Everything Must Change

by

You’ve suffered through multiple posts from yours truly prompted by my readings of both Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Wink in the past. Prepare yourself for Brian McLaren.

Due to the combination of a recent post from Urbino calling attention to McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change, and a generous gift of Barnes & Noble gift cards from my father-in-law, I’m about to wade into McLaren’s way of thinking.

And so are you.

Now I know you don’t have to participate, but I’m going to be thinking out loud, and I feel confident you won’t be able to resist pointing out the flaws in my thinking. 🙂

So let’s begin…

McLaren writes,

“…more and more of us are realizing something our best theologians have been saying for quite a while: Jesus’ message is not actually about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. So people interested in being a new kind of Christian will inevitably begin to care more and more about this world, and they’ll want to better understand its most significant problems, and they’ll want to find out how they can fit in with God’s dreams actually coming true down here more often.”

Okay, admittedly, not everyone that hangs around this blog is a-flutter with the idea of fitting in with God’s dreams, nor even in becoming a new kind of Christian, but I think there’s a bit of kinship to be found here: we seem to be somewhat interested in caring about the world we inhabit, understanding its problems, and making it a better place, no?

As an introduction today, let me simply throw out for discussion what McLaren suggests (verbatim) are the four deep dysfunctions that lead to our many global crises. He suggests that the fourth is the leverage point through which the first three can be reversed:

(1) Environmental breakdown caused by our unsustainable global economy, an economy that fails to respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in producing great wealth for about one-third of the world’s population. We’ll call this the prosperity crisis.

(2) The growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, which prompts the poor majority to envy, resent, and even hate the rich minority – which in turn elicits fear and anger in the rich. We’ll call this the equity crisis.

(3) The danger of cataclysmic war arising from the intensifying resentment and fear among various groups at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. We’ll call this the security crisis.

(4) The failure of the world’s religions, especially its two largest religions, to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the three previous crises. We’ll call this the spirituality crisis. (Note: McLaren defines framing story as “…a story that gives direction, value, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do.”)

Now, I’m confident every one of us would group the problems in different ways than McLaren (and each other), but I’m not asking for a better grouping. Instead, to begin, are there glaring omissions from McLaren’s list?

Or any other thoughts at the outset of a discussion of global crises and what to do about them?

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Two Preoccupying Questions

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32 Responses to “Everything Must Change”

  1. Larry James Says:

    Just FYI–McLaren will be in Dallas, TX onFeb 22-23, 2008. Central Dallas Ministries is proud to be among the local sponsors of this leg of his “tour.” Here’s what drives me nuts: excusing the pain, the injustice and the oppression with talk about life on “the other side,” as if the text of scripture don’t drive us toward the earth and all of its people. Glad you’re reading him and talking about his ideas. Long overdue conversations, it seems to me.

  2. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Larry! Sounds like a neat weekend with the McLaren tour…

    To your frustration, I’m reminded of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, when he said:

    “…I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

  3. dannydodd Says:

    I get all of this, but I get the escape to heavenly bliss idea too. After all if you are in those slums or on those streets you do dream of a much better place- and heaven will deliver that better place.

    Now heaven just may be the same earth we live on right now- just renewed. All kinds of theological support to that. And I am guessing that maybe this is where McLaren is possibly coming from. If heaven is a renewed, recharged, Eden-like earth then we need to show it and those of us on it more respect.

  4. Jeff_R Says:

    Al –

    See my recent post about my reading of the book.

    Overall, I’m very supportive of the ethic and the hermeneutic that McLaren is supporting in this and his prior works. However, I do find at least the last two books to be a bit too pedantic and his examples and language just a bit too hyperbolic and contrived.

    I think the revolutionary idea of “on earth as it is in heaven” is right on track and will radically change the perspective of a believer who grasps it – over and opposed to the traditional evangelical viewpoint.

  5. urbino Says:

    And I am guessing that maybe this is where McLaren is possibly coming from.

    I doubt that, actually. McLaren doesn’t seem to be indulging in a theological relocation of heaven. He seems, instead, to be recognizing the theological importance of Earth, as indicated in Christian scripture.

    More broadly, Al, as far as coverage goes, there is one thing that sort of fits in the crack between McLaren’s points 3 & 4, and that is the proliferation of devastating weapons, particularly among those who are a) dispossessed, and b) still religiously taught to not value this world or this life. It’s the rise of what William Langewiesche has dubbed the “nuclear poor.” This strikes me as a global crisis unto itself, whose borders touch on McLaren’s 3 & 4.

    While McLaren’s efforts are welcome, there’s nothing terribly new in it, nor in the crises he identifies. Populist religious appeals have always been other-worldly in their focus, because they’ve always been appeals to the poor — people who’ve lost hope in this world and just want to know there’s something better coming in the next. (The people Jesus’ beatitudes were aimed at re-interesting in this world.) American Evangelical Christianity is historically continuous with the Second Great Awakening — a populist religious movement primarily among the poor. Contemporary Evangelicalism is the now middle-class version of that old time religion. (Meanwhile, among the poor, Pentecostalism is the new wave of revival. Elsewhere in the world, fundamentalist Islam fills the gap.)

    McLaren is a product of that movement of Evangelicalism to the middle and upper-middle class. Once people are no longer living in generational poverty, their attention tends to shift from the next world back to this one. Now they have something hope for in it, and something to lose. This world no longer seems so alien and hostile; it starts to feel like home. It’s not a vale of tears to be muddled through; it’s a place you feel some ownership in and want to improve.

    This is the classic, cyclical pattern in American religious history, in particular, though it applies almost as well to Christian history more broadly. (Don’t know enough about Islam to speak to it.) As much as McLaren is a vanguard of that shift in thinking, he’s also a signal that it’s already happened.

    The trick that nobody’s been able to figure out yet, AFAIK, is getting the people who are still impoverished and oppressed to locate value in this world and this life. Religions of the poor are still millenarian and other-worldly. Until that changes, McLaren’s efforts, while welcome, are still sort of beside the point. This generation’s Evangelicals become next generation’s mainline Protestants, while a new generation of the poor and oppressed are still being given a “framing story” that devalues this world and this life.

    And as Langewiesche observes, that’s becoming an increasingly dangerous pattern to repeat.

  6. Jeff_R Says:

    There is certainly a cyclical nature to the pattern, to be sure, but I disagree that the pattern is entirely repetitive.

    I think what you actually see is a repeating pattern that is moving along an upwardly sloping line. While the basic pattern is repeating (envision it as a sinusoidal wave where the peak represents the “recreational” view and the valley represents the “apocalyptic” view), the peaks are generally trending higher and higher as are the valleys.

    This is readily evidenced by the near-eradication of slavery, the decimation of gender inequality, the lengthening lifespan, the dominance of the economic theory of private property ownership, the emergence of middle classes in more and more countries that were previously third world, etc.

    While there remain incredible challenges, to be sure, I don’t think anyone was thinking seriously about “the end of extreme poverty” in their lifetimes a couple of centuries ago. Whereas today, that actually stands as a serious possibility.

    A rising tide lifts all boats – so while there are clearly desperate “hot spots” in numerous countries, places like China and India and a host of former Soviet and Pacific Rim countries are markedly more positive and invested in their current existence and hopeful for the future – which are the hallmarks of the kind of mentality that characterizes the “peaks” of the hypothetical wave described above.

    Think about it further: while the “radicals” of today will eventually become the “status quo” of tomorrow (such is the nature of individual human development in civilized society), the status quo of hundred years ago looked a lot different on an “absolute” scale than the status quo of today on almost every front.

  7. urbino Says:

    While the basic pattern is repeating (envision it as a sinusoidal wave where the peak represents the “recreational” view and the valley represents the “apocalyptic” view), the peaks are generally trending higher and higher as are the valleys.

    I dunno, Jeff. I’d have to see some data on that before I’d go along, I think. If you limit the scope to American Christianity, then I’d find it easier to believe (though still not quite convincing).

    As for your point that the economic line is steadily rising, that’s probably true. However, so long as the poor still have (or are still being sold, another interesting question) an other-world framing story, the global danger remains; even if there are fewer poor, or they are less poor.

    One other point worth mentioning: not all other-world-oriented religious frames are apocalyptic or dangerous. Some are very pietistic and withdrawn — e.g., the pacifist Anabaptist traditions, and Sufism. They still won’t be much help with McLaren’s project, but at least they aren’t pulling the other way.

  8. alsturgeon Says:

    Hey Danny, I agreed with Urbino’s assumption. Check out Jeff’s link to the recent post on his blog, though. Turns out there is some eschatology in play, though not the primary impetus.

  9. Jeff_R Says:

    I think the trends I mention above – which reflect not only economic, but societal, cultural, and moral – substantiate the claim adequately – at least in the absence of contrarian trends.

    However, I wasn’t saying such tendencies were absent – I think I was clear that the up/down trend continues, which I meant to imply that there continue to be cycles of extremism among apocalyptic worldviews. So, yes, I agree that “the global danger remains” – though I would argue that, when corrected for population changes and the technological advancement that allows fewer people to exact greater damage (the “nuclear poor” you mention), the situation is vastly improved and improving.

    You wrote,

    “Populist religious appeals have always been other-worldly in their focus, because they’ve always been appeals to the poor — people who’ve lost hope in this world and just want to know there’s something better coming in the next. (The people Jesus’ beatitudes were aimed at re-interesting in this world.)”

    So I believed you were making a primarily economic correlation between interest in the “apocalyptic” view and the poor, which, as you agree with me, there are fewer and fewer of. So it seems there must be a real difference in the magnitude of the threat if there are fewer and fewer people “susceptible” to such a worldview – and, therefore, more and more people open to the “recreational” view. I think your point was that the pendulum will eventually swing the other way as the poor emerge at some point to dominate. But this seems increasingly difficult to envision where there are fewer and fewer poor.

    You wrote,

    “The trick…is getting the people who are still impoverished and oppressed to locate value in this world and this life. Religions of the poor are still millenarian and other-worldly.”

    While that would be a great trick – one that you note Jesus himself felt worthy of attempting – isn’t another way to achieve this to eliminate poverty? And isn’t McLaren’s point that for the first time in history, the church may command enough wealth, if radically redirected, to actually do this?

  10. alsturgeon Says:

    Now, to the Urbino/Jeff interaction… Don’t wait for me or anything, but I’m not so used to swimming in the deep end of the pool…

    First of all, a big churchy Amen to Jeff’s “revolutionary idea comment,” and a way to go to Urbino’s astute observation of McLaren’s omission of the “nuclear poor.”

    From there, I’m simply glad to be swimming with you. I find Urbino’s historical perspective pretty fascinating, as well as Jeff’s upwardly sloping economic line in response. It sounds like the collective concept developed from there is that the oppressed are getting less oppressed over time, but that also includes the capability of becoming oppressors themselves. And that framing stories are HUGE.

    If I’m following all this correctly, then McLaren is on to something by pointing to the framing stories as critical leverage points to doing something about our global crises.

    Am I anywhere close?

  11. alsturgeon Says:

    Whoops. I ate supper before publishing my last comment, and Jeff spoke again during that break. Let me digest both!

  12. urbino Says:

    I think the trends I mention above – which reflect not only economic, but societal, cultural, and moral – substantiate the claim adequately – at least in the absence of contrarian trends.

    ISTM McLaren’s own 4 dysfunctions are contrary trends. In particular, the steady economic rise that you cite (and the private property system you cite as its engine) has directly resulted in McLaren’s first item. The West’s economic rise that is now being replayed in the East is coming at the same disastrous cost, both locally (to the poor) and globally.

    I think your point was that the pendulum will eventually swing the other way as the poor emerge at some point to dominate.

    While I do think that’s possible — likely, even, if history is a guide — it wasn’t my point. My point was that, given the proliferation of devastating weapons technology, and the present numbers of poor and oppressed (and aggrieved), we may not have time to find out.

    While that would be a great trick – one that you note Jesus himself felt worthy of attempting

    I did note that, yes. However, he didn’t succeed. And it must be said that while he did make attempts at this, he also retained a lot of very near-eschaton, apocalyptic elements.

    isn’t another way to achieve this to eliminate poverty?

    Surely. But that would be a truly stupendous trick, would it not? Regardless, it’s difficult for me to conceive of the Christian church — which I gather is McLaren’s focus — accomplishing much on either count.

    And isn’t McLaren’s point that for the first time in history, the church may command enough wealth, if radically redirected, to actually do this?

