[note: I believe this is the longest post I have ever done on this blog. Its a magazine-length article featuring stuff I have been thinking about for a long time]
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” — Psalm 2:1
Before diving into this post, let me say this: I largely agree with Peter Leithart when he says “attending to our own house is now our best strategy for evangelization and prophetic witness.”
Actually, I’d say that’s always been the case.
That said, that does not mean that I am unwilling to encourage the wider [and increasingly] secular world to think very hard about what our current cultural moment means – and to try to persuade using their primary tool: reason (while also bringing attention to the biblical witness and its meaning).
Not all traditional Lutherans think this is the best use of our time. For example, one pastor responding to Friday’s ruling noted that we should just go on doing what we do and not act like the sky is falling. I certainly understand that impulse and it resonates with me (going along with the Leithart quote) – the sky has been falling since the Fall in the Garden of Eden! On the other hand, I think it’s also good to make clear how reason might be able to help explain what the Bible asserts, namely that fallen humanity can become even worse that it already is: flattering ourselves too much to detect or hate our sin, calling good “evil” and evil “good”, and even having the nerve to assert that there is no God.[i]
Part I – Gay Marriage: And God “Gave Them Over”… to a Pseudo-Social Justice?
A few days ago in America, gay marriage became the law of the land, following much of Europe (but not all – if it does get voted down it doesn’t really get reported). You may find it surprising to hear that as a Christian it is my personal conviction that the wide acceptance of gay marriage could have only happened in a Christian context – that is, in a society where a very strong measure of true love and tolerance is practiced.
I know people will laugh at that, and say, “No, it is the Enlightenment that is doing that work”. Well sure, to some degree… you see, in my view the “Enlightenment” is simply the most sophisticated and deadly of Christian heresies yet developed.
Morally, it hijacks Christianity’s emphasis on the dignity of the individual person and it praise of sacrificial service, particularly to the oppressed. Taking cues from Christian notions of love and freedom, it elevates the importance of the notion of “consent” (if you love something you, like the “prodigal father” in Luke 15, “let it be free” – this is the reason why free consent is considered to be at the heart of marriage in the West[ii]). And, at least until the “Enlightened” gain enough power, the Enlightenment mimics the Christian God’s impartiality and forebearance with its notions of “equality” and “tolerance”. In addition, taking its cue from the incarnation of God’s Son in history, it accentuates our sense of, and respect for, the empirical. It also assumes that the world is ordered and that our sensory equipment is likewise ordered, and reliable. In like fashion, the new life and transformation the love of Christ brings becomes progress and evolution.
In sum, there is a reason that notions of social justice find a home among those who identify with the person of Jesus Christ. Social justice came from Christianity. There is also, of course, a “Christless social justice” which largely conforms to God’s law and can do some real good in the world. That said, there is also a ”social justice” that certainly does more harm.
So how does this apply to last Friday’s decision? In short, when many in the West hear about the rather small minority of a small minority who want to get married (well mostly, because of the irresponsibility of the mainstream media, most falsely think there are a) lots of gay persons, and b) lots of gay persons who want to be involved in a committed, monogamous union – read Jonathan Last’s excellent piece here) they do, because they are moved by feelings of compassion, really want them to have that opportunity to know love (of course, how long this idea of gay marriage will last is anyone’s guess).
As Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court wrote yesterday’s decision:
“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right…. Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”
As a Christian, I am a bit moved by that – even as all of us should know that love is about a whole lot more than the feeling of being [sexually] desired that overrides the feeling of loneliness. After all, most Americans claim the name of Christ, and who among us doesn’t want other human beings – those made in the image of God and bought with the blood of the Son of God Himself – to know some real measure of genuine love and affection in the world (and if you don’t feel that way, the “social justice” machine reasons, maybe you will feel the need to be “liked” by the world – see here from David French)?
But please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Christian teaching ever really supported gay marriage in particular or homosexual activity in general. I am saying that this current “justice” is a social justice mimic – this kind of sentimentality is a genuinely internal but nevertheless anemic, faulty, and imperfect imitation of what is in fact true love, compassion, and affection.[iii]
From my viewpoint, even the most “Christian” nations in world history have never been that convincingly Christian. As Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has not been tried.” Still, in nations where it has held some sway, I would argue that such heart-felt sentiments found in the general populace – mirroring the ones of those actually devoted to Christian teachings – have served us well. For example, we might be surprised to hear that world history, until re-oriented by Christian conviction, actually revealed a general lack of concern regarding children, women, and the practice of slavery.
So, for the first time in world history, things actually changed in the West (and no Ms. Goldstein, it was not primarily because of philosophy) – and this was indeed true progress! But now, the train is coming off the rails… To borrow an illustration from Douglas Wilson, secularists have gotten into the car that is Christian morality and sentiment and – many not knowing what they do – are doing their best to crash it. Often unaware of the Christian cultural capital with which they progress…. they naively operate with the assumption that “man is the measure of all things” – even when they are increasingly losing the basis for any coherent idea of what constitutes “man” in the first place.
So, a short review of this first section’s argument: even though Christianity is opposed to gay marriage, Christians still have a genuine compassion for all persons – even enemies – and want them to know true love and care. But this true empathy, affection, etc. gets perverted by those under the influence of Christianity into a false social justice – and true Christianity is loathe to fight back with the weapons of the world. There is a very good reason why, when it comes to Christianity’s moral sense, philosophers like Nietzsche and co-religionists like Muslims have considered Christianity to be weak because of its compassionate tendencies.[iv]
As things stand now, it seems to me that there is no longer any real basis for thinking that America will continue to be a vehicle for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of [true] happiness”. Rather, because of our false God, we are increasingly embracing “death, slavery, and the pursuit of misery” – even if many have little or no awareness of this fact, due to an exceptionally wicked case of suppressing the truth.
