Monday, October 12, 2009

Musings on Lack of Clarity in Primary Documents

I've complained aplenty over the years about the lack of clarity in the primary documents written by George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm.

Big issue I've had with Ripley has been his failure to define terms.

I guess it's the usual issue with human communication, though. Everyone in a conversation or argument believes all the participating parties share the same definitions and communication conventions. Then once argument or conversation devolves into semantics, people don't want to continue the interchange unless they're the more clever party or extremely committed to their cause.

I've gotten into reading one of Ripley's inspirations, William Ellery Channing, to try understanding more the intentions of Ripley and Brook Farm. People may not recognize Channing's name these days, but he has influenced a few people with sermons and some of his writings.

Channing's more well known sermons and writings include: “Self Culture” (probably one of the prime influences on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists) and “Slavery”, which argued for the equality of all man and provided an allegedly well thought out argument against slavery based on humans being created in the image of God (even though Channing didn't like disruptive activism). I say allegedly because I haven't read the whole of “Slavery” yet.

Suffice to say, Channing fails to define things clearly through all his sermons and writings that I've had the fortune to read. Channing argues for teaching people a religious and moral education. He doesn't provide a definition for these kinds of education or even what form a religious and moral education should take.

As for the benefit these types of education, they lead to a more stable society and someone less likely to indulge in vice: like excessive drinking, beating family members, sexual licentiousness and so on and so forth. These forms of education also will help the individuals get into heaven and on the good side of God.

The last benefit probably creates the clincher for Channing and his associates. Easy enough to argue that the upper classes could attach themselves to this type of argument because (a) they weren't expected to need the moral and religious educations as much since they had other "social pressures" to worry about, according to the people espousing the need for religious and moral education among some classes of people (see the 7th screen [“screen” meaning number of times scrolled down from the top of the Webpage] in the Preface of Andrews Norton’s A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of the Trinitarians, Concerning the Nature of God and the Person of Christ (1819, 1833, 1859) and (b) if the middling and lower classes bought into the education, they would likely regulate themselves individually or by the family and work hard.

It didn't appeal to the middling and lower classes that much, though. I've tried finding information on why it didn't. I can't find a good argument against this approach by the people championing these middling and lower classes that practiced "infidelity." They either devolved into name calling their enemies aristocrats, citing past scholars for their own stance without any substantial criticism of the opposition, or they spent their energies trying to just open the ears of their opposition to reach enough of an understanding for a substantial debate.

At the same time, though, Channing didn't, in my opinion, make a compelling argument for buying into the moral and religious education. I say this as someone who agrees with him, too, on some level.

Maybe not necessarily the religious side, but I believe that receiving a moral education, learning to regulate and control yourself and trying to enrich the self leads to more fulfillment in life, whether you be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, atheist, agnostic or whatever belief system you subscribe to.

Part of my ambivalence about Channing's arguments for people getting these types of education and fitting into an undefined category for unclear benefits probably comes from my ambivalence about the supposed accepted religious beliefs of the time and also of trying to REALLY understand late 18th-century to early 19th-century America/New England/Boston area.

I generally follow a fairly humanistic empirical scientific theory approach to the world, the universe and metaphysics. There are things that I, as an individual, and the human race knows and understands about existence.

Existence holds a lot that the human race has built understanding around. It also holds a lot that the human race doesn't have an inkling about.

The existence of God, to me, is beyond the understanding of the human race right now. . .or, at least, to me. How do we go about arguing the nature of God, the big issue between the Unitarians of Channing of his time and the Calvinistic Congregationalists at the time, when we can't provide irrefutable proof of God's existence? And how do we know that we are seeing irrefutable proof of God unless we know the nature of God? Creates something of an epistemological catch-22.

These questions, in themselves, beg a whole lot more questions, and those will most certainly beg for even more bigger questions. The number of questions on this topic force my rationality to remain open and wait to see where the facts and human understanding lead us for an answer. Even then, human understanding remains ever fallible and worth questioning to make sure we haven't misunderstood those things that we hold most dear.

Some might call me a skeptic.