    I don’t know. I haven’t read him. I wasn’t addressing any specific point of his so much as making a point of my own about the outlines of his argument, as Al posted it and as I’ve gotten a second-hand sense of it elsewhere. There seems to be nothing new in it. If his book makes an economic argument that a) the church has sufficient wealth to end poverty, and b) this is the first time in its history that that’s been the case, I’ll be interested to hear it when Al gets to that chapter.

    My goal in these comments isn’t to be a party-pooper, btw. I’d love it if McLaren succeeded. I’m just saying that, based on what I’ve heard so far, it doesn’t seem likely, because there doesn’t seem to be anything new in his approach. So far, he looks like just another example of something we’ve seen many times before — just another iteration of one phase of the usual cycle of American Christianity.

    (I also don’t mean to seem unduly argumentative. I’m enjoying the conversation.)

  13. urbino Says:

    If I’m following all this correctly, then McLaren is on to something by pointing to the framing stories as critical leverage points to doing something about our global crises.

    Am I anywhere close?

    What McLaren calls framing stories are always critical, and always have been. The stories we tell ourselves matter. They’re how we make sense of the world. Change the story and you change the world. I’m just not hearing anything so far that suggests McLaren’s got an idea that’s going to change those stories.

  14. alsturgeon Says:

    Gotcha. I’ve only finished chapter 1, so me neither.

  15. Jeff_R Says:

    Urbino –

    First let me say that I am not saying McLaren, individually, is “on” to anything. I’m neither an advocate for or evangelist of him or his particular agenda.

    And I certainly don’t think he’s come up with this stuff on his own – I agree that it is not novel or unique.

    Where we may part company is in the idea that humanity is making forward progress to address more and more of the self-destructive behaviors of our species. Are we there yet? Not hardly. Can we say that things are better now than a century ago – or better then than a millennium before that? I think so.

    What does that indicate? Only that we are evolving as a species – and that our religions are evolving with us. We may or may not be inclined to attribute supernatural or spiritual energies to that progress – and we may or may not see religious or spiritual movements as catalysts of such progress. What I find problematic is saying that we aren’t, as a species, becoming more self-aware of our self-destructive behavior and that we’re not doing more and more to raise that awareness and address the problem.

    Will we succeed? Who knows. Is there still real ignorance, denial and counteractive attitudes to the possible success? Absolutely.

    So I’m not saying McLaren’s ideas are different or new or that they provide a catalyst to foment further progress. Only that his emergence as a voice within a small subset of contemporary liberal evangelicalism is buoyed by the heightening self-awareness and concern about self-destructive behavior.

    RE:McLaren’s 4 points as indicators of a negative trend, I disagree. I think McLaren is actually wrong here – at least in a sense. The four indicators are the result of runaway economic, societal and technological progress that has done much to counteract the problems of the past (things like racism, gender inequality, aristocracy, etc.). This runaway success has, arguably in the absence of a balancing moral metanarrative to restrain rampant hedonism and excess, resulted in these new problems.

    Now, in the midst of the Toquevillian milieu, a rising consciousness emerges (no doubt in response to the radical v. status quo instinct coupled with globalization) that self-reflects on its own excess and feels the pangs of conscience to set right the scales of equality that “theocapitalism” has upset.

    So, again, it’s not so much whether McLaren will personally “make a difference” with his ideas as it is the idea that his thinking and writing is finding such resonance among a group of folks not exactly known for their cosmopolitan thinking.

  16. Jeff_R Says:

    Also, you wrote,

    “So far, he looks like just another example of something we’ve seen many times before — just another iteration of one phase of the usual cycle of American Christianity.”

    I just don’t think you’ve established that there is anything like a purely repetitive cycle with no forward progress or improvement. With every cycle of the swing back and forth, real progress is made. It seems less like a fruitless cycle and more like a series of repetitive exercises with each resulting in incremental improvements.

  17. Jeff_R Says:

    And I guess, to cap it off, I would question what you mean by saying Jesus “didn’t succeed”?

    Jesus did succeed in getting countless thousands of the poor and the oppressed who followed him to live lives of quiet submission, peace, nonviolence, generosity, charity and compassion. These communities of believers swelled in numbers until they overtook kingdoms. Surely there is some success in there?

    Did Ghandi succeed? Martin Luther King, Jr.?

    While none of these can claim the total eradication of hatred, violence or greed, each can clearly and unequivocally be credited with affecting incredible changes to humanity – for the better. Each moved humanity significantly closer to the ideas of the brotherhood of man, the equality of man and the sanctity of human life. Each can claim to be the catalyst for a steep upward bent in the overall moral complexion of our species.

