Monthly Archives: June 2014

Puritans and Neo-Puritans

24252623_sIn the discussion on my last post, I used a term, “neo-Puritanism,” that provoked some confusion. To try to address that, I’m going to write something on the original Puritans, who they were, what they believed, and what happened as a result, and how those I’m calling “neo-Puritan” merit the term even though they’re often not Christian, nor anti-sexual killjoys.

That’s how we tend to think of the Puritans today, and there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t do justice to the movement, which was far more complex and interesting than that. It’s also common to think of the Puritans as conservative, and that they most certainly were not. They were quite progressive, in fact, even radical in many cases.

Puritanism strictly speaking was a movement within English Protestant Christianity in the 17th century. Properly so called, only these English people should be considered Puritans, although there were comparable movements happening on the continent at the same time. Puritanism was a continuation of the Reformation impulse that had disrupted European Christianity a century earlier. It was deeply Christian, but not in an orthodox way (the Puritans challenged the orthodoxy of the time). It was highly moralistic and sought to perfect human behavior, or come as close to that as possible. And it was strongly egalitarian, rejecting the privileges and pretenses of the titled nobility and asserting that all were equal in the sight of God.

Puritanism had an immense impact on the history of both England and America. In England, the movement led to political opposition to the rule of King Charles I and in support of Parliament, to the English Civil War, and to the temporary overthrow of the monarchy and Charles’ deposition and execution. In America, a small subset of the Puritans who had removed themselves from the ongoing political struggles in the home country built a religious experiment in what is now New England, founding settlements that would seek to create a perfect Christian society, and would powerfully influence the course of American history up to and through the drive for independence and the movement to abolish slavery.

It’s important to understand that the Puritans were a far remove from today’s right-wing fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who, on the surface, seem to share some of their specific religious beliefs. In today’s terms, we would say that their impulses came from the left, not the right. They were quite scholarly people as well, believing strongly in education, and their views of Christian morality were the antithesis of narrow-minded. They were indeed anti-sexual by modern standards, but that was only a part of their moral convictions. They condemned greed, oppression, wanton violence, and the inequalities and injustices built into English society much more fiercely than they condemned sexual misbehavior.

I find it easy to feel sympathetic towards the Puritans, even though I’m not Christian and disagree with many of the particulars of Puritan belief. I understand the impulse to perfect society, to correct its inequities and create institutions that reflect sound morality and a spirit of love and benevolence. I understand the value of equality. If the Puritans could take a look at today’s society, they would surely condemn the greed and arrogance of our modern capitalists at least as strongly as they condemned the British noble class. (They’d also be horrified at the open sexuality of today’s Europe and America, but never mind that.) Many of the spiritual sentiments expressed in posts on this blog from time to time would find a nodding acceptance among the Puritans, especially the rejection of religious authority and the assertion that each person must find the truth for himself or herself, in personal experience of the All. They would put that in different language than I do, but it would come down to the same thing.

On a spiritual and religious level, Puritanism should be seen, in my opinion, as a net positive. But as a political movement, it was an abject failure, until some of its impulses were taken up by other, more secular approaches to politics. In England, the overthrow of Charles I led not to a republic but to a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled like a king but called himself the Lord Protector. After Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored under Charles II, and except for the death and destruction the movement might as well never have happened at all. It did, however, establish certain ideas about equality and universal representation in English politics which would resurface later with more lasting effect, and Charles I was also the last English monarch to make an attempt at absolutist rule. His fate cautioned all of his successors.

In America, the New England colonies morphed over a few generations from experiments in religious perfection into ordinary societies with commerce, industry, and all of the normal human failings of the time. New England merchants were important factors in the slave trade, something Puritans would, and their spiritual descendants did, condemn ferociously.

Eventually, movements in both countries took up some of the values of the Puritans and made them workable. Today’s English monarchy has been stripped of almost all its power, remaining a figurehead and a tourist attraction, while the British nobility has seen its privileges disappear over the years. In America, the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence is surely “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” a decidedly Puritan idea even though Jefferson took most of his thinking from the Enlightenment.

But the only way that these movements could succeed was by removing the goals from the impulse to religious perfection of human behavior that defined the Puritan movement. When the goal was to eradicate sin, the movement could not succeed. When it became something more definable and secular, it did.

And that brings me round to those I’m referring to as “neo-Puritans.” Neo-Puritans share with the original Puritans not their Christianity (necessarily) and certainly not the anti-sexuality that we sometimes mistakenly call “Puritanism,” but their impulse to perfect human behavior and to suppress and eliminate sin — as neo-Puritans understand “sin,” which may sometimes differ from the way the original Puritans thought of it. Neo-Puritans today may be environmentalists, feminists, or economic egalitarians. They see the behavior of human beings, particularly the wealthy and powerful, towards nature or towards one another, as worthy of condemnation. As with the original Puritans, we must acknowledge that they have a point. But the political failure of the Puritan movement should caution us against trying to translate that religious, spiritual, and moral impulse into politics, except with strong secular filters.

The perfection of human character is a spiritual goal and should be approached with spiritual means: individual, not collective; self-directed, not imposed from without; and something each individual and each generation must gain anew. Politics must assume, if it is to be successful, an imperfect human character, and create policies that work in spite of this. We may achieve a sustainable economy, or equal rights between genders, or a living income for all. But we will not achieve through politics (and nature won’t do it for us, either) an end to the desire to consume, or to misogyny, or to greed.

Copyright: ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo

Leave a comment

Filed under Spirituality

On Optimism In Fiction

10034764_sIn fantasy, and perhaps even more so in science fiction, there’s been a tendency in the recent past to make the vision as dark and dismal as possible, viewing the future and the possibilities inherent in the human condition with dour pessimism and a belief that nothing ever improves. Depictions of a future society in which any of our current problems are solved, in which people live more egalitarian lives, in which corporate interests don’t dominate and control all functions of government, in which we have a sustainable society with respect to the natural world or one in which war has been abolished, are seen in many quarters as naïve, utopian, and unrealistic.

What’s actually unrealistic, though, is the belief that the problems we have today won’t be solved, and that we’ll still be facing them hundreds of years from now. That isn’t realism. It’s a failure of the imagination and also reflects a very poor understanding of history.

Hundreds of years ago, whole economies in the richest and most powerful of nations were founded on slavery. Today, slavery still exists but only in poor and backward countries and on the fringes and margins of the economy, such as in the sex trade. Workers in mainstream industries today are coerced by subtler means and much better rewarded for their work than slaves ever were.

Hundreds of years ago, the government was not only influenced by the rich and powerful, but actually restricted by law to those who were born into privileged families and held titles of nobility. Today, that isn’t true even in countries where titles of nobility still exist.

Hundreds of years ago, women were regarded as the property of men, either of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their male relatives or in some cases of religious institutions such as convents, which were part of organized religious structures that were run by men (even if the convents themselves were often run by women). Today, while we still have a ways to go to achieve true gender equality, that attitude is no longer accepted and mainstream.

Hundreds of years ago, war was not only constant but regarded as normal, noble, heroic, and necessary to build national character and the strength and dedication of each new generation of youth. In fact, that attitude persisted until a mere hundred years ago. (It was the First World War that put an end to it.)

A person from the world of a few hundred years ago, magically transported by a wizard’s spell or a time machine to today’s world and looking around, would on first impression think he had entered Heaven. No constant war? No grasping nobility? Enough to eat even for the poorest people? Men can’t rape their wives with impunity? Why, this is a perfect world!

Of course, on closer acquaintance he would discover that problems still exist. They’re just different problems than the ones he was used to. But because we are always focused on the problems we have before us, the idea that those problems might some day be solved seems utopian. It’s what we hope for, or cynically fear to hope. And yet nothing is more likely than that they will someday be solved. And so do depict a future world in fiction where such problems persist isn’t realistic, but just the opposite.

That’s particularly true of the two problems that threaten the survival of civilization today. One of these is war. The other is unsustainable exploitation of the environment. It’s not unrealistic to say that these problems may not be solved. But it is completely unrealistic to depict a future society in which they still confront us. If they are not solved, our civilization will cease to exist. Therefore, any future society will either be one in which they are solved — or it will not exist. And that in turn means that a fictional portrayal of a more advanced society than our own, either human or non-human, must be a peaceful and ecologically sustainable one, not because the future will turn us virtuous (although in fact it may), but because any civilization that survives to become substantially more advanced than ours is one that has solved these problems.

Which brings me to my own Refuge series, which I characterize as both fantasy and science fiction, and which includes two fictional alien species, the Andol and the Droon, who destroyed each other in an interstellar war and some of whom have reincarnated on Earth as human beings. In some ways these are personified good and evil creatures. The Andol are egalitarian, benevolent (if often ruthless and manipulative), and have attitudes that are socially and culturally more advanced than any but the most enlightened of human beings. The Droon are just the opposite: elitist, thoroughly nasty (they like to subject their inferiors to years of torture just for fun and games), and bent on reducing humanity to a race of slaves and pain toys. Some might see both races (I suspect: especially the Andol) as unrealistic. I contend otherwise. It all comes down to the fact that those two problems, war and environmental stress, must be solved for an advanced civilization to survive. But there is more than one way for a society to reach that point. There are in fact at least two. One of the Andol describes this as follows:

A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . .

But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green . . .

We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed.

There might also be other ways besides these two. But the point here is that depicting a future (or alien) society in either of these modes isn’t unrealistic at all, but shows two ways in which a society can survive to become advanced.

The only thing that is quite unrealistic is depicting a future (or alien) society that is exactly like our own in its fundamentals. We can be absolutely confident that that, at least, will not happen.

Copyright: annmei / 123RF Stock Photo


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling