A society’s strength derives almost entirely from the degree to which its members share beliefs that define what the society is for.
For 150 years, the strength of the United States rested on a set of beliefs that included the Ten Commandments and a host of homilies such as: “The United States is a society uniquely blessed and favored by God.” “Hard work and thrift are virtues that have their own reward.”
Though not everyone worked hard or followed the Ten Commandments, those who didn’t hid their sloth and sin as diligently as possible. Sinners, probably no less numerous then than now, at least were willing to genuflect to what everyone knew was “right.”
It was more or less accepted that creation’s most important truths are revealed through faith rather than discovered through human endeavor. Science was understood to produce useful results, though not necessarily fundamental revelations.
Revelation came through the Bible and the church. Since in the United States the church was predominantly Protestant, the written word (King James version) took precedence over the pronouncements of the clergy. Faced with this dilution of power, our own clergy were unable to demonstrate Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts as thoroughly as the clergy in more Catholic societies had demonstrated it.
During that century and a half, science began to clothe itself in the vestments of infallibility. Physics, particularly, produced enormous successes — electricity, radio communications, flight, to name a few. Physics’ most important success undoubtedly was Einstein’s work, carried to its tragic conclusion by Enrico Fermi and his pupils: world shattering power put into the hands of the shatterers of worlds by the gentlest of men.
The physicists who produced these seeming miracles were cautious in their claims; quite unwilling to ascribe the significance of revelation to their discoveries. The science “groupies” who wrote for the press, however, were less reticent and less prudent. They proclaimed that through science, man had found a way to reveal most, if not all, of the mysteries formerly known only to God.
Though the mysteries being revealed remained mysteries to most of the people who were told this, their validity was demonstrable and observable. Certainly it was a miracle to be able to talk to Aunt Millie on the other side of town without having to get dressed and go over there, but the explanation for this miracle involved processes with names like “wave propagation” which could only be described with strange symbols — as mysterious as the charts and symbols of astrology and numerology, but visibly more efficacious.
Meanwhile, seeing the public relations success achieved in fields like physics and chemistry and medicine, some branches of art and philosophy decided to get a piece of the action by proclaiming the application of “scientific method” to their own fields. “Disciplines” such as economics and sociology were born and were christened with the oxymoron: “social science.” People were told that the secrets of human life and human behavior would reveal themselves if only the correct processes were applied. Faith itself, we were told, could be defined as a peculiar state of body chemistry.
The plot thickened and so did the confusion. Methodology became paramount in the search for truth. Truth could only be found through algorithms and formulae. Since faith and revelation don’t involve any kind of methodology, least of all “scientific” methodology, they were thrown out as sources of efficacious truth. And as the bath went roaring down the drain, the baby disappeared with it.
The efficacy of any correct algorithmic process depends on two things: the validity of its premises and the validity of the data fed into it. The premises almost always are unprovable. They are arbitrary perceptions of reality arrived at through a mind leap that suspiciously resembles faith. The data need not only be accurate, they need to measure what the algorithm purports to deal with. Without valid premises and valid data a process may be quite valid and work perfectly well, but at the same time produce garbage.
Many who claim “scientific” methodology seem utterly uncritical about the premises upon which their methodology is based, and seem unable to distinguish between what can be quantified and what cannot. Most of what these people produce is garbage. Yet, it seems, our society has been taught to accept the results of any methodology provided it’s sufficiently complex and mysterious to hide the question of faith buried in its premises. Process itself has become our religion. Revelation and mathematics have become synonymous.
Marxism is a good example of this garbage in, garbage out variety of religion. In Das Kapital, Marx started with the premise that value in human terms comes only from human labor. Without questioning the premise, he proceeded to construct a process-oriented explanation for human endeavor which leads, inexorably to the conclusion that profit must come from exploiting the labor of others. His scientifically-arrived-at remedy for this warping of the human condition by capitalism is even more startling than the conclusion itself: that if the state owns the means of production, all will be well!
No sane Marxist will argue with you about the source of value — any more than a priest will argue with you about the divinity of Christ. Either you accept the premise on faith or you don’t. The difference is that in the first case, if you accept Marx’s premise, everything else can be proven. In the second case, if you accept the divinity of Christ, nothing more need be proven, nor, for that matter, said.
Science, effective as it may be at providing better living through chemistry and better destruction through physics, isn’t capable of providing the beliefs that hold a society together. As someone once said, “Science can tell you how everything works, but it can’t tell you what anything is for.”
Facing a people whose hearts and minds had been won by the procedural effectiveness of science, our clergy had to make some hard choices. Unfortunately they had yielded often over the centuries to the temptation to enter fields other than the saving of souls. They had allowed themselves to make ex-cathedra pronouncements on physical phenomena which, at the time, appeared mysterious enough that it seemed unlikely they would be contradicted. In short, they had done those things which they ought not to have done and had not done those things which they ought to have done, and suddenly science was proving that there was no health in them.
The choice they made was to take the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” approach. The church began to abandon revelation and embrace the social sciences as a way to salvation. Politics, sociology, and economics took on the character of sacraments: “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” The clergy moved toward greater “relevance” by adopting and promoting the idea that procedures can produce truth.
After one of the church’s more outrageous recent moves toward relevance, Bill Buckley pointed out that “the function of the church is not to adapt to the mores of its time, but to establish them.” It is failing to do this. The more the church becomes “relevant,” the less it helps to provide the beliefs that define our society. And as the beliefs fade away, we thirst and we weaken.
Christianity deals properly with the salvation of individual souls. It does not deal properly with the salvation of societies or nations. Yet, it is true that for a century and a half Christianity provided the fixed stars that were, coincidentally, the salvation of our nation. No doubt we could have survived as well under the stars of Judaism. Many of them are the same stars that shine in the Christian sky. Certainly Israel has navigated shoal waters with great success guided by those stars. Perhaps other religions could have given us equally effective beliefs.
Whatever might have been, what is, is that we’re losing our commonly held beliefs and there seems to be good evidence that with them we may be losing our way of life.
The solution to the problem of nuclear destruction, for instance, won’t be found in procedures. If it’s found at all, it’ll be found in shared beliefs, perhaps implemented through procedures. The only thing that’s prevented nuclear war so far has been the widely shared belief that if it comes, we’ll all be blown to Hell. That belief can become less effective if it also becomes widely believed that being blown to Hell is of small importance. If you don’t think it’s possible to believe that, talk to an ex kamikaze pilot. Remember that explosives can only blow your body and perhaps your society to Hell. Whether or not your soul goes with them is up to God.
With that happy thought, I leave my tale and suggest that the following questions might open our discussion:
1. To what extent is the view I’ve presented valid? Certainly this isn’t the worst of times. History is full of examples of societies with worse problems than our own. Unfortunately, none of them survived.
2. If it’s an even partially valid picture, should we be concerned about it? After all, for each society that’s fallen, at least one new one has sprung up to take its place. Furthermore, no one has ever proven “scientifically” that liberty is man’s natural condition or even that it’s good for his soul. There’s some pretty good evidence to the contrary. Most of us seem to rise higher, spiritually, under adversity.
3. If we should be concerned about it, what can we do about it? Can the church be saved? Is it worth saving? Is there a good-looking alternative candidate anywhere around?