    And each of these affected their changes in the context of a deeply spiritually informed perspective.

  18. Jeff_R Says:

    Re:whether McLaren has a story to change the world, my earlier point was that while I agree with you that McLaren doesn’t have that story, he is telling us about a story that is already resonating around the world that is changing the world – and this story is, depending on your perspective, either being driven by a spiritual sense of connectedness with the Creation or is resonating and reviving that kind of spiritual sense in religious people who hear the story.

  19. urbino Says:

    RE:McLaren’s 4 points . . . The four indicators are the result of runaway economic, societal and technological progress . . . This runaway success has, arguably in the absence of a balancing moral metanarrative to restrain rampant hedonism and excess, resulted in these new problems.

    I think we disagree, here. I won’t argue against the obvious — that humanity (at least some of it), is better off now than in the past. However, I think McLaren’s #1 is more of an offset against that than you’re allowing. Much, perhaps the great majority, of the progress we’ve made in the past, say, 400 years, is unsustainable. It’s artificial progress. Artificial because it happened only by externalizing most of its costs. These problems aren’t simply “results” of “economic, societal and technological progress,” they’re costs that directly offset against that “economic, societal and technological progress.” Assuming your upward trending sinus wave, it would flatten out dramatically if you applied its full external costs to it.

    The current level of wealth (or quality of life or what have you) among just the already-developed nations isn’t sustainable, so I don’t see how it can be expanded to include all those billions of people who haven’t gotten there yet. The environmental impact in China, alone, is already creating huge problems, and they’ve barely begun their economic development (on the Western model, anyway).

    I also don’t think these costs are the result of “rampant hedonism and excess.” They are endemic to the processes you identify as the engines of our progress. They can’t be separated from those processes and attributed to some external moral failing; the moral failing is inherent to those processes.

    As for the societal progress you reference, ISTM there are a couple of problems. The primary one is that, again, they all seem pretty artificial. They’re dependent on the economics. Slavery remains a serious problem in poorer regions of the world not because those societies are less evolved than ours, but because we’re not poor enough to resort to slavery anymore. If our economy collapsed, I think you’d see slavery return to Western societies. After all, the basic human qualities that lead to it are still there; they’re even still highly valued among many.

    The same is true of gender equality and most other “societal” advances I can think of. They’re all balanced precariously on top of an unsustainable economy.

    Jesus did succeed in getting countless thousands of the poor and the oppressed who followed him to live lives of quiet submission, peace, nonviolence, generosity, charity and compassion.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but: and then he died. And then he didn’t return immediately. And within a generation they went back to apocalypticism, self-centeredness, power struggles and, once they overtook those kingdoms you speak of, violence. If he had succeeded, McLaren wouldn’t need to write a book.

    Did Ghandi succeed? Martin Luther King, Jr.?

    It depends on how you define success. Ghandi succeeded in winning India’s independence, but he didn’t change anything fundamental about human nature; and therefore the same story that played out in the colonial subjugation of India has played out in many places since, and continue to do so. MLK succeeded in winning some legal rights for African-Americans, but he didn’t change anything fundamental about human nature; and therefore the same racism (tribalism, really) that he fought is still with us and will continue to be.

    There’s nothing truly abolished about Jim Crow or slavery or the subjugation of women. Those things are merely sleeping; anaesthetized by unsustainable wealth.

    I just don’t see the evolution as a species you refer to. Human nature still seems pretty much the same, to me. I mean, I’m all about neural plasticity and all that, but the lizard brain is still dangling off the back end, there, doing its thing. The instant people’s hold on survival becomes tenuous again, all those social improvements evaporate into tribalism and raw power; the more tenuous the hold, the rawer the expression. (Hobbes was right.) Now, it’s true that we have culturally evolved increasingly symbolic (and therefore less harmful) ways of acting out those aspects of our nature, but they are still part of our nature, and if the symbols become unavailable, we’ll act them out directly.

    Nobody has ever changed that fundamental human story, as far as I can tell, which is why history is basically repetitive.

    Now, if we can come up with some kind of sustainable economic system whereby we can all live comfortably without having to compete for scarce resources, then at least the cultural veneer has a chance of staying put. That is, until population growth outstrips that system and we have to come up with still a new one.

