To my mind, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is easily among the most important books written in the last 100 years. Concern that society is collapsing and a nostalgic longing for a return to past greatness is hardly new. Eusebius quotes St. Polycarp of Smyrna as moaning, in the second century AD: ” O good God, unto what times hast thou spared me?”
Pinker‘s magnum opus, Better Angels, argues convincingly that the present day is the absolute best time to be alive by almost every meaningful metric. While a more naive age of progressives tended to act as though social progress was inevitable and infallible–both to be rejected–to deny that progress is real and to contend that there was some past age of greatness is to embrace an illusion. That illusion can be quite dangerous as when certain democratic republics which shall remain nameless flirt openly with handing executive power over to a demagogue who openly aspires to tyranny, all in the name of making themselves great again.
The case presented by Pinker is compelling enough that, stripped of its mythology, I’m half-tempted to identify as a postmillennialist. This short conversation between Pinker and the Berggruen Institute is well worth checking out. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“I look into why the rate of violence has dropped, and the moral question -– what values ought we teach people to live by? Certainly, I agree with the principles, but it may be a bit unrealistic to think that every person on this Earth abides by a value such as that every life is equally sacrosanct. Looking back to explain to what we can attribute our increasingly humane development, part of it is the utilitarian calculation –- if there is incentive, regardless of morals, to stop fighting, then so be it.
“But what we are witnessing is more than that. A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently.”
In the religious tradition in which I was raised, that of the churches of Christ, the dirtiest of all dirty words had way more than four letters. It was the dreaded d-word, “denomination.” This unease with denominationalism was rooted not in a spirit of cantankerous contrariness–you can’t blame that community for my own character flaws–but out of a noble conviction that Christian identity, unqualified by any denominational loyalty, should be the sole identifier of the disciple of Jesus Christ. From this perspective denominational labels and identities served to foster division in (or, more radically, from) the Body of Christ.
Whether it’s fair to say that this laudable commitment to being just Christians, rather than this or that type of Christians, made a lasting impact on me, it’s certainly something I’ve come to re-appreciate over the last several years. While I don’t quite share the same conscientious opposition to recognizing denominational identity that was the hallmark of my tradition, I’ve long since thought that the only noun a Christian ought to own is “Christian.” Denominational labels are at most adjectives. Confusing the adjective for a noun goes a long way toward sowing disunity among Christians.
I recently came across this short clip of Michael Kinnamon, a Disciple of Christ who then served as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, who made this same point quite vividly. He goes so far as to say–hyperbolically–that using denominational labels is idolatrous. Obviously, it’s not my contention that if one slips into common parlance and speaks of herself as a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, or a Mormon, she’s instantly the enemy of Christian unity. Still–not, mind you, that anyone asked me–I think it would be better to mentally drop the article and start thinking of our denominational labels only as adjectives: not a Methodist or a Lutheran or an Anglican, but as Methodist, or a Lutheran Christian, or a Christian who happens to be Anglican.
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The last time I attempted to launch a blog was over six years ago. It was an astoundingly successful venture that thrived for over an entire week and almost made me a household name in my own house.
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