I am re-publishing this "Skeptic's" column today because, if anything, it is even more relevant today than when it first appeared. I am also re-publishing it because, when I originally published it, politics used to be ... you know ... both fun and funny. So for a few moments, we can share a trip down Memory Lane to a time of comparative innocence.
Well, we are in that time of year again – July in general, and the Fourth in particular -- when we all make the obligatory pilgrimage to the First Church of American Exceptionalism, also known colloquially and variously as "the back yard" or "the deck" or "the patio", where we celebrate the Sacrament of Opportunistic Patriotism with beer instead of wine, with burgers instead of unleavened bread, on an outdoor barbecue grill instead of an altar, where meat is miraculously transubstantiated into “bad” cholesterol. It’s all a very moving ritual. But the part I find most meaningful and profound is the part of the service where we all pause, put our burgers back on our paper plates, take an extra swig of beer, belch discreetly, hitch up our shorts, and, with the table holding the condiments serving as an improvised lectern, listen reverently while someone reads once more from the Declaration of Independence -- which Dr. Pauline Maier, late professor of history at MIT, aptly called, in the title of one of her books, American Scripture.
Wait! No! Sorry! … silly me! … I had a momentary quantum flashback into a parallel Universe where people in that alternate America actually read the Declaration on the Fourth of July, when it was first read to the people of Philadelphia gathered around Independence Hall in 1776. Maybe those alternate Americans didn’t, as we often do, confuse “We hold these truths to be self-evident” in the Declaration with part of the Constitution, because, in this Universe, we don’t read either one. But even in this Universe, the title of Prof. Maier’s book likening the Declaration of Independence to a kind of quasi-biblical civic Scripture suggests a deep similarity between two parallel heresies: that of Jesus about the purpose of religion, and that of Thomas Jefferson about the purpose of government. Umm … ahh … you do recall that Mr. Jefferson not-quite-but-almost single-handedly wrote the Declaration of Independence … right? Oh well … onward …
It all has to do with the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, you see. Or … maybe you don’t. Please let me explain. Anyway, the Enlightenment secularized the finite, empirical world by placing – not God, not the Church, not the Bible, not the afterlife, not any system of religious doctrine -- but human beings at the center of all political, social, and ethical systems, and – this is most critical – made the well-being of humans the primary criterion by which the worth and validity and legitimacy of such systems were to be judged. One more time: not God, not the Church, not religious precepts, but the well-being of humans. In the 6th century BCE, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras said “Man is the measure of all things”. No one is quite sure what Protagoras meant by that, but it is pretty evident from the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark what Jesus would have meant by it, at least with regard to religious law and custom.
And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.And the Pharisees said unto him, “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” And he said unto them, “Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?” And he said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”
Jesus, of course, revered the Law (Matt. 5:17, but even this should be read in context). However, He revered the Law enough to not desecrate it by turning it into an excuse for making already-miserable human beings even more miserable – in this case, by allowing the disciples to go hungry in the name of religious scruples. The disciples’ hunger was more important than rigorous formal obedience. The well-being of the disciples, not conformity to the Law, was the measure of the worth, even of the Law of Moses. The interesting, even revolutionary, point is that Jesus’ argument subordinating the Law to the well-being of humans can be applied to any system of religious regulations. We read that Markan text so often that it becomes hidden in plain sight: the writer of Mark depicts Jesus as advocating for one of the salient principles of the European Enlightenment roughly 1700 years in the future.
Fast forward through those 1700 years, and we find Mr. Jefferson saying the same thing in his magisterial text (boldface added):
[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mentioned earlier], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness
Messrs. Jefferson and Jesus meet, embrace, and “high-five”. Their obvious and indisputable differences otherwise notwithstanding, they agree on the criterion by which the validity, health, and legitimacy of political and religious systems, respectively, are to be assessed: the well-being of humans. Not theology. Not ideology. Not conformity to religious regulations. Not “keeping America Number One”. The well-being of actual, living humans. The corollary is that, when any system of government flunks the “well-being” test, “the People” have a correlative right “to alter or to abolish it”. Both religiously and politically, there is such a thing as an unalienable right of revolution. Like Jesus’ parallel religious principle, Mr. Jefferson’s right “to alter or to abolish” ceases to appear revolutionary only because we are so accustomed to it. In reality, both are dynamite.
We miss the point because living according to an abstract ideology comprising rules is so much … easier … so much less demanding, requiring much less in terms of personal critical judgment and responsibility. Stick with an ideology long enough, follow it with enough single-minded lemmings-over-the-cliff consistency, and “scope creep” occurs: the ideology not only begins to replace reality, after a while we begin to lose sight of the difference. We confuse the map with the territory. We begin to live “algorithmically”, according to a recipe. Much (most?) of the time, there is no problem, especially if the ideology is rooted in the Enlightenment values of post-medieval Western civilization. But even so … there are times … E.g., when we value the principle of national sovereignty so highly that we deny, or even advocate denying, people, even kids, health care and education because they crossed the border without proper documentation. Yes, border integrity is beyond question important, but more so than a sick human being? E.g., when we value personal independence so highly that we oppose any system of health insurance that will prevent a single serious illness from consigning an entire family to bankruptcy. Personal responsibility is … yes … undeniably important, but that important? E.g., when the freedom to engage in business, enter into contracts, and acquire wealth becomes so important that financial markets are unregulated to the point that they make the Gunfight at the OK Corral look like a Sunday-after-church chamber music concert at Downton Abbey. Economic freedom is indisputably important, but to the point that the retirement accounts of working citizens are jeopardized and on occasion wiped out? When matters reach such a pass, the map has replaced the territory, ideology has usurped the place of critical reflection, the autopilot has replaced the pilot, and principled behavior has degenerated into mere doctrinaire jingoism – “My variance swap, right or wrong” and “Let ‘em self-deport”.
Several months ago, I had lunch with a close friend, a devout, observant Muslim whom I will call “Ahmed”. When I had invited him to lunch, I had not paused to think that it was the middle of Ramadan. Except for severely exigent reasons like frail health, Muslims are required to fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I tried to call him and cancel, so he would at least not have to sit and watch me stuff my face, but my calls always went to voicemail. So I met him at the restaurant, anyway, to apologize and to at least keep him from being stood up. When he came in, I started to apologize. But Ahmed sat down at our table, smiled, held up his hand, and stopped my apology. He said – I'm paraphrasing, of course – “We are close friends, James, and we have not had lunch together for a while. So today – just today – I break the fast. I will keep halal [Muslim dietary laws] but I will break my fast.” I was flabbergasted, my eyes misted a little, and I could only stammer fum-fuh-fum-fuh, and Ahmed said “You ask me why”. I nodded. He laughed, shook his head, held his hands apart, and boomed out “Because al-ḥamdu lillāh ["thanks be to God" in Arabic] you are my good friend”.
That’s what I mean.
James R. Cowles
Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana