At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Constitution v The Declaration of Independence

posted by Jack Kerwick

Recently, I experienced no small measure of disappointment when an article that I submitted to a little known “conservative” website was rejected.  It wasn’t the rejection, however, from which my dissatisfaction stemmed but, rather, the reason for it. 

You see, I challenged the conventional bi-partisan orthodoxy that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are compatible by arguing that each represents a political philosophical temperament that is actually antithetical to the other.  This thesis the editor found “deeply disturbing.” The Declaration provides “the principled framework” for the laws delineated in our Constitution, he insisted. 

This is Republican Party boilerplate, pure and simple.  It is also a specimen of the crassest fideism.

“Fideism” is a term characteristically used in connection with religious belief.  Like any other school of thought, it admits of many variations, some of which, in my judgment, are quite defensible.  At bottom, though, fideism is the position that God can be known only through faith.  In its more extreme varieties, this faith must be “blind”—that is, entirely dislodged from all rationality. 

The notion that the Declaration and the Constitution belong to the same politics is an article, not just of faith, but of blind faith.  Only from an ignorance, whether willful or otherwise, of intellectual history generally and the history of political philosophy in particular could anyone believe it.

The Declaration itself, on the other hand, is an exhibition, not of fideism, but of that disposition with which it has historically been at odds: rationalism.  The quintessential Enlightenment rationalist document, the Declaration embodies the unabashed moral universalism against which conservatism originally emerged as a distinctive tradition of ideas. 

The rationalist’s account of morality is inseparable from his account of reason.  Morality consists of principles that are either innate or, as the Declaration characterizes them, “self-evident.”  That is, these principles are a priori—prior to all experience.  What this means is that, in transcending all tradition, culture, and, in short, history, the principles of morality are as independent of the contingencies of place and time as the rationality which alone has access to them.  

These understandings of reason and morality conspire together to produce a certain style of politics that the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once called “the politics of faith.”  The politics of faith is the politics of the visionary, and there is no document in the annals of human history that visionaries of all sorts have been more eager to exploit than the Declaration.  With its robust affirmation of “unalienable rights”—rights of which all human beings are in possession—the Declaration inspires the pursuit of perfection, not just for this society or that, but for everyone everywhere.  Such rights can never be seen as being anything like perfectly secured, and most of the world’s human inhabitants live under conditions that Americans can only view as an affront to human dignity as the Declaration construes it.  So, the American government—which is allegedly the first and only government to have been erected upon these rights—has the unique obligation to insure that they are perfected for both its own citizens and the citizens of every other country throughout the world. This, obviously, is an obligation toward the fulfillment of which the United States government will be working forever. 

The Constitution, in glaring contrast, is a constitution, not for the bearers of rights the world over, but a particular people living in a particular place and at a particular time.  It specifies no grandiose aims to be pursued, no purpose beyond itself.  Far from licensing a robust, interventionist or activist government, the Constitution is concerned first and foremost with constraining that government by dividing it against itself.  It knows of no “unalienable rights” or “self-evident truths.” It acknowledges rights, but only indirectly, for such rights are the flip side of the obligations that it specified: the right to free speech, for example, is nothing but government’s obligation to refrain from interfering with citizens’ exercise of free, and to prevent others from doing the same. 

To use Oakeshott’s terminology, if the Declaration exemplifies the politics of faith, the Constitution signifies “the politics of skepticism.”  That the latter expresses a skepticism regarding large concentrations of power is obvious given that it is designed to prevent this.  I would prefer to say that the politics the Constitution renders possible is a politics of humility.

But regardless of how we choose to describe the differences between the Declaration and the Constitution, there can be no denying that they indeed belong to fundamentally distinct styles of politics.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

America the Idea

posted by Jack Kerwick

Not too long ago, I was interviewed on a radio show.  Shortly before my interview ended, and before I could really say much more, one of the two hosts affirmed the conventional, bi-partisan orthodoxy that America was founded on an “idea.”  Presumably, this idea is the “self-evident” principle famously enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that all human beings are in possession of “unalienable rights” that they’ve derived from their “Creator.”  For lack of a better term and for the sake of economy, this doctrine regarding America’s genesis I will henceforth refer to as “Americanism.”  Unfortunately for its rightist adherents, it has some rather unsettling ramifications.  

