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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hierarchy: God's or Man's?

A friend recently sent me an article by Philip Zaleski entitled "A Peculiar Little Test." It originally appeared at First Things, a religious/philosophical website. In the piece, the author talks about an exercise that he administered as part of a course that he taught on a regular basis regarding writing about nature.

As a part of this class, he gave his students a list of fifteen items (e.g. mouse, boy, sun, angel, ant, crab, Norwegian pine, corn, amoeba, hamburger, potato, Moby Dick, Taj Mahal, Rolls Royce, the idea of the good), and then asked them to rank those items using whatever scale/measure seemed most appropriate to the individual students. He related that, frequently, the sun was given the place of honor on many of these lists. Many of his students reasoned that the sun should have this place because it is the source of life.

Although Zaleski sees this as evidence that his students retain a sense of hierarchy, he also sees this as evidence that something is seriously amiss. "Crab over humans? Sun over angels?" he asks. As a consequence, he concludes that most of his students had no understanding of the idea of hierarchy. He wrote: "Most students feel on a gut level that ranking is legitimate; that cabbages and kings are not interchangeable. What they lack is the knowledge of hierarchy that comes from a careful study of tradition."

Zaleski insists that "The principle of hierarchy is fundamental to the apprehension that ontological distinctions do exist." When we Google the term "hierarchy," we read that it is "a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority," and that it can be described as "an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness."

This raises a number of questions: Whose hierarchy do we employ? Do we appeal to the hierarchy revealed in the Hebrew Bible? Do we appeal to one based on a study of tradition? Do we adopt a hierarchy based on our own observations and reason? Or do we appeal to a hierarchy that employs all of these approaches? After all, if we can't reach some agreement about what constitutes the idea of a hierarchy, what benefit can be derived from it?

Zaleski says that "Hierarchy is part and parcel of perception; we discern, therefore we order, therefore we establish above and below." He points out that the idea "defines all traditional religions." He asks: "What social consequences result from the abolition of levels?" The author then proceeds to list the breakdown of the nuclear family, abortion and promiscuity as being among the most serious consequences of this ignorance of the idea of hierarchy.

But can we accept Zaleski's conclusions about hierarchy as being authoritative? After all, many Christians ignore Christ's clear instructions to his disciples that he didn't want them to lord it over each other. Likewise, many ignore Paul's statements that Christianity obliterates distinctions based on ethnicity, social status, wealth and gender. Many Jews and Christians adopt the paternalistic misogyny of ancient Israel and proclaim that man is superior to woman. Other folks insist that man's dominion over the earth places all of the other creatures/life forms on this planet at his disposal, instead of fulfilling the role of caretaker that some of us see as being explicit in those passages. Many Christians ignore the scriptures that indicate that God cares about the other life forms on this planet. And what about those passages that imply/state that God is the epitome of love and is no respecter of persons. Still others have ignored numerous indications in the Bible that man is inferior to angels, and that God is Supreme over all.

Yes, I agree with Zaleski that an understanding of hierarchy is essential to a proper appreciation of the world around us and our part in it; but I wonder if his hierarchy would look like mine? More importantly, I wonder if our ideas about hierarchy are in harmony with God's notions about it? What do you think?