Wednesday, February 9, 2011

All That is Solid Melts into Air

Commenting on the constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation [that] distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones, Karl Marx famously wrote, All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. [Communist Manifesto, 1848]

Perhaps it really is an inevitable characteristic of modernity’s self-induced social disruptions and moral unraveling, but it seems to me that people increasingly seem to be having a harder and harder time accepting that anything can be ever be settled. Once upon a time, elections and the legislative process in democracies and authoritative pronouncements in religion were seen as appropriate vehicles for settling certain matters. Nowadays, however, the losing side on any controverted question seems less and less willing to accept that the matter has been settled. All that is solid melts into air seems like an increasingly fitting description for our loss of that fundamental requirement for an community that some things be accepted as settled.

Of course, the fact that an issue may have been “settled” does not guarantee that it has been settled in the best way possible – let alone justly. There certainly are circumstances when one would feel justified – even obligated – to press on in opposition. The war in Europe was de facto "settled" in Germany’s favor in 1940 – except for the United Kingdom’s obstinate insistence on continuing the fight (for which we subsequent generations of beneficiaries ought to be eternally grateful).The claim of a constitutional right to abortion was similarly “settled” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 – except in the minds and hearts of millions of Americans who have refused to become collaborators (even passively) in the legalized slaughter of millions of unborn children. Certainly there some “settled” questions that should not be treated as such.

A democratic political process makes provision for revisiting previous decisions. Laws can be amended - and even repealed. The U.S. Constitution itself can be amended – and (as happened once in the last century) an amendment may itself then be repealed. But these are largely exceptions to the general pattern. Exceptions there will always be; but, in a successfully fucntioning democratic polity, such exceptions must always be seen as precisely that - exceptions to the norm. The norm is that elections are taken as decisive, and that they have consequences for policy. Prolonged challenges to electoral results and to the presumptive legitimacy of democratically elected officials damage the process – and thus the polity. A democratic political culture, of course, must allow for dissent and provide vehicles for policy change, but it also presupposes a willingness to live with political outcomes that one has opposed.

Something similar seems to be at work in the religious realm – where the issue is not one of democratic legitimacy but of religious authority. Take for example, the negativity in certain quarters concerning the new English translation of the Roman Missal, set to be implemented in the U.S. this coming Fall. It’s not a matter of doctrine. So, one is certainly free to dislike the translation and to prefer another or even the present one. But that a new translation has been approved and is scheduled to be implemented is at this point a settled matter - settled by those who have the authority in the community to make such decisions. Nonetheless, one keeps hearing the same arguments raised over and over, as if nothing had been settled – as if nothing can ever be taken as settled. Such negativity can hardly have beneficial effects on the experience of worship and the life of the community. (Especially pernicious, it seems to me, are criticisms that focus on the process, rather than on the substance of the translation itself. One hears, for example, how this is a top-down maneuver, imposed upon ordinary people in the pews, destabilizing people’s established habits of worship, with little evidence of any popular demand for such a change – all of which ignores the fact the present translation, which such critics are presumptively defending, itself was imposed in much the same way.)

The constant undermining of democratic legitimacy in civil society and of religious authority in church communities can only further weaken the bonds that hold a community together and enable it best to fulfill its social purpose or its religious mission.

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