From the very same Christian perspective that many on the right hold, Americanism borders on blasphemy.  As far as the Christian is concerned, there is but one Incarnation, and it occurred when the Eternal Logos, the Light of the World, Christ, stepped into the current of history by assuming flesh.  At once God and man, timeless and temporal, transcendent and immanent, Christ—the Anointed One, the Messiah—redeemed the human race.  The conventional narrative of Americanism is modeled on this Christian template; the only problem is that the latter has been divested of every vestige of the true Christos in favor of a new Messiah to the world: America itself.

Since the idea upon which America is allegedly founded and which it is said to embody is a basic or self-evident principle or proposition, it is a priori—prior to all experience.  This in turn means that it is transcendent, timeless, and universal.  But America as an historical entity is concrete, temporal, and particular.  Thus, the logic is inescapable: America is this idea “made flesh” or incarnate.  

Proponents of this narrative may object that the principle of which America is the world’s first expression, deriving as it does from God, is not intended as a substitute for the latter.  America is the new Israel—the New Jerusalem—not the new God.  There is at least one insuperable difficulty with this line of reasoning, though.

On a standard reading of the Bible, the New Israel arrived long before America came into being: its name was Jesus Christ.  The author of the book of Isaiah describes Israel as the Lord’s “Suffering Servant,” a title that Jesus later affixed to Himself.  Furthermore, Israel is often characterized as a “light to the Gentiles”—but only until the advent of Christ. 

To put this simply, this objection only strengthens the charge of blasphemy.  It is one thing to believe—as I believe—that America is a gift, a blessing, from God; it is another matter entirely to render it an idol.  This, however, is exactly what happens when America—or any historical society—is conceived as the embodiment, however imperfect, of an eternal moral truth.

Conservatives have distinguished themselves as the enemies of all utopianisms.  Indeed, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that, at bottom, it is just his vehement resistance to all such fantasies that makes the conservative who he is.  While the following three reasons for this opposition are mutually distinct, they are mutually complimentary.

First, insofar as utopian dreams are dreams of a perfect world, they are inherently unrealizable in the here and now; so, the utopian visionary is a fool for thinking otherwise.  Second, because the zealotry with which he pursues his goals inevitably entails profound losses for flesh-and-blood human beings in the real world, the visionary is reckless.  Finally, the utopian’s monumental hubris, coupled with his invincible resolve to remake the world into his own image, exposes him as blasphemous.

In declaring America to be the first and only society in all of human history to have been erected upon a universal and timeless moral truth, a principle of the “equal rights” of every human being, today’s “conservative” proves himself committed to utopia. Only his utopia, the Kingdom of God come to Earth, is America.  

There are various difficulties with Americanism as I have defined it.  And I will write about these at a future time.  For now, however surprising and disturbing it will doubtless strike many as being, our verdict is clear: Americanism is utopian and, thus, blasphemous. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Academic Bigotry II

posted by Jack Kerwick

It is nothing short of a foregone conclusion that the life of a graduate student will be anything but enviable.  But when the graduate student is a staunch critic of the leftist, “politically correct” dogma that pervades the Liberal Arts and Humanities departments of America’s colleges and universities and also happens to be majoring in one of these departments, life can be virtually unbearable.

Life can be unbearable for a person in these circumstances, but it doesn’t have to be.  Speaking as one who fit this description to the letter, I have some measure of authority on this matter.  To be sure, my time in Temple University’s doctoral program in philosophy is not one that I recall with any fondness.  As a friend and alumnus of Temple once remarked, if the “Politically Correct” zeitgeist is the Beast, then Temple is its belly.  Truer words have never been spoken.

If not for the assortment of quotations from various philosophers with which they were mixed, the bumper sticker like slogans that in one form or other adorned the halls of Temple’s philosophy department could easily confuse it with the campaign office of a politician from the Democrat party.  Actually, even this is an understatement, for rare indeed is the Democrat who dares to be as openly radical as any of Temple’s tenured philosophy professors.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that each of my days at Temple was sheer drudgery.  In spite of my political and philosophical differences with the faculty (and students), I managed to get along reasonably well with most of them, and some, my dissertation advisor in particular, did what they could to help me along. Credit must be given to those to whom it is due.  However, if I ever had the illusion that the academic generally, and the academic philosopher especially, was a figure willing to courageously follow the trail of Truth regardless of where it may lead, I was forcefully disabused of it upon entering Temple.  For that matter, I discovered that my less ambitious hope for the academic, that he would always seek to enrich his imagination by expanding its boundaries of what was possible, that by leaving no idea unexamined, he would dare to achieve ever greater clarity and rigor of thought, similarly stood no chance of being realized. 

