Following up on my post about responsibility and goodwill, I feel compelled to write on what will perhaps seem to many an outdated idea, namely that collectivities of persons can go through progress and decline. "Progress" has a very simple meaning for Lonergan: genuine insights, good judgments, and responsible decisions build one upon another, such that society is organized and technology is created so as to objectively improve conditions for as many people as possible. Decline is the opposite: oversight, bad judgment, and irresponsible decisions compound each other such that society becomes fragmented, technology that could alleviate suffering is not developed, etc.
The grand scheme of history has seen a general trend towards technological progress, and I would argue also intellectual, social, and moral progress as well. Once we had barely mastered the wheel, now we can send people to the moon. Once we thought that the sun went around the world and was perhaps a personal deity, now we know that we orbit the sun and it lacks personhood. Once our societies were ruled over by the man with the biggest club, now we have at least the semblance of democratic institutions. Once we had no notions of human rights, now we have international treaties and organizations devoted to these matters. It's not perfect, of course, and the potential of many of these more salutary developments remain underrealized, but yet it seems to me that as a species we have achieved quite a lot in a very short time. And that's a good thing.
Yet we are live in a period of obvious decline. The events of this summer have driven this home. Yes, we have tremendous technology, but we use it to kill, whether by shooting unarmed teenagers, or bombing civilians, or engaging in acts of genocide, or systematically turning off the water to people living in the world's largest economy. Our democratic and international structures have largely broken down. Large swathes of the planet have been and continue to be economically and ecologically devastated in order to sustain an unsustainable concentration of capital into the hands of an increasing few. This devastation was once largely limited to what we here in what we call the West call another world--viz., the Third--but now it's in our backyards. Water shut-offs due to ecological and economic concerns are becoming a fact of life for many people living in the world's largest economy. Our cities are turning into war zones. And truthfully none of this is new: it's simply reaching the point that the average citizen of the West can no longer pretend that it isn't happening or that, if it is, it's happening over there.
Lonergan identifies "bias" as the engine of decline, specifically what he calls general and group biases. General bias occurs when a community systematically ignores the reality that certain questions call for appropriate expertise. Instead they try to answer all questions via "common sense." So it is that persons with no training in the sciences think that they can declare virtually all scientists to be in error when they say that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of species. So it is that persons with no training in New Testament studies think that they can declare virtually all New Testament scholars to be in error when they say that Jesus most certainly existed. So it is that politicians can ignore the warnings of specialists in various areas when they say that this or that policy will have disastrous effects. The inevitable result is bad policy compounding bad policy.
Coupled with this is group bias. Group bias is concerned only with what is good for my group. So what if a couple thousand Palestinian civilians have been killed if I'm not Palestinian? So what if some people in West Africa have died of a horrible disease if I'm not West African? Oh, wait--someone from country has died of that illness? OMG! We must take action, now!--but that action must be focused upon ensuring it does not come, and only if curing the disease over there will help achieve that end will I support sending aid. Christians are now being threatened in Iraq? The world must act! Oh, some Shiites have also been slaughtered and in danger? Meh. Things are going well? It must be the other party's fault...can't possibly be mine. That (which is obviously all stated tongue-in-cheek and does not reflect my actual views on the matters) is group bias. And it's just silliness that leads to inane, short-sighted, inhumane, collective decisions.
The problem we face right now is that we are not addressing these biases. We are treating symptom after symptom, but cannot treat the disease until we recognize that it consists on the one hand of a parochialism that allows people to neglect the tremendous untapped intellectual resources that could potentially reverse the decline through better insights, judgments, and decisions, and on the other of a provincialism that leaves us convinced that our own group's self-interest is the only one of legitimate concern.
What is academia's role in all this? The scholar's role should be clear: it is to continue doing the work of scholarship, to build up reservoirs of genuine insights and good judgments, such that if and when society begins to purge itself from general bias and seek the expertise of qualified experts there will be such expertise ready at hand. In NT studies we are concerned specifically with generating genuine insights and good judgments about first and foremost the New Testament, with ancillary interests in the HB/OT and a variety of cognate works. Given the extent to which global culture is shaped directly or indirectly by a Christian heritage it stands to reason that this heritage will likely be part of the solution to general and group bias. Exactly how that might look, and how we might contribute to that process, is left to be determined, but ultimately perhaps our greatest contributions, if any we are to make, will be in the area of moral reasoning. And to think of that is both terrifying and exhilarating.