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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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.”
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On our most current issue, Volume 131 of the Journal, we featured an interview with historian, Peter Harrison, on his book The Territories of Science and Religion. If you would like to read an excellent summary of Harrison's book, or if you need a little more incentive to listen to the interview, we encourage you to read Peter Leithart's review of Harrison's book "Not Religion v. Science," published on October 6, 2016 on the First Things website.
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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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.