On one of those conservative websites that I follow to boost my morale, I recently read a piece that reminded me that GA has a potentially healing role to play in the current moral sickness that is besetting our civilization.
The first four paragraphs suffice to make the point:
The devolution of American society began when moral relativism supplanted biblical truth in education, government, and the family.
Beginning in the late 1940s with the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education ruling and onward, our government and educational system have turned their backs on absolute truth to embrace Marxism, which aims to remove Christianity from all spheres of society.
The moral erosion proves obvious in a recent Barna poll that found, “Millennials are significantly less likely to believe in the existence of absolute moral truth or that God is the basis of all truth.”
The study also noted that “Millennials have less respect for life, in general,” and that “they are less than half as likely as other adults to say that life is sacred. They are twice as likely to diminish the value of human life by describing human beings as either ‘material substance only’ or their very existence as ‘an illusion.’”
This article, by Kathleen Bustamante (https://thefederalist.com/2023/04/03/as-moral-relativism-replaces-christian-values-americans-will-suffer-more-mass-shootings/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=ae&utm_campaign=memail&seyid=57938?utm_campaign=ACTENGAGE ) is far from the level of sophistication of Colin Wilson, let alone Girard or Derrida, but its diagnosis of moral relativism and what non-academic conservatives call “Marxism” as a synonym for Leftist materialism is clear enough. What the author calls the “devolution of American society” is a fact, and one whose geographical range is by no means limited to the USA.
Like so many other articles of a similar nature, it offers, as the unique alternative to the moral state defined by reducing the human to “material substance only,” a return to belief in Christianity. The specificity of Christianity is hardly the point; Ms Bustamante would surely accept Judaism and no doubt Islam as affirming a similar belief that “God is the basis of all truth.”
As readers of these Chronicles know, I do not see GA as incompatible with such beliefs, so long as it is understood that the truth attributed to religious scriptures cannot be confronted directly with the truth of empirical reality. The point to retain is that language is not in the first place a set of propositions ultimately reducible to something like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Logic does not explain its origin nor its originary purpose, and it is a category error to think of language’s primary function as a neutral means of expressing Ideas like those Plato envisaged as casting their shadows on the walls of the cave.
In a word, the lock on the prison-house of language has been picked. Logic is not thereby “transcended,” but put in its place; the originary function of language and the source of all the others is the one inaugurated in the hypothetical originary event, which as a model of human interaction is more effectively described in the language of scripture than in that of philosophy.
Nearly 200 years after Darwin, we need no longer argue about the scientific status of Genesis and similar scriptures. That the anthropological truth of these texts cannot be extracted from them by treating them as empirical descriptions is universally accepted among educated people, and Ms. Bustamante is certainly not arguing for the idea that the universe was created in 4004 BC. What she cares about is what all of us should care about: the acceptance of our fundamental intuition of moral equality, not as an absolute, but to the end of permitting the human community to flourish. This intuition is rooted in the “sense of the sacred” that all of us share willy-nilly as the root of human language and culture.
I have often pointed out that the problem with today’s so-called “Marxists” is not that they deny the principle of moral equality. What else is Wokism but the insistence on moral equality translated into a principle of equality of worldly opportunity that the Woke call “equity”? When the Left condemns Christians and conservatives in general, it is not because they demand morality, but because they don’t demand enough “morality,” meaning for example that street criminals should be punished as little as possible because they have not been given the same opportunities as middle-class people. The problem of today’s irreligious youth is not that they reject morality, but that they interpret it in self-serving and perverse terms. What these people reject, in a word, is ethical wisdom, judgment that reflects the needs of the social order that may not be apparent to the isolated individual, but that he is expected to accept on faith as a member of the community.
GA understands that the ethical doctrines of religion must adapt what can be called our moral instinct to the needs of society, applying them as ethical principles designed to maintain the flourishing of the social order. Religion adds to the moral model that is at the root of our conscience or “soul” an ethic that takes into consideration the needs of the community, which necessarily limit the universal application of moral equality. That attempts to implement “socialism” founded on this principle have inevitably produced tyrannical autocracies offers a repeated demonstration of its inadequacy as the basis for an ethic. Its operation must be restrained by an independent source of ethical values such as the Axial religions and generative anthropology provide.
