Historically Conditioned Ramble, Pt 1

Sometimes listen to NPR. Terry Gross’s interviews are my favorite item. She should give lessons to all interviewers in whatever format that is she uses, which would consist of 3 things: Shut up and let your guest talk; ask good questions; shut up and let your guest talk.

Anyway, she was talking to some legal scholar a bit back, and the topic of ‘original intent’ came up, and she, very predictably (this is NPR) blessed the notion that, since it is inevitable that issues and situations not covered by the original intent of the drafters would come up, OF COURSE the SCOTUS would need to, you know, sort of make it up as they go, with an implied ‘what can these crazy original intent types be thinking?’.

Now, of course, the issue isn’t really binary: thinking people (especially lawyers) understand that you can’t write everything down, that there will be plenty of situations that require judges to apply law that wasn’t written with the concrete case in front of you in mind, and few ‘living document’ types really, truly believe that the Constitution is a blank piece of paper (although many of our elected officials seem damn close to that POV – it doesn’t count when your behavior is constrained by fear of the people, and that just happens to coincide with some musty legal fundamentalist’s interpretation of the Constitution. That’s called cowardice, not principle.)

What struck me was not that Ms Gross came down on the issue the way she did – news flash! Sun sets in the West – but rather how, given a situation where, from any objective perspective, you’re walking a path between the state whereby intolerable evils persist because no written law applies to remedy them and the state of chaos where the law means whatever any judge happens to feel like it means at that moment, that you’d recognize the dangers on one side of  the issue but totally miss or ignore the trouble lurking on the other.

That path is not all that narrow, but it seems to me to important to recognize you’re on it, and work to stay on it. If all you fear is that some evil might not be redressed because there are as yet no laws available with which to redress it, while not also fearing that judges might confound what they want to see happen with justice (like we all do) and thereby do evil, then you will, frankly, arrive at the current unhappy state of affairs.

Thinking about this in relation to a different but conceptually related notion: that the beliefs of the Catholic Church are ‘historically conditioned’, meaning, it seems,  that any statement of belief can be challenged and overturned based on the assertion that the belief does not represent an eternal truth, but is rather just a data-point of how people at one time and place *understood* a fundamentally ineffable truth that defies any attempt at definitive formulation.

Something like that. There’s probably a cleaner formulation of this concept out there.

Assuming I’m understanding this right, it only makes sense to concern yourself about how and to what extent a tenet of the faith has suffered from cultural conditioning if one assumes we’re making progress, theologically speaking. In other words, if we’re not improving our understanding of dogma over time, then all you’d be saying is that one historical culture understood a point of teaching differently than we do now – some like oysters, some snails. BUT – if we assume that our understanding of morals and dogma are improving with time – not on a case-by-case basis, with some steps backward and some forward, but improving inexorably – then the issue of cultural conditioning becomes legitimate.

This is the subtle part: if I think people at one point were wrong, and I am now right, THAT argument is about the truth of the underlying statement, and whether I’m a medieval monk or an 1st century Christian or the man in the moon matters not at all – the argument is about the TRUTH of an assertion. On the other hand, mustering an argument that the poor benighted dears formulated morality and dogma in a sense that is no longer valid because they are at some remove from us in time and space depends on something else – the notion that our little corner of time and space is especially blessed, so much so that I don’t even have to make an argument about how our ideas are better and more truthful than some other ideas. I simple have to point out that they’re our ideas, and, well, there you go.

Back to Terry Gross. My complaint was that she could see the dangers in only one side of the argument, while a moment of reflection reveals that a middle road between two dangers is called for. Similarly, worshiping the past just because it’s the past is bad. Worshiping the new just because it’s new is equally bad. The middle road is to take each issue on its own merits. It’s not fundamentally intelligible to argue that an idea is better just because it’s our idea.

Footnote: we’re ignoring a bigger logic problem. If  historical conditioning true in the broader sense that nobody at any one time and place can state anything true, then no one can be correctly said to fundamentally understand anything. If the beliefs of the Catholic Church are to be said to be culturally conditioned, it seems that the more fluid and changeable ideas of theological dissent, such as the very idea of cultural conditioning, would be even more culturally conditioned and thus – it is assumed – in error. And so on.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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