    Is that sort of system what McLaren purports to be offering, or, at least, argues is now possible, thanks to technology?

    he is telling us about a story that is already resonating around the world that is changing the world – and this story is, depending on your perspective, either being driven by a spiritual sense of connectedness with the Creation or is resonating and reviving that kind of spiritual sense in religious people who hear the story

    Or he’s taking what is simply the widespread fear of a new global scarcity and rendering it in symbols that give it the warm, fuzzy familiarity of religiosity. I’m not saying that’s not worthwhile. Insofar as it’s useful at convincing larger numbers of people of the need for a new, sustainable system, it’s extremely worthwhile.

    That’s the McLaren part of our dialog. As for the other part — the part about the nature of human history — my argument is that until somebody figures out a way to change human nature, human history will remain basically repetitive.

  20. alsturgeon Says:

    Great discussion, Jeff and Juvenal.

    I agree with Juvenal irt human nature. This has been very depressing for me to learn, but I’m glad to have learned it now and not later.

    A formative book for me came from Will Campbell, an integral figure in the Civil Rights Movement. As an old Tennessee famer now, he basically says what Juvenal said – wonders if they really did any good after all.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to further discussion on McLaren. I’ll add another post later this week and hope you guys stay engaged. And hope others jump in, too.

  21. captmidknight Says:

    Al said:
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to further discussion on McLaren. I’ll add another post later this week and hope you guys stay engaged. And hope others jump in, too.
    __________

    I might have jumped in, but I’m still looking up some of the words the other two guys used. I’m afraid that end of the intellectual pool may be a little too deep for this old Arkie.

  22. Jeff_R Says:

    I think you guys are talking yourselves into something that is prima facie untrue.

    Humanity simply is better off now as a whole than at any time in the past.

    A lot of fundamentalist folk continue to cling to the “sinking ship” apocalyptic mentality, but I’m surprised to see that in this discussion.

    Ghandi did change the world. King did change the world. Jesus did change the world. All of humanity is, at least marginally, better off in some ways because these folks lived and injected something new into the evolving narrative.

    I think you seem to be holding to an “all or nothing” qualification – that if there remain any problems, then there can’t have been any progress.

    But these seems patently facile to me.

    Regardless of Will Campbell’s self-doubt, I don’t know of any objective person who would say that there has been no tangible, real, legitimate progress in race relations.

    While it’s true enough to say ‘it’s possible that all forward progress could suddenly be lost if all the old practices/habits re-emerge’, I don’t know of any modern example of where, given adequate transitional periods (decades where governmental systems are involved) progress hasn’t eventually triumphed over setbacks or upheavals.

    It seems the question we’re hung upon is what constitutes a “real” change in human nature? I would argue that while racism still exists – and virulently so in isolated pockets of ignorance and poverty – it has changed per my prior “model” so that the worst examples from today are better than the worst examples of the past. It seems that you hold that such changes are ephemeral or “unsustainable” (?) whereas I would argue that while the changes are hard-won and certainly not impossible to reverse, they are real and legitimate.

    McLaren is building upon these successes – trying to say that the system that brought us much of this success while effective in some ways and to some degree, is not sustainable when applied globally in a resource-constrained environment and that, therefore, building on the progress made so far, we must redesign the system into a sustainable model.

    Could the existing model implode resulting in a loss of this progress? Yes. Progress – real, legitimate progress – as I define it, doesn’t entail irreversibility. Real progress can be lost or overturned without saying that progress didn’t occur or wasn’t legitimate. Thus, the fact that human nature remains pliable – both for the good and the ill – doesn’t mean that changes made for the good – however tenuous – are not real.

  23. Jeff_R Says:

    We need to not confuse individual human nature with collective, civilized society. I agree that on an individual basis, predictions and progress are very difficult to come by because the sample size is so small and the controls so complex.

    Juvenal points out that “progress” is based on systems of governance – including morality, religion, economic policy, etc. I agree. Where we seem to disagree is that if progress occurs or is sustains on the basis of these institutions or systems then it does not constitute real change in human nature or establish progress for us as a species. I don’t see any reason to accept this proposition as true.

