The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.2 (Spring 2009)
the polis and faith
Faith, Reason, Charity, and Liberalism: A Response
John R. Harris
In the second book of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, Lucilius Balbus visits the Stoic topoi for validating belief in God (or the gods; by this time, ancient philosophers use the singular and plural almost interchangeably). Upon lately re-reading this text for perhaps the sixth or seventh time in my life, I reflected that most of the arguments were deeply beholden to aesthetics. That is, because the universe displays an intricate order when we study it carefully—or even when we gaze upon it casually—it cannot be the product of haphazard collisions (as the Epicurean system maintains which Balbus derides). Modernity has dealt harshly with defenses of this kind. To a Darwinian, chaos is indeed unlikely to create successful intricacy—which is precisely, if perversely, why the intricacy that we observe in our physical environment has succeeded: i.e., it chanced to trump chaos, surviving initially by blundering into a strategy, then surviving at an even higher rate when further chance ramifications managed to stumble farther out of the labyrinth. The tracks of sustained survival thus left behind have a purposive look retrospectively: they lead right out of the labyrinth. The evidence of missteps has mostly eroded under the winds of time, no wayward path having been followed for eons.
To a Kantian, contrastively, chaos is not a possible human perception. Even amid the most disorienting sandstorm, a human being would eventually identify the wind’s direction, the land’s rises and falls, moments of greater and lesser bluster, a lighter quarter of the sky where the sun must be hiding. The universe appears orderly because it must to the perceiving, thinking mind. The best proof that God exists therefore rests not in the orderliness of things per se—which cannot be reliably known—but in the irresistible disposition to impose order upon things which we creatures carry into our waking life and, a fortiori, into our imaginative existence.
A Darwinian might rebut a Kantian by remarking that our lively human mind has evolved to build our monumental success. I have never actually heard this rebuttal made, but it is the obvious counter-position for the materialist to assume. Many of us, laymen and specialists alike, cannot grasp how even several million years would suffice to construct human reason in the hit-and-miss fashion described by the Darwinian mechanism… but say it were so. There remain facets of our natural disposition which not only serve our material survival in no clear way, but overtly mobilize against our selfish interest. The suppression of selfishness, in fact, underlies every human moral code which has ever proved temporally durable and capable of bridging cultural gaps—nor is the mysterious calling to serve the universal good rather than selfish inclination a mere instinct designed to promote the hive’s interests over the drone’s. If this were so, we would cut adrift bothersome individuals who needed help when the safety and prosperity of the mass was at stake… yet civilized peoples do no such thing, and the “fool” who risks his life for the lonely castaway is admired as a hero even when his folly is deplored. One of my favorite passages in twentieth-century literature comes near the end of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Pilote de Guerre, a work intended to draw the United States into the war against Fascism but which, toward the end, also condemns the ethic of the hive (la morale de la termitière) all too visible in the Russian experiment with communism. Saint-Ex writes of the lost miner whom dozens or hundreds of saved miners will risk their lives to retrieve from the rubble. This is as it should be, he believes… and so do I, and so do we all in our honest moments.
I continue, then, to believe in reason—for our moral intuitions must be an integral part of a mysteriously endowed reason, since they cannot be deduced logically from our material struggle to survive. I will not cross swords in this tight space with the proposition that faith is opposed to reason (a skirmish I have waged on many earlier occasions) other than to suggest that a magnetism toward the good which attracts every human breast seems to me infinitely more worthy of the words “inspiration” and “revelation” than a set of laws and narratives—usually much-transcribed and then much-translated—cast in the idiom of cultures not yet familiar with nails and mortar. To polarize faith and reason is to leave the faithless in possession of reason’s fertile plain, by default. If we believe at all—believe, I mean, with anything like true sincerity—it is not because some inculcated regard for authority or acquired anxiety over the unknown has left us neurotically eager to surrender, but because we cannot, in full clarity of mind and heart, accept that a child is fully vaporized when his body perishes or that our yielding a place to a frail brother is a mistake. Reason insists that such essential emotions should find an ultimate coherence.
I am convinced that political liberalism indeed often begins in a sense of duty to the overlooked and the undervalued. The charitable impulse is indisputable in certain liberal formulations, and many liberal crusades of the nineteenth century were carried forward by churchmen. The curiosity seems to me less that liberals should lapse into religious language, therefore, than that they should have discarded the true faith in whose context that language would make sense. The discarding appears to occur with almost cyclical regularity, for at least two reasons. The first is that, having immersed oneself in supplying the material needs of the destitute, one is always at risk of exaggerating the importance of the material. When you have cured aborigines of tapeworm or straightened their teeth for two decades, all you can think of when they float to the surface of a conversation is X number of tapeworms to extract or Y sets of teeth to straighten. The means to a more fulfilled human existence (for who can examine his soul with 103˚ of fever?) become the end of existence.
