Marshall McLuhan’s Christianity

The late Marshall McLuhan was the pioneering scholar of media and the information environment, recognizing how technology was changing the culture and predicting what is now happening before our eyes.  He was controversial and cutting-edged with some hailing him as being a seminal thinker on the level of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein.  Did you know he was a conservative Catholic?  Jeet Heer tells about how McLuhan came to Catholicism–G. K. Chesterton was a big influence–and how the neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain influenced his thought.  You need to read the whole piece, but here is a sample:

McLuhan’s pioneering studies of popular culture were part of a sea change in Catholic intellectualism, as the Church gave up the siege mentality of earlier decades and tried to offer a more nuanced and positive account of modern life. As well, the Church began to move away from its defence of authoritarianism to support pro-democracy political movements around the world. McLuhan underwent his own political evolution: the young man who admired Franco became the academic who engaged in a long correspondence with Pierre Trudeau. And while The Mechanical Bride condemns the comic strip Blondie for undermining the patriarchal ideal of the man as the natural head of the household, in later writings, such as Understanding Media, McLuhan deliberately eschewed traditionalist strictures, because he thought it was more important to understand the world than to condemn it. As he told an interviewer in 1967, “The mere moralistic expression of approval or disapproval, preference or detestation, is currently being used in our world as a substitute for observation and a substitute for study.”

On moral matters, he remained very conservative. He was adamantly anti-abortion, for example. But part of his achievement as a mature thinker was his ability to bracket off whatever moral objections to the modern world he might have had and to concentrate on exploring new developments — to be a probe. Indeed, although he joined the Church as a refuge, his faith gave him a framework for becoming more hopeful and engaged with modernity. This paradox might be explained by the simple fact that as he deepened in his faith he acquired an irenic confidence in God’s unfolding plan for humanity. In a 1971 letter to an admirer, McLuhan observed, “One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.”

Indeed, his faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker. Belonging to a Church that gloried in cathedrals and stained glass windows made him responsive to the visual environment, and liberated him from the textual prison inhabited by most intellectuals of his era. The global reach and ancient lineage of the Church encouraged him to frame his theories as broadly as possible, to encompass the whole of human history and the fate of the planet. The Church had suffered a grievous blow in the Gutenberg era, with the rise of printed Bibles leading to the Protestant Reformation. This perhaps explains McLuhan’s interest in technology as a shaper of history. More deeply, the security he felt in the promise of redemption allowed him to look unflinchingly at trends others were too timid to notice.

via “Divine Inspiration” by Jeet Heer | The Walrus | July 2011.

I’m not sure of the exact connection between St. Thomas Aquinas as media theory, though McLuhan was not alone in working out the connections.  (Could anyone explain?)  Another major scholar in this vein was Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit.  Nor are Roman Catholics the only theologians who explore the implications of media and technology.  There was the French Reformed thinker Jacques Ellul.  And the Jewish Neil Postman.  And the American evangelical Arthur Hunt.

I would just add my own discovery:  McLuhan was also interested in classical education.  His doctoral dissertation was on the media implications of the Trivium.   I have a copy that I intend to read one of these days.

Anyway, I suggest that McLuhan may be a good role model for other Christians in their intellectual pursuits and cultural influence.

FURTHER THOUGHTS:  If you read Marshall McLuhan today, you will be amazed at how well he analyzes the new information technology and its impact on the culture and how we think.  And then you will be even more amazed that at the time the medium he was analyzing was not the internet but television!  But what he says not only holds true but predicts what happened as electronic media progressed.

The Singularity will give you everlasting life

A new religion is born.  The concept of the “singularity” used to be a dream of technology, the notion that exponentially-growing computing power would reach a point at which machines would become more intelligent than human beings.  But now the hypothetical Singularity is being invested with religious significance:  It will give you eternal life.

The Singularity, promised by futurist Ray Kurzweil, has accelerated interest in an entirely new field known as Transhumanism, giving hope to deep-pocketed Baby Boomers that they will be able to live forever. Watching Kurzweil’s fascinating documentary film – Transcendent Man (now finally available on Netflix) – you can get a glimpse of what is possible due to the accelerating pace of technological change in fields ranging from genetics to nanotechnology. At some point, the line between “man” and “machine” blurs, as intelligence increases exponentially.

