North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

A Question of Authority: Inside and Out

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One: Turning Inward

Usually the words Secular and Orthodox are used in opposition to one another. Orthodox is most often associated with the older monotheistic religions of the west – Christianity (usually Roman Catholic or the Eastern Churches, Greek / Russian) and Judaism. The many branches of Protestantism don’t usually fall into that category because they were founded in opposition to some basic tenets of Orthodoxy, one of the most obvious being Authority and how it manifests itself. For the purposes of this entry, we’ll call the Protestants a split group. Some of them have more in common with the old religions than the thing that I will call Secularism. For others, the first shots in the Protestant rebellion were just that, the first shots of an ongoing struggle to bring something new into being.

This new thing started out as an effort to find an ‘authentic’ religion, one that was free from the interference of Popes – that was Henry the XII’s rebellion, from which we have Anglicanism, and with it, a greatly expanded view of the state. The King would choose the religion of his subjects and there was no one to appeal to. Prior to that, appeals against the state could be made on the grounds of the Natural Law, which Rome was to uphold.

In The Clash of Orthodoxies, Robert P. George, a noted Catholic professor of Law at Princeton, writes about Natural Law that:

If there are objective or true principals of justice (such as the principle of equality) that constitute a higher standard, then legislation may be rationally guided and criticized in light of those principals… Authoritative actors in a legal system may fail to secure or enforce a right that, morally speaking, ought to secured and enforced; or they may posit and enforce a right that ought not be posted and enforced… The justice or injustice of such acts of positive law is measured by reference to standards of the higher law… that are objective or true eternally and universally.

Luther’s rebellion went further, and sought a break not only from Rome, but also from history itself. In Luther’s scheme each man and woman would seek out the Natural Law alone, anchored by the Bible and guided and united by the Holy Spirit. That proved difficult in practice, as people did not come to the kind of unified reading that was expected.

John Calvin presented an explanation that was attractive to many. He (and others) worked out a scheme that would account for the unexpected theological chaos Luther unleashed. Those who came to the correct conclusions, such as Calvin, or who accepted them, were God’s chosen, the Elect. Other, erroneous readings were evidence that those holding them were not being guided by the Holy Spirit. Other evidence of being Elect included a moral life, as shown through and austere life and success in life generally. In Calvin we begin to see the emergence of the cognitive ability to manipulate the world around us as a sign of authority.

With each of these steps I think we can see a step away from the idea of something external as authoritative; each is a step away from the idea of a universal loving God, whose world is a hospital for sinners, and whose Love, embedded into the very shape of the world in the form of the Natural Law, is the medicine that is needed for healing to take place.

I am certainly not making the case that everything in the world was fine until Henry, Luther and Calvin took a wrecking ball to the medieval Church. One can argue that the Renaissance Popes succumbed to a case of political overreach. They took on too much, creating eventually a culture of cynicism and corruption that was fertile ground rebellion. How can that be if the Vatican is infallible, and if Apostolic succession is true, as the church claims? The doctrine of infallibility was not formally pronounced until quite recently (the late 1800’s I think). Though it has always been in place (but unacknowledged), it applies quite narrowly: it applies to matters of faith and morals only. It can tell us what is, and what ought to be. Joining the two is another matter entirely, which is only done, if it is ever done at all in this world, by Grace. The men of the high medieval Church may very well have presumed a greater access to Grace than they in fact possessed.

From Matthew 22:21 we have confirmation that the church and the state are not one: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Rome can only guide us as to what we are, where we are, and what we are capable of knowing (it guides our epistemology and ontology). When it comes to jumping the philosophical hurdle that has come to be known as Hume’s fork (how to derive an “ought” from an “is”), the only hope of moving forward correctly is Grace.

Out of the Religious Wars and theological and political hurly burly that the Protestant Rebellion unleashed, emerged something that was probably unexpected. A way had to be found for the various factions, the Orthodox and the many branches of Protestantism, to get along once it became clear that there was no going back. That something was Secularism, which claimed to be a neutral space in which public matters could be settled. Secularism in fact continued the trend away from Orthodoxy and the notion of objective Authority and Natural Law it contained.

