One True Path

Reason                  -          Nature
One                       -          Many
Clear                     -          Complex
Transcendent         -          Immanent

Niebuhr found another example of this misguided search for unity - for an "absolute perspective which transcends the conflict” between competing loyalties - in Dewey's little book on religion, A Common Faith (1934).

Niebuhr considered Dewey's plea for a "religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race" as an attempt to “eliminate conflict and unite men of good will everywhere by stripping their spiritual life of historic, traditional, and supposedly anachronistic accretions." Dewey's position exemplified the "faith of modern rationalism in the ability of reason to transcend the partial perspectives of the natural world in which reason is rooted."

Liberals like Dewey mistakenly put their faith in moral suasion, education, and the scientific method. They imagined that “with a little more time, a little more adequate moral and social pedagogy and a generally higher development of human intelligence, our social problems will approach solution."

Dewey did not understand that competing loyalties were rooted in "something more vital and immediate than anachronistic religious traditions.” The fervor they evoked could not be modified or resolved, as Dewey seemed to think, by a "small group of intellectuals" who enjoyed the "comparative neutrality and security of the intellectual life."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.370, 375

Niebuhr distinguished prophetic religion not only from scientific rationality, which cannot justify hope, but from mystical religion, which cannot justify it either, except by turning its back on the "facts of incoherence.”

If science dismissed the existence of moral order and coherence in history as an illusion, mysticism dismissed the natural world itself as an illusion, together with the whole course of human history. For the mystic, reality dwelled in the timeless realm of pure essence, the contemplation of which, undistracted by unruly historical facts, became the goal of religious aspiration.

Mysticism, according to Niebuhr, was rationalism's mirror image. It carried the “rational passion for unity and coherence to the point where the eye turns from the outward scene, with its recalcitrant facts and stubborn variety, to the inner world of spirit."

The prophetic tradition found moral significance in history (since history is under God's judgment) without denying the reality of incoherence and evil. The achievement of the “prophetic movement in Hebraic religion," Niebuhr wrote, lay in its ability “to purge its religion of the parochial and puerile weaknesses of its childhood without rationalizing it and thus destroying the virtue of its myth."

His reference to the “virtue” of the prophetic myth, when we recall the rich associations and multiple meanings of the term, provides the clearest indication of the meaning of mythology, as Niebuhr understood it.

In the prophetic tradition, virtue is the truth that breaks the cycle of excessive optimism and disillusionment. It asserts the goodness of life without denying the evidence that would justify despair. Thus "Hebrew spirituality," Niebuhr argued, "was never corrupted by either the optimism which conceived the world as possessing unqualified sanctity and goodness or the pessimism which relegated historic existence to a realm of meaningless cycles.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.372

In policy evaluation, “there is never a point at which the thinking, research, and action is 'objective' or 'unbiased’. It is partisan through and through, as are all human activities, in the sense that the expectations and priorities of those commissioning and doing the analysis shape it, and in the sense that those using the information shape its interpretation and application.”

The top-down models of policy evaluation and formulation do not suggest that elites never disagree about public policy. Elites may share a consensus about goals and values yet disagree on how to achieve them [...] Foundations sometimes fund studies that make conflicting policy recommendations, and think tanks compete with one another for preeminence in policymaking [...] And it is unlikely that there ever was a society in which elites did not compete among themselves for power and preeminence.

But interelite conflict and competition takes place within a broader consensus on the goals of public policy, especially economic growth, global expansion, and the protection of corporate enterprise [...] Disagreement occurs over the means rather than the ends of public policy.

It is the shared consensus among elites over the fundamental values of American society that allows public policy to be guided by “the intelligence of democracy." Political scientist Charles E. Lindblom explains the intelligence of democracy: “Strategic analysis and mutual adjustment among political participants, then, are the underlying processes by which democratic systems achieve the level of intelligent action that they do."

"The staid and dignified policy-formation process is very different from the helter-skelter special-interest process. ... It appears as disinterested and fairminded as the special-interest process seems self-seeking and biased."

The foundations, think tanks, and policy planning organizations generally try to remain above partisan politics. Their tax-exempt status under Section 501C3 of the Internal Revenue Code requires that they remain nonpartisan, that they do not endorse political candidates, and that their policy recommendations be presented as “civic and educational” activities.

They describe themselves as “independent,” “nonpartisan,” “objective,” “problem-solving,” and “public-spirited.”

But strategic analysis and mutual adjustment - the keys to intelligent policymaking - cannot develop in the absence of agreement on fundamental values.

[Thomas R. Dye]
Top Down Policymaking, p.63-4, 174

Science's goal of ultimate law and ultimate level also reflects the prevailing notion in the West of a single, unified deity.

Rather than seeking a single, most fundamental ground, the Native mind prefers to dance among the ever-changing movements of a living, subtle nature. Harmony and balance must accommodate change and the activities of the trickster.

[…] Native science works with a multiplicity of symbols, images, and stories. There is no single, unique reading to a story, but rather many enfolded and interpenetrating levels, none of which needs be thought of as being more fundamental than any other. Understanding comes from a direct experience of the dance between these levels of meaning.

In this sense, understanding within Indigenous science has something in common with Niels Bohr's notion of complementarity. Bohr's complementarity states that a single consistent description will never exhaust the meaning of what is happening at the quantum level. Rather, what is required are a number of complementary, mutually contradictory descriptions.

An electron is described as being both delocalized and wavelike, but also localized and particlelike. Likewise, the meaning of a traditional story depends upon a variety of contexts and can be unfolded in a variety of ways.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.262, 264

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