Category: General

Ota Benga

Sometimes the spirit of an age prevails with such force that it moves the highest pinnacles of cultural influence to support the grossest indignities.

Consider the early 1900s. During this time, the prevailing zeitgeist of Darwinism gave rise to the tragic dehumanization of a Pygmy named Ota Benga. What follows are a few salient points from Cynthia Crossen’s story as published in The Wall Street Journal’s Déjà vu column “How Pygmy Ota Benga Ended Up in Bronx Zoo As Darwinism Dawned” on February 6, 2006. It is also available here.

Ms. Crossen tells the story of how, in 1903, Ota was bought in Africa, brought to the United States, and in 1904 became part of a living display of the stages of evolution at the St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair and a string of events, he found himself in the monkey cages at the Bronx Zoo.

The New York Times noted, “It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. … If he did it isn’t likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys.”

The Rev. James Gordon of the Colored Baptist Minster’s Conference rejected the Times’ opinion. “Our race is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings with souls.”

But the Times brushed aside the criticism: “It is absurd to moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” The director of the zoo didn’t get it either, saying, “He has one of the best rooms in the primate house.”

In 1916 Ota stole a revolver and shot himself. “Evidently he felt that he would rather die than work for a living,” the director offhandedly observed.

I believe that Ms. Crossen’s story calls us back as a society to affirm the basic worth of the human person. Religion, when rightly understood and practiced, can inform other disciplines, such as law, economics, or journalism, of this principle. Our economic model should embrace this affirmation, and will therefore fit with what we know of the motivations of the human person, as a being created to live in freedom and love, to own and to offer up, to create and cooperate, to lead and serve. Without this understanding, we—all of us—could mistakenly believe ourselves to be just the best primates in the zoo.

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker:

Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being”.

For the rest of this encyclical, Laborem Exercens, click here.

While doing research for my upcoming lecture at the Drexel University Libraries’ Scholarly Commmunication Symposium, I ran across this excellent book by Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997). Dr. Murray at that time was a professor at MIT and is now at Georgia Tech.

One of the interesting things that Dr. Murray discusses is the necessary element of what she calls “moral physics” in narrative worlds. She writes, “Stories have to have an equivalent ‘moral physics,’ which indicates what consequences attach to actions, who is rewarded, who is punished, how fair the world is. By moral physics I mean not only right and wrong but also what kinds of stories make sense in this world, how bad a loss characters are allowed to suffer, and what weight is attached to those losses.”

This observation reminds me of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy. While rhapsodizing about the origins of the Matrix, Smith relates this tale:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

I think Murray’s analysis is reflected in Smith’s character, and that this is a representation of the moral realities that objectively exist in our world.

The moral order is, after all, objectively real. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.”

There are normative limits then to the imaginative creation of fictional narratives. In the same way that even an anti-metaphysician is still a metaphysician of a kind, attempts to create amoral or anti-moral worlds are still grounded in the moral order.

This is in part because, as Murray rightly notes, “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience.” The creative faculty, the active imagination, is not insulated and cannot be isolated from human moral faculties.

Related items:

Jordan Ballor, “The Matrix Anthrophology,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (August 26, 2005).

John Bolt, “The Necessity of Narrative Imagination for Preaching,” in Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon: Essays in Honor of John H. Stek, ed. Arie C. Leder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary/CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 203-217.

Vigen Guroian, Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics, Literature & Everyday Life (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).

Peter J. Schakel, “Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination,” Religion & Liberty (Winter 2006).

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Maximilien Robespierre

The name Robespierre is synonymous with terror and mass murder. But the author of The Terror that accompanied the French Revolution was also the prototype of the revolutionary leader who would become all too familiar in the 20th Century. Robespierre loosed the hordes of hell on his people, utterly convinced that he was preserving the purity of his political movement. In the current City Journal, John Kekes offers a fascinating analysis of Robespierre, the man, and those who have since adopted his method. “Why Robespierre Chose Terror” also looks at the way “reasonable” people filter ideologies by subjecting them to a healthy skepticism:

An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a God’s-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.

In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination. Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.

As Kekes points out, the first object of terror for the revolutionary ideologue is often his own people.

But the chief reason that people followed [Robespierre] was fear. No one was safe, and people hastened to testify by words and deeds that they were loyal, enthusiastic supporters. Robespierre wielded his power over life and death as arbitrarily as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did. Arbitrariness is the key to terror: if there are no rules, justifications, or reasons, then everyone is at risk. People can try to minimize the risk only by outdoing others in toeing the line. Dictators understand that, and it explains much of the “spontaneous demonstrations” and public adulation that they extract from the duped and terrified people at their mercy.