What those of us who have adopted GA’s “new way of thinking” can accomplish is to furnish a supplementary rationale to Christian and other religious moral doctrines that can reinforce their authority beyond the simple appeal to faith in an inherited tradition. GA allows us to understand that from the beginning, the function of morality has never been to exhibit its own perfection, but to provide the basis for the ethic that will permit the survival and flourishing of the community. Abstract morality of the kind that philosophers like to reflect on through “trolley problems” and the like is academic in the unflattering sense of the term. Religion, and language itself, came into being to preserve the human community. The moral “instinct” that the Woke arrogantly seek to extend beyond its normal limits is not absolute; it exists in the service of maintaining humanity’s survival through the generations. Whence our minimalist originary hypothesis.
In the terms of this hypothesis, the problem that the Left’s epistemology of resentment focuses on is the disparity between the harmony of the feast that terminates the originary event and the historically much later hierarchical social orders that in one way or another divide their members into castes, groups of different status. Before the emergence of bourgeois society in the industrial era, all developed societies were divided into such castes, whether in the strict Indian sense or in that of Old-Regime Europe’s “estates.”
Significantly, the current Woke Left is only peripherally focused on the Marxist distinction among economic classes or even that of relative wealth. Instead, its central focus is on detecting inequities as manifested by the statistical inferiority of ascriptive categories thereupon classified as victimary. In the US, the archetype of the victimary category is that of African-Americans, the majority of whom are descended from slaves; other such categories are as far as possible associated with historical examples of discrimination. The expected Rawlsian critique that the society’s resources are inequitably distributed remains implicit; the focus is on arousing the guilt of the white and “white-adjacent” majority via the spectacle of racial inequality, while paying lip-service to the critique of its overall economic basis.
Wokism is often referred to semi-ironically as a new “religion,” making religion a synonym for transcendental ethical faith independently of its historical origin. But it is in the measure that Wokism differs from Judeo-Christianity that we observe its anthropological inadequacy.
The simplest understanding of Jaspers’ category of “Axial” religions is that, like Voegelin’s classification of societies as “compact” or “free,” the pre-Axial religions presupposed the sacrality of the current social order, making the difference between its ethic and originary egalitarianism irrelevant. Such religions are promulgated from the top down; the present order is sacred and the people are ordained by the divinity to obey their temporal rulers. It is easy enough to understand why the religions of the archaic empires would emphasize the “divine right” of their rulers and that their hierarchical governance structures would be reflected in their religious doctrines.
The opening-up of religion in the Axial era to a universalism no longer associated with a particular political structure, often described as the passage from religions of immanence to those of transcendence (see Chronicles 758 and 762), is a product of what we may call the first wave of modernity: the increasingly common understanding that the human community is composed of different sub-communities, such that no individual society, however powerful or territorially extended, constitutes a self-sufficient human universe. The Axial conception of the sacred is as a transcendent universal that extends beyond any specific social order, whether through the ecumenical pluralism of polytheist pantheons or as a generalizing perspective such as we witness in Xenophanes’ speculation that horses’ gods would look like horses. Jewish monotheism, no doubt influenced by Akhenaton’s “henotheistic” innovation, is founded on the simple but revolutionary intuition that the sacred is everywhere the same, functioning to providentially maintain the human social order in different contexts but with the same purpose. Christianity is of all religions the most conscious of the distinction between the sacred and profane worlds; its dichotomous opposition of the kingdoms of this world to God’s kingdom in Heaven, as exemplified by its precept to render their due unto both God and Caesar, provides the clearest expression of this distinction.
The transcendental Axial religions embody greater anthropological truth than the immanentist ones of the archaic empires because, born from the contact of different societies, each in its own way understands that the universal truth of the human is not confined to any specific social order but must transcend the particularities of each. The early chapters of Genesis illustrate this insight in the failure of Babel to unify its different communities. Humanity’s originary unity becomes something only God the embodiment of the sacred itself can conceive, or lacking this, a Pantheon of gods whose plurality suggests that of the diversity of human societies. For in their origin, the gods in the various classical pantheons were all local divinities who were “assigned” to different aspects of the world: the sea, the air, the underworld… by poets rather than prophets.
