Harvard and a Civilization Built in the Clouds

I am a Star Wars fan, but I am not a Star Wars fanatic. There’s a substantial difference. The biggest difference is that fans appreciate the movies for what they are. Fanatics obsess over what the movies could be. One point that most Star Wars fans agree on is that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the movies. None of the other movies can match it when it comes to dramatic tension and character development. Another reason I like the movie so much is because of how it introduces to us new, interesting people and places. One of those people is Lando Calrissian who is the smooth-talking administrator of the Cloud City on the planet Bespin.

Cloud City is not the most artful name, but it gets the job done. It’s literally a city floating in the clouds. Technically, it’s a tibanna gas mining colony, but it’s weird if you somehow already knew that. One thing that I’ve always wondered is how this city remains afloat. Did gravity not work in the same way on this particular planet? Was there some sort of technology keeping the city floating in the clouds? According to a nerdy Star Wars fan site where people dedicate an impressive amount of time thinking and talking about such absurdities, Cloud City supposedly is 59,000 kilometers above the core of the planet and has 392 levels. The top 50 floors are a luxury resort, so that’s nice. The City is also allegedly kept hovering in mid-air by 36,000 repulsorlift engines and tractor beam generators. Ah yes. Repulsorlifts. That checks out. What kind of fuel do repulsorlifts and tractor beams use? How many people must Lando employ just to keep all that technology humming along? Can you even begin to imagine the amount of energy and labor required to keep an entire city afloat?

I was thinking about Cloud City this morning as I read this article about Harvard University.

Yes, the school founded by Puritans in the 1630s has an atheist, Greg Epstein, as their new chief chaplain. To be fair, the job of chief chaplain is largely administrative. According to the article, his job is to coordinate and work with the more than 40 chaplains of various faith groups on campus. I can recognize a certain logic in Harvard’s choice. Who better to lead an extremely diverse group of religious advisers than someone who is unaffiliated, someone with a vague spirituality detached from any particular religion or God? This seems like exactly the type of decision that a now thoroughly secular institution would think makes sense.

Embedded in the middle of the article is this line that accurately summarizes Epstein’s worldview. “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.” Epstein exists in a world where the shadow of God is cast everywhere. Literally. Harvard is a God-haunted place, yet sorrowfully, God is absent. It’s easy to cast this worldview as hopeful liberation from the confines of ancient superstitions, but the harsh reality is that this is just a cheap veneer painted over an existential crisis lurking at the heart of countless individuals and institutions in what used to be known as western civilization. We are cast off into the world, east of Eden, separated from God, left to fend for ourselves, offering each other merely the pathetic morsels of our own wisdom as guidance.

Philip Rieff in his book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, distinguishes between first, second, and third world cultures. He does not use these classifications in the typical economic way. Instead, he classifies cultures based on their relationship with the sacred order. Sacred order in this sense means something that is transcendent, literally not of this world. The sacred order is that which is beyond ourselves. First world cultures are pagan. They base their moral codes on myths and are governed by fate. Second world cultures are similar in that they base their moral code in a sacred order, but they are not governed by fate as much as by faith. Western civilization before the Enlightenment had gone through a transition from first to second world as Europe moved from paganism to Christianity. The Enlightenment ushered in a new age, a new culture, not built on a sacred order, but instead built upon itself. This is the third world.

Carl Trueman explains the critical difference between these three worlds in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. “First and second worlds thus have a moral, and therefore cultural, stability because their foundations lie in something beyond themselves. To put it another way, they do not have to justify themselves on the basis of themselves. Third worlds, by way of stark contrast to the first and second worlds, do not root their cultures, their social orders, their moral imperatives in anything sacred. They do have to justify themselves, but they cannot do so on the basis of something sacred or transcendent. Instead, they have to do so on the basis of themselves.”

Reiff warns us that this transition from second to third world is perilous for a civilization: “Culture and sacred order are inseparable, the former the registration of the latter as a systemic expression of the practical relation between humans and the shadow aspect of reality as it is lived. No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order. There, cultures have not survived. The third culture notion of a culture that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history.”

A third world culture is a civilization built in the clouds. There is nothing that exists outside of that culture to provide the support needed for all of its high-minded assertions. Values are constructed in mid-air. We have the sense that these values are timeless and “natural,” but when pressed to explain where they come from or why they continue to matter, we are at a loss. We are cornered into lame clichés and platitudes about “our common humanity” until we are forced to confront the dark reality that we are no longer even sure what we mean by humanity. As a way of coping, we turn morality into feelings (emotivism) and we turn religion into therapy. So, things are right or wrong not based on transcendent truths. Rightness and wrongness are reduced to how an individual feels about the thing in question. And religion is not about actual spiritual truths which are just silly superstitions. Religion is like clothing, an adornment. Clothes are great, but it doesn’t really matter what clothes you wear. Different people will have different styles, and “reasonable” people shouldn’t care about the stylistic choices of others. In the third world, what really matters is not the outward adornment but the inner “spirituality.” This spirituality is vague and personal and not at all grounded in anything outside of the self. Essentially, spirituality is just a private feeling. Given this new reality, it is the job of a spiritual guide or university chaplain not to tell a person what is true. There is no god. There is only a vast multitude of “selfs.” What is of most importance is that the spiritual seeker get in touch with his or her own feelings maybe with the help of other selfs who are likely just as confused and fearful. Religion has been gutted in place of therapy. Such ideas are so commonplace in our culture and even in the Church that most people just accept them as conventionally true. One is permitted and even encouraged to question the relevance of religion, but a person dares to ever question the relevance of therapy at their own risk. Before you accuse me of saying therapy is worthless, let me stop you. I’ve been blessed by the work of many professional counselors in my life. Therapy is of course extremely valuable and helpful, when it is informed by transcendent truths but not when it is a replacement for those truths.

As Tom Holland (the author, not Spider-Man) and other historians have noted, western culture is inescapably Christian in our assumptions and values. Our civilization, no matter how secular we pretend to be, is still on a trajectory established by the explosion started by Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago. Nevertheless, I wonder how long can this civilization stay up in the clouds? Commenting on Reiff, Trueman concludes, third world cultures that are not built on a sacred order are “volatile, subject to confusion, and liable to collapse.” Can you feel the wobble in our civilization lately? Have you seen the volatility and confusion bleeding into hatred and resentment? Like Lando’s Cloud City, we have built an impressive civilization in mid-air. Can you even begin to imagine the amount of energy and labor required to keep an entire civilization afloat?

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