Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Curse of the Educated Class's Religion of Power

Yesterday I proposed that "we needed" a new religion for the educated, now that Christianity doesn't "do it" for the educated.

Perhaps I should have started with what we do not need in a religion for the educated.

What we do not need is a religion that proposes that the educated should be given plenipotentiary powers -- political, economic, and moral-cultural -- to solve the problems of the world.

Because what we see today among the educated is what seems to be a religion of entitlement, that the educated are the only people with the moral and intellectual standing to decide matters of right and wrong for the rest of us.

Moreover, what our educated friends all seem to gravitate towards is the notion that all matters of right and wrong should be decided by them and their political power.

Of course, down the ages, political and moral power have tended to be combined, although I suppose there is an argument that back in the pre-state era, the religious and the political were divided, between the shaman and the Big Man.

But at least in the state era, there has been a strong tendency for a condominium between the political and the religious, between king and temple. Also, we may say, following Nietzsche, "the priests" did the king a favor by teaching us to hate ourselves. What kind of rebellion is possible from people taught to hate themselves?

And yet. One magnificent feature of the Catholic Church is that it represented a power structure independent of and competing with the various political powers in Europe. This was clearly evident in the era of the Franks, Charlemagne and all that. Hey, why do you think that Henry VIII broke off relations with the Catholic Church and founded the national Church of England. Yes, apart from the opportunity to loot the monasteries. It was very convenient and helpful for Henry to have the priests as functionaries of the state.


In my view the crucial turn in the modern era has been the notion of the separation of church and state, of the moral and the political. This is what all the political theorists of the post-1648 Treaty of Westphalia, post religious wars era, were getting at with their three branches of government, their toleration, their limitation of government powers.

Indeed, I would go further. I say that the Great Enrichment of the last two centuries is founded on the limitation of political and religious power. The fact is that all along, the political and religious elites have hated the new manufacturies and rising bourgeoisie. But they were too blind and too ineffective to put a stop to it until it was too late. And where they did succeed, as in revolutionary France and Bolshevik Russia, they made a complete hash of things.

This to say that, in the modern era, political and religious power is not that important. Indeed, where political and/or religious power dominates, it creates a mess. That is, after all, the lesson of socialism, the idea that we can create the perfect society if the right politics and moral agenda is enforced from on high by the educated class.

Why is that? There are many reasons, but the main ones are that the modern society and economy are so complicated that a political and religious elite just doesn't have the knowledge, the wisdom, the bandwidth to control it all. And even if they do, they still get it wrong.

Indeed I would say that the lesson of the last 200 years is that political and moral leadership is not that important any more. The first reason is that the defense of food-growing land is not that important any more, so the political-military elite is not that important any more. The second reason is that the modern economy places a huge benefit on trust, from trustworthy people to trustworthy transactions. And the pressure upon us all to be trustworthy makes us into better, more moral, people, much more than invocations from the pulpit.

Let us interpret the question of religion in the modern era in these terms. On the one hand there are totalizing ideologies, from socialism to fascism, to postmodernism, which seek to totalize all power into the educated elite, and which lead every time to death and disaster. On the other hand there are attempts to find meaning for the educated elite -- and creative people generally -- from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Jung, that proposes to Heal Thyself and avoid the corrupting temptations of political and moral leadership.

For this is the great challenge for our educated class: to find meaning in the world without having to be the wise kings and priests with the answer to everything.

Yes, imagine such a world, in which the educated were not puffed up with conceit about the value of their contribution to the world.

It's easy if you try.

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