At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

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.

The Election of 2012

posted by Jack Kerwick

As of late, many on the right have been filled with dread that the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden will increase Barack Obama’s chances of being re-elected.  On the one hand, this concern is legitimate enough, for bin Laden’s is the face of  the world’s most infamous terrorist, a monster that, in spite of having authored the deaths of nearly 3,000 of its citizens, succeeded in eluding the American government for the last decade.  Although Obama has been in office for slightly over two years, he can take credit for presiding over not just the identification of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but his killing.

On the other hand, there are considerations that militate against this concern regarding a second Obama term. 

First, while it has only been a little more than a week since we were informed of bin Laden’s death, there has already emerged a host of conflicting accounts concerning the details surrounding it.  The specific content of these statements is irrelevant; the mere fact that they are multiple and mutually incompatible alone suffices to strengthen the growing perception that this administration is the enemy extraordinaire of “the transparency” that it promised. 

Second, it is difficult for the president and his fellow partisans in politics and the media to rebut Republicans’ claim that if not for the very policies of his predecessor—the policies, that is, to which Obama and company staunchly objected and which he pledged to revoke—bin Laden would never have been found.  Fortunately, from the Republican’s perspective, the best efforts of the Democratic-friendly media have been to no avail in excising this feature of the narrative of the pursuit and killing of bin Laden from the average voter’s consciousness.           

Third, the election of 2012 is still a year-and-a-half off.  Already, the bin Laden buzz is beginning to give way to other news.  Rest assured, while the hyperbolic characterization of Obama the War President will intensify during the months and weeks leading up to November of ’12, Americans are not likely to forget the reasons that lead many of them to form Tea Parties, hold massive protest demonstrations, and flood the voting booths in record numbers to throw Democrats out of office during the last midterm.  At any rate, they will not be likely to forget such reasons as long as the Republicans continually call them to mind. 

What seems to me certain is that no one is going to either vote for or against Obama on the grounds that he presided over the military at the time that it located and assassinated bin Laden.

Of course, the Republicans have their part to play in all of this.  Not only must they be forever vigilant in reminding Americans of the Democrats’ aggressive domestic policies, they must as well insure that they nominate a remotely attractive candidate.  A truly attractive candidate must specify not only the respects in which he differs from Democrats, but as well those by way of which he parts ways with those Republicans who American voters repudiated in ’06 and ’08.

But this isn’t all.

A truly attractive candidate must not only promise to restore his party’s integrity; he must have the credibility, and be seen as having the credibility, to make such a promise. 

Sadly for the GOP, no potential establishment candidate fits this bill. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Republicans will lose if they run an establishment Republican, however.  A candidate who can credibly eschew the policies of both his own party as well as the party of his opponents is truly attractive because he is truthful.  An establishment Republican figure, in contrast, may be what I refer to as a remotely attractive figure, for while he may prove stylistically appealing, it is only by way of deception and trickery that he will labor to convince voters of his conservative credentials.

This insincerity will all too easily prove exploitable by one’s opponents and be exposed for the hypocrisy that it is. 

In other words, “remotely attractive” candidates begin with the burden of a substantial disadvantage from which “truly attractive” candidates are free.

My call for a “truly attractive” candidate shouldn’t be—though it surely will—be confused with the call for an “ideal candidate.”  The notion that those of us who express our disenchantment with this or that Republican are “purists” foolishly holding out for an ideal candidate is a straw man of the first order.  By definition, ideal candidates don’t exist; that’s what makes them ideal.  Like legions of conservatives, I desire, not an ideal candidate, but a good one. 

No, ultimately, the killing of bin Laden will not positively impact Obama’s prospects for re-election. And if the Republicans run a good candidate, all else being equal, it is a virtual certainty that as of November 2012, our 44th president will be heading back to the Windy City.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Thinking About Virtue

posted by Jack Kerwick

Ours is a generation obsessed with “principles.”  That the morality of the age is centered in principles accounts for why we tend to characterize the morally admirable person as a man or woman of principle.  Principles are critical to any morality, for sure, but it is just as critical for us to recognize that these aren’t the only terms in which morality can be understood. 

