Hauerwas on Hope & Peace

Here’s another (long) quote from Stanley Hauerwas, this time from his book A Community of Character:

The Kantian-inspired attempt to make justice integral to the alleged rational and universal requirement to respect all persons as ends in themselves is a noble endeavor. Indeed, such a vision, I suspect, draws its inspiration from the Christian hope of the realization of a kingdom where peace and not war will characterize the relation between peoples and nations. But for Christians such a kingdom remains an eschatological hope that cannot be made present by heightening the status of human rationality. From the Christian perspective, Kant’s account of the universal requirements of reason is a secularized version of Christian hope. Kant sought to make Christian hope into a necessary condition for rational living, but in the process hope is trivialized, for if the kingdom can be based on or come from within humankind, then there is no reason to hope. Kant’s hope is one that no longer knows how to be patient in the face of the dividedness of the world and in desperation seeks peace by making God’s Kingdom a human possibility. Yet peace, Christians believe, cannot be founded on false accounts of our rational powers but depends on our learning to acknowledge God’s lordship over all life. The Christian commitment to peace is based not on the inherent value of life, but on the conviction that war cannot be consistent with the Kingdom we have only begun to experience through the work of Christ and his continuing power in the church.

It must be admitted that to stake one’s life on such a view is indeed dangerous. For there are many who claim their convictions to be true and assume that those who do not hold similar beliefs should be forced to do so. They are even willing to kill in defense of what they hold dear. To abandon the attempt to develop a “universal” ethic, as I have done, therefore appears as an act of despair, as we are left at the mercy of our enemies.

The Christian, however, does not claim that the world is safe but only that it is under God’s lordship. Christian confidence in God’s lordship provides the church with the power to exist amid the diversity of this world, trusting that the truth “will out” without resorting to coercion and violence for self-protection or to secure adherents. Therefore the non-resistant character of Christian community, which is often sadly absent, is a crucial mark of the power of the Christian story to form a people in a manner appropriate to the character of God’s providential rule of the world.

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 100-1.

Battlestar Galactica, Rationality & Human Nature

Although its name conjures up visions of campy B-movie aesthetics, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) finds itself on most shortlists for best TV series of the past decade.[ref]I am speaking of the 2004 reimagining, not the original, which I have not watched.[/ref] I frequently find myself having to convince people that, despite it sounding like a still nerdier Star Trek, BSG is perhaps the most thought-provoking, character-driven shows that’s ever aired. Oh, and it happens to be set in space and there are sentient robots that commit near-total genocide against humans. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out.[ref]I’ll see you in a month or so if you start watching it—hopefully you haven’t been fired from your job for skipping work to watch yet another episode.[/ref]

Like all stories about sentient robots, BSG is about the deeper questions of humanity. What makes us as humans special? is the constant question being asked, sometimes subtly; other times blatantly.[ref]This is not the only question being asked, of course, but the one I’m most interested in here. Other interesting questions include: Can we create things that only benefit, and not harm, humanity? and Can we create technology that doesn’t begin to control us?[/ref] This is doubly the case in the BSG universe, where the robotic Cylons have evolved to embody themselves within flesh in a manner indistinguishable from humanity. We’re in Blade Runner territory here.

Separating humans from animals is a perennial problem in philosophy. Aristotle’s formulation declared us to be rational animals.[ref]He actually said that man has a rational principle, but the “rational animal” phrase is nonetheless associated with Aristotelian thought. Alisdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals works within this tradition.[/ref] Descartes later disparaged our bodies, making a radical split between the mind and the body. His ubiquitous Cogito, ergo sum[ref]Usually translated as “I think, therefore I am,” but better translated as “I doubt, therefore I am.”[/ref] formulation elevated our capacity for thought to the pinnacle of humanness.

These philosophical accounts of humanity have, for most of human history, played a secondary role to religious conceptions of the human. Whether created by accident or according to design; whether for nefarious or beneficent purposes, humanity has most often seen its relation to the divine as what has set it apart from all other things and creatures.

Jews and Christians have understood this relation to the divine in terms of the Imago Dei, that humanity has been created in the image of God. (Gen. 1:26-7) One strand of this thinking later combined with Platonic thought to give us the notion of the immortal soul destined for heaven or hell in yet another attempt to name what makes us as humans special.