Ms Bustamante is correct that the US, although born in revolution, did not throw out the baby with the bathwater and retained until the last few decades of its history its implicit Christian basis. Christianity had evolved throughout the medieval era into a plurinational religion, and even when split in two by the Reformation, retained sufficient unity to put together Europe’s still-surviving Westphalian system of nations. This system allowed the Industrial Revolution to spread from England to the rest of Europe and to the British and other European colonies as a community of Christian nations.
But the revolutionary spirit born with the French Revolution was incompatible with Christianity, and even after France’s return to monarchy, the epistemology of resentment that it had liberated remained alive. The historical failure of Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian “end of history” after the collapse of the USSR reflects the Christian West’s inability to contain this spirit despite its visible advantages in personal freedom and economic productivity. Although the Western model of liberal democracy, which created the scientific and technological conditions for modern society, remains despite its present turmoil unquestionably the most attractive for its own members and for migrants seeking a better life, not only has the demise of the USSR in 1991 not done away with the social force of the epistemology of resentment, but on the contrary, this pseudo-religion has become increasingly dominant throughout the world, and even in the heart of its most successful nation-states, the USA perhaps most of all. Rather than the source of inspiration that it had been for decades, today’s USA, with its increasingly uncivilized and lawless political life, seems more to be following the lead of Venezuela and Nicaragua than setting them an example. The Trump indictment is only the most recent of a series of catastrophic and disgraceful episodes.
It may seem pretentious for me to claim that the Abrahamic religions that dominate the West should benefit from the blessings of GA in order to survive, but that is because GA is not yet taken seriously as an anthropology, which is to say, as science. My claim that Girard’s thought derived its most profound insights from Judeo-Christianity is not the equivalent of claiming that he owed his fame to his Christian faith. It is rather that he owed the quality of his analyses to his ability to understand the Judeo-Christian Bible’s anthropological implications, which GA’s originary hypothesis does little more than formalize.
After decades during which they flirted with deconstruction and other post-metaphysical doctrines, today’s social sciences are rightly cautious of ungrounded speculation. But GA’s originary hypothesis, unlike even the most perceptive insights of “French theory,” obeys Ockham’s razor in its focus on explaining human reality in simple language. My Origin of Language presents a rigorous thesis and, above all, by grounding language in a scenic model of human behavior, avoids the metaphysical trap or “prison-house” that post-Hegelian thought had been trying to escape. The micro-analyses engaged in by the recent researchers on language origin are by no means without value, but in their careful examination of the bark and leaves of the trees, these studies provide no overall conception of the forest, the human community.
Let me repeat once more that necessity is the mother of invention. Language could not have emerged gradually and imperceptibly through the accretion of small improvements. Each use of language is an event, and language could only have emerged in an event. For humanity needed language for a reason, and if the danger of conflict inherent in mimetic desire was not what it was invented to defend us against, I have yet to see anyone propose an alternative.
But what I have seen—what we can all see—is that Genesis, if read with a minimum of insight, tells us a lot more about the origin of language than the totality of those micro-analyses. No, it doesn’t say that language was invented in order to prevent mimetic conflict; in fact, it says just the opposite: that it was with language that the germ of such conflict appeared. How true! But its authors were not prehistorians and certainly not Darwinians. If they saw language as the source of our fall, it wasn’t perverse but merely perceptive to claim that no, on the contrary, it was to prevent our definitive fall, our self-destruction, that language was invented. Our falling-away from Edenic perfection was the fallout from this invention—which has kept us alive until today despite all our slip-ups.
I think that if the simple, tentative truths of the originary hypothesis can become generally accepted, not as dogma, but as a basis for further reflection and empirical research, the moral values whose loss is bewailed by Ms. Bustamante, and indeed the Christian faith that grounds them, will find a more hospitable terrain than it does today. For even the non-believer cannot help but admire the anthropological finesse of the Bible, both in itself and even in comparison with the sacred texts of other religions, all of which are nonetheless worthy contributions to our self-knowledge.