The Quest for the Good Master
1. A friend of mine from seminary is alcoholic. He is also atheist. AA seems to be all that has worked for him-- hes run into trouble when he's left-- but the theism of meetings and of the Big Book really get to him, and no wonder.
This morning he said on facebook:
"You know what the problem with AA really is? If alcoholism is a disease -- not the result of weak will or moral turpitude or sin -- then why does AA's solution stress a MORAL inventory, and treat life like a burdensome inconvenience best managed by someone (`God as we understand him') of better moral character than we? Hell, Bill Wilson even refers to character defects as 'our sins' in the 12x12, and uses the classic religious `7 deadly sins' as a guide! I don't want a religious hocus-pocus cure to my disease, I want evidence-based, factual empirical science!"
Unfortunately he's getting a lot of very defensive responses from theists and people who are less bothered by those tropes in AA.
I said, "My guess is that AA stresses moral inventory as part of treatment for disease because we humans tend to find morality frameworks instinctive and satisfying-- to scorecard ourselves and others and assess fault like whoa. And perhaps that stuff has to be dealt with some way-- to be unwound one way or other-- for treatment to get in. And it seems that there's no simple one-channel treatment. It must be very grating for non-theists to participate in AA."
He said, "To be clear, I'm not in any way saying we shouldn't set right past wrongs, or make amends for our transgressions against others, or try to act like a better human in the days ahead. My point is that none of those things have a whit to do with stopping or moderating one's alcohol consumption, and the sooner society at-large recognizes that, the better."
I said, "I ask as an outsider-- isn't part of that set of procedures to work on being honest with oneself and get rid of a bunch of defenses for pathological drinking that turn into reasons for drinking that motivate more defenses?"
This exchange-- my friend has gone silent as more defensive people pile on-- got me thinking about theistic instincts, as my friend mentioned: "treat[ing] life like a burdensome inconvenience best managed by someone (`God as we understand him') of better moral character than we."
2. It is common in African-American churches for the people to say of and to God, "He is worthy, o Lord, you are so worthy!" And my initial response to that was an ignorant one, finding it kind of funny in a that's-humans-for-you way that humans kindly evaluate a God who's thought of as almighty as worthy. But then I thought of all the things and entities we get urged to worship, and how much more and more venally and brutally African-Americans have been urged to worship little White gods. And then it seems to me to make a lot of sense to contrast a worthy divine, constructed, taught, or encountered, with those excuses for extracting material or labour homage.
3. I'm a fan of anthropologist Marvin Harris's explanation of the origins of chiefdoms (and from there, more bureaucratized leadership models): that the Big (Wo)Man (always Man in Harris) arises by managing extra accumulation and being generous with it.
I think we humans do tend to a laziness that craves the Good King. You know, the one who makes sure we have what we need as long as it's all available, whose justice is always righteous-- as we evaluate these things. And that last remains a bugger in the system, and it's going to come up again.
4. I'm also a big fan of Peter Brown, the historian of late antiquity who reminded the scholarly world of the prevalence of patronage-culture in Greco-Roman societies, and brought the revolutionary idea that Christianity imported new sources of power and patronage into the culture. And that those then came to various balances, accommodations and cooptions with earlier authority-and-patronage models.
5. We can all imagine a Good Monarch-- benevolent and powerful. (Again, benevolence is always in accordance with our own standards. So for that matter is power: what should the monarch be able to impose in the face of what obstacles and oppositions, and what degree or exercise of power is too much?) Some of us even feel we know of one, or that we've experienced one.
Lots of people have yearned for a Good Monarch, and in local senses-- consider firms and churches-- many still do. That's why there has been a big literature on the Good Monarch. The one Machiavelli played off.
Succession remains a problem.
6. We also have a strong desire for systems that will result in social order and function that strikes us as some combination of just (whatever we mean by that) and sufficiently nurturing (whatever we mean by that). We often seem to be looking for a system that has the Right Results regardless what humans are living and working within it. (Which, in my view, distracts considerably from work on conduct within the systems we have, and work on improving the systems we have or comparing them with other imperfect systems.)
Theisms, it seems to me, can offer a solution to these desires. (I am not claiming that theisms always arise to solve this or any other problem! Any more than scientific fields invariably arise to solve problems!) But theisms offer only problematic solutions.
For one thing, some theisms just suck. Whatever our standards for goodness or justness or enoughness, by every such set of standards some theisms just suck. Some dislike a divine that permits cruelties to occur. Others want a divine that gives simple orderly answers. And like that.
That immediately suggests limits on the usefulness of theism-as-a-general construct, for satisfying widely-held human desires. Desires for the opportunities in and requirements and rewards in our own lives, and for sources of social structure to produce opportunity, duty, order, and tradeoffs.
But there's another thing that I think we humans have a really hard time keeping a grip on. When we want goodness and justice and right order and so on, we want them in accordance with our own standards. That leads to our creating the divine in our own images, and critiquing the divine as not living up to our standards.
And one of the things I've noticed about our human standards is how individualistic they seem to be, in the United States. We don't want bad things to happen to good people. In fact, we don't want bad things to happen to this particular good person we happen to be aware of. Sometimes we want bad things to happen to bad people-- often this bad thing to happen to this bad person. (And note how we slip our goods and bads in there, not only classifying events but complicated human entities. We even think of non-human creatures as good or bad, honeybees versus wasps, for instance.)
We don't seem to at all good about thinking of the world as we know it, as a complex and interknitted system in which entities and events are deeply connected now, and with inheritances from the past, and with implications for the future. We aren't even usually very good at remembering that we're not very good at thinking relationally and systemically.
We could take a mystical route and conceive a divine that can simultaneously produce our desired micro-results for individuals and our desired macro-results for the world. But if we do we're likely to run into problems if we also want to preserve free will as part of goodness.
Often, when we humans want a divine or want to set up a legitimate divine for comparison with what we perceive in our world, we seem to want a sort of puppetmaster divine who takes away just enough individual choice to produce-- the results we individually think we should find in the world.
It's a funny one.
And I think my seminary friend is onto something, when he talks about tropes of turning over management of the knotty messy life stuff to something morally superior to ourselves....