Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Another Voice Against The Confederate Flag

confederate-flag

And this is a significant one too, since I don’t think you can much more conservative and Southern than Russell Moore. As of this week Dr. Moore is ready to declare that he has had enough with displays of the Confederate battle flag. You should read the whole thing, but there are a couple stand-out quotes:

“The Confederate States of America was not simply about limited government and local autonomy; the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections of law, to a great evil. The moral enormity of the slavery question is one still viscerally felt today, especially by the descendants of those who were enslaved and persecuted.”

This is something that is strenuously denied by apologists for the south, but is plainly there in the language of those who led the Confederacy.

“As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of ‘y’all’ and how to make sweet tea.”

The slicing away of ethnic identity is something that we see hinted in not only in Galatians 3:28 but in the fact that Saul of Tarsus decided to go by Paul – no longer the name of an Israelite king from his own tribe, but the name of Roman, probably one whose immediate forefathers had been slaves.

“The Confederate Battle Flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.

That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

Holding on to something that divides like the Confederate battle flag does is, I think Dr. Moore implies here, a form of idolatry. There is no good reason to keep displaying the stars and bars. But again, don’t take that up with me, you can argue with a son of the south, Russell Moore.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem for Richard III

Today is the reinterment of King Richard III (1452-1485) at Leicester Cathedral. I wish I could have been there, how many opportunities do you have to witness the burial of an ancient king? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, wrote these words for the occasion:

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille.  My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history.  Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; your own

the same.  Grant me the carving of my name.

 

These relics, bless.  Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

 

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

 

For more, see here.

 

Conscience and Revelation

In light of some recent discussions in the blogosphere on these subjects, I thought I would share my views on them, such as they are.

How do feelings, reason, and conscience relate? 

What determines right and wrong is not simply a feeling. Feelings are reactions to perceptions, real or imagined. They don’t give us new data, they are in fact our reactions to what we perceive. But our perceptions can be mistaken, and so our moral feelings partake of that fallibility. What ultimately determines right and wrong is the objective moral order; our conscience is most basically our awareness of that order. It is, in line with the classical definition of “reason”, the adequation of our mind to the moral aspect of reality. However, like awareness of the material world and other aspects of reality, our perception of the moral aspect of the world can be faulty, our reasoning can go off track, and our feelings react improperly to what we perceive (through force of habit or for some other reason). For this reason we should always remain open to correction by the facts.

Does revelation call us to act against our conscience?

This question can actually be understood two different ways. The first is as many people who pose it understand it: can revelation demand that our will choose a course of action that our reason regards as wrong and our emotions find repulsive, and do so without giving us reason to suppose our prior judgment (the source of our emotional reaction) is mistaken? In this case, the Bible, and representatives of the Christian tradition like Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST II-I.19.5-6), would say “no”. Acts against a mistaken conscience are still sinful, precisely because they are acts against the conscience.

The second way to understand the question is as follows: can revelation provide new information that would demand that our former beliefs about reality be abandoned for new ones? And could there be a situation where we are called to do something we previously found repulsive which revelation now gives us reason to regard as right? To this question the Bible and Christian tradition would answer “yes”. A good example of this in scripture would be Acts 10:9-43. But also, general experience would suggest an analogous truth: even abstracting from questions of revelation, it seems any reasonable ethic will have to acknowledge that the conscience can be mistaken, and should change when presented with new facts. One famous recent example of someone claiming this happened in his own experience would be President Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage.

Are reason and revelation hierarchically ordered? How do they relate?

This is an old and important question, and even within the Reformed tradition there are very complicated discussions and disagreements about this. However, I would suggest that Richard Hooker’s approach to this question is best. He suggested that we must have reason to believe that scripture is the word of God (Laws, 3.8.13), but that once we do have such reason, the word of God provides the strongest evidence we have, even stronger than evidence we have for truths we directly intuit like the law of non-contradiction, because God’s vision of reality is intrinsically more reliable than our faculties of knowledge (Laws, 2.7.5). As Aquinas similarly says (ST I.1.5), “other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas [sacred doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled….”

But this is not revelation “trumping” reason in the sense that it demands we believe something we have no reason to believe. Rather, this scheme is rational all the way down, in that reason provides us with warrant to believe that God is infallible and good, and that God in turn has provided us testimony for certain facts that otherwise we might not believe. Given the nature of God as infinite and infallible, and given our nature as partly ignorant, partly sinfully motivated to deny the truth, it is conceivable that God could reveal something to us we may initially not already find to be true. Nevertheless, if we have an antecedent reason to regard the revelation as truly from God, we have good reason to regard our initial lack of a sense of something’s veracity as mistaken, even if we don’t know how we are mistaken.

It is important to note here that this does not commit us to the position that truth is multiple; the point is not that reality can be self-contradictory, but that our mistaken or limited perception of it might lead us not to see how it is actually consistent, though it is ultimately consistent.

If revelation can “trump reason”, does that unleash anarchy or oppression? 

The question that may arise at this point is one that has been raised at least since the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: if revelation can go beyond reason, won’t this unleash anarchy and every evil conceivable? Couldn’t someone use a claim of revelation to justify anything?

The answer to this is partly “yes”, partly “no”. Firstly, yes, in an obvious sense, nothing can physically stop someone from making such a claim. Secondly, no, it does not mean that anyone else is obligated to accept such a person’s claim. People are obligated to believe what they think all the evidence they know of tells them to believe. And Christians can appeal to evidence for their faith, as they have since the beginning of Christianity.

Of course, the hypothetical evil person claiming revelation could simply claim they have direct revelation from God that is stronger than any evidence Christians might appeal to; the question may then arise, “how do we respond to that in a way that will psychologically compel them to agree with us?” The answer is basically: “we can’t”. As epistemologist Michael Bergmann put it:

How can we say that the religious fanatic, who claims that the difference between her belief and ours is that hers is formed in accord with proper function and ours isn’t, is making a permissible move in a proper philosophical exchange? These questions arise, I believe, out of some important misunderstandings. One misunderstanding is the thought that radical disagreement (about such things as fanatical religious views) can be resolved if we follow the rules for permissible moves in a proper philosophical exchange. This thought is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s false hope. The disagreement between clever religious fanatics and those skeptical of their claims, like the disagreement between High Standard moderate nonexternalists and those skeptical of their claims, can ‘bottom out’ in the sort of exchange we’ve been imagining. The High Standard moderate nonexternalist can insist that genuine direct acquaintance with certain facts is sufficient for justification and that the demon victim with merely apparent direct acquaintance is out of luck justification-wise. The skeptic will find that unsatisfying. But the High Standard moderate nonexternalist won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction. The same sort of thing will happen in the case of religious fanatics: they won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction with their externalist response (nor, of course, will the skeptical be moved by their externalist response). …

I say that we can insist the religious fanatic is hallucinating and that those skeptical of introspection are subject to some sort of blindness. But can’t the religious fanatic just respond by saying that those of us who reject her view are subject to some sort of blindness? And can’t those skeptical of introspection responding by saying that we who rely on it are or might be hallucinating (where it seems to us that our introspective beliefs are genuinely infallible or that they are about facts genuinely before our minds, even though they aren’t)? Yes, the religious fanatic and the skeptic about introspection can respond in those ways. But in response to the religious fanatic, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re hallucinating and your claim that we’re blind is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. Likewise, in response to the skeptic about introspection, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re blind and your claim that we’re hallucinating is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. It’s true that this is unlikely to satisfy the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection and that they will likely have similar things to say about us. But the point here is just this: The fact that those with whom we disagree (e.g. the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection) can respond with philosophical moves similar in form to our own might keep us from complaining that they aren’t following the proper rules for philosophical exchange. It may even prevent us from resolving our dispute with the methods of philosophy. However, it doesn’t commit us to thinking that their views are sensible or respectable. [Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism, 231-2]

To summarize Bergmann: any philosophical or religious disagreement can come to an impasse when one person claims something is obvious, and another says somebody is hallucinating when they claim something is obvious. But even in such a deadlock, people can be rational in holding their beliefs. For knowledge must be of the truth perceived by properly functioning epistemic faculties, while belief can be in error, and the side in the aforementioned impasse with the truth will have grounds for regarding the other person as mistaken. But it will mean that not every disagreement can be resolved by following common position-neutral philosophical rules.

What this means for the social question, “won’t this result in anarchy?”, is a negative answer. Societies are composed of people with beliefs, and they can respond to a minority of religious fanatics according to the evidence as they see it; even if they cannot persuade the minority with position-neutral philosophical arguments, they can still respond to them with other tactics beyond “the methods of philosophy”. They can make laws according to the truth as they see it. Of course, the majority might also be in error, but it is a mistake to think that a philosophical method will ever make such an error impossible. Tragedy is unfortunately always a possibility in this world.

The Ubiquity of Kitsch

Scruton

In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:

Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”

He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.

This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:

Calvin and Niccolo

…or, more accurately, the Calvinists against the Machiavellians. The pseudonymously-authored and famous Huguenot treatise Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos has been a subject of fascination for me for many years, but upon reading the recently published edition (1999) I learned something new about it. That is, while it certainly had Catholic-Protestant conflict in its background, in fact it explicitly aims not at refuting Catholicism, but rather Machiavellianism. George Garnett, the editor of the new edition, writes:

It has been argued that the preface’s promise of an anti-Machievellian treatise is not fulfilled in the book which follows. … But… this misses the point of the preface. Cono Superantius argued that an effective response could be mounted against ‘the Machiavellians and their books’ only by referring the ‘rule of princes and the right of peoples … to their legitimate and certain first principles’. Brutus had later sent him ‘a book of these investigations, which comprises these principles, and proves and expounds them’ … . Gentillet recognised that there was little point in trying to engage with Machiavelli’s arguments on their own terms: Machiavelli and the Machiavellians could only be answered effectively by pinning down the moral descriptions which they had made so slippery. And this could only be done by grounding the moral order, and therefore the governmental order, in the order of nature, created by God. This is precisely what the author of the Vindiciae attempts to do… . (xxi-xxii)

Garnett also notes that there may be some truth to the then common insinuation that the French royal government of the time really was inspired by Machiavelli:

The author of Le Tocsain, published in the year to which the preface is dated, claimed that Catherine de Medici had used Il principe as a text book for her children, and that ‘it might be described as her Bible’. If Boucher is to be believed, Henri III had learned his lessons well at his mother’s knee: he kept a copy always in his pocket, for ready reference, when he needed guidance on how to be most effectively evil. A defamatory slur this may be, but the king’s letters sometimes seem to echo the precepts and even the phrasing of Il principe. (xxi)

And to the degree Machievellianism is alive and well in the minds of the powerful today, Vindiciae may continue to have some relevance.

The Ethical Capitalist

Zizek on the ethical commitments of the true capitalist:

“Look at an ideal capitalist – ideal type I mean. I know some of them, fanatical businessmen. Well all I can tell you is if ever I encounter a non-hedonist, a non-egotist guy it’s a totally dedicated capitalist. My god a proper capitalist is ready – I don’t know – to ruin his family life, practically not to sleep, work night and day just that there is circulation and expansion of capital. Capitalists are not hedonist egotists they are on the contrary extremely dedicated to some perverted quasi-ethical cause – capital has to circulate.”

The question is whether this ethical frame is or can be squared with Christian ethics. The reflexive answer in North America is “yes” but this description of the life of a true capitalist would seem to raise a challenge to that.

Recent Books

I have just come through quite a busy season with conference speaking, dissertation chapter submission, and a full course taught overseas, so my silence on the blog hopefully has some justification! Why not break the silence with some shameless self-promotion?

This past November I had the privilege of presenting to Michael Haykin a Festschrift in his honour. My co-editor, Steve Weaver, and I worked on this book for over two years. It was incredibly rewarding to see it completed, and for Dr. Haykin to receive it with utter shock and amazement. The book, The Pure Flame of Devotion, is a history of Christian spirituality and covers the span of church history. We have over twenty contributors, including Carl Trueman, Dennis Ngien, Crawford Gribben, David Hogg, Mark Jones and others, who write on subjects dealing with the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern periods. We are hoping that the book will function as a textbook for bible college and seminary courses. You can read about the night here.

Also, I just learned that a book that I contributed to is now available. As 2014 commemorates the centenary of the First World War, Gord Heath of McMaster Divinity College has edited a book studying Canadian religious responses to it. It is called Canadian Churches and the First World War and is published by Pickwick. Michael Haykin and I co-wrote a chapter on the Canadian Baptist response. It was quite an eye-opening study, seeing as Baptists were typically political liberals and eschewed war, but after it was declared they supported it with gusto. I was, I must say, honoured to have a part in the book.

The Preestablished Harmony of Pop

adorno1

Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt school, analysed pop music from the perspective of Critical Theory in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”. Among his many reflections on the subject (of varying worth), he considered the reason for the hold of popular music on the masses. Part of his answer was the following:

The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.

The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses “want this stuff.”

But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”. They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man’s holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.

David Oderberg on Consequentialism

If one listens very carefully to activists, politicians, and related characters in the media, one begins to hear a certain kind of ethical view beneath some policy recommendations. I’m not going to provide an example, so if the reader does not know what I’m talking about, or does not believe me, they may ignore my comments without further ado. But I know that I’ve heard these views, and so I want to briefly refer to one response to them.

The view affirms some human rights as inviolable, but then also appeals to a kind of consequentialist or utilitarian logic. Several varieties of this perspective appear in academic ethical philosophy, which the interested reader could track down if they please. At the moment, though, I only want to point out one response.

David Oderberg’s paper Why I am not a Consequentialist gives several lines of argumentation against consequentialism in general; I will not discuss them all. Helpfully, Oderberg highlights his most forceful argument:

I have given a number of fairly abstract reasons why consequentialism is on the face of it unintuitive and unmotivated. But I also think it is straight out false, and not only false but an evil and dangerous theory – a view I am not alone in holding. There are a number of ways in which I could defend the view, but I want to focus on one in particular, the one that has always seemed to me – at least ever since I stopped being a consequentialist – the most damaging. It is a very familiar objection, but no less persuasive for being well known. This is the charge that consequentialism allows, indeed requires, certain kinds of action that are obviously wrong and so not to be done. In particular, consequentialism permits and requires actions that are horrendous evils, as evil as anything can be. The typical example often given is of the judge who condemns an innocent man to death in order to satisfy a rioting mob that will murder hundreds of people if the judge lets the innocent man go free. Another is the doctor who kills patients for their organs so he can transplant those organs into many other patients who need them. In general, according to consequentialism, it is at least permitted, often obligatory, for a person to commit what looks to any sane observer like a blatant and serious violation of someone else’s rights, and hence to commit an act of grave injustice, in order to maximize value, or at least to do what he thinks is likely to maximize value. Now, for the non-consequentialist, no intuition his opponent can bring to bear in support of the consequentialist position on this matter is as strong as the intuition that such apparent injustices are indeed injustices, and so to be forbidden on all occasions, no matter what the consequences. According to Elizabeth Anscombe, even to entertain the supposition that the judge is allowed, let alone required, to condemn the innocent man to placate the angry mob is to show evidence of a morally corrupt mind. Someone who thinks the issue debatable, she says, is not someone with whom you should enter into debate

After, Oderberg engages with responses to this point, including an academic example of the view I described above, in the person of Philip Pettit. Pettit argues that consequentialists should want to maximize dignity. Oderberg replies that this can be interpreted in two ways. One is that on closer inspection of Pettit’s work, it seems like he’s redefining dignity to presuppose consequentialism, and so falls foul to the various problems with consequentialism. The other is that Pettit is actually appealing to a non-consequentialist understanding of dignity, in which the right people have to respect is not grounded in how their being respected contributes to the maximization of social benefit. Oderberg replies that this approach will undermine Pettit’s project, since taking this view of dignity will contradict consequentialist principles, rendering Pettit’s system incoherent.

Oderberg’s penultimate paragraph describes the situation for all attempts to support this kind of mediating position between the idea of human rights and a consequentialist approach to ethics:

There is more that can be said about Pettit’s and other attempts to give a consequentialist defence of rights and justice. All such attempts will fail, simply because the structure of rights and justice and the structure of consequentialist thinking are contrary to each other. The only way the consequentialist can reconcile them is by reinterpreting rights and justice in terms that are explicitly or implicitly consequentialist. For the non-consequentialist, this would not merely be a case of begging the question, but of discarding at least some of the non-negotiable intuitions we have about rights and justice, such as the inherent and absolute injustice of knowingly condemning an innocent man to death. On the other hand, if the consequentialist wants to preserve such intuitions, he must incorporate into this theory principles that are themselves non-consequentialist. But if he does this, there is no logical stopping point short of abandoning consequentialism altogether.

The implication of Oderberg’s argument for ethics and politics, at minimum, would be that those who wish to coherently defend human rights need to seek support elsewhere. Something like Kantian deontologism, divine command ethics, or natural law ethics, would certainly do a better job (Oderberg chooses natural law ethics), though a further discussion would have to continue between those three possibilities (and others) in order to determine the ultimately correct system.

Charles Taylor’s Apologetic

In Taylor’s recent essay A Catholic Modernity?, the philosopher presents what amounts to an argument against exclusive (i.e., secular) humanism. I’ll give a brief sketch of it here.

Taylor begins by asking the question:

…who can make more sense of the life all of us are living? If we are right, then human beings have an ineradicable bent to respond to something beyond life. Denying this stifles. But then, even for those who accept the metaphysical primacy of life, this outlook will itself seem imprisoning. 1

He continues by pointing out a feature of modern life that coheres with this perspective. He calls it the “immanent revolt”, or the revolt from within unbelief, and points to the most influential example of this position, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, of course, rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering. He rejects this both metaphysically and practically. He rejects the egalitarianism underlying this whole affirmation of ordinary life. But his rebellion is, in a sense, also internal. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.

So this move remains within the modern affirmation of life, in a sense. There is nothing higher than the movement of life itself (the Will to Power). But it chafes at the benevolence, the universalism, the harmony, the order. It wants to rehabilitate destruction and chaos, the infliction of suffering and exploitation, as part of the life to be affirmed. 2

This logic plays itself out in broader ways:

Of course, one of the fruits of this counterculture was Fascism–to which Nietzsche’s influence was not entirely foreign, however true and valid is Walter Kaufman’s refutation of the simple myth of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi. But in spite of this, the fascination with death and violence recurs, for example, in the interest in Bataille, shared by Derrida and Foucault. James Miller’s book on Foucault shows the depth of this rebellion against “humanism” as a stifling, confining space to break out of. … I see these connections as another manifestation of our (human) inability to be content simply with an affirmation of life. 3

In addition to the danger expressed in Nietzsche, Taylor also describes several others, surrounding a general problem: how do we find the psychological resources to sustain the high ethic we liberal humanists have set for ourselves?

One way is to find our self-worth in helping others. But this is a fragile motivation:

However, philanthropy and solidarity driven by a lofty humanism, just as that which was driven often by high religious ideals, has a Janus face. On one side, in the abstract, one is inspired to act. On the other, faced with the immense disappointments of actual human performance and with the myriad ways in which real, concrete human beings fall short of, ignore, parody, and betray this magnificent potential, one experiences a growing sense of anger and futility. Are these people really worthy objects of all these efforts? Perhaps in the face of all this stupid recalcitrance, it would not be a betrayal of human worth, or one’s self-worth, to abandon them–or perhaps the best that can be done for them is to force them to shape up.

Before the reality of human shortcomings, philanthropy–the love of the human–can gradually come to be invested with contempt, hatred, aggression. The action is broken off, or worse, continues but is invested now with these new feelings, becoming progressively more coercive and inhumane. The history of despotic socialism (i.e., twentieth-century communism) is replete with this tragic turn, brilliantly foreseen by Dostoyevsky more than a hundred years ago… and then repeated again and again with a fatal regularity… . 4

Another way to motivate such action is by a sense of injustice. But this comes with its own problems:

We have seen it with Jacobins and Bolsheviks and today with the politically correct Left and the so-called Christian Right. We fight against injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance. We are moved by a flaming indignation against these: racism, oppression, sexism, or leftist attacks on the family or Christian faith. This indignation comes to be fueled by a hatred for those who support and connive with these injustices, which, in turn, is fed by our sense of superiority that we are not like these instruments and accomplices of evil. Soon, we are blinded to the havoc we wreak around us. …

This humanism leaves us with our own high sense of self-worth to keep us from backsliding, a high notion of human worth to inspire us forward, and a flaming indignation against wrong and oppression to energize us. It cannot appreciate how problematic all of these are, how easily they can slide into something trivial, ugly, or downright dangerous and destructive.

A Nietzschean genealogist can have a field day here. Nothing gave Nietzsche greater satisfaction than showing how morality or spirituality is really powered by its direct opposite… [.] … it is clear that modern humanism is full of potential for such disconcerting reversals: from dedication to others to self-indulgent, feel-good responses, from a lofty sense of human dignity to control powered by contempt and hatred, from absolute freedom to absolute despotism, from a flaming desire to help the oppressed to an incandescent hatred for all those who stand in the way. 5

Taylor offers what he thinks the solution might be, and herein lies his apologetic:

So is there a way out?

This cannot be a matter of guarantee, only of faith. But it is clear that Christian spirituality points to one. It can be described in two ways: either as a love or compassion that is unconditional–that is, not based on what you the recipient have made of yourself–or as one based on what you are most profoundly, a being in the image of God. They obviously amount to the same thing. In either case, the love is not conditional on the worth realized in you just as an individual or even in what is realizable in you alone. 6

If one were to put this answer biblically, one might say:

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Notes:

  1. Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 178.
  2. Dilemmas and Connections, 179.
  3. Dilemmas and Connections, 179.
  4. Dilemmas and Connections, 183.
  5. Dilemmas and Connections, 184-185.
  6. Dilemmas and Connections, 185.