At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

If I Am a Moral Relativist, So is God

posted by Jack Kerwick

Evidently, I am a moral relativist.

In a recent article, I applauded a colleague for adapting to our school stage a play—Songs for a New World.  This play, I contended, marked a quite radical departure from the standard Politically Correct line insofar as it resoundingly affirmed “the morality of individuality.”  This phrase, I noted, was coined by a conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, and refers to “the belief that human beings are first and foremost individuals distinguished on account of their capacity to make and to delight in making their own choices” (italics original).

Quoting Oakeshott, I elaborated, observing that from this perspective, “‘morality consists in the recognition of individual personality whenever it appears.’” He adds that “‘personality is so far sacrosanct that no man has either a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another,” for in doing so we inevitably destroy “their ‘freedom’ which is the condition of moral goodness.”

Translation: slavery, of any form, is immoral—even if undertaken for the individual’s own good.

Incredulous, I remarked that the play invoked the imagery of the explorers of 1492 as “an emblem of individuality”—imagery featuring those in search of a “new world” calling upon God to guide them.  I wrote that while He is “‘not explicitly invoked throughout all of the play’s numbers, the invocation of God at the outset of Songs sets a tone for all that follows.  God, even when not acknowledged, is a source of hope and strength in every ‘moment of decision.’”

I explicitly contrasted this vision of morality with that of Political Correctness, a morality according to which “human conduct is all too often reduced to being the plaything of “‘social structures,’ ‘the system,’ ‘society,’ etc.’”

For writing all of this, I was accused by an editor of a publication that claims to be friendly to both libertyand the Christian faith of endorsing “moral relativism.”

First, to be clear: moral relativists are as nonexistent in the real world as they are in the world of academia.  That the left-wing relativist of the right-wing imagination is a fiction can be proven easily enough: For a brief moment, those on the right need only consider how dogmatic, how doctrinaire, how absolutely certain is the leftist about his positions on abortion, affirmative action, “equality,” and every other issue to which he speaks.  If only the leftist was a moral relativist!

Second, if anyone can be said to be a moral relativist (and even this is debatable) it is those philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche who expressly reject the existence of God. Nietzsche famously declared “the death of God”—meaning the end of the belief in objective morality. 

In other words, Nietzsche recognized something upon which legions of believers—and other (but certainly not all) atheistic philosophers—insist: If there is no God, there is no objective morality.

God, you see, is the basis of moral truth, that which prevents moral judgments from dissolving into preferences of taste.

How, then, given my excitement over the theological subtext of this play, the manner in which it underwrites the morality of individuality with belief in God, could I of all people be seen as advocating moral relativism?

Finally, if I am a moral relativist for celebrating the morality of individuality, then so is every anti-collectivist that has ever lived a moral relativist—including God.

This last point is particularly crucial.  I wrote that “the use of the imagery of the Spanish sailing ships of 1492 underscores the point that every lover of liberty aches to see impressed upon the world: the exercise of individuality, the making of choices, is, or at least should be seen as, an epic moral adventure in character building” (italics added).Here, I state what should be obvious to every lover of liberty: individuality and liberty are inseparable.

There is more.  For thousands of years, theists have sought to justify their faith in God in the face of evil by appealing to human free will.  God made human beings in His image, it’s been said.  And this means that He’s given them the ability to make choices, choices for good—and choices for evil.  Still, God knows that this uniquely human capacity is intrinsically valuable, that without it, human beings, being no different than puppets, would be as undeserving of praise as of blame—and, thus, incapable of friendship with Him.

It is the capacity for choice, not the substance of each and every individual choice, in which the morality of individuality centers.  This is what my critic either wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp.

 

 

 

 

Affirming Individuality: Reflections on “Songs for a New World”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Legions of Americans have, rightly, written off the entertainment and academic industries (yes, the latter is a colossal industry) as the culture’s two largest bastions of leftist ideology.

Sometimes, however, and when we least expect it, the prevailing “Politically Correct” (PC) orthodoxy is challenged from within its sacred precincts.

The other night I attended a performance of Songs for a New World, an “abstract musical”by Jason Robert Brown that was originally an off-Broadway production back in the 1990’s.  While Pat Cohill, a professor of theater and one of my colleagues, is to be commended for her masterful adaption of Songs to the stage of Burlington County College, it isn’t only for aesthetic reasons that she deserves a tip of the hat.

With one stroke, Pat (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) dropped two birds with one stone in reminding this college community that neither the world of academia nor that of entertainment need follow the same PC script, a template according to which human conduct is all too often reduced to being the plaything of “social structures,” “the system,” “society,” etc.

Songs, you see, is a resounding affirmation of what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “the morality ofindividuality,” the belief that human beings are first and foremost individuals distinguished on account of their capacity to make and to delight in making their own choices.  From this standpoint, Oakeshott informs us, “morality consists in the recognition of individual personality whenever it appears.”  He adds that “personality is so far sacrosanct that no man has either a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another,” for in promoting “their ‘good’” we inevitably destroy “their ‘freedom’ which is the condition of moral goodness.”

Even though Songs has no overarching plot, its various scenes and characters are united by a common theme—“the moment of decision, the point at which you transition from the old to the new.”  Hence, the play’s title: Songs for a New World.

The first scene, “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” supplies both a frame of reference and a metaphor for the rest of the production. Though the turning point experienced by the pioneers of 1492 was multifaceted, the matrix of the changes they would inevitably undergo was geographical: those on board those Spanish sailing ships left the old world of Europe for the new world of the Americas.  However, the old and new worlds of the rest of the play’s characters—not unlike the old and new worlds of most us—are emotional and intellectual in character.

Still, the significance of the use that Songs makes of those old Spanish sailing ships cannot be overstated.

First, for quite some time, leftist activists of various sorts—particularly those in Hollywood and academia—have been laboring long and hard to reduce Columbus and the explorers of 1492 to a one-dimensional, cartoonish caricature of evil. That Songs not only refuses to endorse this nonsense but actually holds up the voyagers as an emblem of individuality is remarkably refreshing.

It is true that some critics have speculated that those on board the Spanish sailing ships were Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Spain.  Yet there is no evidence for this. It was the Americas—not any of the lands of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to which the Jews were forced to flee—that were first regarded by Columbus and the explorers as “the New World.”  That Columbus is mentioned by name in another of the numbers of Songs further weakens the Jewish refugee interpretation.

Second, this opening number also shows the explorers praying to God! Though not explicitly invoked throughout all of the play’s numbers, the invocation of God at the outset of Songs sets a tone for all that follows.  God, even when not acknowledged, is a source of hope and strength in every “moment of decision.”

Finally, the use of the imagery of the Spanish sailing ships of 1492 underscores the point that every lover of liberty aches to see impressed upon the world: the exercise of individuality, the making of choices, is, or at least should be seen as, an epic moral adventure in character building.  Every individual is an explorer on board his or her own sailing ship.  The seas of life, its infinite possibilities, lay in wait of discovery.

When the arts—and academia—buck the PC tide and affirm the morality of individuality, as they did recently courtesy of my colleague, it should be recognized and celebrated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pope Francis: A Socialist By Any Other Name

posted by Jack Kerwick

Pope Francis is once again insisting that he is not a communist, that his abiding concern for “the poor” is grounded in the Gospel of Christ, not the ideology of Marx, Engels, or any other communist.

Back in 2010, while still a Cardinal, he felt the need to do the same.

Why?

It may very well be inaccurate to describe the Pope as a communist.  But—and it pains this Catholic writer to admit this—one can be forgiven for suspecting that he is friendlier to this noxious ideology than many of us would care to think.

First, neither Francis’ recent remarks nor those from 2010 include an express repudiation of communism.  That his concern for the poor reflects Francis’ commitment to Christianity in no way speaks to his thoughts on communism. Logically, subscription to one theory is perfectly compatible with respect for and appreciation of any number of others—and it certainly doesn’t entail an unqualified rejection of all others.

That is, one can believe that Christianity contains “the fullness of truth” while simultaneously affirming what truth is found in other systems of thought.  St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are two notable examples of Christian thinkers who did precisely this vis-à-vis the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, respectively.

Similarly, while Francis derives his motivation from Christianity, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he cannot and/or does not sympathize with communism.

Secondly, “communism” can mean different things to different people.  For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. denied that he was a communist on the grounds that he rejected “materialism,” the philosophical doctrine that matter is all that there is, the doctrine underwriting Marxism.

However, to reject Marx’s theory of communism, much less his theory of materialism, does not translate into a rejection of communism as such.  To suggest otherwise is like saying that if I reject Calvin’s theology of Christianity, I must reject Christianity as such.

