A recent discussion with Bruce Charlton on knowledge, society, and the Eastern and Western Church provokes reflection.
It’s notorious that involvement in particular activities makes it hard to keep their connection to the whole in mind. Standard examples include making money, attention to the opposite sex, and attempts to control things generally. Hence the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The pursuit of knowledge, which after all is a kind of power, can run into the same problems. Scientific studies provide an example. They emphasize measurement and the search for mechanism, so the more single-mindedly and successfully they are pursued, the more they seem to leave God and a great many other things out of the picture.
The question is what to do about it. Life must go on, and not everybody can take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Christianity accepts the need for government backed by deadly force, which Jesus (“render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”) seems to have viewed as something legitimate in the present state of the world but not part of its ideal state. And even within religion some sort of rational philosophy and theology is necessary. Things come up now and then—errors, misconceptions, new developments, attacks on the Faith—and it’s an advantage to be able to say something articulate on whatever the specific point is. If you can’t you’re likely to give up whole fields of life.
So it seems that organized power and organized knowledge are necessary as well as dangerous. The Orthodox East, it seems, has tended to take opposing approaches to the two situations. In the case of power, it identified the overall political structure (the Empire) with the Christian community, and placed it under the command of the Emperor, who was viewed as Christ’s representative. In the case of knowledge, it rejected that kind of overall comprehensive organization. There is no such thing as an Eastern Orthodox university: instead, monasteries taught specifically spiritual subjects while other subjects—classical literature and whatnot—were traditionally the province of private scholars.
The Catholic West was more systematic and took the same approach with knowledge as with power. It accepted that each has its own nature and relative autonomy, but it’s also part of the whole so it’s also religious. In each case the religious aspect is supported by some sort of supervision from the hierarchy headed by the Pope, who as infallible (under certain conditions) and head of his own state is independent of institutional power and knowledge.
My impression is that throughout the first millennium the East took the Pope’s views on doctrinal issues very seriously. If he didn’t go along on some issue, that was a very big problem. To my mind that suggests implicit recognition of the necessity of a this-worldly spiritual authority not subject to the power of the Emperor.
However that may be, both East and West have problems now. Christendom is no more. Institutional power and knowledge are anti-Christian and increasingly anti-human. It turned out that neither approach guaranteed good results.
Still, there is hope for the future. Claims that the state can be independent of understandings of the Good, Beautiful, and True have become more accepted in governing circles, but less persuasive to anyone willing to consider reason and evidence. And as institutional expertise becomes less and less like knowledge, the point of credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I may know”) becomes more and more obvious. (That point is now commonly recognized in the degraded form of claims that all knowledge is arbitrary or based on power relations or whatever.)
It seems then that serious political thought, and the pursuit of knowledge by those who actually want knowledge, is likely increasingly to involve recognition of their limits and their dependence on something higher. The future belongs to the anti-moderns. The question then is which form of anti-modernism makes most sense and seems most likely to turn out best.