And then there is the “Darwinian” view, which oft perplexes me.[ref]While the ensuing view is most often put forward by self-described Darwinians, I think it rests more on assumed reductionistic naturalism rather than being entailed by Darwinism proper, thus the scare quotes. Alvin Plantinga even goes so far as to make an evolutionary argument against naturalism.[/ref] On the one hand, Darwinians declare that there isn’t much that makes us as humans special—we are just more evolved in some ways than other mammals—and yet, from some of the same mouths, there is a brash declaration of rationality as that which sets humans apart.

All of the views above are variously held today, revealing a lack of cultural consensus about what makes us distinctive as humans. Amidst this confusion over who we are (and what we’re for), BSG gets interesting. Despite utopian visions of progress, the advent of computers have always made us uneasy, producing the reality of Deep BlueWatson, and the dystopian science fiction of The Terminator. Computers are pure logic and, in terms of brute strength, quicker and smarter than humans. BSG’s Cylons commit near-total genocide against the human race in the belief that their superior rationality makes them the new alpha species in the universe, cementing our fear of machines. Not only have they nearly wiped out humanity, they now have flesh and blood bodies that we can’t distinguish from our own.

The intersting thing that occurs here is that BSG rules out the capacity for rational thought as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity. Cylons are rationality par excellence, but are not human (even if they might be people), therefore our distinctiveness must lie elsewhere.

Just as BSG never explicitly asks the question, it never definitively answers it. Instead, it tells a constellation of stories: stories of our immediate and distant past; of origins that only defer our origin; of our various attempts in the present to live, love and survive, filled with pathos and hubris and laughter and tears. It hints at the answer, coyly suggesting that it might be our capacity to love,[ref]The Cylons are unable to reproduce until a Sharon/Eight falls in love with Karl “Helo” Agathon.[/ref] or possibly our capacity for self-delusion,[ref]I speak of Gaius Baltar who, I might add, somehow manages to provoke sympathy for someone complicit in the genocide of his own people.[/ref] or maybe it’s just the fact that we’re the type of beings who are constantly trying find out what it means to be whatever it is that we are.

BSG even explores how faith makes us us, which is rare and welcome in a science fiction series. The humans are polytheists, while the Cylons are monotheists (both have their atheists). Both sides claim to know who they are and what their purpose is by their relation to the divine. Faith drives much of BSG’s story, often to the consternation of the generally atheist/agnostic-leaning SciFi demographic. But the impulse to faith—even in its non-faith guise—is inextricably human and any attempt to answer “who are we?” without reference to faith is impoverished.

The first line spoken in BSG, from the lips of a humanoid Cylon to a human ambassador, is “Are you alive?” Perhaps this is a superior question to the one I’ve been exploring here. To be alive, truly alive, is more expansive and filled with potency than “what sets us apart?” Perhaps humans are those creatures who, though living, struggle to be fully alive, or who ultimately come to receive that life as a gift.

Objectivity and Love

Objectivity is the attempt at moving towards an unbiased, universal knowledge that has been characteristic of the modern period. It aims at a view from nowhere; at a cool and calculating gaze at the world that transcends gender, culture, class, ethnicity, nationality, etc.

There are many problems with the idea of objectivity, and I will not get so much into those here, as my intent is to rehabilitate the noble goal at the heart of objectivity: the desire to extend our thinking beyond the scope of our own particular perspective.

Impartiality is a better mode of rationality than objectivity. Impartiality engages us in the world and in relationship with others, taking seriously our perspective (recognizing that, to begin with, we are partial), while trying to go beyond it for the sake of the other. Impartiality is thus ethically charged, not merely an abstracted rational principle.

Impartiality only takes us part way towards the other. It calls us out of our own perspective, but without a destination. Still better than impartiality is empathy: it calls us, as far as possible, to enter the perspective of the other, to have a “fusion of horizons” that allows us to truly communicate, and therefore, be able to have rational discourse with one another.

What supposedly “objective” discourse fails to do is to give us a compelling reason to go beyond ourself and to orient our self around the other. Empathy, on the other hand, is quite simply an expression of love, not only in the intellectual life, but in all of life.

Objective rationality distances us from the world and the people around us, but empathetic rationality finds us more fully engaged in both. This is as it should be, for I also contend that most—if not all—people begin their intellectual journey out of a desire to see a particular area of human existence flourish. Why then should our methods distance us from the very end we are trying to accomplish?

Finally, this makes perfect sense to the Christian intellectual, for we understand that the call to love God and others is the fundamental goal of our lives (Mat 22:36-40). We seek to understand people and all of the complexities of how we relate to one another. We do this to better love them, not to gloat in our intellect. St. Paul instructed us in this very thing when he said that knowledge and insight without love is nothing at all (1 Cor 13:2).