Addenda

2 Mar

A deeply disordered love

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/02/16

John Lukacs on the differences between patriotism and nationalism

“Hitler . . .  more than once cited his sentence from Mein Kampf recalling his youth: ‘I was a nationalist; but I was not a patriot.’ . . .

“Nationalism, rather than patriotism. . . . We have examples of that even among the extremist groups in the United States, too, with their hatred of government — that is, of the state. We have seen that while true patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive; patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a ‘people,’ justifying everything, a political and ideological substitute for religion; both modern and populist. . . . [N]ationalism and patriotism often overlap within the minds and hearts of many people. Yet we must be aware of their differences — because of the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side-by-side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe. . . .

“Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be anti-humanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one’s people is natural, but it is also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one’s country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one’s family. Nationalism is both self-centered and selfish — because human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another.* Patriotism is always more than merely biological — because charitable love is human and not merely ‘natural.’ Nature has, and shows, no charity.

*A convinced nationalist is suspicious not only of people he sees as aliens; he may be even more suspicious of people of his own ilk and ready to denounce them as ‘traitors’ — that is, people who disagree with his nationalist beliefs.

—from John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (Yale University Press, 2005)

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24 Feb

Is religion just moralistic therapy after all?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/24/16

Alexander Schmemann on the secularization of religion

“[E]ven the most traditional, confessional and ‘exclusive’ churches accept the idea of a modus vivendi with other religions, of all kinds of ‘dialogues’ and ‘rapprochements.’ There exists — such is the assumption — a basic religion, some basic ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual values,’ and they must be defended against atheism, materialism and other forms of irreligion. Not only ‘liberal’ and ‘nondenominational,’ but also the most conservative Christians are ready to give up the old idea of mission as the preaching of the one, true universal religion, opposed as such to all other religions, and replace it by a common front of all religions against the enemy: secularism. Since all religions are threatened by its victorious growth, since religion and the ‘spiritual values’ are on the decline, religious men of all faiths must forget their quarrels and unite in defending these values.

“But what are these ‘basic religious values’? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be ‘basically’ different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men. Ethics? Concern for truth? Human brotherhood and solidarity? Justice? Abnegation? In all honesty, there is more passionate concern for all these ‘values’ among ‘secularists’ than within the organized religious bodies which so easily accommodate themselves to ethical minimalism, intellectual indifference, superstitions, dead traditionalism. What remains is the famous ‘anxiety’ and the numberless ‘personal problems’ in which religion claims to be supremely competent. But even here is it not highly significant — and we have spoken of this already — that when dealing with these ‘problems’ religion has to borrow the whole arsenal and terminology of various secular ‘therapeutics’? Are not, for instance, the ‘values’ stressed in the manuals of marital happiness, both religious and secular, in fact identical, as are also the language, the images and the proposed techniques?

“It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place — and actually does — in all Christian confessions, although it is differently ‘colored’ in a nondenominational suburban ‘community church’ and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this ‘key’ that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him ‘more help’ — not more truth. While religious leaders are discussing ecumenicity at the top, there exists already at the grass roots a real ecumenicity in this ‘basic religion.’ It is here, in this ‘key’ that we find the source of the apparent success of religions in some parts of the world, such as America, where the religious ‘boom’ is due primarily to the secularization of religion. It is also the source of the decline of religion in those parts of the world where man has not time enough yet for constant analysis of his anxieties and where ‘secularism’ still holds out the great promise of bread and freedom.

“But if this is religion, its decline will continue, whether it takes the form of a direct abandonment of religion or that of the understanding of religion as an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God. And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian ‘great religions’ have an even greater chance of survival. For it may be asked whether certain non-Christian ‘spiritual traditions’ are not really of ‘greater help’ from the standpoint of what men today expect from religion. Islam and Buddhism offer excellent religious ‘satisfaction’ and ‘help’ not only to primitive man, but to the most sophisticated intellectual as well. . . . And the spiritual preoccupations of [various] esoteric groups are, in the last analysis, not very different from those of the most emphatically Christ-centered preachers of personal salvation and ‘assurance of life eternal.’ In both instances what is offered is a ‘spiritual dimension’ of life which leaves intact and unaltered the ‘material dimension’ — that is, the world itself — and leaves it intact without any bad conscience. It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a ‘world religion’ that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.”

—from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)

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10 Feb

Shedding epistemic modesty

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the rise of confidence in scientific progress

In the seventeenth century, “Adam was thought to have possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world that was now lost as a consequence of original sin. While fragments of this knowledge have been passed on to his posterity, a complete reconstruction was thought to be impossible in the present postlapsarian estate. As the Protestant Reformers pointed out, Aristotle was ignorant of this event and as a consequence his optimistic philosophy had been constructed upon a false foundation. Subsequently, Aquinas had mistakenly assumed that key elements of this philosophical system could be indifferent to this central element of Christian anthropology, and (for his early modern critics) his enthusiasm for Aristotle had unintentionally introduced pagan presuppositions into medieval Christian thought. The early modern scientific project, then, was an attempt at a partial restoration of Adamic knowledge. . . . Many of those who sought to reconstruct a properly Christianized natural philosophy in the early modern period rejected the sanguine commonsense philosophy of Aristotle, and relinquished his aspirations to a demonstrative science. Natural history and experimental natural philosophy were regarded as fragmented and makeshift enterprises, their fragile status being understood as an inevitable consequence of the cosmic fall that had rendered the operations of nature opaque and compromised human cognitive capacities. As John Locke remarked, in our present condition we have at best ‘dull and weak’ faculties. Accordingly he concluded, ‘it appears not, that God intended we should have a perfect, clear, and adequate knowledge.’ The diffidence of seventeenth-century naturalists was lost in the nineteenth century, when the original reasons for their epistemic modesty were forgotten and the idea of progress became firmly embedded into the West’s self understanding.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

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10 Feb

How science became the omnipotent arbiter of genuine knowledge

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the creation of an allegedly neutral public sphere

“Charles Taylor has spoken in A Secular Age about ‘new conditions for belief’ in the modern age. Specifically, he speaks of ‘a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and the spiritual must proceed.’ This is the ‘social imaginary’ that underlies our conception of the role of belief. Part of that context is the appearance of a new and distinctive understanding of belief, and the appearance of a neutral epistemic space, identified with a universal reason. This is further related to the emergence of modern liberalism, which posits existence of a neutral public sphere. Both Taylor and [Alasdair] MacIntyre have questioned the putative neutrality of this public space where no single religious tradition is favored, suggesting that modern liberalism might be thought of more along the lines of a competing ideology or religion, asserting its own supremacy at the cost of other traditions.

“My account suggests a parallel development in the idea of an Archimedean epistemic space, in which supposedly neutral rational considerations trump all others. The creation of such a space was partly motivated by the need to adjudicate between competing truth claims of the ‘religions,’ themselves the product of the new conception of religion. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the chief epistemic concern of the immediate post-Reformation period. Advocates of a religion of reason, insofar as they supported the alliance of natural theology and natural philosophy (and thus a natural theology that was constructed upon ‘neutral’ rational grounds) were complicit in this development. The possibility of offering this kind of rational support for religion, where the latter is understood propositionally, necessitates the creation of a supposedly neutral space. Initially, that neutral space was occupied by natural theology and natural philosophy with their shared physico-theological mission. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, that territory was gradually seated to a coalescing ‘science.’ This ultimately resulted in the assimilation of all cognitive claims to scientific ones. The high-water mark of this development was the twentieth-century positivist critique of religious, moral, and aesthetic language. This positivist ethos still lingers, and the insistence that science sets the standards for what counts as genuine knowledge remains a characteristic feature of the modern Western epistemological discourse. Arguably, the epistemic imperialism of science was inherited from the supposedly neutral grounds of eighteenth-century natural theology from which it emerged.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

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10 Feb

Persons without natures

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

John Milbank on the pure individual of liberalism

“Liberalism is peculiar and unlikely because it proceeds by inventing a wholly artificial human being who has never really existed, and then pretending that we are all instances of such a species. This is the pure individual, thought of in abstraction from his or her gender, birth, associations, beliefs and also, crucially, in equal abstraction from the religious or philosophical beliefs of the observer of this individual as to whether he is a creature made by God, or only material, or naturally evolved and so forth. Such an individual is not only asocial, he is also apsychological; his soul is in every way unspecified. To this blank entity one attaches ‘rights’, which may be rights to freedom from fear, or from material want. However, real historical individuals include heroes and ascetics, so even these attributions seem too substantive. The pure liberal individual, as Rousseau and Kant finally concluded, is rather the possessor of a free will. Not a will determined to a good or even open to choosing this or that, but a will to will. The pure ‘nature’ of this individual is his capacity to break with any given nature, even to will against himself. Liberalism then imagines all social order to be either an artifice, the result of various contracts made between such individuals considered in the abstract (Hobbes and Locke) or else as the effect of the way such individuals through their imaginations fantastically project themselves into each other’s lives (roughly the view of the Scottish Enlightenment).”

—from John Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling” (New Blackfriars, Vol. 85, No. 996 [March 2004])

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