So yeah, my ambivalence of the benefit of Channing's argument for unity among people and getting a religious and moral education may stem from my near-instinctual skepticism about nearly all knowledge and understanding, especially anecdotal and subjective knowledge about non-social information.

Social fact deserves skepticism, too. Social existence and relationships among people, however, have a slipperier aspect to them because of their bases in numerous perspectives and behaviors.

Not only that, but us human beings have something of an instinct to rebel against other people categorizing ourselves with social labels. If someone does the categorizing, it will be the person doing it to themselves.

My skeptical ambivalence of Christianity and supernatural rationalism creates a gap the blocks me from seeing the full "story" and "reaching an understanding." Channing, in my opinion, doesn't provide an explanation or purpose to satisfy someone with this kind of ambivalence.

Did this kind of ambivalence exist anywhere in Boston, Massachusetts, New England or the United States at the time? The Deists, including Jefferson and possibly even other founding fathers ((even Washington pretty much went to church more for social graces than anything), held a fair amount of skepticism of the understandings of Christianity previously.

More-orthodox Christians attacked the Unitarianism of the time that they got doctrines wrong, which included Christ not being part of the Holy Trinity. Nonetheless, the Unitarians at that time still believed Christ was on the level of savior.

The Transcendentalists received insults calling them pantheists and un-Christian. The Transcendentalists simply saw Christ as the highest example of man connecting with the Divine, not as being Divine. The majority of the Transcendentalists, however, still had some degree of monotheistic belief, even if somewhat influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

But what did the middle and lowering classes think? They didn't all believe the same thing, obviously. According to George Ripley, , Orestes Brownson along with probably others I don't know believed that Unitarianism didn't appeal to the lower and middling classes because of a complicated theology. I also think that the religion didn't address the concerns of the middle and lowering classes, which I don't even have a clue about.

From my all too brief understanding of those times, the more orthodox Congregationalists of the Massachusetts area appealed more to the lower and middling classes. The orthodox had made a concerted effort, however, by working more often with the Democratic-Republican party.

The business class in Boston practically used the Unitarian movement to get the orthodox Christians out of town. Giving some of the most powerful chairs at Harvard to Unitarians pissed off the orthodox Congregationalists.

A big lawsuit in Dedham that established that the property of a church/parish (a parish was a political/civic district in Boston at the time) was the property of the parish, not the church made things even worse, sending the orthodox out of the city and looking for support elsewhere.

I'll admit: I haven't looked incredibly deep into ALL the different perspectives in the matter. I've been just trying to understand the matter as it directly applies to the guy, George Ripley, and the community, Brook Farm.

Trying to fully understand the matter by looking at all the perspectives scares me. I wouldn't want even more crazy questions to pop up. I'm a bachelor student, not a professional historian!

Nonetheless, I’m pushing through the fear. I’m having to check out other secondary sources. Those sources are easy. . .they tell you practically everything. At the same time, though, they can leave out details that may not support their stance and hypothesis.

Primary sources scare me. I have yet to find an organized way to go through them to find useful information. Maybe I haven’t found the most useful way to look through secondary sources, but at least secondary sources make it clear where they’re going and possibly how they’re connected to each other. Primary sources, though, they don’t always map things out usefully, the author makes a lot of assumptions that I can’t understand immediately and, as I’ve been complaining in this entry, don’t always provide useful context.

And don’t even let me get into primary sources that are handwritten. It’s like translating a foreign language!

I wrote this entry mostly months ago. It’s pretty much a primary source, itself. I fear for a person in the future who might use it to try figuring out me, my personality, my psychology and the context of things around me. As with most primary resources, skepticism must be used and then it probably has to be cross referenced with other primary sources.

It’s a lot of work. . .and, unfortunately, I’m having to teach myself the skills required to use primary sources efficiently. How quaint and precious, eh?
Links of interest: by George Ripley, Brook Farm, William Ellery Channing, “Self Culture”, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Slavery”, Andrews Norton’s, A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of the Trinitarians, Concerning the Nature of God and the Person of Christ (1819, 1833, 1859), supernatural rationalism, Deists, Thomas Jefferson, deist tendencies, even Washington pretty much went to church more for social graces than anything, Transcendentalists, Democratic-Republican party

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