Monday, 18 November 2013

The family metaphor/ reality combines unity with difference


It is very difficult in theology to avoid either:

1. Collapsing everything into a single static ONE.

2. Breaking-up everything into a multitude of distinct and autonomous MANYS.

The metaphor (or reality) of family relations is one way - probably the only easily-comprehensible and psychologically-effective way - of doing this.


In a family all are related - hence there is unity; but each family member is a recognized individual, one-of-a-kind (even among identical twins) - hence there is uniqueness.

(At a higher level, each family is linked with others in a 'clan' or extended-family - hence unity; yet each family is recognized as different. And so-on upward. )


Break the family, and this breaks down.

In modern secular society each person is either one of humankind - which is so large a unity that it has no felt unity in the absence of smaller, nested, hierarchical unities (not least since the borders between humans and animals are fuzzy, for secular modernity); and there is the individual, one of a kind person - but so individual (one is six billion) as to be incomprehensible.

To have a unity of seven billion and a uniqueness of one-in-six-billion are necessarily abstractions; and abstractions are psychologically unreal - so a person's unity with other and also their individuality become alike theoretical rather than experiential.

Alienation from the group, anomie of the individual... That's modernity; that is the lived reality for many, and the reality for all on the other side of the destruction of the family.


So the family is indispensable for society - and the truth of family relations also indispensable for theology; because only life as essentially familial can explain, in a way that is both comprehensible and real, how it is that the world is both one and many - that everything is both God and also itself.



  1. Titus Didius Tacitus18 November 2013 at 10:42

    Seven billion and change. You are one of the spinning digits at the far right hand side - less than a hundred millionth of the round-off.

  2. @TDT - It is interesting how the facts of population have become perhaps the most taboo (or at least the most hidden and ignored) of hate facts; to the point that the usual (false) meme among intellectuals seems to be that world population is actually declining; and an even more popular (false) meme (including on the Right - and this is one which used to occupy my 'mind') is that to regard increasing population as a problem now or at any time in the future, is conclusive evidence of knuckle-dragging simple mindedness.

  3. "to the point that the usual (false) meme among intellectuals seems to be that world population is actually declining"

    My experience is the opposite - most people (including intellectuals) think the world population is exponentially exploding (not to mention that it is already far too crowded in an absolute sense), and we'd better support the Gates Foundation et al's efforts, that the morally correct position is to limit one's own children to one or (at most) two, and so on.

    It seems to me that a) our current population level combined with current technologies is leading to significant environmental problems, but b) that the relevant function that determines this can change given technological or behavioural changes - it's not just about absolute population, c) it's currently growing at an incredible absolute rate relative to almost all of history, where d) this growth is centered in certain countries, but e) the relative growth rate overall is slowing and f) fertility rates are dropping in basically every country such that g) reasonable estimates are that that growth will level off and then start to decline within 30-90 years, which leads to h) significant potential economic problems on the other side of the population curve.

  4. @ajb - We need to consider why the population projections keep underestimating the size at which population is supposed to level-off, and why the maximum population keeps getting revised upwards.

    The answer is that demographic projections are purely mathematical - and have two false built-in assumptions:

    1. That all populations in the world are the same - and will behave the same way given the same environmental stimuli.

    This is false with respect to races, and also religions/ no religion.

    2. That the situation remains constant over time - that the population-relevant characteristics are not changing over time - not undergoing secular changes.

    This is also false. Pretty much everyone competent agrees that this cannot be the case and general intelligence is declining while heritable personality is changing - both in ways that will reduce economic productivity; and I believe (based on reaction time data) that the rate of change is very much faster (about twice as fast) as most people have so far assumed.

    But as well as applying biologically due to natural selection, it also applies culturally due to cultural selection - for example, the religions, and the denominations within religions, that support larger families are growing in their differential representation - which amplifies population growth.

    So we can be reasonably confident that the world population will keep growing until something stops it - famine and disease probably - backed by lethal violence, and perhaps (in the West) the novel phenomenon of mass suicide.

  5. Population and pollution have to be considered together when looking at environmental impacts of our species on the planet.

    Technology allows (population * pollution) to rise past where it was historically.

    Effects of the increase in p*p include global warming, hypoxia in the oceans due to fertilizer from dense factory monoculture farms bleeding into river systems that enter oceans at large deltas such as the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. We have extinction rates that are well above the normal background rate. We clear cut old-growth forests, diminish the natural systems ability to sequester carbon, phytoplankton levels have been dropping, but hey, "We're alright Jack".

    In short, humans in our short-sighted, ego-centric and greedy fashion are acting like an aggressive culture without constraint - for now. Technology allows us to grow beyond our natural limits, to consume and pollution and deteriorate the robustness of the ecology by reducing its diversity.

    But what if technology and the progress paradigm are flawed in that they only allow us to artificially amplify the human presence and to seem to hold off the day of reckoning, but really only insure that when it does come it will be a catastrophic event.

    Ah the joys of avarice: It is an insatiable hunger that only gets more hungry the more it eats.