Thursday, September 10, 2015

The “Loving Society” and Category Error

In 1949’s The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle gives this example

“One day a girl visited a college campus. After seeing buildings, teachers, students, and dorms, she looked at the tour guide and sweetly asked, ‘This is all nice, but when do I get to see the university?’ ”

Now I don’t agree with Ryle on too much, but he deserves credit for coining the expression that describes what is wrong with the girl’s thinking in this story. The mistake she makes is called a category error. She has seen buildings, teachers, students and dorms, and thinks a “university” is just one more item in the same category or on the same level as these things. She fails to grasp that all these elements make up the university. The university itself is in a different category.

Christians and unbelievers alike are susceptible to category error.

Prophets of a Just Society

In Prophets of a Just Society, Jake C. Miller writes about social change. He says Martin Luther King recalled the biblical admonition, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you”, and understood it to mean that those who fought for a righteous cause must not only refrain from physical violence against their opponents, but must also bear whatever suffering they are forced to endure without hate.

Similarly, writer Brian Lucas asks “What Happened to our ‘Loving Society?” 

But “just society” and “loving society” are category errors. They ascribe the qualities of individuals to something in a different category; something that cannot truly possess qualities at all.

Society cannot love, any more than society can hate. A collective cannot be “just” except in the sense that the individuals within it may behave justly. No society is more than the aggregate of many disparate individuals. It can have no identity beyond that of its component parts. We can only form our impression of a society, if we do so at all, by averaging the conduct of its best behaving individuals with the conduct of its worst behaving. If there are more of the former, we may call the society “loving” or “just”. If there are more of the latter, we may call it dysfunctional or worse.

The character of the society, if we can speak of it at all, cannot be contemplated aside from the character of its constituent parts, which is to say you and me. And it is only at the level of individual character — not just outward conduct — that society may be addressed.

Rules, Rules and More Rules

The Jewish law in the Lord Jesus’ day was based around the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, to which numerous traditions and subregulations were added. Yet somehow those rules failed to turn Judea into a utopia. Today in America, things are much worse. Jeanine Cali says tallying the current number of federal laws in force is “nearly impossible”. There are in excess of 20,000 laws governing the use of guns alone. The number of rules grows exponentially as U.S. society slides into the abyss. It may be reasonably argued that some of the more recent laws actively discourage moral behavior.

No matter the number, laws alone do not produce love or justice. Thus any hope that a “loving society” or a “just society” might be created legislatively rests on historical illiteracy. All attempts to improve society must begin in the hearts of individual men. History demonstrates over and over that legislation is powerless to do that job.

John Lennon imagined no possessions and no religion. Marx theorized about something similar. The implementation of such speculations through organizational means, however, has led to some of the greatest and most comprehensive societal injustices in human history.

The Lord Jesus and Social Reform

All this is merely theory, but it may serve to account for the remarkable fact that the Lord Jesus nowhere tried to reform first century Jewish or Roman society, notwithstanding the way his words are frequently distorted by those who seek to make use of them for their own agendas today — and of course, by those who make category errors.

If Jesus Christ sought to reform society, it was by very indirect means. He proposed no grand political theories. He sought no changes in law — not even religious law — though he condemned the way some incorrectly applied the law.

The statement “love your enemies” has nothing to do with the battlefield, or even with social reform. The entire context reads like this:
“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Notice he does not say to love our enemies in order to make the world a better place, nor to ensure that we do not use the same tactics as our enemies and become like them, nor even because of the Golden Rule. No, the reason he gives is “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”. There is no suggestion here that by loving one’s enemies, sonship is somehow earned and conferred. Rather, the Lord is concerned that those who claim to be his disciples accurately represent the family to which they claim membership. The Believers Bible Commentary puts it pithily:
“He was not saying that this was the way to become sons of God; rather, it is how we show that we are God’s children.”
“Love your enemies” is not a recipe for social reform so much as it is the natural response of those who are God-like in their love.

It Begins With Me

God sends rain on the just and the unjust; his children should be equally indiscriminate in our exceptionally decent behavior toward all around us. But this is very much a command to individual disciples. It has to do with who we greet and how we choose to treat those we may have reason to bear a grudge against. It has nothing to do with collective behavior or the laws of society.

Now certainly a society in which all members consistently followed this principle would be an enviable and desirable society in which to live; there is no arguing that. But there is no suggestion that such a transformation is possible or even likely in the Lord’s teaching. We are to love our enemies not because of any potential benefit to us or even to society, but because if we are truly his children, we will delight in doing the things our Father does.

Whenever we blame or credit our society, church or government for the state of men and women, we are making a category error. Other than by personification, societies, churches and governments can be neither loving nor just.

But Christians can.

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