What We're Reading
Peter Leithart on the relationship between ecclesial unity and religious liberty
Why should the call for ecclesial unity demand just as much, if not more, of our efforts and attention than current battles over religious liberty? How could getting Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans together to worship and discuss their similarities (not just their differences) be equally pressing and even more significant than fighting for the rights of Christian lawyers, Christian business owners, and Christian professors? Pastor-theologian, Peter Leithart, argues in his recent blog post entitled “Referees, Players, and Religious Liberty,” that the disunity among Protestants and between Protestants and Catholics enables our current social pathologies just as much as [Christian] religious liberties become threatened by them.
How can this be? Taking his cue from an essay written by philosopher D.C. Schindler entitled “Liberalism, Religious Freedom, and the Common Good: The Totalitarian Logic of Self-Limitation,” Leithart notes that current infringements upon religious liberty are mere (albeit painful) symptoms of a much more pernicious assumption embedded within the liberal order itself: that while claiming to be a neutral adjudicator, liberalism covertly reserves the right to draw boundaries around that about which it claims to have no competency, namely, religion.
“As a result,” concludes Leithart, “the liberal state institutionalizes and establishes its own theology,” which is to say that religion is irrelevant to the common good. When the common good can only be discussed in terms defined by the secular realm, the traditional understanding of the Church as a “catholic, universal community, an alternative public” is severely marginalized in favor of voluntary churches viewed as one communal option among many.
Given that Schindler’s article was published in an edition of Communio dedicated to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), it isn't surprising that Leithart’s comments echo those of David L. Schindler’s and Nicholas J. Healy’s on the same topic, recently issued on Volume 131 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Like Schindler and Healy, Leithart puts forward the unavoidable fact that “liberalism has an anthropology and we can ask a simple question: Is this a Christian anthropology?” If the answer is no, some effort to challenge those anthropological assumptions must take priority.
From T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Reinhold Niebuhr to Richard John Neuhaus, Cornell West, and Marilynne Robinson, Jacobs narrates the short-lived tale of the Christian public intellectual.
“The lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators — familiarly known as the “Where is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem — has frequently been explored since Niebuhr's death in 1971. But the disappearance of the Christian intellectual is a more curious story, because it isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”
In the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, literary critic and frequent guest of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Alan Jacobs, gives an account of the rise and fall of a body of Christian intellectuals that once served as cultural interpreters for a twentieth-century, democratic public. Jacobs laments both the altered social milieu of today and the absense of publically committed Christian intellectuals, who — borrowing from Karl Mannheim’s identification of the intellectual as “watchman” — are committed to and accepted as offering a critique of the social order on moral and religious grounds without somehow forfeiting their “seat at the table.” Of course, the decline of Christian intellectuals as part of a larger decline of Christianity in America is well-noted (Jacobs mentions recent accounts by Ross Douthat, Joseph Bottum, and George Marsden in particular). Jacobs’s overview, however, highlights a soft surrender by Christian intellectuals of their public voice with the dying out of one generation and the rise of a second generation a little too willing to turn a blind eye to some inherent drawbacks of democracy.
Read more in Jacobs’s The Watchmen: What became of the Christian Intellectuals?
Matthew Hanley on Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity.
“What emerges, perhaps above all, is that our current crisis is fundamentally metaphysical in nature. Modernity is a grand project of negation: the very order of being – as classically understood – has been shunned for theories that emphasize right praxis in time; history has become the lens through which things are assigned value. Fulfillment ‘lies in front of us, not above us,’ and whoever speaks of eternal metaphysical truths is branded a reactionary.”
— Matthew Hanley
On Volume 128 of the Journal, we interviewed mathematician Carlo Lancellotti about his translation of twentieth-century Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce's The Crisis of Modernity. Today, the column for the daily online publication, The Catholic Thing, featured a helpful and brief summary of Del Noce's work, written by Matthew Hanley, a senior fellow for the National Catholic Bioethics Center. We encourage you to take a look.
Mark Shiffman on the theological origins and modern context of transhumanism
What do an early Christian heresy, medieval theological debates about our language for God, and the belief that we can someday exist as virtual avatars all have in common? Quite a lot when it comes to how we think about human identity and especially how we think about human freedom and purpose. In a recent essay published by First Things, classics professor Mark Shiffman deftly examines how transhumanism has its logical roots in theological shifts made during the late medieval period as well as within various precedents of Gnosticism that have persistently surfaced throughout the Western tradition. Shiffman's summary, entitled “Humanity 4.5” was so helpful that we decided to interview him on the subject and release the interview as a free streaming audio. Even though we highly recommend that you read the article, if you do not have a subscription to First Things, we hope that this interview will shed some light on some of the radical—though increasingly plausible—claims of the transhumanists.
Alasdair MacIntyre on natural law and contemporary culture
On Volume 124 of the Journal, we featured an interview with R. J. Snell about his book The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode. Our conversation about his book began (as did his book) with a recollection of a 2013 article written in First Things by David Bentley Hart called “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.” Hart’s article focused on the attempt by various philosophers, theologians, law professors, and others to import this tradition into public policy debates, in a way amenable to modern political culture. “What I have in mind,” Hart explained, “is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”
Hart went on to explain why he believed it to be hopeless, if well-intentioned. Hart may have understood before he wrote the first sentence of this brief article that persuading his adversaries that they were wasting their energies was an equally hopeless cause (although the tone of the article suggests that this wasn’t likely to cause him to lose much sleep).
Midway through the essay, Hart summarized what I took to be the most important point in his argument:
The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way.
