One of the most comforting things about gravity is that you don’t have to argue about it. Now that might sound strange were we not living in a time in which ideas are increasingly used as assertions of reality. From gender politics to the multitude of psychological triggers, how our fellow citizens experience the world is being asserted as the world itself. In a society with a history of politeness and kindness (despite its many lapses), there is a drive to please, to make room for all possible demands. At heart, we are not a mean culture. But there is an inherent problem in the new model: it rests on coercion.
Invisible boundaries are tricky. It is hard to respect or regard what you cannot see. For such boundaries to be made visible, they must be asserted and they must be asserted loudly and clearly if they are to be made visible. If what I experience and desire to experience has its primary existence in my mind, making it a public reality can only happen by forcing others to regard what I experience and desire to be part of their reality as well. And this is raised to an even greater level of coercion if my experience and desire is given legal standing. The full coercive force of government asserts a new law of nature.
In our current cultural atmosphere, it is disturbing to some that I, or anyone, should challenge these assertions. Their reaction and disapproval are an absolute requirement if a mental/emotional experience is to be accepted as a social reality. Social disapproval becomes the inevitable consequence in a reality constructed from the human will.
Arguably, all societies have some version of social constructs. The mores and norms that are generally accepted are also enforced through disapproval and legal means. I read an article this morning describing reaction in Singapore to the bad behavior of some mainland Chinese tourists (such as defecating in public). It could be asserted that there is nothing unnatural about this behavior (my dog does it all the time), but it clearly violates an almost universally held notion of propriety. At what point do socially-based norms become too coercive?
There’s no arguing with gravity. I frequently have dreams that I can fly but gravity reasserts itself when I awake, holding me fast in the bed, making every effort to get up somewhat difficult (some days it feels like I live on Jupiter). Gravity works well in social settings because of its inarguable reliability. Those social norms that have the strongest basis in an inarguable reliability are the most easily accepted and practiced. Children learn them with ease and without confusion.
The more nuanced and distanced a mental construct is from an inarguable reliability, the more it will require constant assertion and coercion in order to maintain its existence. If the Emperor is, in fact, naked, there is always going to be that wayward child who shouts it publicly, no matter how thoroughly his clothing is asserted as a reality. The faux pas is reality’s last word.
The politics of gender, which today extend far beyond the previous questions of how male and female are to relate, become inherently coercive as new constructs, unperceivable by others, demand their place at the table. Some institutions have gone so far as to suggest additional pronouns for our language. Facebook offers 58 gender options. I think it likely that such suggestions will eventually fall on their face through the simple gravity of human laziness. It’s hard work to maintain a mental construct that requires 58 genders. The disappearance of the informal pronouns (“thee,” “thou,”) argue against the likelihood of “zhe” catching on.
But there is a spiritual question in all of this. It has to do with our fundamental orientation towards reality itself and the place coercion plays in our lives. Politics is the art of socializing coercion. The increasingly political tensions within modern culture are the symptoms of older norms being challenged by new ones, but not because reality itself has changed. Coercion is the symptom of a political reality.
Classical Christianity is inherently traditional in its orientation. It prefers to treat the things in our lives that are received as the gifts of a good God. Even within the tragedies of our existence, the hand of God is seen hidden, working good in spite of things. This is not the same thing as acquiescing to evil, though Christ Himself says, “Do not resist evil.” It is, instead, a perception that the self-emptying of the Cross overcomes all things and is the true medicine of immortality.
Our modern orientation, despite the language of freedom it inveighs, is coercive in its very nature. Modernity is married to the notion of progress and change. It is the will to power. Modernity is an utterly political assertion and has only ever existed through political action. The birth of the modern world is the story of revolution. It can only live in a revolutionary world.
Classical Christianity is often charged with approving slavery. It is a false charge, grounded in the revolutionary worldview of modernity. The Roman world into which Christianity was born was built on slavery. Their slavery was not race-based, but largely derived from prisoners of war and the fate of conquered peoples. There were occasional slave revolts (cf. Spartacus), but they always ended in bloody executions of the rebels. Slavery was part of the “gravity” of the ancient world. What we see in Christian texts is simply the advice to those whose lives were so consigned. How can I follow Christ while being a slave? There were instances in which slaves rose to the place of bishop in the Church. St. Paul said that even a slave could be “Christ’s freedman.” Of course, slavery gradually disappeared, morphing into the later world of feudal arrangements. Economies change.
The spiritual life given to us in Christ is not coercive. Indeed, it rejects coercion where possible. In this, it follows the example of God Himself, who is “kind to the evil and the ungrateful.” The freedom God gives us is all around and frequently abused. We find such freedom to be intolerable in many instances, and begin to coercively push back. That coercion results in laws and the political life of societies. Modernity, however, assumes that the spiritual life is measured by the goodness and effectiveness of coercive efforts. The will to power is believed to promise a better world. We call it progress.
I believe that modernity represents a new religion with an orientation that is fundamentally opposed to classical Christianity. I have made my own decision as to where salvation is to be found. I think gravity is on my side.
Note to commenters: I will strictly enforce my ban on rudeness or unkindness. Discuss and be polite. Yes. I understand that this is coercive.