Friday, April 17, 2015

The right side of history; A trope about discernment.

Martin Luther King removes a blackened cross from his front lawn.
A while back I discussed the use of tropes; predictions and mental shortcuts based in story telling. For this blog post I am going to expose a trope of my own. It’s a trope particularly relevant to the question of discernment raised in the last post.

Firstly a reminder that tropes are good. Everyday we have to predict the future which by virtue of it being in the future we can’t directly observe. For simple questions like whether the sun will rise tomorrow we may not think we need tropes but in the face of a counter claim from a Doomsday cult for example we will still use tropes to reject the doubts they raise. Tropes are our way of “knowing how this story ends”; we locate the events in front of us inside a type of story we have seen before. In this case a failed Doomsday prediction. There is therefore no need to investigate every allegation from everyone.  Tropes save us a lot of time.

Equally tropes are not so good. Tropes can make enemies of people who might in fact be friends when we apply our knowledge of “where this will end” over-cautiously.  Imagine refusing a genuine gift because it was “too good to be true.” Tropes can also merrily lead us into trouble. A good con-artist will encourage our tropes and allow us to play the hero or even the con-artist ourselves in line with our expectations. Our tropes are basically our prejudices with all the pejorative connotations that word deserve.

I use the word truism to describe the building blocks of a trope. Truisms are statements about the world which we accept as true. They may be rigorously tested or blithely assumed. They are not always conscious and making them conscious can be a great way of exposing a tropes flaws. The truisms which my trope is composed of are probably the best way to investigate it and can be laid out as follows. You can use the points to find where you depart with your own trope about discernment (treat them as wild claims rather than careful arguments).

1. There are clear Kairos moments in history. Kairos is a term I’m borrowing from theology where it describes a time in history when “the church”  - those people who profess to be the people of God – must make a decision which will critically decide the legitimacy of their claim to this identity. The position of the Anglican church on Apartheid in South Africa, or the position of the Lutheran Church on the Nazi party in Hitlers’ Germany form classic modern Kairos moments.

2. Kairos moments don’t just occur for the people of God. There are moments in the life of any institution including the broad institution of humanity when certain decisions become morally critical. Notwithstanding some losses in the translation from church to nation we can see the land-rights movement or even the royal commission into child abuse as kind of Kairos moments for the community of Australia. A Kairos moment is like a fork in the road. The relationship of an institution to its most fundamental legitimacy is at stake.

3. In a Kairos moment the path of righteousness is not clearly lit. It is obscured by rational and reasonable sounding counter arguments. White people supporting Apartheid in South Africa pointed to neighbouring countries in which corruption and violence seemed even worse under black rule. Mark Twains famous depiction of Huckleberry Finn shows him comprehending freeing his friend Tom from slavery as stealing him from the woman who owns him.  Even the oppressed can’t be certain of their tactics or timing for change. The resisters in the Warsaw Ghettos could never be sure that surrender wasn’t the wiser choice of action. Our choice in a Kairos moment might cost our life and the lives of many others and for nothing. Our pursuit of what we think is righteousness might ultimately condemn us as unforgiving, or naively soft for all we know in the moment of decision.

4. Just as the right call in a Kairos moment is unclear in our approach it is painfully obvious in hindsight. Nowadays even the staunchest western conservative, unwilling to bear the thought of a woman bishop, would not question a woman’s right to vote. Nowadays even the sad few who cling to the myth of Aryan superiority deny rather than celebrate the holocaust. Support for slavery or segregation, once half the debate are now embarrassments for the church. This means we can take certain historical outcomes in debates as givens in regard to morality. (I realize this may be my weakest point; matters of justice that may seem settled briefly can easily become contested again eg. the Australian abandonment of our obligations to refugees and does a settled opinion mean anything about its rightness anyway.)

5.  Those who made the right call in historical Kairos moments (and I rely on the above point to claim they can be clearly recognized) share some commonalities in terms of their process of discernment. Maybe they nurtured an intimacy with the people affected by the decision or maybe they could create the distance from the matter at hand to see things clearly. Maybe they emphasis reason or instinct or balance between the two or held basic philosophical assumptions in common. Perhaps by comparing each person side by side we could identity a super tradition or religion each of these right-callers belong to. Whatever it is there is some definition to the process by which they managed to be on the right side of a Kairos moment.

6. Likewise we can see from past Kairos moments that certain processes of discernment were not helpful and served to obscure what we now see clearly. It may be that we can discount or treat warily forms of authority based on their uselessness in past Kairos moments. Alternatively we might just crudely note intellectual vices to avoid.

7. When we stand in a position of ignorance in relation to our own Kairos moments we can borrow from those who made the right call in the past, their process of discernment. We can also skirt past the traps that befell those who made the wrong calls. In this way while we can’t necessarily know the right conclusion to a contemporary moral crisis (and must ultimately step forward in faith) we can grow to trust a path to truth and try to find it in new scenarios.

Before I go any further with this and talk about how I apply my trope to what I see might be modern Kairos moments (Australia’s treatment of refugees for example or the global response to climate change) I want to ask you for your thoughts. Do you agree with the points laid out above? Is the concept of a Kairos moment a helpful historical one? Am I right to have my doubts about point 4? Is there really any common discernment process to be uncovered as suggested in point 5?

You could see in this trope what is alluded to by the common phrase “right side of history”. Perhaps a really fundamental question is whether there can be a right side of history other than victory? I think there can be at least a side of history we wish we would have belonged to if we lived in Kairos moments in the past. We would rather be freeing slaves than slavers for example in the 18th century. Imagine if we could make even some small measure of improving our chances of being on the right side of history today. I think that’s something worth aiming for.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I am from Melbourne.
    Please find some references by a unique "Philosopher" and Artist who was not satisfied with any of the conventional "answers" provided by secular-realists or religious idealists. As such He thoroughly examined at a profound depth level ever proposition ever made about the nature of Reality in all times and places.
    There is some overlap in the first two references:
    1. an introduction to The Truth Book
    2. The Criticism That Cures the Heart
    3. multiple references
    4. multiple references
    5. myth-busting essays on religion, science & scientism, and culture altogether
    6. an introduction to His Divine Image Art