The concept of the Singularity is singularly fascinating since it confirms so much of what appears to be happening around us. Next-generation technologies appear on schedule, seemingly every few months, and popular culture is full of examples of Baby Boomers who are healthier and living longer than ever before. The cultural zeitgeist is right, too: The Baby Boomers are the first generation that is receptive to, rather than threatened by, the pace of technological change.

Perhaps not surprisingly, themes from the Singularity are finding their way from the world of science and technology into the cultural mainstream. At the World Science Festival in New York City, for example, one of the major themes at the event was human longevity and the possibility that we can reverse the human aging process. Just two months ago, at the first-ever Transhumanism Meets Design conference, held at the Parsons School in New York City, speakers joined in from fields such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence to discuss the impact of technology on human potential.

How will all this play out? Will the Singularity be as elusive as the Fountain of Youth? Will we ever see the day when FDA-approved ads for bio-engineered pills promise us the ability to live forever?

via The men and women who want to live forever – Ideas@Innovations – The Washington Post.

The religion of transhumanism!  Doesn’t it resonate with our times?  A religion based solely upon technology–which can already do so many signs and wonders–and that will make no moral demands and require no spiritual beliefs.  Its notion that flesh will become obsolete and its trust in the virtual realm tie in nicely to our gnostic tradition.  Prediction:  Watch for attempts to Christianize the Singularity, as well as attempts to transhumanize the church.

Concubines

Alan Wisdom has a brilliant article in Salvo, bringing back a word we need again and showing how different “just living together” and marriage really are:

In ancient times, there was an option for a man who desired a regular sex partner but did not wish to marry her. He could take a low-status woman as a concubine. He could enjoy her company as long as it pleased him, and he could dismiss her at any time. The man made no promises and signed no contract; consequently, the concubine had few legal protections. Any children that she bore would have an inferior legal status.

The early Church fought long and hard against concubinage. It insisted that such a sexual relationship, without the permanent and total commitment expressed in marriage vows, was immoral and unjust. Over the course of a thousand years, concubinage retreated into the shadows of social disapproval.

In the past 40 years, it seems, concubinage has come to light again under a different name. Like ancient concubinage, contemporary cohabitation is a deliberately ambiguous relationship. The partners make no promises and have no legal obligations to one another. The arrangement has no specified duration and can be terminated at a moment’s notice. Those who cohabit tend to be of lower social status. Their children, on average, do not fare as well as children born to married couples.

Defenders of cohabitation portray it as just a more flexible form of marriage. The love is the same as in marriage, they say; all that is missing is “a piece of paper,” the marriage certificate. Some see cohabitation as a “trial marriage.” They assume that living together will confirm a couple’s compatibility and reduce the odds that a subsequent marriage might end in divorce.

Social science does not support any of these assertions. By every measure, cohabitation is a very different relationship from marriage. Marriages are formed by a series of decisive, publicly announced events: A proposal is made, it is accepted, an engagement is announced, friends and family gather for a wedding, vows and rings are exchanged, and two formerly single persons are declared to be married. By contrast, many couples quietly drift into cohabitation. They gradually spend more time together, one moves his or her possessions piece by piece into the other’s residence, one allows his or her lease to expire, and eventually they realize that they are living together full-time.

The two relationships differ dramatically in durability. The average marriage lasts several decades; the average cohabitation, only 15 months. Because their time horizons are longer, married people are much more likely to invest in one another. Husbands and wives almost always pool their assets. They have a single household budget that does not separate “his” and “her” money. They take responsibility for each other’s debts and inherit each other’s estates.

via Salvo Magazine: Cohabitation: Marriage Lite or the New Concubinage? – Salvo 15.

Read the rest of it, the differences between concubinage and marriage go on and on.  Pity the poor concubine.  Once again we see ourselves progressing at breakneck speed back to primitivism.

UPDATE:  Of course there are differences between the ancient practice of concubinage and today’s “living together,” but the point of similarity is that both are a type of “marriage lite.”  Having or being a concubine bears some similarity to marriage and  exists parallel to that institution but is easily dissolvable.

