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Where's Utopia?

When I wrote about possible apocalypses last month, I neglected the other extreme that we tend to go to. Just as many of us live preparing for a coming apocalypse, many think that we're on the cusp of a new utopia, a golden era.

Harvey Cox's “Future of Faith” could be seen as one example of this, just as Sam Harris' “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason“ could be seen as another. Both share a utopian view of the future: “One day, soon, we'll all live in peace!”

Today, a friend shared an article with me that manages to synthesize Cox's utopian view with that of Harris': “Stepping Up to the Age of Empathy; ‘Empathetic Civilization’: When Both Faith and Reason Fail”. I had just finished reading a review of “Kinds of Killing”, so it made an interesting juxtaposition.

Following is my response to my friend.



When Jeremy Rifkin mentioned “embodied experience” the first thing that popped into my mind was existentialism. But then, also, the ancient (Hebrew) conception of belief: that it must be lived. At least in modern times it is common to claim to believe something, but live in ways that contradict that — often, it seems with little self-awareness.

But this bit I would take issue with:
For the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil.

I'll agree that Augustinian Christians do see the body this way. Eastern Christianity (at least how I've experienced in, and in my reading of the Saints) sees the body as made “in the image of God”. The body is not the *source* of evil. In this way we echo the ancient Greeks who saw evil as the absence of good, rather than something of substance itself. The body isn't evil, but when we fail to do good, we “do” evil.

So, I'd say much of this is an straw man argument, or, at least, an argument against a distortion of Christianity. If we don't think the emotions and the body are not part of our baptism into Christ, then, sure, the argument makes some sense. But those of us who see the body and emotions as integral parts of the whole person would disagree. This may not be the common understanding of Christianity in much of the West, but it isn't a new take on Christianity that only just appeared during the “Age of Empathy”.

Which makes this a non-question:
If empathic consciousness flows from embodied experience and is a celebration of life—our own and that of other beings—how do we square it with faith and reason, which are disembodied ways of looking at reality and steeped in the fear of death?

I think it is telling that the Enlightenment took place in Western Europe, but there wasn't (at least as far as I know) a similar renaissance in the East. The Byzantine and then Russian Empires filled the power vacuum that the fall of the Roman Empire, along with its civilizing influence.

Which is not to say that the East is somehow purer, but that our understanding of history and philosophical development is very Euro-centric. The very notion of “Ages” seems, to me, to be part of our desire to compartmentalize. “That was then, this is now.” This is fed by our infatuation with ourselves: the idea that Humanity is advancing philosophically as well as technologically.

What period of time, wherever people had the resources to sit around and write articles like this, hasn't seen itself as entering some grand new “age”? I'm sure, for example, American slaves didn't see a new age coming, but their masters certainly did often enough.

None of this is to imply that we haven't seen a dramatic technological shift in the past 100 years. But our visions of the future are just that: dreams. Our dreams of utopia or apocalypse may change, but in the end, we'll probably end up somewhere in the middle.

Speaking of apocalypse, I just got done reading this book review.

I thought the first paragraph, which talks about how to prepare private citizens for war was good.

Then, this bit, farther down:
Mostly, though, soldiers complained of the miserable conditions of life that Russian villages offered them. “Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.” This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can't spank someone with it?

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March 2010

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