With the prejudices that he loathes, the average academic philosopher—and every academic philosopher at Temple—never concerns himself.  He either ignores them or ridicules them.  For instance, before I could begin work on my dissertation, I had to take several preliminary examinations, one of which was on the history of philosophy.  While it contained essay questions on thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Hume, Kant, and Hegel, there wasn’t a single question on any philosopher from the entire medieval period.  That one of the most fascinating and extensive periods of Western thought, a period stretching, by some measures, from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance, and which includes such powerful and influential figures as Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockam, figures that not only preserved and contributed to the formation of the classical Greek tradition that is the legacy of Plato and Aristotle but who as well gave rise to much of the shape of modern philosophy—some of the most salient problems of which the medievals “anticipated” by centuries—should be flushed down the memory hole, is really nothing short of a scandal.

As Father Frederick Coppleston noted sixty years ago in the second installment of his magisterial, nine volume A History of Philosophy, it had been quite some time by that juncture that the old modern idea that the Middle Ages were in truth Dark Ages of superstition and bigotry had itself been exposed as a piece of bigotry.  Yet at Temple—as well, no doubt, as at most secular institutions of higher learning throughout our country and the whole Western world—this bigotry persists to this day. 

But this prejudice against the lengthiest chapter in the life of Western civilization, a series of episodes without which that civilization loses its intelligibility, conspires with other specimens of bigotry to discredit the West.

As anyone who has spent any time at college knows all too well, Race, Gender, and Class are the three great preoccupations of the leftist academic.  All of the ideas and events of which Western history is constituted are ultimately reducible to these three phenomena, and since the history of the West is the history of European or white peoples, what this means for our academic is that this history is a history of “Racism,” “Sexism,” and “Classism.”  And since for nearly 2000 years Christianity has been the dominant religion of the peoples of Europe, it is, at the very best, an accomplice to the racial, gender, and class oppression that the White Man has visited upon the human race for millennia.

At bottom, the philosopher’s is a calling to be nothing less than a subversive.  In principle, even if not in fact, no presupposition, no idea, is immune to the penetrating gaze of his mind’s eye.  But the academic philosopher has betrayed that calling.  For any number of reasons—none of them of a philosophical character—he has chosen to deploy his resources in intellect and passion in the service of lending uncritical support to the conventional wisdom, the “Politically Correct” status quo that has long since become enshrined in our popular and public culture.

To mitigate the misery of having to make a dwelling in this bastion of uncritical and unimaginative thinking, this cauldron of hostility toward the White Heterosexual Man, the graduate student sharing none of the prejudices of his leftist mentors and colleagues should think of himself, as I thought of myself, as an anthropologist living among a foreign, exotic tribe, or a spectator strolling through a museum exhibition of an extinct species of one sort or another.  That is, while such a grad student must not relinquish any of his own convictions because of any pressure he may feel to conform to the ideological bigotries of his teachers and peers, and while he should always speak honestly about what he believes, he should speak as little as possible and repeatedly remind himself that, since his stay in this environment is temporary, he ought to view it as an opportunity to see up close and personal this animal in his native habitat, the committed doctrinaire leftist who, tenured and surrounded by nothing but like minded beings, can run wild.  In no other precinct of public life—government, Hollywood, the news media—can leftists give such unadulterated expression to their prejudices, for in every other area they are forced to reckon with large numbers of people—voters and audiences—who either reject their biases or have little taste for the brazenness with which the ideologue asserts himself.

It is indeed tragic that it is this situation to which graduate students (and, to a lesser extent, undergraduates) have to look forward.  But until such time that academic leftists either abandon their “futurism”—interestingly, the exact same exclusively future-oriented focus embodied by the very “capitalist” culture that they claim to abhor—by recognizing that they betray their vocation by seeking to make good little “activists” of their students, or are replaced by academics who both know and revere the purpose for the sake of which the university came into existence centuries ago, this is the condition in which students will find themselves. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


Academic Bigotry

posted by Jack Kerwick

Closing in on his second master’s degree in biblical studies, a good friend of mine is about to defend his 60-page thesis on the creation accounts in the book of Genesis.  In the eleventh hour, though, he has run into a problem: his advisor has informed him just one week outside of his defense that he needs to “substantially engage” the work of an author whose position, he swears, is utterly immaterial to his project.  So, we must ask, from whence comes this unusual demand on the part of his advisor?