The piece concluded on a similar note:
Our concept of nature, in any age, is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions. And, in an age that has been shaped by a mechanistic understanding of the physical world, a neo-Darwinian view of life, and a voluntarist understanding of the self, nature’s “laws” must appear to be anything but moral.
I think it’s important here to recognize that the supernatural or metaphysical convictions Hart refers to need not be consciously, systematically, or consistently held for them to exert a controlling influence on what we think about natural matters. That’s why Richard Weaver refers to the governing power of a “metaphysical dream of the world,” an intuitive sense of the ultimate shape of things. As Hart has written elsewhere, modern culture nurtures and protects the metaphysical belief in “the unreality of any ‘value’ higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end.” His main argument in this article was that, in such a cultural setting — a setting that is fundamentally nihilistic — appeals to natural law quite simply make no sense.
There are, Snell’s book explained, other ways to frame natural law theory, other ways to make arguments about moral ends that set to one side metaphysical questions about the relationship between natural and supernatural realities. There are in fact many ways to defend the idea of natural law. The question remains as to how fruitful any of these approaches can be in overcoming the nihilistic prejudice that is so thoroughly embedded in modern culture. (I would be very interested to read some conversion accounts.)
In musing about these issues since talking with Snell, I came across an essay by Alasdair MacIntyre called “Natural Law in Advanced Modernity.” It was featured in an anthology entitled Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000). Given the urgency that many Christians rightly feel about the difficulty of making public arguments about moral absolutes, it’s worth attending to MacIntyre’s argument in some detail.
He begins by emphasizing the differences between our cultural backdrop and that of earlier ages in which natural law arguments had a more compelling power.
[W]e find a remarkable difference between how matters are or were conceived by the exponents of these older views of natural law and the beliefs dominant in modern cultures. It follows that we should not expect those older conceptions of natural law to continue to flourish in the modern world. And they do not. What we find instead, for the most part, are very different theories of natural law, theories that have come to terms in greater or lesser degree with cultural modernity.
I’m going to argue that these latter theories all fail and that they fail in just those respects in which their adaptation to what is distinctively modern in modern culture is most evident.
MacIntyre then summarizes the principal objectives of all theories of natural law.
Every account of natural law, no matter how minimal, makes at least two claims: first, that our human nature is such that, as rational beings, we cannot but recognize that obedience to some particular set of precepts is required, if we are to achieve our good or goods, a recognition that is primarily expressed in our practice and only secondarily in our explicit formulation of precepts; and, second, that it is at least one central function of any system of law to spell out those precepts and to make them mandatory by providing for their enforcement.
Later in the essay, MacIntyre discusses the new natural law theory as put forth by John Finnis and Germain Grisez.
This theory was originally developed in part as an interpretation of the thought of Aquinas. But its differences from Aquinas’s standpoint, especially as that standpoint has been understood by most modern Thomists, are as noteworthy as its resemblances. It [the new natural law] does not, for example, rely upon an Aristotelian conception of essential human nature, defining goods in terms of the flourishing of such a nature and of the satisfaction of its various, hierarchically ordered inclinations. Instead it defines integral human fulfillment in terms of respect for and the achievement of a set of basic goods. It does not understand human individuals as essentially parts of larger wholes — of the family and of political community, for example — wholes apart from membership in which the human individual is incomplete. According to the Grisez/Finnis theory, individual goods are not understood in terms of a prior notion of the common good. Instead their theory defines the common good in such a way that the common good is nothing other and nothing more than one aspect of the set of fundamental human goods.
At this point in the essay, MacIntyre returns to the question of the cultural setting in which natural law arguments are to be made, a setting characterized by a deeply held misconception of human nature and the nature of the good.
Just as functioning well for human beings partially consists in individuals understanding themselves in a particular way, as engaged together with family, friends, and others in a shared discovery of what their individual goods and their common good are, so the malfunctioning of human nature is characteristically expressed in some kind of systematic misunderstanding. In the cultures of advanced modernity, and most notably in contemporary North America, the form often taken by this misunderstanding is one in which the individual is misconceived as someone who has to choose for himself what his good is to be. This conception of the sovereignty and central importance of individual choice is generated by several different but mutually reinforcing features of our dominant contemporary social and moral modes.
Here, MacIntyre underscores a key corollary to the historic understanding of natural law: that the shape of moral order can only be properly perceived by those who have benefited from some healthy moral formation. Systematic misunderstanding of the nature of moral order is now institutionalized; the instruments of moral perception have been retuned to play only in certain keys, recalibrated to detect only certain phenomena.
On a Thomistic view, it is to be expected that under certain social conditions in which adequate moral education is unavailable, the place of individual choice in the moral life will be misunderstood in precisely the way it has been misunderstood in the dominant cultures of advanced modernity.
The exercise of individual choice thus understood, that is, not choice as governed by principles but choice as prior to and determining our principles, is often identified in the contemporary world with the exercise of liberty. Liberty is therefore thought to be threatened whenever it is suggested that the principles that ought to govern over our actions are not in fact principles that are up to us to choose, but principles that we need to discover. But since a Thomistic understanding of natural law commits those who possess it to asserting that human nature is such that rational practical principles are antecedent to and govern choice in rational well-functioning human beings, and that therefore those principles have to be discovered, not chosen, any defense of a Thomistic understanding of natural law is very easily construed as a threat to liberty.
The arguments made by MacIntyre, Hart, and others stress the obstacle erected to any revival of natural law ideas — or any shared vision for the common good or “human flourishing” — by the zealous veneration of a modern view of freedom. That is the one subject that seems off-limits in public debate about moral matters, but I think it is the idol that must be toppled before any substantive moral content can be restored to public deliberation about public life.
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