Ethics in America in the Wake of Christianity
Essay by R.Cronk
Although we still claim allegiance to the Christian ethic, religion is no longer the active cultural mythology controlling our lives. Science has replaced religion as the active belief system of Western society. We no longer discover the world through a religious perspective. And religious symbols no longer inspire the ontological truths that give meaning to life.
Much of what goes on in the name of Christianity today is a retrogressive avoidance of the nihilism confronting post-modern America. Blind loyalty to irrelevant Christian dogma is a measure of the desperation and sense of helplessness that individuals feel in a world controlled by money, technology and corporate politics.
While Western society is a sluggish beast, its movement is marked by historical signposts. New philosophies, religion, war, technological advances and population growth are but a few of the defining events that have shaped and directed its course. Today, standing in the flood of disparate influences that plague society at the end of the Christian era, we are able to define many of the historical factors responsible for the ethical quandaries we face.
In the 16th Century, society began to turn from the transformative experiences of Catholicism to the ideological rationalizations of Calvinism for confirmation of its ethical values. Without the transubstantiating force of the mythopoeic mind to validate its value systems, society fell prey to an onslaught of dehumanizing and exploitive ethical codes. These have culminated in recent decades with institutionalized bigotry, self-serving religions and economic Darwinism.
The fascist and reactionary slant of the Moral Majority is a prime example. How does the individual find truth or meaning in life, or make intelligent and informed decisions with a heavily censored and propagandized education? How in the name of God can religious organizations ever justify having supported the arms race and dictatorships around the world? The pulpit has been used to sway the public to take positions diametrically opposed to the intent of Christian doctrine. This is pathological morality. Can the ironies go unnoticed by its initiates? Our dowry for future generations is exploited resources, chemical waste and nuclear proliferation. What is to prevent misguided moralists and religious zealots from continuing to decimate the planet?
The golden age of modern man has come and gone. The morality of entrepreneurial capitalism (as it courts the consumer) has given way to the interests of corporate capitalism. Despite constitutional guarantees to the contrary, we are subjected to political and economic systems bent on exploiting the rights of the many to profit the few. Established ideals and cultural values are challenged by the ethics of corporate America and by the indulgences of consumer hedonism.
The American ethic is the business ethic. You can feed the public poison if it turns a buck. The economic disparity existing in our country paints a bleak picture of the future. Typically, low income housing is torn down and condos are erected. The rich gain more control and the poor have fewer alternatives. Profit margins and the availability of products take precedence over altruistic concerns for human rights. American society, while paying lip service to a religious ethic, pursues policies offering economic stability, not salvation.
Western society is notorious for eradicating rather than assimilating the cultures of colonial nations. Beneath the whine of civil tongue America displays the persona of a precocious and brutal child, defensively obliterating every culture it encounters. Softening resistance with missionaries and Coca-Cola, Western interests exploit cheap labor sources in the name of God and the American way. America has always dominated someone to insure social cohesion and economic stability, but as we approach of the 21th Century, colonial nations are becoming a thing of the past.
While the cold war is over and America no longer shadow-boxes with the communist threat, the proliferation of third world countries having nuclear weapons has created an even more difficult situation. This new nuclear menace makes the political oppression of non-Western nations a particularly dangerous means for maintaining global economic hierarchies. Nuclear proliferation and the indiscriminate threats of radioactive pollution, global warming and nuclear winter have created new equality at an international level. Will the fear of self-annihilation prove to be sufficient common ground for developing ecologically sensitive and humanitarian compromises in the world community in the future?
The likely answer is this tenuous ground of equal insecurity will be aggravated by the controlling hierarchy into justification for continued oppression. Whatever the course of international policy, as long as it fills America's breadbaskets or gas tanks, it will undoubtedly be seen as morally responsible and necessary by the God-fearing public.
The flaw in the psychology of Christianity is rancor. (Nietzsche) And more broadly stated: the inherent flaw in every code of ethics is there must be a wrong which is left out of the system. If there is no enemy we will make one up: someone must be made responsible for the suffering endured. As Christian doctrine succumbs to the nihilistic reductions of positivism, can America develop an ethical posture of co-existence without rancor? And to the point, can it develop a political/economic system where the rich do not suppress the poor?
The decline of the Christian tradition has allowed for the assimilation of a previously unknown self. The philosophic negation of oppressive religious dogma has released repressed (unconscious) content from the collective psyche. In a process of desublimation, acceptable cultural values expand to include what was previously considered deviant. Society continues to have a strong sense of right and wrong, but these values are in a state of change as the despiritualized symbols of Christian doctrine lose their authority to direct our lives.
Without an alternative altruistic model, the breakdown of tradition transcendent methods for attaining moral directives has produced a situation where personal choice reflects self-interest with little regard for the needs of the collective. In response, America overcrowds her prisons. Social and political compatibility in the future will be determined by how well the alternatives for self-actualization provide for integration into a common culture with a humanitarian code of ethics.
The trick for establishing a successful society is for personal values to be the same as society's. The solution would be for duty and pleasure, altruism and hedonism, to become one. When personal values successfully reflect social morality, individual expression is transpersonalized and common bonds of trust are established. This suggests the possibility of an ideal model as well as a collective cultural experience, but there can be no ideal solutions. There is no utopia. Ethical choice reflects the socialization of the self and not universal ideals.
The cultural parameters and ethical posture of the next generation are being decided today. As alternative value systems compete for dominance in the wake of Christianity, the potential exists for a more fully actualized and socially integrated personality. The arts, humanities and sciences provide integrating experiences and belief systems for developing out of the Christian mind-set while actualizing a greater range of experience through democratic strategies. Unfortunately, society has substituted consumer gratification and the business ethic for the kind of cultural ideals necessary for producing humanitarian ethical codes in the next century.
The exploitive politics of monopolistic capitalism will continue to suppress the rights of non-Western countries and allow big business to ravage the environment under the guise of free trade and Christian morality. Our television-dependent society seems unable to see through the misdirections and propaganda to realize the motives of a political system controlled by the capitalist elite. Ironically, the controlling hierarchy adheres to policies that violate commonly held ideals of equal justice and peaceful coexistence. Government policy legislates the political agenda of major contributors. It does not represent the masses, nor does it function on behalf of the people beyond a facade of social responsibility.
It is the duty of the artist and other creative people to provide the symbols of cultural revolution for the burgeoning social order of the 21th Century. More than ever before, it is imperative that the creators of culture resist trends toward despiritualization and commercialization. If the eroded institutions of the art and cultural establishment were restructured to reflect an ideology of co-existence and codependence, a rejuvenation of humanitarian values could happen in a ground-up scenario. Culture must be regenerated at a local level through programs in education and the arts, and through an emphasis on the family.
Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved
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