the need for balance, of course. They had read John Locke and Montesquieu and were very careful to see to it that no one branch of the government became so powerful that it overshadowed the other two, though they did tend to err a bit on the side of the Senate. But the framers never fully considered the effects of great wealth on the workings of an ostensibly democratic government — though several of them, like Thomas Jefferson, saw the possibilities: recall his concern that “a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

In any event, there is nothing in the Constitution about corporations and about PACs or about the limits of spending on political candidates. This allows the Court to refer to whatever portion of the document that seems to them to be appropriate to make a case for whatever decision they regard as politically expedient — not unlike those who read portions of the Bible to support their own take on Judeo-Christian teachings. And given that this Court leans to the right, it is most likely that we will see all limits removed from campaign spending, in which case we can conclude with assurance that the government will henceforth go to the highest bidder.

Pandora’s Box was opened with “Citizens United” and we saw how ugly that got in the last election. What we are about to see, in all probability, is all of the remaining contents of that box in the coming months and years. Barring a Constitutional amendment on spending limits, or a sudden and unexpected shift to the left by this court, we may be witnessing the end of America’s experiment with democratic government.

Winter Wonderland

As I sit here and look out at the 20″ of snow that fell recently I reflect on the visit my wife and I paid to the Rudi Memorial in the Minnesota River Valley this past Summer. I begin by admitting that I do wonder why people from this state flee to the South as Winter approaches since the countryside is positively breathtaking with the brilliant white set against the clearest of blue skies. The lower temperatures, which are rare in this part of the country at this time of the year, resulted in wet snow clinging to every twig of every branch of every tree in the entire region. It even makes the telephone poles look grand in the brilliant sunshine. The fields are white as far as the eye can see and the light is so bright from the reflected snow it almost hurts the eyes. The wind creates magnificent snow sculptures around the base of the trees and bushes and in the roadside ditches, every one different from the next and each a delight to behold. People leave this beauty for Florida with its pink flamingos on the lawns and the rooftops, pulling Santa’s sled. Seriously? Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get back to Rudi’s cabin.

sitephoto70-sm

The web page set up to highlight the Minnesota River Valley’s “Scenic Byways” tells us about Lars Rudi’s cabin:

Rudi Memorial
Located on Renville Co. 12 south of Sacred Heart
The Rudi Memorial is a tribute to Lars Rudi and all pioneer families who settled in Renville County. The log cabin, built in 1868, illustrates the dovetail notching of logs typically used by Scandinavian settlers. The Rudi family lived in the cabin until 1913. It served as a place of community gathering, such as school and church for the pioneer families. The Rudi Cabin is listed on the National Registers of Historic Homes.

As I say, I was in the cabin this past Summer and it’s about 14′ by 15′ with a small loft above attached to a set of rickety stairs. When I think about Lars Rudy, his wife and his wife’s sister who all lived in the tiny cabin for all those years I cringe. And while I can readily imagine how they kept warm on cold winter nights . . . I cannot imagine what it would be like to be stuck in that cabin with nothing to read but the Bible and no one to talk to day in and day out but two other people whom I would be getting to know awfully well — perhaps too well!  The description above tells us that the cabin was a place for “community gatherings,” but that is a stretch: not much of a community could fit in a space that small! But those people somehow persevered and apparently developed a toughness that we can all envy.

We are told that many of the pioneers who farmed this region got discouraged and went back East because they couldn’t make it. Many more went mad, as the number of institutions on the Great Plains in that era demonstrate. But some, like the Rudis stuck it out with their unshakable faith and the grit and determination which set them apart.

But as I think back on that small cabin and look out at the beauty that surrounds me  today I do marvel that those hardy folks could have persevered for 45 years together through Minnesota winters that could last five months or more with only the freezing temperatures and relentless wind outside to keep them company. It tends to give one perspective.

Natural Rights

The concept of natural rights goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period. Aquinas recognized “higher laws” than the laws of man, though these laws are superseded by Divine Laws as revealed in the scriptures. The point of this recognition was to make humans aware that the laws men put “on the books” are not the only laws, or even the laws that in a specific case ought to be obeyed. Throughout history, remarkable men have appealed to “natural law” to justify the breaking of civil laws — men like Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The thinker who did the most to popularize the notion of natural law and natural rights — which are derived from natural laws — was John Locke. His remarkable book Two Treatises of Government written in 1689 had a huge impact on the English Civil wars and the eventual ascendency of the Parliament over the King who had traditionally claimed “divine right” to rule with an iron fist. The notion of natural right, as Locke developed it, revolved around a set of moral principles that are available to human reason; these principles transcend the laws of men written in civil codes.

