“God” and monotheism

I have found the concept of god to be useful, regardless of whether one is a theist or atheist; God as a concept has a long history in Western philosophy, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. But in order for the concept of god to be useful, you can’t have an anachronistic understanding of god.

These days, a typical anachronistic understanding of god is one where “god” is equated with the God of conservative and traditional Christians. Christian theologians have used many ancient Greek philosophical concepts to build widely varying theologies over the past two thousand years, and while it is usually clear that someone like Aristotle was not a Christian, it’s easy to forget that Aristotle was also not a monotheist.

Yet in his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously refers to the “unmoved mover,” which Western tradition has typically equated with the Christian God. If Aristotle was not a monotheist, what then did he mean by the “unmoved mover”? Amod Lele explains in a post on his blog “Love of All Wisdom”:

“Some translations of Aristotle have him referring to capital-G ‘God,’ but this is misleading. What these translations render as ‘God’ is to theos, literally meaning ‘the god,’ in lowercase in the Greek. The ‘the’ in ‘the god’ is used here in a generic sense, as classical Greek so often does — a universalized singular to represent the plural class of particulars, as when they might make general statements about what ‘the boy’ or ‘the dog’ is likely to do. Plato in the Laws, for example, said ‘Of all animals, the boy is the most unmanageable’; it is a classical Greek idiom that could also be translated ‘Of all animals, boys are the most unmanageable.’ If we were to render to theos as ‘God,’ then this passage should instead be rendered ‘Of all animals, Boy is the most unmanageable.'”

Thus, according to Lele’s reading, when Aristotle speaks of the something that is often translated “God,” what he really means is “the gods.” To say Aristotle was a monotheist would be an anachronistic assertion; Aristotle was clearly a polytheist who acknowledged several gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, etc.). Lele, citing Richard Bodeus’ book Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, writes:

“Aristotle mentions ‘the god,’ the generic term for the plural gods, only as an analogy to help illustrate his point (against Plato) that the unmoved mover has a real presence in the physical world rather than being an abstraction.”

The useful aspect of the concept of god is not so much in metaphysics, but in ethics. How do I lead the best life? In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the highest good is contemplation — not contemplation of the Christian god, but perhaps contemplation of the highest good. Lele reads the Nichomachean Ethics in this way:

“…There is a supreme good beyond the finite, but that good is not to reach a final end identified with the goodness of a single god. Rather it is to be godlike, to live the kind of infinite life that the many gods live — and it is quite questionable how achievable Aristotle intends this goal to be for humans.”

What I find most interesting about this discussion is that “god,” in the Western tradition, need not mean the Christian God. (Even if “god” could be equated with the Christian God, Christianity is wildly diverse with so many different understandings of the nature of the Christian God, that you couldn’t assume that “god” meant what the conservative United States Christians of early twenty-first century mean.) Mind you, it may be difficult for many Westerners to think beyond the confines of Christian definitions of God; but doing so can provide access to the philosophical tool kits of Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus, Spinoza, and many others.

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.

Your CEO has already earned more than you

According to the BBC:

The date of 4 January is marked as the day when CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies already earn what it takes an average worker to make in a year. But British CEOs are not the only ones who out-earn their workers so quickly. An analysis of the wage gap between CEOs and workers in 22 countries by the financial and media company Bloomberg shows that executives in the United States and India can get the average worker’s yearly wage even faster.

In Great Britain, CEOs make 201 times the average workers salary; in the United States, they make 265 times as much as the average worker. So if you live in the U.S., Great Britain, or India, your CEO may already have made two or three times your annual salary.

Silicon Valley has a high concentration of CEOs living here (that is, one of their many houses is located here). We also have a heck of a lot of homelessness here — people living in RVs, people couch surfing, people living in tent encampments, people living on the street, people living in homeless shelters — because of the high cost of housing, which has been driven sky-high in part by demand from people who have lots of money to spend on housing.

Which means if we want to solve the homelessness problem, it’s not enough to build more housing (the supply-side solution). Cutting CEO salaries, and the salaries of all the top 1/10%, is a good first step; Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, is not worth $40 million a year, nor does she need that much money, nor does she deserve it when her salary means that lots of people have to live on the street.

This also means that it’s not enough for Democrats to get angry with Donald Trump. The Democrats have been trying to ally themselves to Silicon Valley, but in terms of inequality of wealth the Silicon Valley execs are just as evil as Mr. Trump.