The closest Francis has come to criticizing communism is when he articulated a heavily qualified criticism of “liberation theology,” a hard leftist approach to Christianity.  And even then, the Pope simply noted that its “Marxist interpretation of reality”—again, whatever exactly this means—was a “limitation” while commending liberation theology for “its positive aspects.”

When communism is understood as most of us understand it, as an ideology demanding a radical redistribution of goods for the purposes of “Equality” or “Fairness” or whatever, then it should be obvious that it can afford to dispense with philosophical materialism and even its “Marxist interpretation of reality.”

In other words, “Christian communism” is not a meaninglessmoniker.

That the Pope has refused to unabashedly, unequivocally repudiate communism (and/or socialism) is doubtless one big reason that some have viewed him as a communist sympathizer.  Yet there is another: His Holiness has adamantly repudiated that system commonly called “capitalism.”

Now, Francis’ supporters have leapt to his defense on this score.  For example, the Catholic writer Selwyn Duke has observed that Francis has never critiqued “capitalism” by name, but instead has simply called for “a God-centered ethics.” Daniel Doherty writes that while the Pope is critical of “unfettered capitalism and capitalism generally,” his remarks on these matters “hardly” constitute “a clarion call for Marxist revolution [.]”

What Duke and Doherty say of the Pope can be said just as easily of any Democratic politician in the United States.  Democrats, especially among election time when they are busy courting the Christian vote, spare no occasion to put a Gospel dress on their socialism—all the while refraining from criticizing “capitalism” by name.  They are all in favor of “a God-centered ethic” then.

There is more.  This Pope has made comments regarding our economic system that can and have been made quite frequently by socialists of various stripes.

For one, he has blasted “trickle-down economics” for its “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Of course, in the real world, “trickle-down economics” hasn’t a single defender. The only people who speak as if the term had a referent are the socialist-minded.

Francis has also referred to ours as “an economy of exclusion and inequality.”  “Today,” he explains, “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.  As a consequence,” Francis concludes, “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Where have we heard this lingo before?

In fact, Francis has spoken out more forcefully than Obama or any other Democrat against our economy when he charged it with violating the commandment againstkilling.  “Such an economy,” Francis insists, “kills” (emphasis added).

Though painful for people to admit it, the truth is that Pope Francis is no friend to the liberty that some of us Americans still treasure.

 

 

Pope Francis: As Clever a Politician as They Come

posted by Jack Kerwick

Much to the disappointment of this Catholic, Pope Francis balked on a golden opportunity to convey to the world just how fundamentally, how vehemently, the vision of the Church differs from that of President Obama when the two met a couple of weeks back.

Why?  Can it be that Francis is the fellow traveler that the left-wing press has been making him out to be?

Resoundingly, Roman Catholic writer Selwyn Duke answers this question in the negative.

Pope Francis, he writes, has been “victimized” as much as anyone by the “common media tactic” of “cut-and-paste propaganda [.]”  Though he’s been depicted as castigating Catholics for obsessing over abortion and other issues of sexual morality, what the Pope has actually said is that “‘it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time’” because ’the teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church (emphasis original) [.]”

For certain, Duke is correct that the left has been determined to make Francis appear as one of their own from the outset.  But the forgoing quotation from the Pope, far from undermining this appearance, strengthens it.

Francis’ remarks could have just easily flowed from the mouths of any Catholic Democratic politician.  In not so many words, they have.  Pavlovian-like, Catholic Democrat politicians, particularly at election time, reflexively assure voters that while they personally oppose (say) abortion, they refuse to impose their “religious beliefs” upon others. That “the teaching of the Church is clear” is a proposition that they readily concede.

In short, the Pope sounds evasive.

In Francesca Ambrogetti’s and Sergio Rubin’s, Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, Francis is  questioned whether the Church’s “reprimands” “scare” people off. He replies: “Of course.”  Francis immediately adds that it is not “a good Catholic attitude to go looking solely for the negative,” for this not “only makes our message distorted and frightening,” “it also implies a lack of acceptance [.]”

And “Christ accepted everything.”

There are a few rather disturbing things of which to take note here.

First, like any skilled politician, Francis answers this question without actually answering it. It is obvious that a preoccupation with “the negative” is never a good thing.  Yet it is also irrelevant to the question.

Second, only a Biblical illiterate, a New Ageist, or a PC politician could believe that “Christ accepted everything.” Jesus accepted anyone who believed in Him, it is true. But even this was conditional upon the sinner’s admitting their sinfulness and resolving to “go and sin no more.”

When it came to criticizing His opponents, and even His disciples, Jesus was often relentless, and He would not hesitate to assure them of the eternal fate awaiting them lest they repent and “sin no more.”

Third, that the Pope accepts the premise of the question, the idea that Catholics’ obligations are reprimands handed down on high from “the Church,”reflects either a fundamental ignorance on his part or a sincere, yet covert, belief that they really are burdensome restrictions.

The Catholic, like every other believer in God, sees his duties as a source of liberation, not oppression.  To paraphrase the Church’s “angelic doctor,” Thomas Aquinas, we have the duties we do because of the nature we have.  Since God is our Creator, He knows that it is by way of fulfilling our duties that we perfect our nature. In fulfilling our duties we promise to flourish as human beings made in His image.

Finally, it is telling that Francis regards focus on abortion, divorce, sexual morality, and the like as a focus on “the negative,” but does not regard a focus on issues of “social justice” as such.

Selwyn Duke observes that while the leftist press portrays the Pope as an enemy of “capitalism,” Francis has only ever urged the cultivation of “a God-centered ethics [.]”  Again, though Catholics like Duke, Francis, and I think it is axiomatic that we should all “cultivate a God-centered ethic,” what’s axiomatically true is also trivially true: it is true but insufficiently enlightening.  Is capitalism a God-centered ethic? What about socialism?

In point of fact, just 42 pages after he warns against obsessing over “the negative,” Francis unequivocally declares that lest we “share our food, clothing, health, and education with our brothers,” Christ will “condemn us [.]” Now, it is true enough that charity is the greatest of all Christian virtues, but this doesn’t appear to be all that Francis is talking about, for, curiously, within this same paragraph he insists that he is not a communist.  “Some may say, ‘This priest is a communist!’ That’s not it.”

Francis may not be “communist” (again, whatever exactly this means), but he is sympathetic to so-called liberation theology. The latter, he says, “has its good points and its bad, its restraints and its excesses.” The Pope remarks that some liberation theologians are guilty of “missteps,” but “thousands” of clerics and laypersons under the influence of liberation theology have been “the honor of our work, the source of our joy.”

Maybe Obama was right and he and Francis really do agree on more than some of us would care to think.

 

 

 

 

Previous Posts

If I Am a Moral Relativist, So is God
Evidently, I am a moral relativist. In a recent article, I applauded a colleague for adapting to our school stage a play—Songs for a New World.  This play, I contended, marked a quite radical departure from the standard Politically Correct line insofar as it resoundingly affirmed “the morali

posted 9:23:32pm Apr. 17, 2014 | read full post »

Affirming Individuality: Reflections on "Songs for a New World"
Legions of Americans have, rightly, written off the entertainment and academic industries (yes, the latter is a colossal industry) as the culture’s two largest bastions of leftist ideology. Sometimes, however, and when we least expect it, the prevailing “Politically Correct” (PC) orthodoxy

posted 5:59:05pm Apr. 15, 2014 | read full post »

Pope Francis: A Socialist By Any Other Name
Pope Francis is once again insisting that he is not a communist, that his abiding concern for “the poor” is grounded in the Gospel of Christ, not the ideology of Marx, Engels, or any other communist. Back in 2010, while still a Cardinal, he felt the need to do the same. Why? It may very

posted 8:48:27pm Apr. 08, 2014 | read full post »

Pope Francis: As Clever a Politician as They Come
Much to the disappointment of this Catholic, Pope Francis balked on a golden opportunity to convey to the world just how fundamentally, how vehemently, the vision of the Church differs from that of President Obama when the two met a couple of weeks back. Why?  Can it be that Francis is the fello

posted 9:30:34pm Apr. 04, 2014 | read full post »

Jeb Bush: Disaster for the GOP
So, the word is that the fat cat GOP donors are eyeing up Jeb Bush as a presidential candidate for 2016. If there’s any truth to this—and, tragically, it appears that there most certainly is—then there is but one conclusion left for any remotely sober person to draw: The Republican Party

posted 10:05:38pm Apr. 01, 2014 | read full post »


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