The notion that there is a “higher law” than the law of legislators was attractive to the British citizens living in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They embraced Locke’s Second Treatise even after the British had tossed it aside and moved on. Jefferson in fact relied heavily on Locke’s political philosophy. But even before Jefferson incorporated Locke’s notion of natural rights into the Declaration of Independence, the notion itself was being tossed around rather loosely in the colonies and used as a convenient way to ignore laws that were inconvenient. and claim the “right” to do whatever one wanted. For example, the merchants on Philadelphia in 1773 who were annoyed by English taxes on tea from India felt it perfectly acceptable to bribe custom officials and smuggle tea into their warehouses on the grounds that “every man has a natural right to exchange his property with whom he pleases and where he can take the most advantage of it.”*  I dare say today’s corporate CEOs would heartily agree.

What this means, of course, is that if a person finds a particular law inconvenient or unnecessarily constrictive, he can ignore it on the grounds that it is in conflict with “natural law.” In a word, the notion when used in this loose way simply becomes another way of doing what one wants to do regardless of the consequences. This is not the way Jefferson meant the phrase “natural rights” to be taken when he speaks about man’s “unalienable [natural] rights” in the Declaration. These are God-given rights that no human laws can supersede. They are nearly on a par with Divine Laws as those were conceived by Thomas Aquinas. They were not mere whimsy and they were certainly not arbitrary.

Because of the loose way of speaking about natural rights and natural laws the notions passed out of common usage in the nineteenth century and very little mention of them can be found until the notion was resurrected after World War II by a group of Catholic thinkers because Hitler, among others, was careful to make certain that every step he took was perfectly “legal.” Thus, the notion of natural law and natural rights once again came to the fore: there had to be moral rules and laws that superseded the laws of fallible humans, whether they be Germans under the Third Reich or the Russians under Stalin.

So when Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail in the turbulent 60s of the last century he once again appealed to natural, moral laws. When he says, for example, that  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” he is not speaking about human laws, as his frequent references to the Bible make clear. King was quite certain that there is a moral high ground and that some stand on it and others do not — despite what they might say. There are moral laws that trump human laws, and these laws are written on the heart and speak to human conscience.

* Found in John Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution.

A Modern Parable

Harry Jones is a happily married man with two kids and a good job. He is an investment counselor and very good at his job. He is living the American dream and doing very well, so well he has a cabin on a lake and an RV he and his family take to Colorado every Summer. He is putting money away for the kids’ college because he knows the costs are rising and despite the fact that his daughter, at least, is sure to get a scholarship she will get married and want a big wedding. So it is a good idea to be ready for whatever the future might bring. He works hard, loves his job, takes his family to church every Sunday and regards himself as a good Christian. By most standards, he is a happy and successful man.

On a business trip Harry happens to pick up the Gideon’s Bible in the table at his bedside in the Motel and starts to read. He has always half-listened to the sermons at Church and thinks he pretty well knows what his religion demands of him. He regards himself as a good man, certainly better than many he knows. The minister is a good one, though he seems more intent on making his flock feel good about themselves than getting them all riled up. Harry likes him for that. But what he is reading sends chills down his spine. He is reading in St. Matthew and he reads what the Lord said about wealth and the blessedness of the poor. This is not sitting at all well with Harry. He is especially put off by the notion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And especially disturbing is the passage “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” He has never thought much about heaven, or about death in fact. But he isn’t getting any younger and he certainly doesn’t want to go to “that other place.” He is in a quandary. As he reads on he becomes more and more disturbed by the thought that he has been living a lie. He considers himself a good Christian, but he hasn’t been living the life Christ talked about in the New Testament. There it is right in front of him: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” That is precisely what he has been trying to do.

He feels like he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t have it both ways — either he gives away all his wealth and follows Christ, as the New Testament teaches, or he continues to pursue the American dream. He loves his job, loves the challenge of finding the right investment and seeing his clients do well. And he has to admit he likes the commissions that come his way. But the purpose of his life to this point has been to “serve Mammon.”  What is he to do?