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Politics & Natural Law, Cont’d

Alan Jacobs, in his response to the comments thread on yesterday’s Natural Law post, makes a good point here: The point that David Bentley Hart makes in his First Things article and that Rod endorses is that when it’s time to persuade, arguments founded on the existence of natural law get no traction in the current intellectual […]

Alan Jacobs, in his response to the comments thread on yesterday’s Natural Law post, makes a good point here:

The point that David Bentley Hart makes in his First Things article and that Rod endorses is that when it’s time to persuade, arguments founded on the existence of natural law get no traction in the current intellectual climate. This is exactly (I would say obviously) correct, and important for us to know.

Which leads me to the second dissent: some people say that natural law arguments do work with people whose reason is functioning properly, and if those arguments fail, then the fault is with the listener, not with the defender of natural law. Let me, per argumentum, grant that point. My question then is: Now what?

The unpersuaded people are still there; the social or political problem you’re trying to fix is still there. Is it really the best we can do to say “You fail to meet my standards of rationality; therefore I refuse to debate with you further”? In an ideal world, the existence and force of natural law would be self-evident and readily acknowledged by all, but since we don’t live in that world, must we who believe in natural law (I join Messrs. Hart and Dreher in that company) just fall silent? — have nothing to contribute when faced with our political opponents, or with people who don’t share our religious beliefs? That, in my view, would be neither good politics nor good Christianity.

I would add a possibly relevant remark. When I was a Catholic, I used to routinely get frustrated in theological and moral arguments with fellow Catholics, because I would refer back to authoritative Catholic teaching to bolster my case. This didn’t make sense to many of my interlocutors; they didn’t feel bound at all by Catholic teaching, or see any reason why they should be. Let me be clear here: it wasn’t that they were being consciously defiant; it was that they never had seen any reason why what the Catholic Church teaches is theologically and morally true should have anything to do with their own conclusions about the same, except as good advice.

If even many Americans who identify as Catholics reject the teaching authority of the Catholic Church as a shared basis for discussion and argumentation with other Catholics, and beyond that, don’t even grasp why that should be a problem, then we are in a world in which reason is far weaker than we think. I read somewhere an older Catholic intellectual pining for the good old days, when Catholic liberals and Catholic conservatives could have a productive discussion, because both saw Catholic teaching as authoritative, and based their arguments for this or that conclusion on that shared commitment to authority. That’s gone now.

And it’s not just Catholics. You will remember my story about the person with whom I argued about a particular issue, who said, “Well, that’s your opinion.” The key thing there is that my interlocutor felt no obligation to question my premises or my logic, only to frame my entire argument as an assertion of opinion, which was no better or no worse than her own. (N.B., I used premises with which she already agreed to show the woman that her conclusion was faulty. She had decided that her conclusion was emotionally satisfying, and would not abandon it.)

It’s with this sort of thing in mind that I read Jeremy Beer’s TAC profile of Catholic philosopher David Schindler.  I can’t begin to do justice to it in a blog posting, and I’m going to have to read it once or twice more to make sure I understand what Schindler teaches. Here is a key excerpt:

The Christian story itself implies this metaphysics, but Schindler emphasizes that once disclosed by the events central to Christianity, the nature of being is in principle accessible to reason. There is no fideism at work here, but there is a different understanding of reason than the one that informs modern “rationality,” including the neo-Thomist version. In Schindler’s account of reason—one shared by Popes Benedict and John Paul II—faith does not narrow reason, nor does faith exist alongside reason as something “added” to it from without. Rather, faith enlarges reason from within, helping it to function better precisely as reason.

As you might imagine, understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude. If we do not respond to the cosmos in this way, it is because in some sense we have been “coached out of it”—by our culture, perhaps, or by our own choices and habits. Another implication of the idea of being-as-love is that being is intrinsically relational, not individualistic. The individual is real, to be sure, but included within individuality, and lying at its core, is relationality—to God, to whom the individual is constitutively related as a created thing is to its creator, and to others, to whom the individual is related through a common relationship to God.

In short, neither receptivity nor relationality are concepts that we can “add on,” even in abstraction, to a self-subsisting, non-related individual of the sort imagined by liberal thinkers. Ontologically speaking, before he is anything else the person is a gift and exists in relation. Receptivity, rooted in giftedness, and relationality are constitutive of the human being, and indeed of all being.

In short, Schindler believes we have gotten all wrong, metaphysically, since the Enlightenment — and that the classical neo-Thomists are missing something key too. As a total philosophical amateur, I find all this intriguing, and want to learn more. I hesitate to say much about it, because I don’t really understand what’s being argued for. From what it appears, though, I believe Schindler’s work is absolutely necessary to the long, patient rebuilding, lasting many generations, to which cultural conservatives are going to have to commit ourselves. Benedict Option stuff, I mean.

Nevertheless, I think John Zmirak, in a Facebook comment about the Schindler article, is probably onto something:

So we must embrace political futility, and cannot even make alliances in self-defense of our religious liberty–because we do not even share premises that are comprehensible to non-Christians (or even to non-Schindlerians). This is in fact practical Fideism–luckily it will never be very influential beyond a tiny circle of self-congratulatory pundits, because it is almost incomprehensible even to Catholics.

I ask my readers who are better grounded in philosophy and theology to respond to John’s point. My sense — and I’ve said this elsewhere — is that from a traditional conservative and small-o orthodox Christian perspective, the battle has been lost because the culture has been lost, and the wisest thing we can do is to retreat to defensible positions while continuing to live out and to teach our religious and moral traditions, in hope of better times. If I’m right, then as a practical matter, the best we can hope for in the secular realm is to fight for the liberty to be left alone. This, as John Z. gets, means in practical terms embracing a libertarianism that we find philosophically objectionable, but which is probably the only option open to us.

Put another way, I think it is, in fact, politically futile to attempt to change the culture meaningfully through politics, in part because our post-Christian civilization has lost the metaphysical understanding through which traditional Christian reasoning makes sense. But it is not politically futile to work practically to support a political order in which we trads may be left alone to do our thing. If we wait until we get everything metaphysically sorted before taking any political action, we’re going to get flattened.

What do you think? I’m not trying to settle an argument here, but start a discussion. I’m open to your thoughts. Please, though, don’t troll. If anybody wants to come around to throw rhetorical bombs, I’m not going to publish them. These questions matter a lot to me, and I’m eager to host and to learn from a good discussion in the combox.



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