There is another conception of morality that, while conceding both the impossibility and undesirability of dispensing with principles, nevertheless attaches primary importance to virtue.  From this perspective, goodness is basically (though not exclusively) a matter of the person one is—not the actions one performs. The key question, in other words, is not “Which principles should I observe?” but “Who do I want to be?”

Virtue, like its contrary, vice, is a character disposition.  The difference, of course, is that virtues are excellences of character while vices are character defects.  But any moral scheme the central categories of which are virtue and vice is decidedly eons apart from those schemes that focus on principles.  Principles are conceived as being universal and abstract.  These features in turn are invariably read as calling upon all human beings at all times and places to observe them.  Virtues, in stark contrast, are the products of habit.  If it isn’t synonymous with tradition (and it may very well be), at the very least, habit is impossible in the absence of tradition.  But traditions, far from being universal and abstract, are always culturally particular.  

On a virtue-centered approach to morality, if you want to be a good human being, you must do good deeds.  But—and this is crucial—it isn’t enough that you just engage in good actions.  You must do so habitually.  To put it another way, just because a person occasionally acts virtuously doesn’t mean that he is virtuous.  What distinguishes the genuinely virtuous person from the person who episodically acts virtuously is that for the former, his virtue is his habit.

On its face, it appears that a morality of virtue throws up an insuperable paradox: How does a person lacking in virtue learn to become virtuous? 

This problem, however, is only apparent, for the proponent of a virtue-centered morality has a reply ready at hand: we learn to become virtuous in the same way that we learn everything else in life—by doing.  And to the objection that we can’t know what to do if we are not yet virtuous, his answer is similarly simple: we learn what to do by imitating those who already know what to do.  

In short, if one wants to become a virtuous person, then one must imitate someone who already is virtuous. 

In spite of the dominance of the language of principles when it comes to moral theory and political rhetoric, just a moment’s reflection on how we actually live our lives discloses in no time that a virtue-centered ethic is a more accurate statement of the moral experience than the principles-based alternative.  In other words, we know that morality consists of habits and habits are inspired by the example set by others.  This explains, for instance, why those of us who are parents are as cautious as we are regarding the influences to which our children are exposed.  It explains as well why, whether we are parents or lawyers, preachers or politicians, artists or journalists, we go to pain staking lengths to embed our messages to others within attention-arresting narratives, stories consisting of identifiable characters whose actions are rendered intelligible by their location within the context of a familiar tradition.        

Christianity, I believe, is best understood in light of this virtue-oriented model of morality.  A good Christian is not one who observes certain principles; a good Christian is one who has acquired those intellectual and moral habits imparted to him by other good Christians, from Jesus and the Apostles to philosophers and mystics, from clergy members to the laity.

Indeed, there is much virtue in thinking long and hard about virtue.   


The Reasonableness of Christianity

posted by Jack Kerwick

Contrary to atheistic boilerplate, Christianity is anything but a crutch for the weak minded and timid hearted.  Christians have gone to great lengths over the centuries to show that, while reason is no substitute for faith, and while it can never occupy anything other than a subordinate position with respect to the latter, reason can indeed establish at least the probability of God’s existence.  Some Christians have gone further than this to argue that God’s existence is rationally demonstrable—that is, that it can be established with certainty by reason alone. 

St. Anselm, the eleventh century bishop of Canterbury, is famous for his “ontological proof” for God.  Anselm tried to show that there was no way that God can’t exist.  The idea of God, Anselm reasoned, is the idea of a being “than which none greater can be conceived.”  When the atheist and the theist deny and affirm God’s existence respectively, it is this idea that they have in mind.  But since it is better for a being to have existence than for it to lack it, and since God is, by definition, the best, the conclusion is inescapable: God necessarily exists.  It is no more possible, logically, to affirm the idea of God while simultaneously denying His real existence than it is possible to affirm the definition of a “bachelor” while denying that a bachelor is an unmarried man. 

