In 1932, America's preeminent Protestant theologian and social critic, Reinhold Niebuhr, published his groundbreaking book Moral Man and Immoral Society . In Niebuhr's own words, that book's project (as timely now as ever) consists in "analyzing the moral resources and limitations of human nature'' in order to "find political methods which will offer the most promise of achieving an ethical social goal for society." When I stress Niebuhr's timeliness, what I especially mean is how powerfully his insights--those of a purely amateur (if extremely well-read) social psychologist--complement the more research-based revelations of "hot" contemporary psychologists of religion and politics like Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson.
Now, my interest in the controversial Haidt--and worse, the still more controversial Peterson--is hardly calculated to endear me to fellow leftists; in fact, it's likelier to get me excommunicated from their ranks. But the point here is that I'm not calculating, but simply embracing insights the Left ignores at the exorbitant price of its effectiveness. The marginal roles both leftists and liberal churches play in current politics should warrant substantial openness to what I offer here: some fresh, promising insights involving considerable discomfort for both. But since when was prophetically castigating a society fatally wedded to catastrophe ever comfortable?
What Moral Resources Are Available to Save Civilization?
Readers should understand the previous section as kitchen prep work for social analysis; the increasingly substantial courses of my analytic meal lie in this essay's remaining sections, both here and in Part 2.
So, I identified liberal churches' potential usefulness to our society as offering prophetic witness; and I described that prophetic witness as "a fierce-flaming fury against injustice--without inciting a killing fury beyond all reconciliation." Indeed, that particular description is crucial to my case; and I named Niebuhr, Haidt, and Peterson because I intend to explain our current, crying need for liberal-church prophetic witness (as so described) by drawing on their thought.
On a reduced scale, the remainder of this essay updates the aims of Niebuhr's classic Moral Man and Immoral Society for our own troubled times. It attempts to "analyze[e] the moral resources and limitations of human nature," and then marshal those resources to address the political crisis of an era even more perilous than Niebuhr's. For as Paul Jay reminds us (in the video linked to previously), the threats we humans now face are truly "existential."
Indeed, the word existential provides an excellent launch pad for discussing the social psychology that so strongly valorizes prophetic witness in our times. Now, the title of Jordan Peterson's book 12 Rules for Life initially suggested to me the usual pop psychology self-help garbage; however, some browsing of his YouTube video titles revealed his interest in Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, neither exactly a staple of lightweight pop psychology, and both widely considered precursors of existentialist philosophy. Intrigued, I watched a few videos and realized Peterson was wrestling with a problem, common to Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, with which I too had long wrestled: how to find moral meaning in a world that had largely lost its faith in the religious sources that had traditionally taught and grounded such meaning. Peterson immediately earned credit with me by emphasizing that Nietzsche's notorious "God is dead" passage is no triumphant declaration of juvenile atheism, but a profound intuition into a major, dawning crisis of social psychology. An existential problem that, in Peterson's view and mine, still haunts us to this day.
Now, what gives our current existential crisis of moral meaning extra urgency and poignancy is precisely our facing the existential threats of nuclear and climate Armageddon . With humanity facing potential extinction-- or, at minimum, the destruction of human civilization as we know it -- the future may depend entirely on how much value we attach to the whole human enterprise. Pretty clearly, neither the de facto moral nihilism of Trump and his fellow "live for today" capitalist oligarchs, nor the science denial and "bring it on" attitude toward Armageddon of their Christian Zionist useful idiots, offers any bulwark against onrushing apocalypse. Quite the contrary.
So we must seek among moral resources that are neither indifferent moral nihilism nor gung-ho "Armageddonism" if we wish to maintain any realistic hope of saving human civilization. But at the same time, the needed moral resources must allow for the full embrace of science while overcoming the "God is dead" problem of moral meaning as sketched by Nietzsche. The two chief contending moral resources I find left are secular humanism and prophetic liberal religion, and I've already expressed my strategic preference for prophetic liberal religion. I'll devote the rest of Part 1, and a substantial portion of Part 2, to explaining in detail why.
Overview: Why Liberal Prophetic Witness Trumps Secular Humanism
To be clear, the crisis humanity faces is that the U.S. government, along with a significant portion of powerful Western governments, is under the iron control of capitalist oligarchs whose selfish agendas are at odds with the very survival of human civilization. As summary evidence, I'd offer the previously linked video by the Real News Network's Paul Jay; from a more purely economic perspective, I'll add a superb talk by Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis. So, saving human civilization (if it's still possible) involves uniting large masses of people and mustering their moral energy to fight and topple from power those deeply entrenched oligarchs.
And let's add that the required mass uprising almost certainly needs to be peaceful, for the oligarchs in question possess the world's most powerful spies, armies, police, and arsenals--including biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Beyond this sheer repressive force, the oligarchs possess powerful, consolidated news media: media capable of morally discrediting any mass movement imprudent enough to prod oligarchs' lethal state killing force into action by its own violence.
So the moral resource supporting the needed mass revolt must be 1) a potent source of moral energy, 2) capable of commanding widespread allegiance, and 3) resolutely peaceful. To which we should add: 4) prone to arrive at precisely the diagnosis of our political ills cited by Jay and Varoufakis. While a peaceful revolt uniting secular humanists and prophetic religious liberals is certainly conceivable and desirable, prophetic liberal religion seems demonstrably superior to secular humanism as a moral resource for organizing needed revolt in terms of all four tests just listed.
Applying those four tests, Part 2 of this essay will demonstrate in detail the superiority of prophetic liberal religion to secular humanism as a potentially civilization-saving moral resource. It will then explain why liberal churches have failed to live up to their vast prophetic potential, and will end with some recommendations for how they might do so.
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