Wednesday, March 25, 2015

De Ioannes-Iacobus Russulus: Transparentia et Obstaculum de Jean Starobinski

De Ioannes-Iacobus Russulus: Transparentia et Obstaculum de Jean Starobinski

‘The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone.’
‘The Lord God then called to the man and asked him: “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”’

In the beginning of his Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger approaches the question of faith by way of the experience of doubt, of uncertainty, which he identifies as a characteristic of our time.[1] In the same post-war milieu the literary scholar and medical doctor Jean Starobinski wrote a dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ratzinger discusses the common difficulty facing believer and unbeliever today: neither one can claim the certainty of “being possessed of full knowledge.” The believer “is always threatened by the plunge into the void,” while the unbeliever who “may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain,” is also afflicted by doubt about whether positivism really has the last word…. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”[2]
In addition to the shared concern for “immediate certainty,” engaging the theologian’s contemporary voice is important because Starobinski’s interest is “anthropological in the broadest sense of the word,” exactly like Rousseau’s, and therefore both (Starobinski and Rousseau) are fundamentally religious thinkers, in the Christian sense of that term with its Hellenic and Hebraic roots.[3] Starobinski observes that Rousseau’s oeuvre represents “a continuous treatise on man”[4] as opposed to a great philosophical system. And in this continuous treatise Starobinski has rightly withheld from distilling a series of syllogisms or Questions along the lines of Thomas’s great Summa Theologica; rather he has identified a motif that helps to understand the unity of Jean-Jacques’ search for freedom. That motif is transparency and obstruction. Thus, Rousseau’s fundamental concern is with overcoming the media between the self and the other which prevent certain, immediate knowledge.
In his multi-work treatise on man, Rousseau is a participant in a very long tradition, and his concerns reflect his place in that tradition, his proximity to and distance from other writers and other concerns. But the fundamental questions are immediately recognizable: 1) the search for true knowledge, which for Rousseau is characterized by immediacy; 2) the relationship between man and his neighbor, between I and thou; 3) the place of God and of physis or kosmos. These three questions are obviously interrelated, and the answers to them have ever played upon one another, from Plato and Aristotle, through the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, and down to Rousseau.
Starobinski begins be leading us (or by letting Rousseau lead us, in his Confessions) to Rousseau’s earliest memories, in order to introduce us to transparency and to the veil of obstruction. At Bossey, Rousseau writes, he experienced a loss of transparency, with implications for his relationship with Nature (physis), with reality (kosmos), and with other persons, and, by the language he uses, we may suggest that this veil also had implications indirectly for his relationship with God:
“From that moment paradise is lost, for paradise was the state of transparent communication between mind and mind, the conviction that total, reliable communication is possible.”[5]

The allusion to paradise is telling: in the book of Genesis, paradise was the place of the right ordering of God’s creation, with his plan for the human person in his proper sphere. In Genesis, the fall of the man and the woman by their disobedience leads to a rift between them and God (from whom they hide), between one another (as they begin to hide their nakedness), and between them and Nature (as they are cast out of the garden and forced to till the soil by the sweat of the brow and to labor in great pain to deliver new life). The experience of alienation expressed through the biblical language has begun for Rousseau: “Before the self senses its distance from the world, it experiences its distance from others.”[6] Thus the motif of transparency is immediately followed with that of obstruction—the veil—covering others, covering the world, covering oneself through memory (as one’s innocence and happiness is lost to the past).[7]
            By this notion of obstruction Rousseau is engaged in a common theme. Morrison notes that Starobinski, making use of the contrast between paraître and être, appearance and being, is drawing upon the tradition of phenomenology: Starobinski recognizes that Rousseau’s thirst for true, immediate knowledge—particularly in regard to nature, when he leaves the company of men for solitude and experiences a lifting of the veil—is a reaching for being, for fundamental reality and not merely for correct facts. Given Rousseau’s milieu, this is an important point. The trajectory of the philosophic “mythology”—Reason lifting the veil of superstition from man’s face, allowing him to see true knowledge—involved a prizing of knowledge of the natural world (consider the apotheosis of Newton or the popularity of Franklin) and at the same time a dropping away of concern with being as such, with the ground of all being. (I suppose in Aristotelian terms, the final cause of the whole and of man fell away in favor of close application of the first three causes). But Rousseau remained concerned with être; his moral education and political philosophy are part of the treatise on man that consists in his study—explicitly in his latter works—of himself.[8] Starobinski identifies as the common feature across Rousseau’s works his goal of a “restoration of transparency”.[9]
            If Rousseau is set apart from the philosophes he lived among (broadly speaking), what about the more distant voices in the tradition “on man”? The removal of obstruction in the way of true knowledge is as old as Plato in the Greek tradition (and as we have seen goes back to Genesis in the Hebrew tradition, though in a covenantal rather than epistemological relation). It would seem Rousseau shares in the platonic epistemological structure: he can see true realities behind or above the level which the mass of mankind knows, and he places great importance upon memory and distant origins of man, which is reminiscent of platonic nostalgia. Moreover, his inner conviction, articulated by his character Julie as immaterial, “immediate communication” with no need for speech or writing (or even bodies), is suggestive of platonic knowledge-as-participation. The connections are there perhaps, yet Rousseau’s is not platonic philosophy: his are intensely personal, individual concerns (think of his descriptions of the love affairs in his own life, and the relationships in La nouvelle Héloïse). Furthermore, for that classic figure of the sage, whether for Plato or Aristotle or (especially) the Stoics, control of the passions and obedience to Reason was essential.[10] Consider Aristotle’s three kinds of life described in Book I of the Ethics: the life spent in pursuit of pleasure, the life of public affairs, and the life of contemplation. All those who are ruled by their emotions and have no self-control are “choosing the kind of life lived by cattle.” Aristotle considers the vast majority of men to be “absolute slaves.” If Rousseau also holds that men are everywhere in chains, the cause lies in society itself, not in the common man’s ignorance of philosophy.
            In fact, for Rousseau, emotions are of entirely different import: “In these extraordinary moments immediate feeling is immediately expression. To be moved and to display emotion are one and the same.”[11] In philosophizing itself, in making judgments, one participates in the veiling rather than in unveiling. That is why for Rousseau childhood and origins are so important. “Sensation is always correct,” and, with Condillac: “if error enters in, it does so only insofar as we presume to judge.”[12]
            It becomes clear thus that Rousseau is a thinker who is firmly situated after or within Christian thought, and also that his position is closer to that of Augustine than that of Thomas Aquinas. Rousseau’s concern with universal human dignity bear the mark of Christian influence, yet his experience of alienation which is so fundamental for him is strongly at odds with the great stability of Aquinas’s system. Indeed, it is the confidence of scholastic (and classical) thought in its own judgments which is so lacking in Rousseau. If Aquinas distinguished between the rational and sensitive souls in sober statement of man’s place at the summit of the material world, Rousseau is confident in sensation and emotion, but distrusts ratio.
            Rousseau is in a conundrum: he has the same concern with être, but not the same confidence in reaching it. Josef Pieper describes the scholastic/classical position:
“The spiritual being is [in Aquinas’s words] ‘capable of grasping the whole of being’… That is the tradition of Western philosophy: to have spirit, or to be spirit, means to exist in the midst of the whole of reality and before the whole of being… That is what is meant by the proposition omnes ens est verum (everything that is, is true)—though we have almost ceased to understand it—and by the complementary proposition that being and truth are interchangeable concepts. (What does truth mean, where things are concerned, the truth of things?) ‘A thing is true’ means: it is known and knowable, known to the absolute spirit, knowable to the spirit that is not absolute.”[13]

Starobinski puts Rousseau’s goals thus: “To be oneself and to see the truth: he wants both, and he wants each by means of the other.”[14] The problem is that Rousseau is distrustful of communication itself, and therefore of the means of knowing. Society did not see the truth of him, and his own attempts through writing to convey himself fail as well (forcing him to try again and again). He therefore withdraws from society.
            In Rousseau’s final withdrawal to inaction (as well as his request to be imprisoned) we are reminded of comparisons: Albert Camus and his rebellion, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Boethius and his consolation. His struggle to maintain authenticity is intensely individualistic, always returning to himself and always questioning his relationship with society as a whole and with other actual acquaintances. Unlike Camus, his rebellion cannot involve actual brotherly charity. Unlike the Underground Man, his isolation can achieve some measure of meaning and even of freedom.[15] But unlike Boethius, philosophizing can offer no remedy.          
* * *
The religious element (especially the Fall) would seem to generalize Rousseau’s strivings into an a-historical tradition of the essential condition of man, and to some extent this is proper as such is the domain claimed by philosophy in the broad sense in which Rousseau participated. But on the other hand, Rousseau is asking timeless questions in a very particular time and place. And to the extent which he critiqued the evils of history, which place man “everywhere in chains,” he speaks to a particular experience of alienation and isolation in the midst even of society that is the condition of the human person in the modern age. To the extent that he strongly criticized the project of the philosophes, he remains a defiant rebel today, as the iterations of the Enlightenment project are continuously generated. In this way in particular, he speaks to the post-modern doubt that characterized the milieu in which Starobinski worked and in which Ratzinger wrote his Introduction.
Thus we return to the beginning: Christopher Bertram says that Rousseau’s primary concern throughout is to preserve human freedom, yet he is at the same time “consistently and overwhelmingly pessimistic that humanity will escape from a dystopia of alienation, oppression, and unfreedom.”[16] As Starobinski well demonstrates, Rousseau’s pessimism was grounded for him in the very experience of his own inability to convey his true self to others immediately. But perhaps a path exists to break beyond Rousseau’s veiled “I” (even if he himself never took that path). In his tales of the unveiling statues (Galatea and the wicked idol), Rousseau provides the “initial gift, given unconditionally” (of existence [Galatea] and truth [from Christ]).[17] But does not that unconditional gift describe the place of each person—of Rousseau himself? In contrast to the identity of man as having a freedom of unrestrained volition which has been the achievement of the Enlightenment, this “givenness” precedes the will in both the order of time and that of existence. Rémi Brague has raised this point in the context of his call to return from Aristotle to Plato and be confronted by ontological goodness. Brague asks, “How can I tolerate not having created myself?...If and only if I come from some utterly good principal”[18] The soul of Descartes’s disembodied ego may be faced with insurmountable isolation, obstructed by a veil that may hide nothing at all. But that is not in fact the condition in which man finds himself. Man is from first to last in relationship.
In this way, Rousseau is closer to Augustine than to Aquinas. At the time of his conversion, Augustine looks for God along the path of (platonic) philosophy, in his dialogic Soliloquia. How can I know that I know God? But much later, in his own Confessiones, Augustine reveals to us one side of his cor ad cor loquitor with God. Less Greek and more biblical, Augustine is in a covenantal relationship rather than an analytic epistemological act: You have made me for yourself. Though the idea of personal relationship to God remains at most in the background in Rousseau, inter-personal communion, communion personarum, does in fact arise as at least an ideal of overcoming the obstruction. Rousseau, then, for all his pessimism, is not a nihilist; there really is être behind the paraître, and the way to reach it, as for Augustine, is through love. And so we return to the milieu of Starobinski and of Ratzinger (perhaps not so different from our own today) in the relevance of Rousseau’s thought. Ratzinger suggests that the article of the creed that “expresses the unparalleled experience of our age” is the descent into hell—the absence of God. This absence is for Rousseau the very experience of human beings in their condition of living under a veil and participating in the covering over of transparency. But perhaps Rousseau, in his internal convictions, hinted at an Augustinian path beyond doubt through love:
“God has drawn a veil across his face, but Julie penetrates the veil that separates matter from spirit, life from death.”[19]

Works Cited
Aristotle. Ethics. In The Philosophy of Aristotle. Trans. J.L. Creed and A.E. Wardman. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2003.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1968.
——. Soliloquies. Trans. C.C. Starbuck. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Ed. Philip Schaff.(Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
Brague, Rémi. “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014): 47-52.
Pieper, Josef. Liesure the Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. London, England: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1952.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[1] He wrote this book in 1967.
[2] Ratzinger, 45 (emphasis mine).
[3] Starobinski, xxxiv.
[4] Starobinski, 273.
[5] Starobinski, 8.
[6] Starobinski, 10.
[7] Starobinski, 11-12.
[8] “Rousseau was totally preoccupied with one affaire: his own” (Starobinski, 22).
[9] Starobinski, 13.
[10] Aristotle, Ethics I, 317.
[11] Starobinski, 138.
[12] Starobinski, 26.
[13] Joseph Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture , 115-116.
[14] Starobinski, 80.
[15] “Rousseau, unlike most previous moralists, is not content merely to criticize external things: he incriminates the external in his very definition of evil. This condemnation is merely the counterpart of an exculpation that claims, once and for all, to save man’s inner essence” (Starobinski, 20).
[16] Bertram, Christopher, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[17] Starobinski, 78-79.
[18] Rémi Brague, “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014), 52.
[19] Starobinski, 118. It is true that Starobinski reads this as a “triumph of the veil” in the inevitability of death. But may one not question his reading of the gaze of the Judge (God) and his opposition between community and salvation? For Augustine and Aquinas, and perhaps also for Rousseau, to the extent that he received the Christian tradition, the gaze of the beatific vision is salvation is communion. As John has it, “I and the Father are one” and  “If you remain in my word…, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” and “this is eternal life: that they know you” (10:30, 8:13, 17:3).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Nature as Replacement or Reflection of God?

I don’t take atheism lightly. I think there is the possibility of a cohesive argument against the existence of God. I don’t think it would be foolproof or uncontestable; but I can imagine it being formidable.

That said, I find the common contemporary arguments against theism extremely lacking. (Perhaps the same can be said for the common contemporary arguments against atheism. I don’t know.) What I find extremely lacking is the ability to perceive of the theist’s point-of-view—not to agree with it, but to understand it. As such, most of the arguments assume their conclusion, and then it is no wonder they “find” it.

Here is one example that is indicative of many arguments against God from the realm of “science.”* The other day I heard this story on the radio. (I am going to simplify to the point of butchering, but I think the point remains.) A scientist was explaining how he conducted tests with cells in order to see if it was more effective—or evolutionarily advantageous—for cells to work for their own ends or in groups. What he found was that if there were enough “cooperative” cells in a group, they could effectively stop and overtake the “selfish” cells. OK, interesting study. I have no background in this sort of thing, so I must take others’ word for it. But I have a problem with the scientist’s philosophizing about his study.

The doctor went on to hypothesize that the basic human moral code, found eerily similarly throughout cultures and historical periods (despite cultural relativists’ need to blow up the rather minute differences) may be found in genetics and evolution, not in God or teachers of ethics/religion. What is mind-bogglingly baffling is the inability of the scientist to take the vantage point of the theist and ask the question, How would we expect biology to work if God is real—or, more specifically, if the Christian God is real? Would it surprise us at all that on a cellular level, the human body—or all of creation—works better in cooperation rather than in isolation? Absolutely not. In fact, this is exactly what we'd expect. Yes, man and nature is fallen, but the center of Christianity—and therefore the center of humanity and all of reality—is the Trinity, that beautiful indication that even God doesn’t exist in isolation. So we would expect this Triune God’s creation, from a single cell to a living organism to a human person, to reflect some of the more important and basic truths about God.

This sort of study, on a scientific level, proves nothing about atheism or theism. It is a basic scientific set of data. It can fuel the atheist, who can see it as proving a biological origin of ethics; but it can equally fuel the theist, who can see it as nature reflecting its Creator.

I’ve heard a number of similar arguments that present scientific data to show the non-necessity of God. But the data is always exactly what we’d expect to see if we posited a Christian God. “Look, there was a big bang. Why do we need God?” Positing God, wouldn’t we expect to see a creative moment in the scientific history of our universe? “Look, there is evolution. Why do we need God?” As if positing of God would rule out a natural process of nature improving itself...

I’m not sure the exact place of these sorts of scientific studies, but I’m very sure it’s not to prove God doesn’t exist.

[*I use quotation marks not to demean science, but to mock the pseudoscience that is often presented as science—or to mock, as more often is the case, the vast logical and metaphysical leaps the scientist makes going from his scientific observations to his conclusions about the world.]

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Keeping things in perspective...

Something that has been kicking around in my thoughts of late is the way in which conversations (or debates, dialectics, or the study of a particular subject) can dominate the room to the extent that we participants have the (illusory) impression that OUR discussion is THE discussion.

I first was struck by this when reading Jesus of Nazareth by B16. I may have mentioned to you before how I kept realizing that the gospels that I knew on one level like the back of my hand, had dimensions to them of which I had previously been ignorant, and what is more that those dimensions were the principal meaning of the gospel stories. On reflection, I think that what I had taken to be the meaning of much of the new testament writing was really an almost academic debate of the world of Christianity after the Reformation.

I see this also in books like The Everlasting Man, in which Chesterton describes moods, fads, heresies, and philosophies that I simply do not really 'get.' But the fact that such moods are not the mood of our society today does not mean that they are not "valid" or capable of moving men. I recall reading in Dante's Inferno that some men were in hell for the sin of squandering (if I remember the right term); the footnote explained without elaboration that in Dante's time there was a fad of some rich young noblemen to go around and burn down barns full of food, basically destroying their own property. That is a mood whose motivations simply pass me by; I've never even felt a remote temptation to do something like that.

To make a long story short, while there are many local rooms with local conversations (no less important for their parochial character), the Church has this universal quality, this 'bigness' that acts like a ballast steadying the ship when the winds would push it over in one direction or another. Thus whether it becomes fashionable to deny everything but one's own consciousness, or to deny the consciousness and everything but matter, or to deny both as illusion, to attack the body as the degenerate creature of the evil force or to exalt the body and its pleasures as the only god worth serving, etc. etc. etc., the Church seems to smile as the mother at her young child chasing after some new fad, and to gently but firmly separate the good grains out of the chaff.

In the room in which modernism (including conservatism and liberalism) and postmodernism hash out their concerns, it can be sometimes helpful to climb up to higher ground and see the other rooms around.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Brief Conversation with an Atheist

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue. Hopefully it’s not close-minded and unreasonably slanted. What it is: a summation of a few conversations I’ve had with an atheist, along with some thoughts and light analysis. It’s neither an argument for God nor against atheism. Rather, I hope to shed a little light on a common argument against the traditional idea of theism.

I’ve had a running debate with a self-professed atheist. Unfortunately, the discussion tends to begin and end in the same place every time. We don’t pick up the debate at the place we left off a few months earlier. Instead, we re-begin at square one. That’s part of the reason for this post: to put it all together. Let me refer to the anonymous atheist as Auggie. 

Auggie’s general argument against theism in general and religion in particular revolves around “science.” It goes something like, “Hey, back in the day, prior to the evolution of science, we needed God to fill in the gaps for the things we couldn’t explain. But there’s no need for God now. Everything we experience can be explained by the physical world.”

One of my major rejoinders to this sort of argument—and this is where I generally spend most of time on the offensive with Auggie—is to make the simple point that science is based on materialism, but it doesn’t, and can’t, prove hard materialism. What I mean by this is simple: hard materialism is the belief that all that exists, in any sense of the word ‘exists’, is material, physical mass. There’s nothing in science, the scientific method, or in any discovery of science that can prove that material matter is all that exists. Science only evaluates physical mass; its tools can only observe physical mass: Therefore, it’s not any wonder science only gives us proclamations about physical mass.

I could expound upon this by drawing many analogies, but let one suffice: If we were to analyze the world solely using our ears, then we would discover only a world of sound. Should we then make the argument that the study of ears proves that the only thing that really exists is sound? No, of course not. I could keep going, but what I really want to get to is the common response to my rebuttal—and then my further response.

A reasonable response to my argument above is, “Yes, yes; I see your point. Science doesn’t prove that only physical material exists. But it comes damn close.” If pushed to explain, Auggie would say, “We only experience physical matter. Yes, that doesn’t mean we can disprove the existence of anything else; but it gets you 99% of the way there. I also can’t prove that there is not an invisible dragon floating above both our heads right now, but science shows us that that possibility is rather slim—in fact, slim enough for us to discount, like God.”

I want to briefly elaborate on an assumption built into this argument. I do this not simply to argue against Auggie but because I believe most self-professed atheists presuppose Auggie’s assumptions. They implicitly claim (without much reflection) that most of our experience of the world is an experience of physical matter. Therefore, to assume the existence of anything else is both unscientific and unrelated to our daily experience. But this exactly what I find to be rather preposterous.

Our experience of the world is hardly at all an experience of physical matter. (By the way, the following set of statements is not an argument against science or even against hard materialism. It’s a set of observations.) If you ever felt that something mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever felt that there was a right and a wrong in a decision you had to make—even if you felt the moral decision was subjective—then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever looked at a sunset—or a painting, poem, or person—and said, “This is beautiful,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you ever read about something in a newspaper and thought, “That is just horrible,” then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve ever had a job (or could imagine one) that you did, at least somewhat, because you felt the job mattered, then you experienced something unlike physical matter. If you’ve never had a job like that but instead do a mindless job just so you can bring money home to your kids because that matters, then you’ve experienced something unlike physical matter. This list could continue.

None of these are arguments against hard materialism. I think anyone can see that. But what they do is point out that our experience of the world, on a daily level, is an experience of something unlike physical matter. Auggie can claim that all of these impulses—from morality to empathy to meaning—are illusionary. Perhaps. My point here isn’t to prove the veracity of these experiences. It’s simply to point them out. Even if they are all caused by physical matter—which I shall suppose as a possibility for the sake of this argument—they aren’t experienced as physical matter.

For example, I simply cannot experience a moral dilemma as physical matter. When I experience it, the moral dimension to the decision—that there is a right and wrong choice (objective or subjective); that making the right or better decision is somehow healthier or nobler for me as a person, as well as for other persons involved—is most definitely not experienced as physical matter. Perhaps one could use the science of the brain and evolution to explain my moral dilemma; but this would still not allow me to experience the moral dilemma as physical matter. Once I truly accepted the moral dilemma as physical matter, the dilemma would no longer exist.

So what’s the point? I guess one of the points is to shift the onus of proof. The hard materialist cannot simply rely on his argument that we only experience physical matter; real or illusionary, this is not how we experience life.

But more interestingly, for me, what this observation does is put Auggie in a position that he must argue that all the experiences outlined above, and their nearly infinite variations, are simply illusions. Auggie must argue that most of our important experiences of life are illusionary. Of course this is a possibility, but it’s a far cry from the science that wants to explain real data by real methods. Instead of applying a reasonable scientific method to experience, Auggie makes a sweeping claim, “It’s all just illusion.” This sounds Buddhist, not empirical.

This also breaks down the basic argument upon which Auggie relies: a) Science shows us only a material world. b) A non-material world is a possibility, but c) a non-material world is a possibility the same way an invisible dragon floating above my head is a possibility. Therefore, d) hard materialism is the most logical possibility. My problem here is with premise C: I don’t experience an invisible dragon floating above my head, but I, like all humans, experience a non-physical world of meaning and morality. Even if illusionary, I still experience it.

Instead of the theist getting pounded for accepting improbable data, the hard materialist is actually in the position of rejecting most of our most important human data. To return to the ear/science example earlier, hard materialists are exactly like the eye-scientists who only look at what the ear can observe, and then assume that all that exists is sound. These scientists must argue that all of our other experience—that of sight, taste, etc.—are illusions. I suppose that’s a possibility, but it’s not all that scientific.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rambling Thoughts on Religious Freedom

I have been absent lately on the blogosphere, especially in regards to this contraception/freedom of religion debate. Thanks, Basil, for continually keep us posted. I've been hoping for some time to really reflect and organize my thoughts, but alas, the busyness of school (and school) has been a tad extreme. So all I have the time and space for is a rambling in regards to a few personal thoughts.

First, I think that both sides misperceive the motives of the other. This has nothing to do with right or wrong, or logic versus illogic, but simply a matter of misunderstanding. For example, secularists tend to perceive the religious as illogical, irrational, superstitious, and generally authoritarian. "All must live by the irrational and superstitious opinions I get from some crazy book written thousands of years ago by God knows who," is their parroting of the religious. But I also think the religious often misperceive the secularists, despite the fact that I think the secularists are in the wrong.

For example, I think a lot of people view Obama – and all those who fit in his particular political and social ideology – as being consciously hostile, anti-God, and filled with an agenda to destroy every and all religious sentiment and ideology in America. There's often a viciousness projected onto the hearts of the secularists. “I’ve never seen people so directly and intentionally fight for evil,” one friend of mine said recently. You can conclude that the secularists’ basic political agenda is hostile to religion without projecting this conscious viciousness onto the motivations of the secularists as human persons. I think this restricts open communication, as well as allows the secularists to scoff at the religious for labeling them as “Satan.”

Let me make up an exaggerated example. If there were a religious organization that was fighting to prevent interracial marriage in the United States, I think a lot of us, even those strongly religious, would argue against these measures on mainly secular terms. We might find the group’s appeal to “freedom of religion” as thinly veiled racism; and we wouldn’t want their appeal to "religious freedom" to propel them to make their religious beliefs law.

I understand that this issue and the issues we've been talking about are very distinct. I understand that there are legal, constitutional, and reasonable distinctions between this imagined example and the present political example. I simply bring it up because I think that a lot of secularists in our present situation view us the same way that we would view those of the earlier religion. The secularists might not be right to equate the two situations, but it's not helpful, from any standpoint, to see them as hellishly hostile to religion, if they simply see this as a rights issue. From their standpoint, they're fighting for something basic and human. This can be true even if their political agenda is hellishly hostile to freedom of religion. I'm simply making the point that religious should consider the psychological motivation of secularists.

But now a word to those secularists. I have a lot to say, but I’ll leave it to one comment right now. If we were able to ask our Founding Fathers about this present situation, I don’t think they would understand it. The Christian ideology was so intertwined with everyday American living that the idea that a Christian belief might be labeled as dangerous or wrong by a prevailing social ideal would be foreign. Morality was grounded in faith.

Nowadays secularists scoff at this grounding. “What ridiculous superstition!” they claim. But herein lies the irony: Where and how do the secularists ground their morality? The vast majority would probably point to reason. Where Christians use faith the secularist uses logic. But this is pretty silly and empty. Reason and logic can never get you morality, for the simple fact that reason and logic can never get you to the worth or dignity of the human person. Reason got us the Holocaust. Reason got us Communism. Reason got us many a bloody, inhumane revolution. Reason doesn’t get us morality.

So what exactly are the secularists using to ground their morality? Quite frankly, it’s simply a set of populist ideas resulting mainly from emotional calculation: Gay marriage can’t be wrong! It’s gotta be wrong to make a woman have a baby! It can’t be wrong to prevent a pregnancy! But these are gut feelings, empty expectations that spring from societies that have almost no formed consciences.

So who's more ridiculous? The person who believes that humans have value because they were made in the image and likeness of God and that’s why certain things are right and others wrong? Or the person who throws out all of this and simply claims some things are good and others bad because he feels like it’s gotta be so, or if it isn’t it’d simply be terrible?