Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace
Exegesis presents the reader with a fundamental problem in adjudicating between Phronesis and authority. At once there is the question of source, which is a modern question, and one that only became an issue in the eighteenth century. It is not surprising that the question revolving around the existence of the divine is said to be an ‘eighteenth century question.’ Only in Monty Python and in certain parochial college campuses would one ever find today a ‘debate’ with such a question at stake. At the same time, God’s death does not immediately or necessarily imply that God is now also non-existent. This is an imputation culled from our own mortal life and thus there is no basis to infer that what apparently happens to us has also befallen a deity. Further, just because one god is dead does not mean that all are, or perhaps the transcendental Being is in fact no more but Its emissaries live on in some manner befitting to their status as successors. For the evangelical, for instance, one might assuage but perhaps also caution, by declaring that though God is dead, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is.
The interpretation of text used to be understood as wholly a problem concerning scripture, but Ast and Schleiermacher, in the 1820s, generalized both exegetical and thence also eschatological work to include all texts, ancient and modern, sourced in every discourse and thus courageously following through on Kant’s refusal to stop writing about religion, as the Prussian state had demanded he do about a generation earlier. All of us are indebted to these three thinkers specifically upon this issue which is, at its heart, an issue of ethics. ‘Practical wisdom’, Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’, is a working conception that includes the dialogue between interpretation and sense, both ‘common’ and scientific. What passed for science in the Hellenistic period was longer on empiricism than it was on rationalism, but it was a start. For the eighteenth century, vaulted into a new worldview thanks in part to the new sciences, from Galileo to Vico and onward, the career of interpretation was in some sense predestined to generalize itself, for who in their dignified and modern mind would care to admit, and thence to submit, only scripture to such a crucial process? Even in our own day, wherein print books are on the wane, one has to go a long way to encounter a household wherein only the Bible is present.
This said, one does not have to travel near as far to encounter a living human being whose sense of eminent and ultimate authority adheres to this or that holy book, whatever the credo involved. This, for me, is more a disconnect at the level of literacy than anything else. As such, it is not as serious a problem as it might at first appear. If the vast majority of interpretation occurs at the level of highly scripted popular culture and that in a very few genres of textuality – in fiction, crime or mystery, romance, fantasy-adventure; in non-fiction, popular economics and commerce, gardening, cooking; and finally, biography or memoir as an uneasy amalgam of the two – scripture takes on a more predominant role than it otherwise would. Given the beauty of its prose and the compelling character of its narratives, from the Gospels to the Upanishads and back again, such texts present to us not only world-systems and choate beliefs which hang together as long as their basic premises are accepted without too much skeptical scrutiny, but as well, a sense that something more noble is possible for human culture, it is easy to understand why they remain of interest to many. If all there were to textual life was a choice between Hollywood and the Gospels, Bollywood and the Bhagavad Gita, I myself would choose the sacred route every time.
But in fact this is a false dichotomy. And the fault lies not with either the producers of low culture in each social reality, whether America or India or elsewhere or the odd theologian who hopes to keep the ‘higher’ culture relevant, but rather within the systems of education that are supposed to provide a third eye, a third way, that threads the narrow needle between Hexis and Praxis, the other members of the Aristotelian trinity of ‘outlooks’ or ways of encountering the world. Regrettably, even the universities treat their knowledge as a mere extension of the Praxis outlined in the school system, rather than what it actually is: a radically different way of understanding that leads to practical wisdom. These three terms exist in a dialectical relationship with one another. Hexis, or custom, is the thesis. It is what is common to all members hailing from a specific culture and time period. Though this was more true in 1945 than perhaps it is today, Schutz was nevertheless near the mark when he commented that if one was living in a native English speaking country, one would be at a tremendous disadvantage if one was not ‘osmotically’ familiar with both the Bible and Shakespeare, if only through epigrams and ‘sound bites’. Even if the source of custom includes actual texts, these sensibilities have percolated into commonplace consciousness in a serious enough manner to have become one with it. Post-secondary education, especially in the liberal arts, is supposed to provide more than what a mere technical education is responsible for; more than a specialized Praxis, the antithesis. Increasingly, the entirety of the education system is geared into providing for young people only technique, and indeed, it was one of the variables that pushed me to leave the university behind. Concurrent with market pressures and the sense that one must work to live – ironically, a scriptural sentiment – students flock to these technical programs on the promise of a job, any job. The combination of the forces of globalization only make this mood more desperate. To be young today is to face a dangerous series of tests to this regard, without respect to the stressors that face any youth simply because of the life phase they are in. To this end, Phronesis is the ethical sublation of custom and practical theory. It takes from them the knowing of both and translates, uplifts, and transcends their respective limitations. It is the ‘sign’ which has been constructed out of, but also transfigured from, the signified of Hexis and the signifier of Praxis. Without the dialectic, the only signage available to us as interpreters of the world is that of Caesar and his palace on the one hand, and the prophet and his temple on the other. They are antinomous by nature, and cannot be reconciled let alone transfigured and put to creative use without the hermeneutics of generalized exegetical work.
Increasingly the difference between a school and a storefront is more difficult to discern. Perhaps a circle is closing in upon itself, as at first, the difference between a school and a temple was almost nil. The university is, in its origins, a child of the monastery and not the laboratory, which hardly existed, even though Mantua, Padua, and a little later, Cambridge and Oxford, were early on often centered around medical discourse. Even today, with a view to earning money beyond tuition, certain universities require their first year students to live on campus in dormitories, as if this were akin to a normal school from the Victorian era. The palace and the temple thus reassert themselves at the expense of the lab and the library. Each school maintains ‘codes’ of conduct for its students, which are supposedly only based on the wider legal system and civil behavior, but can be traced back into the murkier sign systems of both religion and capital alike. Our contemporary king is the king of diamonds, even if Phronesis still tells us that the elemental human condition is a dialogue between love and death, hearts and spades, and the wisdom that is at our disposal to adjudicate between them may be found under the rubric of the King of clubs, or knowledge. To abandon this exegetical work – its sacred character too was generalized by modern hermeneutics – in the pursuit of praxis alone is to deny one’s human character. Rendering supplication only to the palace or only to the temple requires of us not only the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, as James pointed out, but as well the resignation that the world is itself nothing more than a conflict between the material and the supposed immaterial realms.
If there were Gods of custom, their vision encompassed each question of existence that could be imagined at the time. If there was a universal question regarding the meaningfulness of the human condition, there was a universal source from which could be understood some kind of response, if not necessarily an ultimate certainty. When the character of the conception of certainty was altered by the new sciences and the new philosophies, the new politics and the new mode of production, the authority of a new universal source of meaning did not follow along. We remain perplexed by this lacunae, which is something of an unexpected tear in fabric of the soul of humankind. We stare down at ourselves, noting this deep textile fluttering with each breath. It makes us blink, but raising our heads once again, we begin to understand that it is this very injury that has brought the world into a much more focused light. Though we must resist projecting our own distress into and onto the world at large, we also have an opportunity to empathize, not only with another like myself, oneself as another, but also with a cosmos, oddly familiar to us, that orders itself out of the happenstance of a disheveled deity and a half-knowing wisdom alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.
Canada does not have a clear cut constitutionally defined separation of church and state, unlike our American cousins. This reflects our sense that a nation can be, or should be, more of a mosaic than a melting pot. It also reflects the history of our immigration, also rather different than that of the USA. There, Europe’s unwanted found new lives and often wished to dispense with the old ones. Here, disinherited second sons aped their European betters. More recently, there, marginal labor seeks to improve its lot, while here the developing world’s elites ramp up real estate prices.
And also start up private schools based on ethnicity and religious credos. What are we to make of the fact that the rest of us – the vast majority of us who neither send our children to elite wealth and network based private schools or to those ethnic or creed based – witness that the state helps pay for these institutions to exist? Without government funding, most simply would not survive. Those that are religious based have legal exemptions from certain basic human rights laws, which no other organization may flout. That apparently only ten of some 640 transparently use this exemption is beside the point. Or is it?
The article linked above seeks to explain this situation but in fact it merely describes it. Journalism doesn’t really have the mandate to explain things, because any explanation could be seen as being generated from a specific point of view. Even philosophy is grounded in both the experience of the tradition and our historical consciousness thereof and therein. It holds certain kinds of values to be inalienable much like religions do. And for those who send their children to private schools based on ethnicity and/or religion, this is the key issue. They want their values to be taught, alongside provincial curricula. It is interesting, to say the least, that while such schools have human rights exemptions they have no such out for curricula. One would think that the former supersedes the latter by some light years. This points to another kind of explanation, one that is only partly related to the cost-savings that private schools bring to the state. Indeed, one could see a rather simple solution to the face-value issue: absorb the added costs of those ten offending schools with the dubious policies, change the law and shut those ten down. The other 630 or so would be presumably unaffected, and the vast bulk of the 430 millions saved each year would be secure.
