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Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: What Christmas has to say about the nature of order

One important question for political philosophy concerns the extent to which order is intrinsic to the world, as opposed to its being arbitrary what one calls "order" such that one man's order could be another man's anarchy.  Christmas provides us with part of an answer.

If there really is a moral order, for example, then ideal policy is likely to be different from if there is only approval and disapproval.  If there really is an underlying order of social organisation and progress, such that true laws of political evolution could be discovered, then the ideal political institutions are likely to be different from if social scientific "laws" are simply ways we describe what we see but do not reflect any underlying fundamental reality.

Some forms of order clearly do not exist intrinsically in the world but instead are no more than a stencil people place upon the world.  For example, that blue and green are colours but turquoise is merely a shade obviously does not reflect any underlying laws about colour.  Indeed less than a thousand years ago blue was itself a shade (of green) and today there are countries that subdivide the British colour "blue" into more than one colour (e.g. the Russians).

Locke (the founding philosopher of the Whigs) argued that nature is a continuum, with no natural joints.  That we regard one thing as a chair, another a house, another a tiger, another a planet is just as arbitrary as that blue and green are colours - that just happens to be how we carve up the world into concepts; these divisions do not exist in the world itself.

Perhaps the strongest and most widespread modern claim to fundamental order existing in the world is the idea that there are laws of nature, orderly rules determining how things progress.  We are so used to this claim that it can be a struggle to grasp how non-obvious it really is.  When explorers voyaged the seas or tramped the forests, they were not typically hoping to discover some pattern that decided what lands there were and where.  They just went and looked.  Science might have been like that.  We might simply have looked and found that (say) combining two substances thus produces that effect.  That could have been a brute fact - like the mountain being there.  There didn't obviously need to be some underlying reason why, some general law that this particular chemical behaviour reflected.

Indeed, even today there are those that dispute that there are any true laws of physics (e.g. the philosopher Nancy Cartwright), any underlying and immutable patterns that determine how matter behaves that are more than devices that illuminate our description of behaviours we have observed and continue to observe (rather as "green" and "blue" are illuminating, but not fundamental).

Far fewer folk believe in any fundamental moral or aesthetic or spiritual order to the world.

And yet, central to the tale of Christmas are the following undying phrases (John 1:1ff): "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

We could discuss much here of John's allusion to Philo here, and it seems certain that John did indeed intend his readers to think of this "word", for which the Greek term is "logos", in the context of other users of the term "logos".  Philo's interest (much like Arius' interest, centuries later) concerns whether and how a divine being can interact with the physical world.  There is much of interest to be said about the interplay of ideas between John, Philo and Arius.  But what is not at issue is that the term "logos" here refers to a fundamental principle of organisation of the world - the "divine reason" or "God's uttered word".  We are taught, at the outset of the Christian message, that through Christ, the divine reason, the uttered word, all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made.

We asked: is there any fundamental order in the world?  Christmas says: Yes.  There is the order that God places there by placing himself there.  God did not merely shape the world; he also gave it order - indeed, he gave all of it order - without his divine reason nothing was made that has been made.  The world is not a random mish-mash with merely illusory order, arising in a sea of chaos by sheer statistical happenstance, much as the complete works of Shakespeare would arise if a computer were set producing random strings of letters for long enough.

More than that.  That order is not forever beyond our grasp, reflecting complexities beyond even the most limited of reach to mere humans.  Perhaps we might struggle to comprehend it in all its glory, grace and truth.  But the divine reason, God's uttered word, through which everything was made and which provides the underlying order to the universe, could be a man.  He is not simply ineffable (though he may be that as well).  We can know him.

There are those that say the central message of Christmas is the baby in the manger, mute and incommunicative.  They say all we can do is adore him and be his slaves, as our own babies enslave us.  The mute baby Jesus, they say, gives us the message that God will tell us nothing - so that by adamantly telling us nothing, God refuses to empower the oppressor that claims to be the interpreter of the divine will.  All we have is the via negativa.

Whatever merit there may be in this (virtually none, even if central to the theology of an Archbishop), it is certainly not what John tells us.  John's message is (inter alia) that there is order in the world, fundamentally in the world, and we can know at least something of it.

Why did modern science evolve in the Islamic and Christian worlds?  Because Muslims and Christians believe that God established order in nature - so Muslims and Christians believed there were laws of nature there to be found.  Why do Christians seek to know God's will?  (Not to be saved; that comes by grace through faith.)  Partly because we love God and want to do what he asks of us, but more fundamentally because we believe that God made us and his will for us and for our societies (for God makes laws for society - political laws - as well as for individuals) - his will for us reflects the order (himself) he has placed into the world.

So in the message of Christmas we learn that there is, indeed, fundamental order in the world.  Order is not simply a stencil we place upon the world, and order is not a statistically-generated oasis in a sea of chaos.  Order, in the form of the divine reason, God's uttered (and purposeful) word, is central to everything that has been made, and nothing was made that lacks it.


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