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Athenians vs. Visigoths

Thanks to Joe Carter for posting this commencement address (which he never gave) by the late media scholar Neil Postman. Read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that set forth the basic paradigm:

I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology. . . .

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics. . . .

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliche.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

The new radical ideology for our time

I had an epiphany while reading reports of protests in Europe against the various austerity measures being imposed due to the different government’s economic woes:  The radical ideology for our postmodern times is anarchism, the rejection of all authority.

Let me explain, but first read what is happening in Europe:

Already struggling to avoid a debt default that could seal Greece’s fate as a financial pariah, this Mediterranean nation is also scrambling to contain another threat — a breakdown in the rule of law.

Thousands have joined an “I Won’t Pay” movement, refusing to cover highway tolls, bus fares, even fees at public hospitals. To block a landfill project, an entire town south of Athens has risen up against the government, burning earth-moving equipment and destroying part of a main access road.

The protests are an emblem of social discontent spreading across Europe in response to a new age of austerity. At a time when the United States is just beginning to consider deep spending cuts, countries such as Greece are coping with a fallout that has extended well beyond ordinary civil disobedience.

Perhaps most alarming, analysts here say, has been the resurgence of an anarchist movement, one with a long history in Europe. While militants have been disrupting life in Greece for years, authorities say that anger against the government has now given rise to dozens of new “amateur anarchist” groups, whose tactics include planting of gas canisters in mailboxes and destroying bank ATMs.

Some attacks have gone further, heightening concerns about a return to the kind of left-wing violence that plagued parts of Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. After urban guerrillas mailed explosive parcels to European leaders and detonated a powerful bomb last year in front of an Athens courthouse, authorities here have staged a series of raids, arresting dozens and yielding caches of machine guns, grenades and bomb-making materials.

The anarchist movement in Europe has a long, storied past, embracing an anti-establishment universe influenced by a broad range of thinkers from French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Karl Marx to Oscar Wilde. Defined narrowly, the movement includes groups of urban guerillas, radical youths and militant unionists. More broadly, it encompasses everything from punk rock to WikiLeaks. . . .

A radical minority is energizing the anarchist movement, a loose network of anti-establishment groups that sprung up in force in the 1970s in opposition to Greece’s former military junta. Over the next two decades, anarchists would assassinate Richard Welch, a CIA station chief in Athens, as well as Greek politicians and a British military attache.

Greek authorities seemed to cut the head off the movement after the leaders of November 17th, the largest group, were arrested in the early 2000s before Greece hosted the 2004 Olympics. But it has been gaining new life. The December 2008 killing of a 15-year anarchist by a police officer in the Exarchia neighborhood of Athens sparked days of riots and became the impetus for a series of fresh attacks.

Since then, experts say, the economic crisis has helped the movement thrive, with anarchists positioning themselves as society’s new avengers. Long a den of anarchists, the graffiti-blanketed Exarchia neighborhood is alive anew with dissent. Nihilist youths are patrolling the local park, preventing police from entering and blocking authorities from building a parking lot on the site. On one evening at a local cafe, an anarchist group was broadcasting anti-government messages via a clandestine radio station using a laptop and a few young recruits.

In the most recent attacks, only one person has been injured, a courier who handled a letter bomb, but over the past two years, anarchist attacks have claimed four lives in Greece, including a journalist and a minister’s top aide. Left-wing radicals also appear responsible for the deaths of three civilians — including a pregnant woman — after a bank was firebombed during an anti-government protest last year.

Still, there is a line to be drawn between the far larger group of young anarchists hurling Molotov cocktails at street demonstrations and the smaller, more dangerous cells of urban guerrillas. But experts are increasingly concerned about growing militancy on the streets and the emergence of dozens of new anarchist groups on the Internet.

via In Greece, austerity kindles deep discontent – The Washington Post.

We have anarchist protesters here in the USA too.  They are the ones who wear masks and break windows during the protests at the various global economics conclaves.

Now of course in Europe it is beyond absurd to protest cut-backs in government services by advocating the elimination of government altogether!  But anarchists reject the authority of reason also.  I think their strategy is exploit people’s anger at their governments to turn them against government in general.  But I’m thinking that the fundamental ideology needs to be taken seriously because, to one degree or another, it has become pervasive.

