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The Unraveling of the Common Good

From the witches on the heath to modern moral anarchy

In my “Purging Baltimore” post from earlier today, there are some liberal readers who have the idea that conservatives like me point to a Golden Age of American life, one that does not exist. For the record, I do not believe that there was ever a Golden Age of American life. That would be a ridiculous claim. Worse injustices, racial and otherwise, occurred in this country when it was arguably more Christian, and the culture was more united. No denying that.

What held us together back then, though, and what made progress to a more perfect realization of justice, was the shared belief in a common ideal, and a common source of morality and moral authority. This morning as I was driving into Baton Rouge, I was listening to public radio, and they played a recording of MLK’s “How Long? Not Long!” speech. It is a thoroughly, dazzlingly Christian example of oratory, designed to use the concepts and the language of the Bible to speak prophetically to a Christian nation, and cause it to repent of its grievous sins against black Americans. I realized that this is impossible today, this kind of rhetoric, and this kind of appeal. We don’t share that faith anymore, and don’t share that vocabulary.

A contemporary MLK could not and would not speak this way, because we have lost our common faith, and commitment to an external source of moral authority. It’s like this: a professor friend at a certain college tells me that his school has a problem with sexual assault among the students. The administration is trying to figure out how to address it effectively, but the school’s leadership refuses to use the language or morality, or moral absolutes. It couches everything it says in the language of liberalism, which is to say, in consent and procedure. This does not work. This cannot constrain the desiring hearts and bodies of the students. It leaves them utterly confused, and at the mercy of their passions.

Compounding the tragedy, this is a religious school, not a secular one.

This is why what is happening in Baltimore is linked to what is happening on Capitol Hill at the Supreme Court today. America in 2015 is a culture that defines the good as whatever the individual says it is. Justice Kennedy himself told us so in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”). I was trying to explain to my kids on the drive into the city late this morning what is at stake in the gay marriage arguments, and I said that it has to do with what is the meaning of marriage, and what is the meaning of the human person. In the end, I said, it comes down to whether or not there is a standard of truth outside of ourselves to which we must conform, or whether or not the body and the world of matter is inert material upon which we can impose our will.

So it comes down more or less to the same arguments that pitted the Scholastics against the Nominalists seven centuries ago. The end game is the evaporation of Christianity as anything more than therapeutic sentimentality. We’re living through this now.

What is the common good in such a world, absent shared metaphysical foundations? Is the common good simply the aggregate of individual goods, plus the imposition of majoritarian power? I think so. I mean, I think that’s what it inevitably boils down to.

A Catholic philosopher friend who thinks very deeply about these things says that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that appeals to religious liberty will protect us in the emerging order. Even if broad-minded liberals wanted to be tolerant and magnanimous, he says, the logic that leads to the discovery in the Constitution of gay civil rights will require intolerance of religious liberty, insofar as it impinges upon gay rights. This is because ideas have consequences, and the ontological and anthropological ideas that led to the moral and legal justification of same-sex marriage depose normative Christianity from the core of the culture’s understanding of itself.

There will be much, much more to be said about all this in the days and years to come, but what orthodox Christians in all the churches must do right now is to cast down their illusions about what America has become, and the place of Christianity within American culture. The inability of the vast majority of US Christians to read the signs of the times is the greatest obstacle to preparing for the resistance.

Richard Weaver, in his 1948 classic Ideas Have Consequences, wrote that “hysterical optimism is a sin against knowledge.” Yes, exactly: the hysterical optimism of so many Christians and conservatives today — an optimism that they mistake for Christian hope — is completely unsupportable. If they don’t know this today, they certainly will after SCOTUS rules in June.

That ruling turns on this Weaverian point:

The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of man.

The way you answer that question has profound, well, consequences. The future of the church depends on it. The time for choosing approaches. We know how the liberal American majority will decide (the liberal liberals, the conservative liberals [which is to say, mainstream conservatives], and the radical liberals); how will those who believe that there is an independent and higher source of truth go? They — we — cannot keep living as if these were normal times. These aren’t normal times. And a huge lesson the church must learn is not only do ideas have consequences, but practices have consequences too. 

I’ll leave you with this passage from Ideas Have Consequences, which, if you haven’t read it, you must:

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.

One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.

It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably—though ways are found to hedge on this—the denial of truth.

With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.

It’s all there.



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