    Human civilization is what we’re talking about – not individual people. And while at any point in time I can find an individual human who exemplified the worst of medieval morality, I can also find an individual human who exemplifies the height or moral evolution. What we have to look at is the civilization and the systems that constitute it and that undergird progress v. those systems/practices/policies that result in regress of the species.

  24. urbino Says:

    A lot of fundamentalist folk continue to cling to the “sinking ship” apocalyptic mentality, but I’m surprised to see that in this discussion.

    I haven’t heard anyone here express that mentality. Nobody has argued that things are getting worse. I’ve argued that things have not gotten as much better as you suggest; that if they’ve truly gotten better, it’s been, to borrow your word, “marginally.”

    While it’s true enough to say ‘it’s possible that all forward progress could suddenly be lost if all the old practices/habits re-emerge’

    That’s not only “true enough,” it’s tautological. However, it’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing that, because they are part of human nature and human nature has not been changed, those old habits will emerge as soon as conditions make their perceived utility outweigh their cultural stigma.

    It seems the question we’re hung upon is what constitutes a “real” change in human nature?

    I think what I’m arguing is that there hasn’t been any change in human nature on these matters, period. The changes you’re describing are cultural, and since they’re cultural, they’re dependent on all the other factors that make up culture. The most fundamental of those, after human nature itself, is economics (felt most acutely as standard of living).

    In our current context, the relevance of that, I think, is that since the social advances you list are, in fact, social and not innate to human nature, if standard of living drops again so that people’s perceived grip on survival (or even just advancement) becomes tenuous, those “old habits” will re-emerge, because their perceived utility will, once again, begin to outweigh their cultural stigma. The degree to which that happens will depend on how tenuous people perceive their grip to be, and on what other cultural institutions are disrupted, and to what degree.

    Our level of civility and “advancement,” because it is not the result of changed human nature, depends directly on our level of economic security. As the latter drops, so does the former. History is a long series of rises and falls (more like a sum of a very complex set of rises and falls — a Fourier transform, if you will) in human economic security, tracked by rises and falls in humanity’s level of civility.

    So call this my Major Point 1: human nature seems to be largely immutable, except on an evolutionary scale, which is so distended in time that it’s hardly worth mentioning in discussions like these; advancements in civility are the product of widespread economic good fortune, and will both rise and fall in direct relationship to that good fortune.

    That brings us to where McLaren enters this conversation, if I understand his goal correctly.

    McLaren is building upon these successes – trying to say that the system that brought us much of this success while effective in some ways and to some degree, is not sustainable when applied globally in a resource-constrained environment

    On this he and I agree, and while it’s apparent you agree, too, I still think you’re not taking full account of what “not sustainable” means. This is what I would’ve called my Major Point 2: that the system that produced the current high standard of living is not sustainable even for the population currently possessing it, much less can it be extended to the population currently excluded from it.

    and that, therefore, building on the progress made so far, we must redesign the system into a sustainable model.

    But does he argue that we presently can design (and execute) such a system? I’m not clear on that. If so, I very much look forward to those chapters.

    Progress – real, legitimate progress – as I define it, doesn’t entail irreversibility.

    But that contradicts your earlier argument that the sine wave of human history is, in the aggregate, steadily trending upward. Short-term progress that is offset by an equal and opposite regress doesn’t produce a net increase. To get a chart of human history extending indeterminately into the past and indeterminately into the future that looks like a steadily rising sine wave, the average cycle must produce some amount of irreversible progress.* Otherwise, the sine wave remains parallel to the x-axis.

    [* “Irreversible” here is used not in any metaphysical sense, but in the probabilistic sense.]

  25. urbino Says:

    Where we seem to disagree is that if progress occurs or is sustains on the basis of these institutions or systems then it does not constitute real change in human nature or establish progress for us as a species. I don’t see any reason to accept this proposition as true.

    Human civilization is what we’re talking about – not individual people.

    Human civilization is a product of individual people, and therefore of human nature. Human civilization cannot achieve what human nature is incapable of.

    A change in the latter would be reflected by — since McLaren uses the notion of framing stories — the invention of a totally new kind of story we could tell ourselves to make sense of reality. Literary critics and narratologists (and no, Mikey, I don’t mean that in the strictly Structuralist sense) tell us we’ve been telling the same set of story types for all of recorded history, though they differ on how many and what they are. That suggests to me that there is a limited set of story types we are capable of telling, and therefore a limited set of ways we can conceive of reality, and therefore a limited set of possibilities for human civilization.