But who is this God whom our nation serves?
Part II – America’s Self-Made Trinity Clearly Identified
So now, my question: Who is the true God in whom America – and perhaps most quarters of the Western world – trusts?
I submit that they are the Self-made Holy Trinity of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism – and somehow, we are gods with them. Such is the shape of our contemporary hubris. Or perhaps – as these gods Christianity made thinkable and possible give way as its influence dissipates – the gods of the West will really end up being like the gods those like Homer and Sapphos, or Epicurus and the Stoics, may have thought about. Ultimately perhaps, those are the gods we are veering towards… That said, there is, I think, good reason to doubt that this will happen (more later).
Let’s take a closer look at our current Trinity.In a recent article discussing a piece about Bruce Jenner that brought up Alan Bloom’s 1992 book The American religion: the emergence of the post-Christian nation, Ross Douthat insightfully commented:
Bloom’s language definitely delivers something, and that something helps to illumine the strong religious element (however unstated or subconscious) in what we generally describe as social liberalism today. Since the 1960s that element has been addressed repeatedly by minds more brilliant than mine (from Philip Rieff to Robert Bellah), but it tends to slip out of view in public debates because the liberal vanguard, from its legal enablers to its journalistic cheering section, is so avowedly secular. And that slippage, in turn, limits our understanding of what’s really happening in our society…
But as Wilkinson and Bloom and Jenner him/herself would all remind us, in America a rights-based morality wins converts in part because the rights it champions are still ordered in some sense toward a (very American) sort of end. Freedom is good in and of itself, to a point, but it’s ultimately good because it enables us to pursue God/the divine spark/the True Self/the Original Adam, and in finding it, fulfill our true destiny and reach our perfect end. Natural law or biblical morality aren’t being rejected in favor of a purposeless freedom, in other words, but rather in favor of a higher law that fulfills a higher purpose, bringing salvation neither through faith nor works but through a gnostic revelation about Who We Really Are.
Here is the god Freedom. Redemption is not found in Christ who forgives our sin and in the perfect law of God that brings freedom (Gal. 5:1, 2 Cor. 3:17, James 1:25), but rather in the authenticity of our choices that make us who we are. Thank you Mr Douthat, for that insightful piece of cultural and religious commentary.
And before the Roman Catholic columnist Douthat, there was of course the Roman Catholic columnist G.K. Chesterton, already mentioned above. He was a masterful writer who had his finger on the pulse of the modern world – the words he wrote about a century ago seem ever more relevant today. Gene Veith, on his Cranach blog here at Patheos, recently shared the following quote about the god Progress:
“A generation is now growing old, which never had anything to say for itself except that it was young. It was the first progressive generation – the first generation that believed in progress and nothing else…. [They believed] simply that the new thing is always better than the old thing; that the young man is always right and the old wrong. And now that they are old men themselves, they have naturally nothing whatever to say or do. Their only business in life was to be the rising generation knocking at the door. Now that they have got into the house, and have been accorded the seat of honour by the hearth, they have completely forgotten why they wanted to come in. The aged younger generation never knew why it knocked at the door; and the truth is that it only knocked at the door because it was shut. It had nothing to say; it had no message; it had no convictions to impart to anybody…. The old generation of rebels was purely negative in its rebellion, and cannot give the new generation of rebels anything positive against which it should not rebel. It is not that the old man cannot convince young people that he is right; it is that he cannot even convince them that he is convinced. And he is not convinced; for he never had any conviction except that he was young, and that is not a conviction that strengthens with years.” (G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News of July 9, 1921)
But here is where I must say “Mr. Chesterton – of course they had convictions!” For example, these Victorian Britons you wrote of were convicted, along the lines of American pragmatism, that “it works”. This is the god Pragmatism. Peirce, James, Dewey (and then Rorty) did not come out of nowhere after all – but the Western world was quite ready for their ideas! And not only that, but as outlined by this liberal college professor, many today are evidently convinced – frighteningly! – that purely identity politics will “work” (so much for the careful and nuanced “social imaginary” Charles Taylor talks about?). Whether avowedly secular, socially liberal or religious, or even claiming the Christian faith, many are confident that – they feel – “it works” or at least “it is going to work”. As regards what truth is, that’s all one needs to know.
Part III – The Impact of Secular Humanist Currents
I’ll come back to some more of G.K.’s pithy wisdom later on in this rambling essay. But first, let’s lay some groundwork for that wisdom, so that we can all start “connecting the dots”, as they say. Recently, on the blog of a prominent Darwinist philosopher, a commenter said in part:
“…it is in fact easier to be moral in a secular context than in a religious context because you can recognize clearly the returns from being rationally altruistic, how it affects society and benefits your self interest.”
The late Christopher Hitchens said much the same thing in his debate with Al Sharpton (more on Hitchen’s views below). And here, in the midst of our gods Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism, we have a common explanation of what it means to be moral from within a purely secular worldview. Many of our secular elites would no doubt resonate with this quote above to one degree or another – even as they, like Hitchens*, would want to clarify (understandably) that they nevertheless do not really view morality as functionalist, pragmatic or calculating (see his comments in a debate here), but as a matter that, because of “human solidarity”, really does bind their healthy consciences (because we know we can’t “get along” without the innate morality healthy human beings possess in themselves, and we can’t live with ourselves if we violate this morality – even if we can’t explain why our morality is as it is). They also might want to assert, like he did, that they get a reward simply in doing good actions themselves – perhaps feeling good about the future results of a blood donation, for example.