The ontological proof has had its share of detractors, many of the earliest and most distinguished of which have been Anselm’s fellow Christians.  St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, among the greatest thinkers the world over and himself a proponent of arguments for God’s existence, rejected it on the grounds that it illicitly moved from “the order of ideas” to “the order of things.”  Simply put, the idea of God is one thing; God Himself is something else altogether.  “God exists” is not self-evidently true to us, and so while the denial of this proposition is false, it is not self-contradictory.  Thus, Anselm is mistaken: just because one can conceive God, doesn’t mean that one speaks nonsense in simultaneously denying that God exists.

Aquinas sought to prove God’s existence the only way he thought it was possible to do so—by appealing to experience, not of God, but of the world.  From what is seen, Aquinas supposed, we can infer that which can’t be seen. His famous “five ways” argument reasons from five fundamental features of our world—change or motion, causality, contingency, excellence or value, and harmony or order—to the existence of God. That is, only by way of appeal to God, Aquinas contends, can we explain these phenomena.

The one theme that connects the five ways is that of contingency.  To put it another way, the five ways argument is, essentially, an argument from contingency.  To say that something is contingent is simply to say that it depends upon something else.  You and I are contingent, as is this computer on which I type, the chair on which I sit, and everything else of which our world consists.  Aquinas’s position is that the phenomena that constitute our world point beyond themselves to a first cause or reason that is not itself contingent, a being that is necessary.  A necessary being is a being that contains the reason for its existence “within itself,” so speak, a being the very nature of which is to exist.  And this being, Aquinas declares, is what we call God.

Interestingly, although Aquinas and other Christians who advanced arguments from contingency accepted the Genesis creation account, they acknowledged the possibility that the world could have existed forever, as Plato, Aristotle, and the pagans believed.  As Father Frederick Copleston, a twentieth century Roman Catholic priest and historian of philosophy, once memorably quipped, whether you have one piece of chocolate or 1,000 pieces of chocolate, chocolate is never going to yield anything other than chocolate.  Similarly, whether we are dealing with one contingent thing in the universe or the totality of contingent beings that comprise the universe, that which is contingent is by definition contingent upon something that, ultimately, can’t depend upon anything else.  

There are several other arguments for God’s existence that we simply haven’t the time to consider at present.  Whether any of them succeed is debatable and, at any rate, beside the point.  That Christians labored tirelessly to establish God’s existence upon rational grounds is a fact of which far too many of our contemporaries, Christian and otherwise, need to be reminded, if not taught.  Yet there is something else to be gotten from this little history lesson. 

What is remarkable is that in presenting them to their Christian brethren, the proponents of these arguments were under no illusions that they were “preaching to the choir.”  If they were under any such illusions, they couldn’t sustain them for long.  Not that anyone would know it from studying philosophy in any of our secular universities, but medieval Christians anticipated by hundreds of years the considerations against the arguments for God’s existence that David Hume—widely held up in philosophy textbooks as their critic par excellence—wouldn’t raise until the eighteenth century. 

William of Ockam, for instance, like Hume much later, rejected the notion that there is a necessary connection between causes and effects: just because A occurs doesn’t mean that B must necessarily occur.  Unlike Hume, however, it was Ockam’s interest in safeguarding God’s sovereignty that informed his conclusion that causality is best understood in terms, not of necessity, but of regularity.  Creation consists of distinct things that happen to be arranged in the order in which God arranged them.  But God could have arranged them otherwise. Thus, there is no necessary connection between them. 

There is another reason, though, why Ockam and such medieval thinkers as Nicholas of Autrecourt and John of Mirecourt rejected necessary causality.  It is precisely because each thing—each “substance”—that God creates is unique in being fundamentally irreducible to every other that the existence of one can never be inferred from the existence of the other.  Yet what this means is that causal arguments for God’s existence of the sort that Aquinas and many others put forward can never be as strong as they had been thought to be.

Whatever the atheist or, for that matter, anyone else may say of Christianity, no one can truthfully say that it is irrational.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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