My friend’s experience is a commentary on the tragic condition into which the contemporary university has lapsed.  A white, heterosexual man laboring under the delusion that an analysis of the Bible could afford to dispense with considerations of race, gender, and class, he is learning what all contemporary students of the liberal arts and humanities learn: there is no datum of human experience that isn’t determined by this triumvirate. 

Far be it from me to deny that our personal identities are encumbered by a complex of contingencies and particularities.  The belief, though, that all meaning is reducible to and explicable in terms of race, gender, and class is nothing more or less than leftist dogma, a fiction posing as stone-cold fact.  

This in itself wouldn’t amount to much more than a passing curiosity if today’s American and European liberal arts and humanities departments weren’t dominated by leftists.  But since the situation is otherwise, it is a real problem to with which we must reckon.

The leftist, the academic leftist in particular, is indeed an intriguing character.  He (or she) is the self-declared enemy of traditional Western metaphysics and ethics—the philosophy originating with the Greeks (primarily Plato and Aristotle) and the religion of Christianity: for the concepts of “truth” (moral or otherwise), “objectivity,” “Being,” “essence,” “Reason,” and the like, he has no patience.  Moreover, it is not all uncommon to find among academic leftists a contemptuous attitude toward the notion of “fact” and even that principle without which philosophers had always insisted thought itself would be impossible, “the principle of non-contradiction,” the law that something can’t be and not be in the same respect and at the same time.

However, before we endorse the leftist’s self-conception and judge that he is a radical critic of the Western tradition, we must bear in mind the following considerations. 

First, “the skepticism” of which he is an ardent promoter has roots reaching back into the ancient world.  Indeed, from its inception the rich complex of ideas of which the Western philosophical tradition consists has contained no small ingredient of skepticism.  It is only by way of reducing Western civilization to a one-dimensional caricature of itself that the leftist can posture as the radical detractor that he imagines himself to be.  Like the prodigal son, he has appreciation neither for the priceless inheritance bequeathed to him nor for the sacrifices that were made to accumulate and preserve it throughout the millennia. 

Second, and more importantly, the leftist’s “skepticism” is a fake, a rhetorical veneer designed to conceal the fact that his ideological predilections are in reality a species of skepticism’s antithesis, absolutism, a position or school of thought that has enjoyed a prominence in Western thought to which genuine skepticism has never so much as remotely approximated. 

The skepticism of more conservative-minded thinkers as Hume and Burke, Pascal, Montaigne, William of Ockam, and the “Ockamist movement” that the latter inspired sprung, not from any desire to prove that “Man was the measure of all things,” but from the keen observation that the powers of the human intellect weren’t nearly as expansive as the West’s theorists have usually supposed.  That is, skepticism as it manifested itself in this tradition encouraged, and was intended to encourage, intellectual humility and, not infrequently, faith in God.

His nods to humility notwithstanding, the contemporary leftist is as obsessed with achieving certainty, and as certain that he has achieved it as the villains—like Descartes—against whom he regularly rails.  If there are any doubts concerning this, we need look no further than the leftist’s stance(s) on race, gender, and class to disabuse ourselves of them once and for all.

“Racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” “homophobia,” “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and the like are unmitigated evils: of this the leftist has not a shred of doubt.  If ever there was a “fact,” this is it, and beyond being a mere fact, it is a categorical “truth.”  Anyone who has ever attempted to engage in a discussion with an academic leftist (or, for that matter, any leftist ideologue) over the issues of “affirmative action,” abortion, immigration, “same sex marriage,” the morality of homosexuality, the death penalty, poverty, George W. Bush, the Republican Party, or any number of other issues knows all too well that the tolerance that he ascribes to himself is an illusion.  Not only wouldn’t a genuinely tolerant person need to resort so readily to hurling insults at those with whom he disagrees, he also wouldn’t be convinced that just because these insults have been given names by his colleagues and written about by them ad infinitum that they are thereby meaningful, much less eligible for employment in civil, rational discourse.

The leftist doesn’t really reject “fact” and “truth”; he rejects those “facts” and “truths” that are endorsed by his opponents.  He is not skeptical of reason’s claims to knowledge; he is skeptical of his opponents’ reason’s claims to knowledge. 

Our verdict, then, is clear: the leftist is incoherent.  Whether, however, this incoherence is the product of sloppy thinking, hypocrisy, or dishonesty, it is difficult to say.  The safest bet is to conclude that, containing as it does all three elements in its DNA, it is a mutt.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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