Two: Responding to Secularism

George writes that Secularism:

…promotes the myth that there is only one basis for disbelieving its tenets: namely the claim that God has specially revealed propositions contrary to these tenets. Most orthodox secularists would have us believe that their positions are fully and decisively vindicated by reason and therefore can be judged to have been displaced only on the basis of irrational or, at best, nonrational faith. They assert that they have the reasonable position; any claims to the contrary must be based on unreasoned faith. Secularists are in favour of a “religious freedom” that allows everyone to believe as he wishes, but claims that “private faith” must not be the basis of public policy. Policy must be based on [something] called “public reason.”

George notes that Religious people have responded to Secularism in two ways, and that these ways are not in conflict. The first response is that 1) “Secularism itself is based on nonrational faith… [and is] just like a religion.” This appeal then moves to one of national founding and cultural tradition, where it is assumed that religion will be the clear winner. The second response is 2) “to affirm the demand for public reasons… and offer to do battle with secularism on the field of rational debate.” The second response is to say that religion can be defended by appealing to “public reason.” The difference is the weight given supposition that public reason exists, and can be used as an instrument in guiding another to see that the use of logic begs the question of why logic exists and why we ought to trust it.

George argues that if public reason is defined so narrowly as to exclude appeals to Natural Law principals, it cannot defend itself against the charge of irrationality, and if public reason is defined more broadly it will not be able to rule out Natural Law, which it cannot defend against. If the Natural Law does not exist it is difficult to see how public reason can exist or why anyone should not simply seek his own benefit. If it does exist, it is hard to say why Religion must be banned to the private sphere.

Three: Example and Conclusion

George uses the example of Life issues to point out the large difference in outcome the two positions create. In the Secularist view, Life is not an intrinsic good as it is for Religious people. Because matters of value are private, life issues become questions about the quality of life, an inherently subjective issue. The question of life quality has built into it what can only be a religious assumption, namely that a human person is “essentially a non bodily being who inhabits a nonpersonal body.”

This kind of dualism is different from the religious kind. For religious people, body and soul are fully enmeshed during life and questions about their relationship are questions about an afterlife. For Catholics, the resurrection is a bodily resurrection, albeit nothing is known about the new and everlasting body.

George writes that the new dualism is very problematic because:

any such theory will, unavoidably, contradict its own starting point, since reflection begins from one’s own conscious awareness of oneself as a unitary actor. So the defender of dualism, in the end, will never be able to identify the “I” who undertakes the project of reflection. He will simply be unable to settle whether the “I” is the conscious and desiring aspect of the “self,” or the mere “living body” … In short, “person/body dualisms” purport to be theories of something, but cannot, in the end, identify something of which to be the theory.

We legislate on the basis of what is known, not what what we hope is so, and not on what we think science will tell us in the “near” future. What is near? Ten Years? Twenty? This indefinite putting off of accountability in untenable. Laws based on the secularist assumption that the body is a merely a disposable tool are faith based legislation, pure and simple. If common reason exists, then it affirms:

that if any of us have the right to life, then all of us have it; if we have it at one stage of life, then it at every stage of life; if we have it in the middle of life, we have it at both edges… there is no rational basis for distinguishing a class of beings who have a right to life… and a class of human beings who do not. This is the moral core of the great “self evident truth” upon which the U.S. was founded: the proposition that all human beings are “created equal.”

…this truth does not presuppose Christian faith…

The Secularist charge that Secularism is only resisted by those who subscribe to a theory of Divine Command is patently false, as is the assertion that Secularism is the natural fruit of pure reason. Reason cannot be purely distilled from faith. Furthermore, reason can show us that the great turning inward that Secularism represents is itself madness.

Think I exaggerate? Please meet Peter Singer, first made famous a radical animal rights activist and now seen as a general expert on all things moral.


Written by Curt

December 5, 2004 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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