I talked with my father this morning, and struck upon an insight. In the aftermath of World War 2, the Allies left behind several airstrips in the South Pacific. The locals, who didn’t understand planes, saw these magic birds landing with massive loads of cargo during the war and when they took over the airstrip attempted to keep the cargo flying in.
But with no understanding of the process, all they could do was ape the mannerisms of the Allies they had observed. These cargo cults constructed coconut radios, rifles made of sticks, and even went onto the airstrip waving flags slavishly attempting to invoke the magic. We laugh at the idiosyncrasies of this.
Recently, I also came across a very insightful thought from James Burnham, from his book The Suicide of the West. I’ve reproduced it here.
We confront here a principle that would seem strangely paradoxical if it had not become so familiar in the thought and writings of our time. Liberalism is committed to the truth and to the belief that truth is what is discovered by reason and the sciences; and committed against the falsehoods and errors that are handed down by superstition, prejudice, custom and authority. But every man, according to liberalism, is entitled to his own opinion, and has the right to express it (and to advocate its acceptance). In motivating the theory and practice of free speech, liberalism must either abandon its belief in the superior social utility of truth, or maintain that we cannot be sure we know the truth. The first alternative—which would imply that error is sometimes more useful for society than the truth—is by no means self-evidently false, but is ruled out, or rather not even considered seriously, by liberalism. Therefore liberalism must accept the second alternative.
We thus face the following situation. Truth is our goal; but objective truth, if it exists at all, is unattainable; we cannot be sure even whether we are getting closer to it, because that estimate could not be made without an objective standard against which to measure the gap. Thus the goal we have postulated becomes meaningless, evaporates. Our original commitment to truth undergoes a subtle transformation, and becomes a commitment to the rational and scientific process itself: to—in John Dewey’s terminology—the “method of inquiry.”
How closely this parallels the cargo cults! We don’t know the truth, we cannot even know if we head in the right direction. Thus, the process takes the place of the thing itself. The parts are not greater than the whole.
I started this post off mentioning how I was struck by an insight this morning. Take these two concepts, Burnham’s process substituting for truth and cargo cults. Now apply them to the average church. When you walk in, it is just like those airfields. We’ve got waiting rooms, paying money, proselytizing, preaching, and singing. Yet it is hollow.
A pair of men walking down the road with none of those things can have more Christianity, the same way an open field or highway can act as more of an airfield than the mock field with flags being waved, waiting rooms and so on.