Sunday, October 2, 2011


A welcome addition to the political vocabulary is dominionism -- welcome because, rather than denoting an incoherent movement (like Democrats or Tea Party), it denotes an actual idea:  roughly, that (extrapolating from the OT advice to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air”) everyone is to render unto God that which is God’s, and that which is Caesar’s … well, God now gets that too -- you render unto your pastors.
The term has been criticized as being an outsider’s coinage, rather than used by those in that current themselves.  But in this, it is just one of a long tradition of terms so minted, which eventually became coin of the realm:  Quakers, Tories, suffragette, Impressionist, originally derogatory (and much moreso than the dominionist, which has the ring of the King James), but eventually adopted as a badge by those so dubbed.    It is possible that the term Tea-bagger may follow this trajectory, since we need something to fill out the proportion Democratic Party : Democrat :: Tea Party : ??? .
The new term Islamists, apparently an outsider’s coinage (borrowed into Arabic as islâmiyyûn), is undergoing this process as we speak.  It has been pointed out that an analogous counter-coinage, Christianist, could legitimately be applied to the dominionists -- sauce for the gander, sauce for the goose.  Or you could call them “sharia Christians”.   These are they who, when Christ said “My kingdom is not of this world,” figured he was just pulling their leg.

G.K. Chesterton, in the course of his biography of Chaucer -- or rather, in his book entitled Chaucer (1927), in which he discusses all his favorite subjects, with an occasional nod towards that worthy bard -- mentions a celebrated medieval predecessor:

The only Lollard doctrine that was ever properly defined or denounced [was] the doctrine that ‘dominion is founded on Grace’:  that is, that nobody but a good Catholic purified by the sacraments  has any political rights or powers.

The word ‘Catholic’ here is misleading; Lollardy preceded the Reformation, so it really just means ‘Christian’.   Dominionism has never been characteristic of the Catholic Church, least of all in our own day;  indeed, the notion is characteristically Protestant, as witness the circumstances of the foundation of the Church of England.

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An older approximate-synonym of dominionism is theocracy.   Now, C.S. Lewis wrote some celebrated passages denouncing this;  which however I could not relocate in the essay collections on my shelf.  A Google search, and voilà (counterintuitively, in Reflections on the Psalms).  Oddly, I found it here:

And since the Richard Dawkins folks had the courage and decency to quote CSL in extenso on their site,  I shall return the favor by linking to them here.  (Odd factoid: In the month before my adult baptism, I was reading both Mere Christianity and The Blind Watchmaker -- a chapter of one, then a chapter of the other.  Both excellent books.)
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Linguistic footnote:
In the course of seeking that CSL theocracy quote, I stumbled upon a parallel, of his own coinage, to the neologistic distinction between  Islamism (bad)  vs.  Islam (good).  It is from the essay De futilitate (reprinted in the collection Christian Reflections):

This cosmic futility  [Dr J note:  cf. Steven Weinberg, “"The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."] is concealed from the masses by popular Evolutionism.  Speaking to a scientifically trained audience  I need not labour the point that popular Evolutionism is something quite different from Evolution as the biologists understand it.  Biological evolution is a theory about how organisms change … As J.B.S. Haldane says, in evolution, progress is the exception and degeneration the rule.  Popular Evolutionism ignores this.  For it, ‘Evolution’ simply means ‘improvement’.  And it is not confined to organisms, but is applied also to moral qualities…

Earlier, Chesterton has some choice passages, quite along these lines.
Note:  Both CSL and GKC  essentially accepted Darwinism as Darwin himself stated it.

And another instance of “pejorative -ism” from CSL:

I distinguish sharply between the noble discipline called History  and the fatal pseudo-philosophy called Historicism.
-- C.S. Lewis, “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought” [unpublished MS, 1946], printed in Present Concerns (ed. Hooper, 1986)

(Actually we could draw the lines finer:  History is what-all happens; Historiography is the scholarly study and exposition of same.)

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A sociological fact that has puzzled me is that conservative Christians are often more ecologically indifferent than one would logically imagine for those who see the flora and fauna of this Earth as literally God’s handicraft.

In Consilience (1998, p. 278), Edward Wilson speaks of “the clash of two opposing human self-images”, and this tricky word dominion crops up :

The first is the naturalistic self-image, which holds that we are confined to a razor-thin biosphere  within which a thousand imaginable hells are possible  but only one paradise.
The competing self-image is the exemptionalist view.  In this conception, our species exists apart from the natural world  and holds dominion over it.  We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that bind other species.

This “exemptionalism” is further related to the long-standing theme of American exceptionalism.

Approximate synonym of dominionismCaesaro-papism.  As, in a somewhat extended use, Ernest Gellner referred to "the Soviet caesaro-papist system" ( Plough, Sword, and Book (1998), p. 231).

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