There are many paths to anarchy, coming from both the left and the right.  Read the extensive Wikipedia article on anarchism:

There are many types and traditions of anarchism, not all of which are mutually exclusive.[5]Anarchist schools of thought can differ fundamentally, supporting anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.[2] Strains of anarchism have been divided into the categories of social and individualist anarchism or similar dual classifications.[6][7] Anarchism is often considered to be a radical left-wing ideology,[8][9] and much of anarchist economics and anarchist legal philosophy reflect anti-statist interpretations of communism, collectivism, syndicalism or participatory economics. However, anarchism has always included an individualist strain supporting a market economy and private property, or morally unrestrained egoism.[10][11][12] Some individualist anarchists are also socialists[13][14] while some anarcho-communists are also individualists.[15][16] The position known as anarchism without adjectives insists on “recognising the right of other tendencies to the name ‘anarchist’ while, obviously, having their own preferences for specific types of anarchist theory and their own arguments why other types are flawed.”[17]

The central tendency of anarchism as a mass social movement has been represented by anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism, with individualist anarchism being primarily a literary phenomenon[18] which nevertheless did have an impact on the bigger currents[19] and individualists also participated in large anarchist organizations.[20][21] Some anarchists oppose all forms of aggression, supporting self-defense or non-violence (anarcho-pacifism),[22][23] while others have supported the use of some coercive measures, including violent revolution and propaganda of the deed, on the path to an anarchist society.

The links show how many aspects of anarchism there are.  But briefly, left-wing anarchism opposes all established power systems, as well as private property.  Right-wing anarchism is an extreme libertarianism that believes the “invisible hand” of free market economics can also regulate all human interactions, making central governments unnecessary.

Anarchism accords well with postmodernism, which rejects  objective truth and objective morality, and which considers all cultural institutions to be ultimately grounded in social oppression and the imposition of power.  Anarchism also accords well with contemporary culture, which tends to reject all moral authority, including that of the family and religious institutions.

And isn’t  contemporary conservatism with its libertarianism, the Tea Party, and the overall antipathy to  government part of this climate?  That there may be good reasons for a certain reaction does not always justify everything that reaction turns into.  The horrible working conditions of the 19th century industrial revolution made Communism seem like a good idea at the time, even though that ideology turned into an even more horrible monster.  Bad government can make us want to limit it without going so far as anarchism.  Still, it seems to me that conservatives need to work out clearly what they think government should do and not do, as opposed to surrendering to the anarchist impulse.

Happy National Day of Reason!

In their attempt to become, in effect, a socially-acceptable religion–getting military chaplains, vaunting how moral they are, and evangelizing the unenlightened–atheists are trying to start a holiday.  May 5 is the National Day of Reason!

I love holidays and I love reason, so I am willing to celebrate. . .uh, what is it we are celebrating?  I will try to set aside time to think.  But don’t we need something more to inspire our observance, to give it some meaning?  It turns out that May 5 was chosen simply to counter something else that is on that day, the National Day of Prayer.  The atheists are protesting that by trying to take over the day for themselves.

This demonstrates the weakness of atheism.  It is purely reactive.  Its doctrines are purely negative (there is no God; there is no life after death; there is no meaning in life).  And even when its teachings are put in a positive way–we believe in reason! we believe that material things are all that exist!–there is nothing, really, to celebrate, or even to be happy about.

Actual holidays, on the other hand, commemorate some meaningful event and we celebrate the meaning.  They usually involve some kind of story.  They are deeply, richly, human, evoking family and good memories and inspiration.  And Christian holidays–widely recognized even by devotees of other religions are the best of all–are full of wonder and joy.  The root of “festival” is “feast.”  “Holiday” means “holy day.”   You can’t have a holiday without some sense of holiness.

It’s hard to celebrate an abstraction, such as “reason.”  But, hey, let’s give it a try.  How could we do to make the Day of Reason work as a holiday?  What would be the equivalent of a Christmas tree or Easter basket for the Day of Reason?  What foods should be associated with this day of rationality?  If it ever rates a day off, what should individuals and families do?

National Day of Reason :: About Us.


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