The second force which is forever seducing charitable people away from the faith necessary to elevate humanity to a worthiness of charity is the very practice of the self-styled religious. Christianity’s worst enemies, I am afraid, are among those who call themselves Christians. I have begun reading the late Oriana Fallaci’s long novel Insciallah. In its early pages, as she describes the brutal reprisals exacted by Beirut’s Christians for the assassination of President Gemayel (the book being set in stark realities witnessed by the author as a foreign correspondent), those who gang-rape and butcher young women after quartering their babies before their eyes are said to be “proud of their faith in Jesus Christ”. You and I might roll our eyes, sigh deeply, and say, “Yes, this is called hypocrisy—and no one is immune to it.” But hypocrisy on such a colossal scale leaves a deep impression. Christians should be the very last to commit such atrocities: one would assume that ordinary people drawn randomly from anywhere in the world would shrink from these acts in horror. To find a Christian doing such a thing because he is a Christian is likely to turn liberal intellectuals like Fallaci away from faith for a lifetime (and her own initiation into such displays of “piety” began with her father’s being tortured by Fascist thugs who claimed to be defending the Church.)
If I might put it this way… an immersion in providing the material needs of the impoverished may rivet one’s attention upon the material, but a conviction that these needs are ancillary rather than primary may also lead one to respond callously to them. This world doesn’t really matter—except that, while we live in it, it matters immensely as the proving ground of our commitment to the other world. We must never become so confident in bookish teaching or “revelation” that we consider our conscience irrelevant. When those of little or no belief hear that salvation is a matter of praying and eating in just this manner and not that one, they may rightly protest that such lunacy is as old as warpaint.
Frankly, I find the ever-repeated liberal charge that Christianity is mere tribalism a very dull assessment of current events. Liberals like Robert Reich are all too similar to today’s Bible Belt bourgeoisie. They try to make the rank and file worthy of sacrifice by screening photos of plebeian birthday parties or by camcording homespun marriages and reunions (Barbara Walters and Anne Curry supplying a “voice-over” as they build to a tornado- or kidnap-tragedy in what might otherwise be the First Baptist Church’s website). One must indeed wonder, “Is this all there is?” The more the sprawling American proletariat is larded with high-def TVs and cheaper gas, the more dumbed-down its utterances grow (“I couldn’t believe it was happening to me,” drones the tornado’s victim, “it was like watching a movie”) and the more bloated on Big Macs its collective gut becomes. People are not easy to love for themselves. At least Walters & Co. catch them when their tears threaten to break some kind of barrier. The neo-Christian believer in secular utopia, meanwhile, eagerly turns out to rebuild his neighbor’s fallen house, exhorting him to view the tornado as a bad dream—to try out his new recliner and anesthetize himself before ESPN. We good church-goers dole out turkeys for Thanksgiving and toys for Christmas as if material acquisition were our message—as if the poor were sick with poverty and could be cured with doses (modest doses) of our lucre.
In a way, perhaps the great decision faced by the twenty-first century is whether or not we will learn how to be “rich in poverty”. Christendom, in particular, will be called upon to identify which progressive vectors are freeing the body of its inherited torments the better to cultivate the soul, and which are simply escorting us through unexplored realms of newfangled glister the better to churn out sales. We should cure the sick and feed the hungry—but we should neither surround ourselves with pelf nor stir an artificial craving for bright playthings in our fellow creatures. At the moment, we are collectively making a miserable job of this vital triage. If people of faith would themselves ponder what faith requires of them, the absurd misstatements of the faithless would draw down a spontaneous ridicule that would soon teach the virtues of silence.
Robert Reich’s partisans (if I may assume an advantage over Mr. Inbinder which a lapse of four years has allowed me) may soon teach us the virtues of poverty, in any case. They will do so with lofty sanctimony as they wrap themselves, their families, and their adherents in a mantle of power which may cover generations, in high medieval fashion. That, too, is one way—the most painful way—to explode Mr. Reich’s brand of faith: i.e., to surrender our lives to mere human beings on a messianic mission and watch how egotism rots the new temple. Nobody knows the virtue of patience more thoroughly than the poor.