All of this said, this kind of “practical reason” (yes, for you philosophers – I did use those words intentionally) nevertheless tells us that, if one does “good” things (again, often thought to be synonymous with “pleasurable”) in the world, one will receive “good” things in turn. And even after the idea of a personal God has been banished or downplayed, perhaps it is hard to totally escape the sense that something like the Eastern idea of Karma does indeed exist (as our conscience, whatever its state, still manages to tell us that something is wrong with us and the world – see here). Even secular Karma-rejecters might still posit that rationally doing “good” to the right people (Hitchens: “compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity”) will generally result in one eventually receiving “good” back – albeit with some “luck” (chance) certainly involved in the process.
So I think that the quote that I stated above about “returns for rational altruism” – the hope and confidence that, taken as a whole, one’s “good” will be reciprocated in more than merely getting good feelings about being good – can be refined and nuanced a bit, but basically comes out unscathed. And with that said, here is the real key thing I’d like to share: upon reflection, the quote reminded me of Hitchen’s critique of Mother Theresa: namely that she did the things she did only because she knew that she would somehow and someway be rewarded by God – in this life and the next.
Regarding Hitchen’s view of Theresa vis a vis his own view, it seems to me that while he believes that doing “good” (understood as that which brings pleasure to one’s self or others – which in turn is pleasurable – as this clip of him talking about the purpose of life makes clear) is generally rewarded in the world, Mother Theresa believes that doing good will be rewarded in this life or the life to come by God. This does not mean that either would deny that doing good merely out of fear of punishment and hope of reward is highly unsatisfactory – in fact, as both have said, we should simply feel the need to and want to do what is right apart from such carrots and sticks.[v]
Another big difference, of course – made very obvious by the emergence of same-sex marriage and its full acceptance – is that for all of Hitchen’s talk about “innate morality”, his “good” can evolve and Mother Theresa’s cannot.
So, in short, when it comes to Hitchen’s view of Mother Theresa’s morality my hypothesis is that he: a) said out loud what many secular elites think is true, and b) did not see the similarities between his own viewpoint and hers, and c) as regards the differences, he did not discern that he was actually projecting his own exceptionally common but anemic moral viewpoint – namely, that if one gives the “pleasure” to others that they want, one will tend to be rewarded with “pleasure” in return (however much he might try to nuance and make more sophisticated and “human” the essential features of this position). On the contrary though, what is good is more than what is pleasurable and what is evil is about more than what is painful (and we’ll assume that most folks are not as willing as Richard Dawkins is, for example, about saying that he does not believe that good and evil really exist).
So what am I getting at? I would suggest that among our elites the moral philosophy of choice – if only by their practice and not in their theory – basically reduces to shear Epicureanism (Stoicism, with its empirical emphases, would be similar in many ways but would not be as eager to expel or downplay the idea of some kind of mind responsible for the cosmos, and hence is not amenable to acting as a counter to Christianity). I realize that many would want to claim Enlightenment folks like Kant or Hegel for their side but I say “no” – you’re actually a flat-out Epicurean”, and as we progress in this essay I will try to unpack why this is necessarily the case.
Part IV – All Philosophers – Even Epicureus – Have Teleology
And all persons are philosophers as well, to this or that extent. Now, one must not think that I am being overly insulting here by calling people Epicureans in the last section (well… I will admit that “bad body” Hitchen’s own rather pathetic – and deplorable – take on the matter of purpose in one’s life does seem to earn more negative connotations of this word – see here). As any good philosopher will tell you, “Epicurean”, contrary to its popular notions, does not signal unbridled hedonism – it simply means the responsible pursuit of good things in life – the pleasures of this world. I mean really – who today is arguing with that? (the Christian can say that these are God’s gifts and we may even seek them here or there, but they are to be accorded a second place when it comes to our devotion[vi]).
Of course there are a variety of philosophies in the world, and all have something to say about how one should live. In fact, I recently claimed that “all philosophy is morality and teleology”, and I will now develop that point a bit here. This, I admit, is something I think many if not most professional philosophers might take umbrage with – in spite of someone like Socrates’ emphases… Stated a bit more carefully, perhaps we could say that all significant questions and problems philosophers attempt to seriously address and make conclusions about emerge in part because of specifically moral – and teleological (with happiness or contentment being the end) – considerations.[vii]
Of course, the teleological assumptions of Christians and other theists run contrary to those of the Epicurean. In a recent post I said the following:
“…Christians are those who make assertions not only about what is true about God and man, but the rest of His creation and the personal intentions discerned within. This means, among other things, that ancient metaphysical ideas of “substance”, for example, align more closely with the teachings of the Bible than does the Kantian alternative, still in vogue today in a myriad of different forms (underlying a whole spectrum of “mediating theologies”). To say this does not mean that man can, with or without the Scriptures, accurately discern and assert the intrinsic purposes of all the things in the cosmos. It does mean however, that even without taking the Scriptures to be God’s word, man is able to accurately discern and assert some of the intrinsic purposes of some of the things within it.”
As I look at what I wrote above I don’t really disagree – but I am seeing it as a bit anemic itself – in that the statement seems to focus on the parts at the expense of the whole. In any case, I will explore the idea of discernible purposes more in a moment – looking more closely at “conservative Enlightenment” folks like Kant. But only after a few caveats expounding on my statement above.
First, as I have argued before, in part because the above is true I do not think that a highly secular worldview – particularly an atheistic one – is “intellectually viable” – and I think the most observant of the “nones” realize this (and have begun to gradually acknowledge this, as I argued here). In short, the idea that one need not posit a personal Mind/God or gods at all is not going to cut it and I would be surprised if – in search for “ordering principles” to counter out-of-control individualism and identity politics – we do not see secular persons embracing explicitly religious and philosophical ideas more and more.
Second, when I speak of this design in the universe, I think of it not primarily in terms of science, math and engineering but rather of art and choreography[viii], with all the things therein having roles to play in a dance that brings gladness to men’s hearts (see Acts 14, where Paul talks about the joy God gives to all people). Therefore, while we certainly do not ignore, for example, the significance of the “mechanical engineering” of the “parts” of male and female that “produce” children (see this article), the understanding of reality that I am speaking of here encompasses this organic family into a complete picture that is more mature, and characterized primarily by the beauty and joy that emerge from the natural roles at play.
Third, as I noted in a previous post, Christians assert that believing in some kind of design in the world (often called “natural law” or the “law of nature”) does not mean that even everything that appears natural in humans is “good”. For example, as I noted above, racism, slavery, and the oppression of women, children, and the poor have at times throughout history – even to the greatest and most noble of thinkers – seemed to be “natural” to man (and these can only be countered with deliberate human intention, for whatever motivations), but in truth are corruptions of purpose and “not the way it is supposed to be”.[ix]
In any case, I argue because of these things above, we human beings we cannot but address the role-playing entities in our world merely with what philosophers call a “relational ontology”. We must take time and care to directly and lovingly address the “things” of this world – in spite of concerns about reducing them to their qualities, “objectifying”, “fetishization”, etc, etc. This means that we must address “human beings” as things as well then (or seemingly even more radical: human being as a thing) – for any argument about the purpose of human beings – even if this reduces to radical individuality – must necessarily rest on an account of who “man” is.
And how to discern this? The modern day philosopher Wendell Berry has asked the question – even in the title of one of his books – “what are people for?” The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant – bolstered, in truth, by a uniquely biblical vision of man in which God is “no respecter of persons” – had provided the answer in part that barely continues to hold on – barely – today: because of their inherent dignity, human beings were never to be treated as means to an end. Christopher Hitchens liked to claim that the idea that we are persons created in the image of God “gets you nowhere”.[x] But what he completely misses is that, when we might not feel like loving our neighbor, this is just the reason why we want to overcome those feelings and treat persons the way that we do – even to feel real affection for them. Because they are objectively valuable and possess dignity in the eyes of God. Humanity is good – period.
Part V – Observing Kant Being Dissolved in Epicurean Acid
So Immanuel Kant, unlike Christopher Hitchens, believed that human morality was rooted not just in “human solidarity” but in each individual person being created with unique dignity and worth. That said, Kant’s moral philosophy also highly elevated the notion of the “categorical imperative”, which also is, according to Kant, justified as an end in itself. In short, it says “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This, of course, is a variation of the positive formulation of the Golden Rule, stated positively by Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Jesus’ “Golden Rule”, while resembling those that came before it (they said: “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you…”) was unique in that Christ also assumed the “brotherhood” of man. In other words, all persons were neighbors, being the offspring of God. As an online acquaintance of mine recently put it, “the Golden Rule… is not hospitably grounded in all [worldview] alternatives…”.
So what is the problem with Kant’s view of this? Didn’t he basically believe the same thing? No. For Kant, things like morality, the reality of personhood, and belief in God all reside in the realm of what he calls “practical reason” (as opposed to “pure reason”). While the biblical teaching would treat all of these things as knowledge all men have or should have (the truth can be greatly suppressed in conjunction with the searing of one’s conscience), for Kant it is only things like geometry, mathematics, and nature’s laws that can count as such. Things like personhood, God, and ethics are real, says Kant, but we certainly can’t say that we have anything like knowledge about such things – only strong convictions. This further means that in Kant’s view the dignity of personhood and morality are intrinsic, but this has no connection with how things appear in the sensible world. The given empirical properties of all the things in the world simply cannot be associated with any corresponding purposes that we can know. Again, in truth, when it comes to the world we can literally know no such things because only the transcendent and intelligible world – similar to Plato’s forms – matters.
This being said, it is still certainly true that for Kant, the thing of “humanity” and “personhood” can be said to be a transcendent inner kernel within us – i.e. something that cannot be increased or diminished or destroyed and that we have an absolute duty to respect (see here). But all this said, here is the key: with Kant, there is no reason to think that what it means to be a human person cannot evolve and be changed – which of course means morality can change with it.Part of this change – started by others, but set into more furious motion by Kant – is that we become Enlightenment men who never depend on external authorities and tradition. This, literally, changes everything. Here, the autonomous individual comes to reign over all, and the effect on morality is subtle, but powerful. For example, in Jesus’ day, it would make sense to think of the Golden Rule from a more communal perspective: “I will not commit adultery with another man’s daughter because I would not want him to do so with mine – even if she might want to do that”.
Nowadays however – and this would have horrified Kant as well – the rule can be, and often is, turned on its head by the increasingly autonomous pleasure-seeking individual, cut off from really trusting others to give them truth or live in truth: “If I would like others to offer consequences-free sex to me, it is only right that I would offer it to them”. Really, freed from the natural “consequences” of sexual activity – and with new technologies assisting us every day – who is really going to insist that this could not become a universal law? That Kant’s “categorical imperative” can’t evolve as well? You and what army, er, knowledge? It seems to me that Epicurus and Lucretius, newly empowered by Darwin, were right: what is ultimately good is what brings me pleasure. Literally, “all things in moderation”, or in proportions that I judge to be proper (soon to be “proportional” and “proper” once again?)
And now of course, the kinds of morality put forth by Enlightenment figures have now metasticized further due to more existentialistist currents, where the authenticity of our moral choices – driven by instinctual desire – has become the primary consideration. We note the 1992 Planned Parenhood vs. Casey decision of the Supreme Court: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
And here our new modern, now breathing in this existentialist atmosphere, quickly chymes in:
“Of course it’s not just about me! Just because I want to be authentic, and believe “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, doesn’t mean I don’t want to love everybody – or love everyone that loves me that is! What that Kant fellow says about that “not treating persons as means to ends” stuff sounds like a good idea. We should definitely do that as much as possible and seek that great “common good” idea… Why can’t some “hedonism” (as you call it) go hand in hand with “human flourishing” or even “world flourishing?”
Of course notions of the “common good” have now been subtlely re-defined – perhaps formulated as something like “the aggregate sum and fulfillment of as many individual’s desires as possible”.
And here, at this point, G.K. Chesteron’s critique of “progress” comes to mind, essentially pointing out how when man is the measure of all things, the goalposts are always changing.
“Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit our vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy…. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier.”
If progress without a fixed ideal is absurd than the modern notion of progress cannot help but be absurd – only “known” (trust me!) to the ones who have the power to enact their vision of progress with the ones they desire to be associated with (and this, after the fact [ad hoc], can then be “justified independently” – in other words, said to be based in something very real and permanent yet distinct from evolving empirical realities – by some appeal to Platonic notions of proportionality, mathematics, etc). More from Chesterton:
“As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.” (Othodoxy, 105-108, Image books, 1959)
Chesterton would have us think more critically about what is real and imaginary progress. It seems to me that with the popular notion of progress, the hope of holding on to Kant’s assertion of persons not being reduced to means to ends is a pipe dream. And really, that train left the station even years before Kant tried to salvage it – hundreds of years ago. Though perhaps Francis Bacon did not really want it to come to this, what happened was that power became knowledge and knowledge became power, i.e. knowledge became basically reducible to technical knowledge or technique. That kind of thing is all a “person” needs to “know” (person in quotes since technique and method ultimately has in mind what “works”, i.e. “how to”/”know how”, not what is, or “know that”).
We are all “useful fictions” now.
Part VI – Will There Be a De-Secularization of the Self-Made American Trinity?
I have no idea. Will the West continue to become more secular, with nary a mention of a divine mind of one sort or another behind it all (I really doubt this)? Will the goddess reason maker her return – and perhaps find common cause with the Gaia hypothesis? (allowing for a “personal” if not so compassionate god that is at least – thank god – not “Abrahamic”) Will it adopt more Eastern forms of faith? Will Islam gain more influence and adherents longing for more moral stability? Will Christianity arise again?
I don’t know if any of us can know the answers to these questions.
For now, our “reasonable” (idolatrous) trinity of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism seems to be going quite strong. As R.R. Reno recently put it in his new thought-piece “Empire of Desire”:
The richest and most powerful countries in the world are dominated by an intellectual class that, however individually self-disciplined and well intentioned and personally influenced by inherited moral traditions, give metaphysical priority to desire. They train us to live as docile, dutiful citizens in the Empire of Desire, asking never what is right and true but instead what is “healthy” and “empowering…. Thus runs a world that has lost its capacity to dream of something higher than desire—something to desire.
In R.R. Reno’s Empire of Desire our desires – I would say for Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism – overcome the kingdom of God and the joy, peace and harmony it brings (with the focus on the good of one’s neighbor for Christ’s sake).
So, let’s assume that our secularism will continue to go strong, as it certainly is in places like Western Europe for example (see here for a vivid example)
In which case, hear atheist John Gray:
“In 1929, the Thinker’s Library, a series established by the Rationalist Press Association to advance secular thinking and counter the influence of religion in Britain, published an English translation of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s 1899 book The Riddle of the Universe. Celebrated as “the German Darwin”, Haeckel was one of the most influential public intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; The Riddle of the Universe sold half a million copies in Germany alone, and was translated into dozens of other languages. Hostile to Jewish and Christian traditions, Haeckel devised his own “religion of science” called Monism, which incorporated an anthropology that divided the human species into a hierarchy of racial groups. Though he died in 1919, before the Nazi Party had been founded, his ideas, and widespread influence in Germany, unquestionably helped to create an intellectual climate in which policies of racial slavery and genocide were able to claim a basis in science.”
Not only this, but one should check out the recent piece about the ideas of sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari in Edge.org: “Death is Optional”.[xi] Summing up the Edge.org article, Ross Douthat said:
“Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.”
Douthat’s summary is quite low-key and mild given the Edge.com article, which is an excessively jarring introduction to the incoming world of transhumanism.[xii] But then there is a recent article from Anthony Sacramone, discussing the movie Kingsman: the Secret Service. In it, he talks about what Maggie Gallagher – famous for her stand against gay marriage – said about the movie, which features an execution of a[n ugly] Christian congregation:
Gallagher goes on to describe how a work of sociology she had just finished reading, So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States? by George Yancey and David A. Williamson, recorded in chilling detail how some well-educated progressives indulge a sick preoccupation with inflicting pain on Christians, a blood lust resembling that of the Jihadis:
“I want them all to die in a fire,” said one man with a doctorate. “I would be in favor of establishing a state for them. . . . If not then sterilize them so they can’t breed more,” said a middle aged man with a master’s degree. “The only good Christian is a dead Christian,” said another under-45-year-old man with a doctorate. “I abhor them and I wish we could do away with them,” said a middle-aged woman with a master’s degree. “A tortuous death would be too good for them,” said a college-educated man between the ages of 36 and 45. “They should be eradicated without hesitation or remorse,” said an elderly woman with a master’s degree.
Who was Hollywood entertaining with Kingsman’s groundbreaking displays of orgiastic pleasure in witnessing a Christian massacre? All the good people above, who would never, I am sure, commit violence against Christians, but for whom the idea of doing so gives a guilty pleasure.[xiii]
As regards how long Christianity moral capital will – including the idea of love for enemies – will continue to be of use to discourage and fight such things, take into consideration the words of Curtis White, who writing against the “New Atheists” scientistic tendencies also says the following:
“Like Hitchens, I am an atheist, if to be an atheist means not believing in a CEO God who sits outside his creation, proclaiming edicts, punishing hapless sinners, seeking vengeance on his enemies, and picking sides in times of war. This God and his hypocrite followers have been easy targets for enlightened wit since Rabelais, Moliere, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and our own Mark Twain.” (p. 28, The Science Delusion)
At this point, let’s now go back to the claim I made at one point above … namely, that the problem is that all of our thinking about reality today operates under the spectre of Epicurus and Lucretius, empowered by Darwin. This is particularly true of our elites, many of whom have, to some degree, thought about how all of this works out intellectually. I now further assert: this is the framework that our elites work within, and one need not delve into the reasons this view of the world would be popular (it is the perfect frame to accomodate the desires which flow from original sin – see here for more).
Again, if they do not want to embrace the more extreme hedonistic implications some have seen in Epircurus’ thinking, they nevertheless must work within this frame to effect the change they desire and think should happen. Epicurus is “harnessed” and his “swerve” (the idea that nature works by set laws, but there is occasionally the “swerve” of the atom that introduces opportunities for chance, contingency, ideas of freedom, etc.) is utilized then as we attempt to “control” our evolution, pushing things in the direction they think best, and using either soft or hard power to marginalize the viewpoints that conflict most seriously with their vision.
In sum, when it comes the Christian God, our elites, whether they be philosophical naturalists or Romantics like White, know which side they are on. It doesn’t matter if you are a driven materialist, praising science and how practical truth is, or one more given to the literary world, exalting poetry and the unity of man. Or if you are a Christopher Hitchens, trying to straddle the middle. What the elites of the Western World have in common is that the ends they choose are fused with the secular gods of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism…. Yes, as I said in my review of Dreyfus’s and Kelley’s All Things Shining, even grace-drive pagan elites are ridden by the devil.All of this does not surprise the Christian. As fallen creatures, humans are constantly trying to justify ourselves before others – this is an aspect of how we try to gain “salvation”. This is true of all of us regardless of what one thinks about whether or not there are absolute moral truths that do not change. The Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer offers this helpful perspective:
As it is in my own life history, so it is in world history, is a part. We should speak more cautiously and soberly in the plural, of world histories: namely, the histories of great social groups or movements; the histories of alliances, nations, and blocs; histories which stand apart and never merge into a world history in the singular. These world histories are nothing but the histories of the seeking, enforcing, denying, or lacking of mutual recognition. They are the histories of vindications and the assigning of guilt. They are one long story of the battle for mutual recognition, a life and death battle. In this regard, then, we can indeed speak of a world history in the singular (Bayer, Justification and Sanctification, p. 4)[xiv]
God made us moral creatures, and so it should not surprise us that we keep or discard our views of the world first and foremost on these considerations. Even if statistics showed that black children raised in white homes tend to be more successful in society than those raised in black homes, we rightly wouldn’t care. It simply would not matter because our convictions about what is right and wrong will always trump even good and responsible efforts at social science. All of us, whatever our background and worldview, cannot help but be most concerned about the truth we feel about how we should act – how we relate to and think we should relate to others takes center stage. Again, this – and not something like rationality or empirical evidences pointing to this or that trend, for example – will be our primary consideration when it comes to whether or not we continue in or discard the views of the world we receive and form earlier on in life.
The Christian will be concerned about this because he knows himself to be justified and will obey revelation which conforms to the intentions also clearly seen in nature – these are things we can know. The Epicurean will seek to justify and save himself and those he chooses to associate with through his deeds, as he intelligently works with the ordered but ultimately mindless and purposeless objects and laws of nature, seeking to attain whatever pleasures he realistically and sensibly can along the way (the more extreme ones, basically in line with Epicurus’ epistemology though not his morality, consciously seek, through science, complete knowledge of the laws of nature, and unending presence and power [to be god][xv]).
This view basically being the default view of the modern intellectual mileue, it seems obvious to some of us why many ideas are popular among them: increasingly unbounded sexual identity and autonomy, survival-oriented evolution, seeing the cosmos as being machine-like, the abandonment of the natural or “organic” family, etc (here one thinks of the Pope’s new encyclical, where he is constantly pointing out how “everything is connected”) Since Kant ended up saying that we can only have knowledge about mathematical and scientific truths and not morality (which yes, he again did think was true and real, just not able to be known like math and the phenomena), for example, he ends up supporting Epicurus, even if he did not intend to.
For all the modern cold and calculating “scientific objectivity” that we tend to think is out there, each one of us is really reaching for our own version of the “good life”, and apart from Christ, this can only mean comparing ourselves with other human beings and justifying our own behavior while condemning that of others. “My truth, your truth” is nonsense. We are all aiming for something as concerns right behavior, even if that something is not clear to us. And we all would like to have others join us, and will use all our power of persuasion – or perhaps more than this – when we think the time is right.
Why? Because as human beings we are all teleologically-oriented, even if we refuse to see the same in all of the things that God has created in His world.
In the midst of this, I am reminded of the movie Collision, featuring the debates of Christopher Hitchens and Douglass Wilson. Someone like Hitchens, for his part, says “Love your own enemies. My enemies are the theocratic fascists. I don’t love them – I want to destroy them.” (see here). On the other hand, Wilson points out that for the Christian: “Loving your enemies is not inconsistent with fighting them.”
But here we hasten to add that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) and “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2: 24-26).
The God of the Old and New Testaments is indeed coming to judge. But His ultimate goal is to save and not condemn. I note how Martin Luther, the 16th c. Church reformer described the attitude of a good hangman/executioner in talking about the death penalty: “When dealing with a wicked person, his thoughts are to be: “Oh, my God, how gladly I would die for this man, if it could be done!” (see more here)
For that is just what the Lord, who desires all persons to be saved, has done. And the Christian, above all, imitates this mercy (see Rom. 9:1-5).
Non-book Images: All from Wikipedia except gay white house (White House Twitter feed) and Rod Dreher (Twitter account pic)
[i] In another example, one pastor has said our principle should be “You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior.” This kind of saying might have some relevance when we talk about “disputable matters” or “adiaphora”, found for example in Romans 14 and 15. Further, the point is taken if the pastor means that we should not force another human being (who is not our child, for example) to behave in a certain way. All of this said, the problem with the statement is that all of us will inevitably use our conscience to not only determine how we should act, but how we should help others to act as well. Every human being has a certain range of acceptable behavior that they will accept and those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. We all have something to say, in one form or another, about how we think others should live.
Another example is that I resonate with this quote from a Lutheran pastor:
We won’t be discussing Supreme Court rulings today [in church]. The Supreme Court has no say over what goes on here – Bill Cwirla
— Donavon Riley (@DonavonRiley) June 28, 2015
And yet, I also suspect that there is much truth to this as well:
Pastors at every church in the US should be teaching about Biblical marriage today. Sadly, few likely did or ever will. This is the problem.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) June 28, 2015
I am glad that my pastor did not mention it in the sermon but did talk about it for a while in Bible class.
[ii] Regarding the nature of love, C.S. Lewis said:
“In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.”
It seems strange to say about one as great as Lewis, but Pastor John Fraiser points out some very real problems with this argument. That is why I propose the following instead:
“Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be robots.”
Luke 15 (“the prodigal son”) shows us how God is with us. This not only has theological but political implications.
[iii] Christianity is utterly unnatural – producing unique moral affections like nothing else (who else says “love your enemy” and really tries to mean it?). Again, because the West has been under its influence, it has formed the sentiments of even non-Christians such that a real kind of empathy – resonating with the strong affections and genuine feelings of devotion and commitment even some same-sex persons have for one another – can actually make some sense to us. So much sense in fact that we would be willing to think about – and then even legally recognize “gay marriages”!
After all, until recently in world history, gay marriage – the idea of two persons of the same sex being committed was never enshrined in any government’s law as a thing to be upheld, encouraged, or especially celebrated.
[iv] Who else care about oppressed, slaves, women? Who would care to identity with and find solidarity with each human person – even enemies? Who else would care to forego one’s right to unlimited sexual expression by unreasonably limiting one’s self within marriage? Those weak Christians. And yet….
In the past, I wrote this: “the level of personal freedom persons in the West have experienced is immense, and unarguably, unprecedented in human history. And I note that you will not find the nuanced and expansive view of rights that allows for this, which in Western societies (especially America) is part and parcel with respect for the freedom of the individual conscience – in any other society, where non-biblical religious ideas (polytheistic [hoi polloi], pantheistic [elites], etc.) are much more closely intertwined with the political. Hence, you will, for example, find that the politically active classes in no other society – not even pagan Greece and Rome – ever officially sanctioned and actively promoted things like gay marriage – hoping to elevate same-sex relationships to the same status as heterosexual ones – although throughout history there have been “variations on a common theme” (namely man-woman themes) when it comes to marriage. Quite frankly, only in a society buffered by so much biblical tolerance and patience (where the “habits of the heart” formed by the non-Christian’s imitation of the Christian [Christians could never “tolerate” *sanctioned* gay marriage] is what I am speaking of) could a thing like “gay marriage” occur (go read Luke 15 to see the attitude of the waiting, prodigal Father Jesus speaks of).”
[v] In a debate with Mr. Hitchens, when Dinesh D’Souza suggested that Mother Theresa did what she did for others out of love for God, Hitchens was disgusted by this. As one commenter online put it: “My favorite part was Hitchens standing the[re] with his drink in his hand snorting dismissive[ely] into the microphone while D’Souza was talking about Mother Theresa’s “love of Christ” for the suffering.” (comment here).
[vi] An interesting note on pursuing happiness: while behavior leading to children – and children who are nurtured well – is essential to humanity continuing and flourishing, social historian Peter N. Stearns, in his insightful book on happiness, “Satisfaction not Guaranteed”, points out that in late 20th century polls and surveys couples who decide to remain childless report having the highest levels of personal happiness. Also note that even if the “pursuit of happiness” is seen to be problematic from a Christian perspective (necessarily or potentially), simply desiring satisfaction and contentment for one’s self, one’s family, and one’s neighbor is unobjectionable.
[vii] As I said before here, “At the very least we can say this: in short, we should all be asking to what extent the sense of morality that we feel convictions about (often based on our personal experiences with others and our evaluations of the shorter or longer term consequences of our actions) drives or at least influences our consideration and evaluation of various kinds of evidence and their significance (correspondence theory of truth considerations) as well as various kinds of worldviews and their significance (coherence theory of truth considerations).”
[viii] As I begin this article: “The creation we know is not God’s machine or technology, but His living art, the distinct, unequal and beautiful but diseased partner with whom He dances.”
[ix] Note that this explains in part the enthusiasm that many practicing Christians had for the program of Francis Bacon – who as part of his critique of Aristotle criticized his “knowledge” about the discernible purposes of this or that thing – as well as for the program of the Enlightenment (are not even liberty, equality, and fraternity in fact biblical concepts? And where in the history of philosophy, has philosophical faith in “the force of the best reason”, for example, shown that “all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal rights”? Really, which non-Christians philosopher ever said this and what were his/her reasons? Yes, the silence is deafening….)
[x] Asserted, for example, in this debate.
[xi] Also see this short essay, where I discuss the implication of Harari’s ideas (which I think sum up most forcefully the thoughts of many elites), jumping off of a Washington post piece by Michael Gerson.
[xii] And hear Wesley Smith talk about transhumanism in his piece “Even Materialists Crave Religion”:
Transhumanist eschatology contains the Christian element of hope, but its believers expect that man—assisted by artificial intelligent machines, no God needed—will invent the means of attaining an immortal new age. In the transhuman New Jerusalem, we would live for thousands of years, perhaps by sharing uploaded consciousnesses in computer software programs or, if we remain physical, by self-designing our capabilities to resemble the characters in the X-Men comic books. Eventually, according to Princeton biologist Lee Silver in his transhumanist manifesto Remaking Eden (get the title?), humans will become immortal “mental beings”:
It is difficult to find words to describe the enhanced attributes of these special people. “Intelligence” does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. “Knowledge” does not explain the depth of their understanding of both the universe and their own consciousnesses. “Power” is not strong enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live.
Smith knows of what he writes. As Max Anderson, from Forbes magazine recently reports:
“Google has committed an investment up to $600 million into Calico (short for the California Life Company) to do anti-aging research and, as Time magazine puts it, to “solve death.” Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Sergey Brin (among others) have funded “Breakthrough Prizes for scientists who make discoveries that extend human life. Its $3 million payouts — given to six scientists each year — dwarf similar awards, including the Nobel Prizes, currently about $925,000.” [Peter] Thiel…. has invested in 25 biotech companies and has funded gerontologist Aubrey de Grey with $6 million, partly for the work of the Methuselah Foundation, whose near-term goal is to make “90-year-olds as healthy as 50-year-olds — by 2030.”
Who could argue with conquering death? Do not Christians say that death is evil? Yes, God forbid the tree of life and there is that Babel thing… and who is to say that the boats of the weak, poor and oppressed would not be lifted in this rising tide of death-defying mastery? Well, no… it is Jesus Himself who truly conquers death…. And not through us by means of our intelligence and technological mastery….
An interesting note: it seems someone like Hitchens would probably have found the transhumanist dream to be absurd…. (see here).
[xiii] More from Sacramone:
“If these living guardrails of History’s direction cannot realize their dream of seeing Christians die in large quantities, at the very least:
“Restrict their ability to become judges, senators, representatives, member of Cabinet, military chief of staff and other powerful members of government,” said a man over 75 with a bachelor’s degree. “Should not be able to make decisions regarding the law, they should somehow have to be supervised if they are working with other people (drastic, I know),” said a woman under 45 with a master’s degree. “We should put in place mandatory extreme prison sentences for anyone or any group that attempts to take away civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution,” said a middle-aged man with a master’s degree. “Churches should not be allowed to provide orphanages and adoption programs,” said one elderly man with a doctorate. “I think we should restrict the indoctrination of children in religious dogma and ritual” said a middle-aged man with a master’s degree. Conservative Christians should “not be allowed to hold political office, be police etc., serve in the armed forces,” said another middle aged man with a doctorate.
Can anyone dismiss such scenarios as far-fetched anymore?”
[xiv] On page 40 Bayer says: “The faith that works and shows its energy by love does not separate itself from the context of the dispute of “justifications” but moves in a certain way within it. The forensic structure of reality – being as judgment, being in mutual recognition – is not abolished but, as we have described it, fulfilled. In this sense the tradition of Old Testament and Near Eastern wisdom – the world order as communal faithfulness and justice – is caught up under the concept of love and thus brought to fulfillment. This many-sided and even, in itself, dissonant process of tradition has to be seen in its entire context. Luther does not restrict himself to an insular exposition of Paul. That is a common misunderstanding of his theology and of Article IV of the Augsburg Confession. The fact that the law finds fulfillment in love, and righteousness in mercy, leads into the broadest of social and cosmic relationships.”
On page 80: “Those who live in the dispute of “justifications,” asking about the ground of their own lives within this world, are told that everything is groundless and gratuitous, and they need not ground or justify themselves; it is grounded and justified only by God’s free and ungrounded Word of love. Under no obligation and without any condition, God promises communion, communion through and beyond death. The justification of the ungodly, the resurrection of the dead, and creation out of nothing all happen through this promise and pledge alone. The promise of God lets us live by faith.)”
[xv] In this day, such power is sought with the help of science and technology, and goes hand in hand with the way of thinking I describe as the modern scientific and technological mindset (or MSTM). I would characterize the MSTM as being set on overcoming everything seen to be a limit, and being reductionistic and pragmatic in practice. I do not mean to imply that the MSTM was the dominant or most important mode of thinking for most of the early modern scientists (most early scientists were more tempered by competing systems of understanding – particularly religious ones – that would compete against drives such as these) or that it was fully developed in those for whom it was the dominant or most important mode of thinking. More specifically, we can look at the MSTM in this way. It begin with an approach to the world called “methodological (not necessarily philosophical) naturalism” in the 17th century, was upgraded to include “pragmatic utilitarianism” in the 19th century, and has in recent years been upgraded to “systematic iconoclastic world-repurposing” towards man’s desires (late 20th and early 21st century). In some cases of course there were those who were “early adopters” of the upgrades. Again, what this all comes down to (endgame) is that we have behavior that can be described as being reductionistic and iconoclastic (limit and barrier breaking). This may leave us with some “laws of nature”, but also leaves us with moral lawlessness, where the ethical façade of the 19th c. “pragmatic utilitarianism” upgrade collapses altogether. At this point, we can say that there is nothing intrinsic about beauty, justice, and meaning, for example – i.e. beauty, justice, and meaning are only something that I/we (and those we choose to associate with) create / make / determine.
June 29, 2015 at 1:51 pm
Thanks, Nathan. Keep thinking and writing. Peace in Christ.