A pretty fair definition of political freedom might begin with — the freedom from fear of one’s rulers.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A former editor at First Things, Damon Linker, has written a piece for The New Republic, which attacks, among others, his former boss, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Linker claims that Neuhaus is a “theocon,” who wants to merge religious authority and political power.

Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice has all the details, including links to blog discussions and his previous post, criticizing Linker’s argument.

I’ve read First Things for years and, in my judgment, the truth lies with Linker’s critics.

The resemblance is uncanny.

Who said liberation theology was dead?

Blog author: mmiller
posted by on Thursday, March 23, 2006

If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend the film I Am David with Jim Caviezel and Ben Tibber. It is about a young boy, David, who escapes from a Bulgarian Prison Camp and undertakes a journey northward to Denmark. It is based on the children’s novel North to Freedom by Ann Holm.

The movie contrasts the horror of communist prison camp life with daily life of people in free societies. Normal everyday interactions of young David with a wealthy Italian family and a Swiss woman are powerful in the way they illustrate the differences between an easygoing and joyful life of a free society and the de-humanizing forces of camp life.

David’s soul, mind, and worldview were shaped by the violent, godless, and ugly life of the camp and the movie, among other things, shows how David becomes humanized as he meets normal individuals striving to live good lives in freedom. It is a moving and uplifting film and it also reminds us of the horrors of communism and the privilege of living in a free society—and the need to protect it.

This is an article worth reading by Steven Waldman in the Washington Monthly, “The Framers and the Faithful: How modern evangelicals are ignoring their own history.” The article examines the attitudes of many 18th century evangelicals toward government, and specifically with respect to a number of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry.

While the provacative subtitle may be true, it shouldn’t really be all that surprising. After all, Waldman does a good job throughout noting that “each side of our modern culture wars has attempted to appropriate the Founding Fathers for their own purposes,” and that convenient facts are omitted by each group. The article does a good job getting at some of the complexities and diversity of voices in the 1700s, and shows that there isn’t just a single univocal view of the proper relation between church and state. Check it out.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, March 16, 2006

Henry Stob, the longtime professor of philosophical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, authored a compendium of articles on various aspects of theological ethics in his 1978 book titled, Ethical Reflections: Essays on Moral Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). The book is now out of print, but I ran across an excellent section that excellently captures the intent of the work of the Acton Institute.

In Chapter 2, “Theological Foundations for Christian Ethics,” he writes:

Because man does in fact have a horizontal dimension, and because he is in fact tied in with nature, the presence of “conditioning” factors cannot be denied. There is that in man which is amenable to “causal explanation.” Accordingly, the effect upon him, and upon his conduct, of chemical processes, biological instincts, psychological drives and complexes, economic determinants, and social pressures may never be ignored. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the natural sciences, or those social sciences which proceed by way of the quantitative analysis of empirical givens, are able really to interpret man and his behavior. The methods employed within these sciences, fashioned as they are for use on the horizontal plane, are simply not fitted to plumb the depths of man.

It is most narrowly the economic aspects of human relationships that the Acton Institute is concerned with, but more broadly other “horizontal” institutions are relevant, including disciplines such as political science and history.

One impressive piece of evidence that suggests that Dr. Stob is right in his analysis of the limits of social sciences is the current flowering of interest in economic theories of “social capital,” for example. These are attempts to get at some of the deeper aspects of human reality. Stob concludes that this is properly the realm of ethics, and this is underscored by Francis Fukuyama’s definition of social capital: “Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them.”

Stob writes that since the horizontal dimensions do not exhaust the causal explanations for human behavior,

Attention must be given, therefore, to another set of answers to the question about man and his behavior. These answers, proclaimed by Christian ethics, arise out of theology and metaphysics, and reflect an apprehension of man’s vertical dimension. Integral to them is the recognition that, though man is undoubtedly tied in with nature, he is even more certainly tied in with God. This being tied to God, it is recognized, is precisely what accounts for man’s humanity. It is this which raises man above mere animality and constitutes him a moral person. It is this, moreover, which enables him to break through the causal nexus and transcend merely natural determinants. Being tied in with God, having a dimension of depth, oriented to some object of ultimate concern, he can rise above the influences playing upon him from the side and exercise a genuine freedom—the freedom to set himself ideals and to aspire after them.

It is in the intersection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human existence, specifically as ethics relates to economics, that the Acton Institute works. It is the deeper and more comprehensive view of the human person, particularly as revealed in Holy Scripture, that allows us to evaluate and appropriate elements of study of the “horizontal” planes of human relationships.

Blog author: dphelps
posted by on Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A snippet from the upcoming Religion & Liberty:

It is true that democracy is the best of the political systems, in that it guarantees, through universal suffrage, a peaceful changeover of power. But democracy and its instrument, majority rule, is not a method to investigate the truth. –Rafael Termes

The blessings and responsibilities of a peaceful political system: something for a free people to remember on this noteworthy day in March.