Prime Directive: Save Them Savages.

Without the benefit of anthropology and archaeology it would be difficult indeed to come to North America from Europe in the 19th Century and not wonder where the indigenous people originated. In fact, Europeans imbued with Christian principles and values must have wondered, wherever they went outside of Europe, what could be the origins of all the strange and wondrous human beings they encountered. The clues had to be in the Bible or as logical extensions of ideas expressed in the Bible. They tried hard, but it was tough to deny that indigenous people were not human because they readily mated successfully with European explorers and colonizers all the time. The following is my translation of an excerpt from La Vie de Monseigneur Taché by Dom Benoit. I find it fascinating how the author grapples with the descent of the indigenous people and how these ‘savages’ became so ‘degenerate’. Read on:

On page 47*:

“From  whom do the savages descend? They are men therefore they are descendants of Adam. I might add: Noah was their ancestor and Sem their father as the red or American race is mongoloid, differing less from them as Noah’s three sons differ amongst themselves. It is clear that America was populated by peoples from Asia or even from Northern Europe. Everybody knows how easy it would have been to migrate to America from Asia even if the distant wanderings of these travellers were not supported by means any more sophisticated than those of today. This last proposition seems improbable to me; I am convinced that the savages were more civilized at one time than they are now, that they abased themselves by turning away from traditions that connected them to God, just as they will redeem themselves by accepting the teachings that bring them closer to their maker and to their end.

So, the author concludes that the ‘savages’ were no doubt more civilized at one time but because they turned away from the traditions that kept them attached to the teachings of the Church, they became lost to God. Seems reasonable, I guess, but I’d like to see even just a little evidence. Nevertheless, the only rational way that ‘savages’ could be brought back to God, obviously, is by missionary work. What a job they were tasked by God and the Church to do: bring back the godless savages to the bosom of the Church and to God. Further in the book, the author also warns that the situation is urgent and critical because their work could be thwarted by the ‘methodist’ missionaries who were eager to have the ‘savages’ turn against the Church of Rome. Tough competition required urgent measures and an army of priests had to be deployed as soon as possible between the Red River settlement and the Mississippi. That’s when the archbishop of St. Boniface at the time, Msg. Provencher, appealed to Monseigneur de Mazenod, the bishop of Marseilles and founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to send as many ‘troops’ as possible for the battle ahead. This was in the middle of the 19th Century, before 1853. Travel was treacherous. It took roughly 8 or 9 weeks depending on the weather to cover the 1400 miles from Montréal to St. Boniface by canoe before the railroad was build a few decades later. War can be hell and there is no doubt that the Oblates were tough and disciplined in their urgent mission to save as many ‘savages’ as they could.

*From: La Vie de Monseigneur Taché, Archevêque de St. Boniface by Dom Benoit, Superior of the Regular Canons of the Immaculate Conception of Canada. Published in a limited edition in 1904 by the Librairie Bauchemin, Montréal, Québec.

God is Society or The Collectivity that is ‘I’ Part 2.

Emile Durkheim was the first European to actually hold a ‘chair’ in sociology.  Actually it was in education and sociology because there were no ‘pure’ sociology departments back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was born in 1857 and died in 1917 just before the end of World War I.  There is much in Durkheim that I disagree with but much that I consider brilliant.  I disagree with his reification of society and his notion that a society can either be healthy or ill.  He refers to sociology as social pathology, or the study of what makes society ill.  That’s a bit of a stretch for me.  I’ve been a sociologist for a long time but I’m not sure that ‘society’ exists.  Social relations exist in a myriad of interweavings and interdependencies, but society as a thing?  No, I’m not convinced.  But does that negate his whole ‘oeuvre?’  Not at all.  His Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is quite brilliant and for two important reasons.  First, he argues, based on his studies of Australian aboriginal clans (from his office in France), that religion and society are one and the same thing.  Clan and totemic organization are so intertwined as to be singly incomprehensible.  In a more general sense, he argues that gods are personifications and projections of the society itself.   Projections (which are a complex of moral and behavioural precepts) are then used to judge individuals in the society itself. This makes perfect sense to me.  He’s not the only one who argues similar things, but his argument is prototypical. The second reason is his emphasis on ritual as the application of ‘glue’ that holds us together in our social bonds.  Ritual brings people together in an attempt to strengthen social connections and interdependencies, even when these are built on a foundation of power imbalances and sometimes extreme inequalities.

So, what is the upshot of all of this?  Well, a most important one is that God (or gods)  and all of religious belief and ritual are socially-constructed.   So, as a Christian, when you pray to God you are praying to your society.  In our case, Christianity is fully compatible with the notion of individual responsibility and private property rights.  Christianity has been able over the centuries to adapt to the political and economic engines of the ages and it has served those political and economic interests well.  In saying this I disagree in a sense with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their intractable denial of the existence of God.  I agree with them that there is no God ‘out there’ somewhere looking after each and every one of us.  But God does exist, in the minds, institutions and habits of people all over the world.  In a future blog I address the issue of self-esteem and complete surrender to God which is a driving idea for many Christians.  That notion makes complete sense from the perspective of Durkheim’s work.

Another important lesson arising from engagement with Durkheim’s work is his focus on ritual as a binding force.  As humans we are driven by ritual in our relations with others.  Durkheim argues that the less we are integrated into society by engaging in ritual which must always involve others(fully bound by its morality) the more we are susceptible to suicide.  These are critical concepts for sociology, at least my sociology.