Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows. My debt to them is deep in this post. My thanks to them both.
Some time ago I had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses. No western commentator approved the move. Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on. Even Trump lodged a protest. Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (or mostly agree), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.
It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion. But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion. Somehow their societies functioned just fine. Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions. Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?
Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions. When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment. The child receives a transfusion and lives. We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect. Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind. In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them. Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.
The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere. Every society must distinguish between order, chaos and the acceptable margin. Civilization could not exist otherwise. Maybe Russia has erred in judgment. But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context. As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”
Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read. In one chapter we see the following:
- The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand. We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this). If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
- God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
- God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
- It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.
The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways. God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped. And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute. One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example. Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same. David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.
The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones. Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free. He destroys the dominion of sin and death. He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity. The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world. But . . . He still left us with “categories.” We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.
In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond (the linked article is a fascinating discussion of the role of zombies in our culture, and a look at how the Church has dealt with the core and margin in its iconography). Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on. So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond. Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us. If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.
Each element has its place. Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.* We can’t go there and live. No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time. Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way. The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute. Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.
Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins. To say this is “where they belong” is no insult. That is where they are most effective. We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example. But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen? What would happen to our arts and music? Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.
This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone. The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities. The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin. Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture. The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**
We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face. We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity. One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years. Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car. A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction. At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.
This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end. Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly. We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship. Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block. All would be right with the world.
*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect. Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over. God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything. There would be no time for “belief.”
**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country. Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial. Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.
Finally, some might say that I contradict myself. I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits. To clarify, I see a difference.
- The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core. Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own. We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
- The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.
Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.