The Arc of Justice and the Supposed Trajectory of History
Recently, I became acquainted with Religion Dispatches. How strange for me to say that, it might seem, since I had actually been well aware of Joanna Brooks’ blogging at that site for quite some time. But I hadn’t really looked outside of her articles. I think I viewed the site as something like Patheos or Huffington Post Religion (*shudder*). So, after being recommended the site in a wholly different context, I guess the T. S. Eliot words are appropos:
“We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Remind me to write a post about that.
Anyway, I clicked into a post that announced that apparently, while Southern Baptists are now ok with black people, they aren’t (yet!) cool with gays. I was irked by part of a petition that the author quoted:
…Given the arc of justice and the trajectory of history, there is no doubt the SBC will offer a full-fledged apology to the LGBT community in the future…
The arc of justice? The trajectory of history? Sounds fantastic. But is it just fantasy?
This idea has come up elsewhere. In a post that challenges the common complaint that religious teaching is “brainwashing” that Jon Adams originally posted at USU SHAFT (ooh! remind me to write about that too!), the comments have meandered around such great topics as the aforementioned brainwashing complaint, the slippery definitions of faith and critical thinking (…add that to the list of things to blog too…), and finally, the idea of inevitable progress. Seth writes:
…Emotional motivation is at the heart of ALL human action. And emotionally-driven goals are at the heart of all of it as well. And all science is conducted in the name of overarching ideals that you must simply accept on faith.
Concern for human welfare, is a faith-based ideal. Belief in the inevitable triumph of human progress is a faith-based ideal. Democracy is a faith-based ideal. Belief that your pharmaceutical company is benefiting humanity and going to provide you with a stable job is a faith-based notion. Heck, the entire stock market is essentially faith-based – you can even see the fluctuation in the DOW numbers measuring the temperature of the collective faith of investors.
All human action is motivated by faith. We, at a certain point, just have to accept that we are uncertain about some big things that impact our lives. Yet we have to set that aside and dive in anyway. And it is through participation in the system that you believe in that you get evidence of its truthfulness…
I am not unsympathetic to Seth’s main thrust. All across the comments, I do have the suspicion that a) for many nonbelievers, “critical thinking” means abandoning religion, b) faith is absurd and unworthy to describe admirable values or beliefs held, and c) something like “science” and “reason” and “logic” will with time take us to the Promised Land (or at the very least allow us to construct one if none already exists.)
Yet, that is partially where my disagreements come in. Seth argues here and elsewhere that faith is what allows us to commit to act. Faith is what allows us to, in the face of uncertainty, dive in anyway. He phrases it a bit differently earlier in the thread:
I see faith as a decision to commit to discovering something about the world. So at the beginning, you may not have all the data, but you commit yourself to exploring for it. All human action is – in a sense – faith-based.
Scientists wouldn’t search for a cure for cancer if they didn’t have faith that the disease ought to be eradicated. And they wouldn’t bother if they didn’t have faith that human effort is actually capable of doing it (think about it a moment – is there really any reason to believe we can eradicate cancer as opposed to not?).
Gandhi wouldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t have faith that human freedom was a better state than otherwise. All politics is – in the end – faith based.
We all act on ideals that we take for granted on faith, and proceed from that premise.
To the extent that he labels faith for value claims (e.g., cancer ought be eradicated), then maybe he has a point. (Although to suggest that the prevention or elimination of suffering is a faith claim…seems a bit strange to me.)
But the implication that one must have faith that it can be done is a bit different. Maybe my absurdism is showing here, but such a confidence is not necessary, and in fact, can harm us.
And that is the problem with talking about a “trajectory of history” or “inevitable progress.” Not only does it bind us to a presentist mindset (although, since I don’t really value tradition, I couldn’t even begin to try to take myself outside of presentism, myself) but it ignores the reality of progress and change.
Progress is not inherited. It does not accumulate at a risk-free rate of return. Progress must be fought for.
So, in fact, it’s better for us to believe that it is unlikely…it’s better for us to believe the situation is dire and desperate…which will give us all the more desperate fury to fight until our nails are bloody.
This goes both ways, of course. I think that when there are big political shakeups, it’s because one side was resting on its laurels and the other wasn’t. Speaking about large changes in mandates and the will of the people or the powers that be glosses over the sweat equity that preceded it.
To bring things back to the point the Religion Dispatches author was addressing…I would say that this is a case when any gay rights advocates should well be wary. Gay rights, if nothing else, are not something to be assumed as a foregone conclusion. Prop 8 in California showed us that well-formed campaigns shatter if not merely redefine “historical trends.”
So, inevitable progress? I won’t have it. I won’t let it slow me down. I won’t let it make me lazy and weak. I’m going to stay aware, vigilant.