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The Arc of Justice and the Supposed Trajectory of History

June 17, 2011

Religion DispatchesRecently, 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…

Emphasis added.

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.

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  1. As an historian, I’ve never found much encouragement for belief in the “inevitability of progress.”

    Most Southern Baptists, by the way, don’t believe in the inevitability of human progress either… But rather in the opposite (i.e., the inevitability of human failure).

    Personally, I like the Jonah model of human history. Maybe Nineveh will repent, maybe it won’t. But we’ll never know until we go preach repentance and see what they do.

  2. John,

    I’ve always wondered if perhaps it’s a personality difference that can explain a lot of political difference, as well as religious differences. That is to say, conservatives just operate differently than liberals on a range of issues; could outlook on the future be one such area?

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Well, they have found that conservatives tend to have physiologically different brains than liberals. Wish I could remember the source and provide a link…

    Andrew, you said:

    “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.”

    Aren’t you just talking about a matter of degree here? It could be said that some people don’t have a lot of faith in the scientific work they are doing, but isn’t it at least necessary that they have at least a bit? Or perhaps motivation in another source of faith that isn’t as obviously connected to the science in question?

    I was just watching a show that dealt with Renaissance economics. I was amazed at the ingenuity and complexity of the market systems those people had worked out. It convinced me that these people were not inherently any stupider than people of the 21st century. And even many of the lowliest shopkeepers and merchants showed a degree of intelligence, and grasp of complex market systems that made even a lot of people I went to college with seem positively dull-witted by comparison.

    I can’t escape the feeling that we have progressed in SOME ways dramatically in the last century. But in others, we haven’t progressed at all, and in some ways we may have even regressed.

    And not forgetting the typical pattern of human empires:

    1. Overwhelming ambition and drive born of hardship, discipline, and frankly – simply being more HUNGRY for it than your neighbors

    2. Rapid aggressive success and dominion of the weaker nations who simply don’t want it as bad as you do

    3. Consolidation of empire into a disciplined whole

    4. Prosperity

    5. Softness, entitlement, and indolence – loss of your killer instinct and driving purpose

    6. A continuation of you prosperity based on sheer weight of momentum (or inertia)

    7. Critical weakening of your society, cracks and openings forming

    8. You get the crap beat out of you by someone who simply “wants it more” than you do

    9. Rinse and repeat

    I’d say the United States is at stage 5.

  4. Seth,

    I have read stuff from Jonathan Haidt about the different morality foundations of conservatives and liberals, so it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of other differences.

    But I’m not sure if I’m talking about a matter of degree. Maybe I am, but maybe I’m not.

    I’m arguing that science could proceed as a Sisyphean endeavor. That is — even if one doesn’t know whether x is possible, or suspects that it is highly improbable if not effectively impossible, one pursues it anyway. If I am motivated by the struggle, by the cause itself, and not by a potential outcome, then it would be very understandable that I would continue to do that even if it’s futile or even if I suspect it’s futile. No faith necessary because the underlying motivations are immediately felt and lived.

    I think that’s your stage *1* in your human empire process. Overwhelming ambition and drive isn’t born out of believing that something can be done and is probable…it’s a defiant challenge of the overwhelming odds one faces.

    …so there. Try to find a source of faith there 😉

    And I recognize that that probably isn’t always the case. Maybe humans more rational or sane would give up whenever they suspect their efforts are futile.

  5. Although the comment thread didn’t survive the Mormon Matters reboot, this post on the topic of conservative and liberal personality differences is still there:

    Andrew: glad to see you’re feeling reinvigorated about writing.

    Seth: Stage 7, not 5.


    • for some reason, your comment got trapped in spam. Anyway, I kinda wish I had been able to see the Mormon Matters comment discussion there…

  6. Personality differences explaining political differences… There might be something to that.

    The “cycles of history” is just another model of inevitability… Empires and civilizations going up and down… But I still don’t really buy that as inevitable either. At every point there are always choices.

    Unless we are “predestined” to make certain choices by our personality.

    We can’t choose what we believe, eh?

    • Seth R. permalink

      Talking about the free will of an individual is an entirely different animal than talking about the free will of hundreds or thousands, or even whole nations.

  7. I liked Seth’s comment about the complexity of Renaissance economics.

    I heard recently (I wish I could remember where now) that individuals have a certain “risk tolerance.” No matter what, they will just naturally take a certain amount of risk until they’ve reached their risk limit and then they become cautious. So if a person reduces risk in one area of their lives (say, they start wearing seat belts every time they drive), they usually compensate by increasing risk in another area of their lives (say, taking up smoking). It’s not a conscious process we control, we just naturally settle into the level of risk we’re comfortable with.

    Maybe it works the same way in other areas of human society/psychology. Maybe humans as social beings are capable of investing only so much “complexity.” Once they’ve reached their complexity limit, they can’t invest any more. So a society that invests a lot of energy into building an egalitarian society and making sure that the poor get taken care of might be poor in scientific advancement or technological improvement.

    So maybe societies never advance, they just shift their priorities.

  8. John,

    Unless we are “predestined” to make certain choices by our personality.

    We can’t choose what we believe, eh?


    Although it would make this sisyphean outlook make a lot of sense. I fight against overwhelming odds because that’s all I can do.

    Interesting ideas on complexity limitations…

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