    What we have to look at is the civilization

    Then I’d request that we call human civilization human civilization, and human nature human nature.

    I don’t mean to suggest that civilization/culture, as a human product, isn’t capable of turning around and acting back upon the actor, btw. Only that whatever changes in our behavior are wrought by this process, they seem not to affect our fundamental nature (except on the imperceptibly long evolutionary scale).

  26. alsturgeon Says:

    Hey Captain, when you’re through with that dictionary, do you mind passing it this way? But seriously, be careful with that “Arkie” statement – guess which state these two brilliant guys went to college in?!?

    Partially because I don’t really fit into the conversation, but more because I plan to post the next installment tomorrow, I’m not going to comment right now. I’ll see if I can somehow bring Brian McLaren, Will Campbell, Jeff, Urbino, and the whole Hee-Haw gang together and escort this important conversation along.

  27. captmidknight Says:

    Al said:
    Hey Captain, when you’re through with that dictionary, do you mind passing it this way? But seriously, be careful with that “Arkie” statement – guess which state these two brilliant guys went to college in?!?
    ___________
    Yeah, I know. I can claim seniority though. I was an Arkie several years before they were.

    In the spirit of lightening up the subject, I can’t resist two quick jokes – an Arkie one and a blonde one:

    (With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

    If the riches person you know buys a new house – and you have to help take the wheels off of it, You might be an Arkie.

    A young man asks his minister:

    Preacher, why did God make blondes so pretty but so dumb?

    Well, son, the preacher said, He had to make them pretty so you would like them, and he had to make them dumb so they would like you.

  28. Jeff_R Says:

    “Human civilization is a product of individual people, and therefore of human nature. Human civilization cannot achieve what human nature is incapable of.”

    That’s my point. And since civilization has (as we agree) made progress, this reflects the positive malleability of human nature – but not irreversibility.

    Regarding my thoughts on irreversibility:

    “[T]hat contradicts your earlier argument that the sine wave of human history is, in the aggregate, steadily trending upward. “

    I don’t think so. In fact, just the opposite. I’m saying that human civilization has resulted in steady progress – with setbacks and upheavals, to be sure – in human conduct and behavior. It is possible to “bomb someone into the stone age” – morally speaking? I think I agree with you that it is. Where we seem to continue to miss each other is the idea of human civilization being an extension of human nature. That is, nothing that is accomplished in civilization can be accomplished without it first being accomplished in human nature. And, thus, if things are markedly, demonstrably better now than a millennium ago, this has implications regarding the state of human nature.

  29. Jeff_R Says:

    Also, building on my previous post, I guess I would nuance my comments on human nature this way:

    I’m not necessarily saying that civilization is advancing in a way that is distorting human nature in a novel way, but is, instead, becoming better and better at creating societies that elicit the best in human nature and suppress the worst elements of human nature.

    Now, we could argue about whether, as a whole, these worst elements are ever eradicated or merely subjugated – and whether the best elements have always existed or became emergent as better and better systems of human civilization developed that encouraged new and better behaviors.

    To your point of the danger of “losing” these good behaviors if the systems that “prop them up” and encourage them were suddenly removed or destroyed, I think I made that point in my initial post.

    But McLaren is talking about changes systems, not human nature. And he is therefore building on the improving trend in civilization in the same way Jesus, Ghandi, King, et al built upon the state of the civilizations they found themselves in and, yes, made real improvements in them that resulted in global changes to humanity – demonstrable, real, effective changes. Though not changes that cannot be lost, eroded or undone.

  30. Jeff_R Says:

    To wit, I think the civilization/nature point I made earlier undermines your Major Point 1 at least as it relates to the larger question of what’s happening to human society and seems largely to be beside the point regarding the McLaren conversation. Your Major Point 2 is pretty speculative, though I tend to agree with it – as does McLaren (which is his entire point with the “suicide machine” argument he makes in the book).

  31. shanebertou Says:

    Hey, I noticed that you’re reading Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change. A few of us are planning to read the book together and blog our thoughts as a sort of online reading collaboration. Any interest?

    http://www.shanebertou.com

  32. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Shane! I may drop by…

    Right now I’m dealing with a daughter in the hospital, so if I don’t forget about this opportunity with everything going on, I’ll jump in.

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