Last week, I wrote about how the four forces of civilization – art, religion, science and law – have a civilizing effect on society. This week, in this era of political divide, I want to explore these four forces further.
The builders of the Pennsylvania Statehouse inscribed quotes detailing the four civilizing forces on the four pillars holding up the statehouse dome. Their artwork was exquisite, only surpassed by the deep wisdom contained within each inscription. However, while these artisans’ work remains unblemished after 100 years, our practice of the four civilizing pillars have eroded with time.
When it comes to today’s art, there is plenty of colorful style, but little meaningful substance. Art seems widely revered, but what passes for art is changing. One of the primary purposes for artists is to try something new and break down barriers, but contemporary art is actually less bold and more conforming than it was even 20 or 30 years ago.
Consider the design of new cars. They all look the same. Automobiles used to be motorized works of art. Some will say the homogenized appearance is due to aerodynamics, but I don’t buy it. New cars look alike because manufacturers are scared to go out on a limb and try something radical.
It’s the same mentality with popular art and music, which looks and sounds similar. There are few artists really breaking the mold. They try to sell themselves as unique to the buying public, but the only daring artist I see today is Ai Weiwei from China. He’s willing to be jailed and die for his counter-cultural, truth-telling art. Most American art is aimed at making a name or buck for the artist, not for making a change in viewers’ minds and hearts.
When it comes to religion, the builders of Pennsylvania’s Statehouse pillars would be shocked. For the last 20 years the Catholic Church has been swallowed by one of the worst evils imaginable – the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests. This unconscionable sin against children and God is going to be the ruin of the Catholic Church, if it isn’t already. We’re seeing a contraction of churches and Catholic schools, and that deserved dwindling of membership will no doubt continue.
In Protestantism, we’re witnessing a similarly sexually based unravelling. The question of whether the New Testament God “affirms” and “welcomes” homosexuality or whether the Old Testament deity still considers it an abomination is the preoccupying and dividing topic of our time. One either believes the Bible and the references to homosexuality being a sin or one believes the experts of today who say homosexuality is programmed from birth and following those urges is necessary for inner peace. It’s a difficult question sowing division like no other religious topic.
In science, division is rampant among scientists and the public, especially when it comes to climate change. I grew up in the 1970s, when so-called experts were warning of global cooling, so pardon me if I don’t get too excited about the current talk of global warming.
But those warning of man-made climate change tell us we only have 10 years before something terrible will happen. What they forget to tell us is their “science” is based on a “consensus of experts,” as if consensus is scientific.
Even laymen like me know “scientific consensus” is an oxymoron and requires less rigor than Newton’s scientific method. But we “climate deniers” are mocked for saying the emperor has no clothes. Science, unfortunately, is by consensus in modern America, which means knowledge is whatever credentialed scholars think it is, not what scientific discovery says it is.
Lastly, the modern practice of law is being bowled over by politics. There is no equality under the law. Special interests matter more. Moneyed interests matter more. Underpinning this erosion of blind justice is a popular culture that stratifies the populace according to race, gender and religion. So-called “identity politics” is at the root of everything, from college acceptance to hate crimes, and no longer do character and ability mean more than color and gender.
The four pillars of American society are definitely under stress. But have no fear, they were in 1906 when construction of the impressive Pennsylvania Statehouse was completed. Just as people of all stripes and beliefs came together to build that magnificent capitol, it takes all kinds to build a successful American community.
In the end, it’s the pursuit of a perfect union that binds us together, not actually having a perfect union. We can stand divided, but each of us needs to be willing to still seek and be open to truth and logic, rather than reflexively aligning with what’s politically or socially acceptable.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.