In fact this is not the essential issue. What of the definition of the state itself? What is it for? What does it do for its citizens? The mission of government in Canada is, as Dr. Weaver put it, not to favor one group over the other. No doubt he is thinking of Rwanda and many other such cases. Canada has at least a self-image of being a tolerant society, where one lives and lets live. We do not have overt ‘culture-wars’ here – the term has been quite rightly criticized by Sontag (2007) and others as being vacuous – and it is ironic that the constitutional separation of church and state in the USA has in part fostered this schism in that country’s social fabric. However smug we tend to be about comparing our land with theirs, the upshot of this current situation is that we show much of our vaunted tolerance to governments who, from some other vantage point, might appear nothing less than cowardly.
Though we are getting warmer, the needs of the state to preserve social tolerance by allowing various communities and other cultural groups to have some distance from the public education system and conveniently saving a lot of money while doing so, is also not of the essence. In fact private schools increase social division. Ethnic and religious based schools are not as dangerous to this regard as are the straight-up wealth-based elite schools, which, though they may receive correspondingly less public funding, nevertheless presume upon its continuation. Children are sent to these schools not for metaphysical or even cultural reasons but because they are the children of existing social and political elites. They need to find appropriate marriage partners so that the family and lineage wealth is not dissipated. They need to be ingratiated into networks so they can attain employment and thence authority suitable to their family status. Only in this way can both be maintained over the generations. Our tax system is supposed to mitigate the first, but nothing can alter the second, and it is through these networks that elites reproduce themselves over time, at our expense.
The credo and ethnic based schools attempt something similar, but insofar as it is a half-baked attempt they are not to be hoisted on the same ethical hook as are the class-based institutions. Given that private schools are essentially anti-democratic – simply due to costs; this is why we have a public system in the first place – the reality of general revenue tax dollars being used to officially ‘crowd-fund’ these organizations – also essentially helping the rich preserve their wealth and reproduce their networks at our expense – is yet closer to the key issue here. In turn, we must ask ourselves what kind of democracy are we content to live within. One in which class differences are exacerbated by publicly funded institutions which are not in fact public, or one in which there is a single system that teaches in its curricula everything one could ever want to know about ethnicity, religion, and class etc.. Wherein all children are given the same opportunity to develop and learn, funded by all tax-payers, share and share alike. This is my definition of a viable democratically inclined education system, and not one wherein social tensions due to wealth disparities, dissassociative trends due to social enclaving, and the simple issue of individuals existing in a society that is made up, not of their peers, but of a few superior beings and a great many inferior ones continues unabated. It is this final and fatal flaw of Western liberal democracies that allows for elites, or ethnicities, or soteriological acolytes to have the confidence – to express it diplomatically – to ask the rest of us to pay for their continued sense of betterness, of self-worthiness, of superiority, of elect status, not to mention the reality of better opportunities.
I have cited Paul Ricoeur (1993) on more than one occasion: ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world.’ Indeed, this is very much an ethic that descends to us via religion, specifically Christianity, but also Buddhism and Islam. That is, the historically more recent agrarian world systems. It is this idea and those like it which eventually led to democracy in the manner we idealize it to be. Caste-based world systems, ethnic based religions, social contract cosmologies, and cultures which maintained their wealth and limited citizenship through slavery – our much vaunted Greeks and Romans come to mind here – do not favor democracy in any essential form. You can do the math.
It is now time to respond to the question in the title: if the religious based schools are teaching about love your enemy, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, favoring the concept of the neighbour rather than that of the socius (the role based persona of modern society), and that all of us are children of some abstract creation whose actual cause can generally remain occluded, then the answer is perhaps a surprising but nonetheless resounding ‘Yes!’ Religious ethics in this form are invaluable, especially in today’s fractured world. So it may be rather than being concerned about social cohesion, the state is actually worried that if these radically democratic ideas get out into the public system and our young people are convinced of their ethical superiority, then everything we know and most of us suffer from would be altered. Now you can do the higher math: it is not the state being nice to the church in the way one would be kind to a defeated party or a victim of history, it is rather the state working, as surreptitiously as possible, to save its own skin.
G.V. Loewen is the author of three dozen books in religion, education, ethics and aesthetics, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the human sciences for two decades.