Monday, February 04, 2008

The Listening Heart: "The Era of Bloodshed"

[Number three in a series]

I have been intending to more extensively about The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture by A.J. Conyers; and have been waiting for a "handle" on how to approach the topics in the book - that handle never came (or maybe I have too many). I did do two posts on slavery - "The Bible and Slavery" and "Christianity and Slavery" - based on the book intending to segway into the books position on slavery and modernity:

In a stunning insight, Conyers shows that the quintessential institution of modernity is slavery, for the slave is the ultimate autonomous individual. Stripped of every human tie, he belongs to no community but to a stranger. It is no accident, then, that the rise of modern slavery coincided with the Enlightenment itself.
Actually, not so much the Enlightenment but a little earlier in the Renaissance - however that doesn't actually damage his main point either about slavery, or overall.

What is that overall point? As this blurb from the publisher says:
A culture built upon the ideology of individual choice will be a culture of alienation, loneliness, and violence . . . Conyers shows that Western culture was once informed by a sense of vocation, that men understood life as a response to a call from outside and above themselves. Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the sense of vocation began to fade, to be replaced by the modern celebration of the unfettered human will. In such a society, Conyers argues, where relations among men are based on force, true community is impossible.
. . .
This wide-ranging study, refreshingly free of sentimentality, makes the barbarism and unparalleled violence of the twentieth century explicable. For a society that casts off the burden of vocation abandons that which makes it human.
Pastor Dan at Street Prophets stated at one point that theologically conservative Christians were pre-modern. There is some accuracy to that statement, but it is a bit off. Conyers isn't so much pre-modern as he is a believer that modernity, or at least a major premise of it, has failed and failed violently. Actually, I would say he is contending for the pre-modern understanding of vocation as the something that needs to be recovered in a post-modern age. [BTW: I did not say he was a post-modernist.] . His question, now that the critique of modernity is clear and the post-modern agenda is before us, is
"Shall we heal a broken society through love, or through power?"
His indictment of modernity is scathing on many levels (too many to even sort out and list here) but he centers in on one main indictment, and one main question, to focus the book on:

"Why in this modern world have humane communities - communities that for brief moments in history rise above strife and in fact nourish the human spirit, enrich the mind, provide for the safety and education of the young - proven so hard to come by, so difficult to maintain, and known it seems only to our most nostalgic moments? Why have the 'wars and fightings' of this past century taken more lives, destroyed more communities, exiled more people, decimated more ethnic groups than ever before in any comparable time? Why have more people been killed by their own governments in this past century than in all other times together? How is it that this new century has gotten off to such an unpromising start? James had an answer that tapped into the root of human nature, and into the human lunacy: 'Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war'

This book might be considered a commentary on that one question and its answer, and on the hope which frames this question."

His critique of the modern quest for power and wealth is unambiguous. One of his indictments is "the army of 'homeless' in the cities and along the highways in a land of unimagined wealth". However, he believes we are a nation of homeless people split off from the concepts of family, community, and over-riding principle in order to make us fair game in the "rivalry of competitive desires" which is modern Western culture.

One of the interesting things about Conyers' premise is that it is not going to make political conservatives very happy (see above) nor is it going to make political liberals/"progressives" very happy either:
Sooner or later violence overtakes a society that functions chiefly on the basis of the rivalry of competitive desires, on the basis of choice, or on the basis of "freedom" defined as the unhindered will. Modern secular society is the longest experiment in history attempting to elevate "choice" or this kind of freedom to the level of a basic social principle. It should not be surprising, though I think to many the awareness of this has not surfaced, that modern life is also the most violent period in the history of mankind.
He takes the critique straight to the core of Enlightenment philosophy upon which modern Western culture is founded - and the bloody ground from which many political liberals will make their stand.

Conyers briefly examines three theories on "the sources of violent behavior on a wide scale in society":
  • "First, Hannah Arendt suggested that where power, in the sense of effective action within a community is missing, violence takes its place. Moreover, once the institutions of government have outgrown the individual and the neighborhood, so that the very scale of governance no longer permits effective action for most people, then those people are more likely to take to the streets and address their grievances in destructive ways.

  • Second, Rene Girard claims that violence gives focus and directs our competing desires in such a way that community is strengthened by a mutual turning against a scapegoat or an enemy. Thus the collective shape of society, its very possibility for community, feeds off a fundamental injustice and attachments to common hatreds. Moreover, in Girard's view, modern society, long tutored by the Christian gospel in the awareness of injustice and the innocence of its victims, finds itself in a crisis of contradiction precisely over the issue of violence and peace.

  • Third, Eric Voegelin taught that once society becomes closed to those experiences by which it is shaped, namely its reach for transcendent meaning, and the human quest focuses instead on worldly goods, the competing demands are satisfied by nothing short of bloodshed and revolution
All three of these views overlap at a critical point: human beings naturally reach for meaningful action, and not finding it, resort to irrational and destructive action. All of these theories begin, as we can easily see, with what James has called "the passions . . . at war in your members." All of these theories, I believe, are important for understanding the kinds of conditions that give rise to violence and the uses to which violence is traditionally given over."
However, as Conyers states, The Listening Heart heads in a different direction . . .

Next: Vocation


  1. Are you still doing the Christian Carnival this week?

  2. Fascinating... I am so overtired, a long day, ran into the house and did my Monday vigil. Trying to read some email. I must save this for tomorrow when I can focus.

    You bring up some interesting points, especially around Arendt, Girard and Voegelin.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly