Sound Thinking

11 Nov

“Let us live to make men free” (in a specific way)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/11/16

Patrick Deenen on the molding of the liberal soul

“While there is a long tradition among political theorists and legal scholars who insist that liberalism is defined above all by a neutrality regarding conceptions of the Good, many thinkers — both critics of liberalism, as well as its most enthusiastic proponents — have insisted that liberalism itself embraces and promotes a deeply-held set of substantive commitments. These commitments arise from liberalism’s fundamental basis upon individual liberty, understood as liberty as a right to believe, act, or choose as one wishes where (to cite the proto-liberal, Thomas Hobbes) ‘the law is silent.’ The liberal political theorist Stephen Macedo has forcefully — and, with honesty and forthrightness, admirably — acknowledged that the liberal commitment to this form of freedom does not, finally, take the form of neutrality, but rather an active society-building and culture-shaping effort that molds the soul of man under liberalism. In a 1998 article entitled ‘Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion: Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism’ [in Political Theory 26, no. 1 (February 1998): 69], Macedo has argued that liberal constitutionalism is, and rightly should be, ‘a pervasively educational order,’ and not one that is neutral toward various forms of education. Among the shaping powers it does and should employ is the effort to diminish, weaken, attenuate, and even reduce if not outright eliminate non-liberal groups and entities within the liberal order. At a most basic level, he argues, liberal law and practice aims to ‘shape people to help ensure that [liberal] freedom is what they want.’ That is, far from being ‘neutral’ or ‘indifferent’ about whether liberal freedom is, or is not, the proper way to understand and animate human life and choices, Macedo acknowledges that a liberal order appropriately and actively seeks to ‘make men free’ in accordance with the liberal understanding of freedom. To do this, it must not only order the public realm in accordance with full access to liberal rights to free and unencumbered choice — it must, he writes, also ‘constitute the private realm in its own interest.’ Of central concern, then, is an area that many regard as liberalism’s attitude of indifferent toleration: religious belief, and the ways that religious belief is shaped and guided within the private associative realm of the family and church. Macedo argues that liberalism can ill-afford to leave this vital area untouched by liberalism’s soul-shaping and comprehensively educative efforts, and highlights, in particular, the success that liberalism has had in re-casting Catholicism in its image. 

“Macedo points, among other pieces of evidence, to the ‘ritual which Catholic judges and candidates for president have had to pass through in their quest for higher office.’ Citing Sanford Levinson, he approvingly notes that ‘Catholics have effectively “been forced to proclaim the practical meaninglessness” of their religious convictions as a condition of being allowed to serve.’ Macedo suggests that ‘such rituals are bound to be educative’ — that they have a shaping power for society at large. In particular, Catholics are effectively disallowed, through disapproval and dismissiveness of the liberal order, from a robust opportunity to express the substance of Catholic teachings, and even from a receptive hearing, by the order shaped by the deepest liberal assumptions. To the extent that Catholicism rejects the liberal conception of freedom and the basic anthropological assumption of radical autonomy on which it is based, Catholicism stands as a non-liberal competitor that must be effectively overcome by liberal philosophy and liberal pedagogy. Public claims of the validity of its belief must be effectively (perhaps legally, but most often informally) disallowed, and rather may be retained only as forms of private belief. As Macedo argues, ‘the healthy course of things in a healthy liberal democracy will be that beliefs in tension with fundamental liberal democratic commitments will be diminished in importance.’

“Moreover, such belief must be limited in its scope of influence not only in the public realm, but even as a shaping force in private life. For example, Macedo argues that liberalism cannot be indifferent to the education of children — liberalism has a civic interest in the shaping of properly liberal souls, ones that will ensure that it is ‘freedom that they want.’ Thus, ‘if parents want their children always to be guided solely by sectarian religious teachings both in politics and elsewhere then their view of good citizenship is at odds with the liberal one. We have good reasons to hope that there will be fewer families raising such children in the future.’ Far from offering a ‘level playing field’ of belief, per claims for liberal neutrality, Macedo forthrightly acknowledges that liberalism actively seeks to advance a view of freedom that is distinct from that view of ‘true freedom’ — a freedom in conformity to the Truth. . . . With refreshing honesty, Macedo acknowledges that liberalism seeks to be hegemonic, fostering, among other things, a ‘certain religious homogeneity’ that finally accords with the definition of freedom at the heart of liberalism.”

— from Patrick J. Deneen, “Religious Liberty after Liberalism: Re-thinking Dignitatis Humanae in an Age of Illiberal Liberalism,” in Communio (Summer-Fall, 2013) 

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9 Oct

From a-rational faith to meaningless world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/09/16

D. C. Schindler on how faith detached from reason guarantees relativism

“Descartes famously sought to prove the existence of God through the strict application of logic in order to provide a foundation for the objectivity of the world, the reality of things beyond the phantasms of the imagination. There are many fundamental criticisms to make regarding the Cartesian project: it turns God into an instrument serving a philosophical purpose, or indeed primarily psychological purpose of providing certainty; it operates with a radically impoverished sense of reason, which is defined in strict opposition to faith; and it takes for granted a radicalized subjectivity, an isolated consciousness set off from the physical things of the world, as the problematic starting point, which inevitably sets the terms for the resolution. In another context, we could show that these problems are all related. But, here, I want instead to highlight something positive in Descartes’s reflections, namely, the insight that the objectivity of the world stands or falls with the objectivity of God. The claim I want to make, here, is not exactly Descartes’s — namely, that we have to prove the existence of God first in order to be able to affirm the existence of the world— but rather a somewhat more modest contrapositive of his claim: if we deny the possibility of a rational proof for the existence of God, or that reason has any business occupying itself with such things, or that God would represent a truth demanding the consideration of reason — in other words, if we insist that the God-question is exclusively a matter of private, personal faith, which does not concern anyone else but me — then we undermine the objective reality of things in general. The world gets emptied of its ontological density at a single stroke, even if the outward shell remains intact for centuries thereafter.

“Nietzsche famously observed that the death of God — the disappearance of God’s significance — is a ‘tremendous event’ that ‘has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time.’ It may be that only the appearance of a broad moral controversy brings to light what had in fact been true already for generations: all of a sudden, we come to realize that we do not in fact believe that there is such a thing as ‘nature,’ that the physical world, paradigmatically the human body, is meaningful in itself, that truth and goodness and beauty have objective weight. Charles Péguy defined the spirit of modernity as not believing what one believes (‘ne pas croire ce qui l’on croit’); perhaps postmodernity arrives when we finally see through this falsehood and shed the pretense. In any event, I wish to suggest that at the root of the subjectivism and relativism that we regularly encounter in contemporary culture lies the conviction that faith in God is ultimately a personal, private affair alone, a matter sealed off from the realm of truth. If the Creator of the world is not in some basic sense an other, to which I must conform, any real otherness that the world may have grows thin, and fails to put up any ontological resistance to human projects — at the moment of crisis, initially, but eventually in any moment of need, however trivial.”

— from D. C. Schindler, “‘Unless You Become a Philosopher . . . ’: On God, Being, and Reason’s Role in Faith” Communio (Spring, 2016)

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27 Sep

Confident agnosticism

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/27/16

Lesslie Newbigin on not knowing everything

“There is indeed a proper place for agnosticism in the Christian life. There is a true sense in which we are — with others — seekers after the truth. The apophatic tradition in theology has always insisted on the fact that no human image or concept can grasp the full reality of God. Christians are — or should be — learners to the end of their days. But it is equally important to insist that this learning is, like all genuine learning, an exercise which is guided and disciplined by a tradition — the tradition which stems from God’s decisive acts in Jesus Christ. No learning takes place except within a tradition whose authority is accepted as guidance for exploration. No seeking can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth. When Christians affirm, as they do, that Jesus is the way, the true and living way by whom we come to the Father (John 16:4), they are not claiming to know everything. They are claiming to be on the way, and inviting others to join them as they press forward toward the fulness of the truth, toward the day when we shall know as we have been known.”

— from Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and the Common Good (Eerdmans, 1989)

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29 Aug

The truth sent from above

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/29/16

Josef Pieper on why philosophy needs theology

“[T]he philosopher who also has faith — who regards the world as a creation which issued from the divine Logos and which, although it is fundamentally luminous, lucid, clear and bright, at the same time reflects a design which by its very nature is inaccessible to human understanding — only a philosopher like this is in a position to divine how the knowability of the world and its incomprehensibility (both of which attributes are more or less demonstrable by empirical methods) could derive from the same root. This insight, which is clearly philosophical in nature in that it derives from the encounter with empirical reality, can nevertheless be imparted only to a person who is prepared to learn from theology something which he could never come to know on his own. Of course, the greatest enrichment which the philosopher can derive from the collaboration with theology lies in the fact that it can prevent him from falling prey to those dangers inherent in philosophy itself, the chief among which is the natural desire to create a clear, transparent and unified image of the world. For example, the idea of the Incarnation of God, in which the ultimate work of the creation was linked with the origin of that creation to form a circle, might appeal to a ‘Gnostic’ philosopher who saw in it the unlocked-for confirmation of a world view based on a single all-embracing principle. But the facts that, within the framework, mankind hated and killed the God-made-man ‘without a cause’ (Jn 15:25) and that yet the same death effected the salvation of man, who had committed the murder: these theological truths explode any tidy formula which anyone might conceive about the world. . . . Thus the person who engages in the philosophical act appears to derive a certain handicap from his collaboration with theology, but simultaneously he derives an enrichment which can be summed up in the term: higher truth. For the essential thing in philosophy is neither the avoidance of knotty problems nor the bewitchment of the intellect with plausible or conclusive proofs. Instead the essential thing is that not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed — not one element of that unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the concept of ‘truth.’”

— from Josef Pieper, “The Possible Future of Philosophy,” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology (Ignatius Press, 1981)

(Click here to read another excerpt from this anthology, in which Pieper discusses how the refusal to regognize the spiritual center of human existence leads to a “roaming restlessness of the spirit”)

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15 Aug

The missional mandate of truth

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/15/16

Joseph Ratzinger on the partnership of faith and reason in the coherence of love and truth

“If the prophets ridicule man-made idols with mordant acerbicity and set the only real God in contrast to them, in the wisdom books the same spiritual movement is at work as among the pre-Socratics at the time of the early Greek enlightenment. To the extent that the prophets see in the God of Israel the primordial creative ground of all reality, it is quite clear that what is taking place is a religious critique for the sake of a correct understanding of this reality itself. Here the faith of Israel unquestionably steps beyond the limits of a single people’s peculiar worship: it puts forth a universal claim, whose universality has to do with its being rational. Without the prophetic religious critique, the universalism of Christianity would have been unthinkable. It was this critique which, in the very heart of Israel itself, prepared the synthesis of Hellas and the Bible which the Fathers labored to achieve. For this reason, it is incorrect to reduce the concepts logos and alethia, upon which John’s Gospel centers the Christian message, to a strictly Hebraic interpretation, as if logos meant ‘word’ merely in the sense of God’s speech in history, and alethia signified nothing more than ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘fidelity’. For the same reason there is no basis for the opposite accusation that John distorted biblical thought in the direction of Hellenism. On the contrary, he stands in the classical sapiential tradition. It is precisely in John’s writings that one can study, both in its origins and in its outcome, the inner movement of biblical faith in God and biblical Christology toward philosophical inquiry.

“Is the world to be understood as originating from a creative intellect or as arising out of a combination of probabilities in the realm of the absurd? Today as yesterday, this alternative is the decisive question for our contemplation of reality; it cannot be dodged. Whoever, on the other hand, would draw faith back into paradox or into a pure historical symbolism fails to perceive its unique historical position, whose defense engaged both the prophets and the apostles in equal measure. The universality of faith, which is a basic presupposition of the missionary task, is both meaningful and morally defensible only if this faith really is oriented beyond the symbolism of the religious toward an answer meant for all, an answer which also appeals to the common reason of mankind. . . .

“Faith has the right to be missionary only if it truly transcends all traditions and constitutes an appeal to reason and an orientation toward the truth itself. However, if man is made to know reality and has to conduct his life, not merely as tradition dictates, but in conformity to the truth, faith also has the positive duty to be missionary. With its missionary claim, the Christian faith sets itself apart from the other religions which have appeared in history; this claim is implicit in its philosophical critique of the religions and can be justified only on that basis. The fact that today missionary dynamism threatens to trickle away into nothing goes hand-in-hand with the deficit in philosophy which characterizes the contemporary theological scene. . . .

“Faith can wish to understand because it is moved by love for the One upon whom it has bestowed its consent. Love seeks understanding. It wishes to know even better the one whom it loves. It ‘seeks his face,’ as Augustine never tires of repeating. Love is the desire for intimate knowledge, so that the quest for intelligence can even be an inner requirement of love. Put another way, there is a coherence of love and truth which has important consequences for theology and philosophy. Christian faith can say of itself, I have found love. Yet love for Christ and of one’s neighbor for Christ’s sake can enjoy stability and consistency only of its deepest motivation is love for the truth. This adds a new aspect to the missionary element: real love of neighbor also desires to give him the deepest thing man needs, namely, knowledge and truth.”

— from Joseph Ratzinger, “Faith, Philosophy and Theology” in The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (Ignatius Press, 1993)

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