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Tag Archive: Ideology

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 (1:57 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, September 30th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from an On The Square article today over at First Things, on the inherently epistemologically-limiting nature of intellectual methodology, and the dangers of ignoring that fact:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural.”)

This interesting little aside into the role of methodology in the intellectual life got me to thinking about the role of religion in the academy. It seems to me, when you get right down to it, that the idea of methodology serving as a definition of the limits of knowledge, thus marginalizing thought which falls outside the methodology as non-knowledge (or “un-scientific”, as one hears it imprecisely put today), is essentially a superstition. Superstition, after all, is nothing more than a belief that a methodology (i.e. cult), whether in act or incantation, will cause effects which in reality are quite independent of their alleged explanations, despite appearances to the contrary (superstitions that did not appear to “work” some convincing proportion of the time would, of course, never have been held). This is not merely a conflation or confusion of correlation with causation (though it certainly can involve that), but an actual belief in the power of allegedly explanatory phenomena, which misdirects the intellect away from its proper end, which is the contemplation of truth. That’s a fancy way of saying that people are deceived by their own cleverness, and so take their eyes off of God.

The history of true religion, be it Christianity or the Israelite religion that spawned it, is a history of struggling against and overcoming the superstitions of pagan religions, and of pointing to the one, true, un-manipulable Cause. It’s ironic that the Yahwists of yore could be denounced essentially as atheists for their rejection of the cosmology, cult, and attendant morality of pagan religion, while their modern descendants are reviled as “religious theocrats” by people often calling themselves atheists, who are practitioners of a methodology (cult) believed to be bringing relief (salvation) to the human condition, but which superstitiously claims both to explain things clearly beyond its competence and invalidate ideas beyond its scope, furthermore is based on a cosmology of Original Violence, or intrinsic struggle – with its resounding similarity to pagan mythology – and is producing in its wake a social morality that resembles nothing so much as pagan hedonism.

It’s been said often enough that wisdom depends on an apt understanding of the meanings of words. Our society could benefit greatly from a non-obfuscatory working definition of religion.

On a Nationalized American Religious Disposition

Posted: Saturday, September 3, 2011 (8:57 pm), by John W Gillis


I don’t take many calls that come in from 800- or similar area codes, but I took one this morning, because I am expecting a call-back from HP regarding a warranty replacement hard drive for Ezra, my Windows 7 desktop computer (which I had prematurely identified last week as suffering from software problems, but which were being caused by a failing hard drive).

The call was from an organization looking to add my name to a petition supposedly being submitted somewhere or another as a token of protest against the legal successes of a militant atheist group committed to outlawing the observation of the National Day of Prayer. This anti-religious campaign, I was assured, represented an affront or assault (I can’t remember which now) on my “Christian rights”. I listened to the entire recorded message from the organization’s general counsel, but hung up before I could be roped into providing a telephonic “signature” to the petition (or be hit up for a contribution, which was undoubtedly the real point of the call).

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the goal of this group: resisting the pernicious agenda of an angry minority intent on manipulating the law to enforce a practical atheism on American society in a kind of ironically inverted federal establishment of (anti)-religion. It also might not be prudent to blithely assume that such clowns, and their judicial enablers, will never be able to pull off their ultimate goal – they have made significant inroads already, after all. Moreover, every battle lost involves real casualties, even in a winning war. Making it illegal for the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer would surely strike an historically alienating and politically chilling blow against liberal society’s foundational building block of religious freedom, and even against the idea of tolerance itself, and it would teach a stark lesson to society (and to society’s children): that solidarity can and should be trumped by religiously intolerant ideology. This would be grievous, because sans the bitterclingers of atheistic denunciation, the National Day of Prayer effects nothing but a spirit of national solidarity across a wide and diverse body of people, many of whom profess religious views and affiliations that would have surely made them enemies to each other in most pre-American societies – and even still today, in more than a few places:

Religious Hostilities in the World, 2009 (Pew Research)

Still, I have a hard time getting worked up about defending the National Day of Prayer. Partly because I don’t like it. Contrary to those opponents who claim the practice “supports religion”, I think it undermines religion, usurping religion for secular/political purposes. Despite the finding of the U.S. District Court judge who, in April 2010, found in favor of repressing the National Day of Prayer in part because it “promote[s] a particular religious practice”, it is in reality the utter opposite of a “particular religious practice”; it is the very definition of a generic “religious” practice – at least from a religious perspective. It is “particular” only in the sense that it is national, and focused on the nation over against any understanding of the Divine – that is to say, over against religion! Hardly the kind of thing that worried Madison, Jefferson, or their compatriots.

Having been thoroughly steeped in the Old Testament, I am far from comfortable with the idea that God can and should be reduced to a generic concept, or a least-common-denominator deity, invoked for the sake of serving the interests of the state. That smacks of idolatry to me. Nonetheless, I don’t denounce the practice as idolatrous per se, since I can see how it is quite possible to build toward the realization of theological truth through the embrace of virtue inherent in the social idea of solidarity, and so I can warily accept it in Christian hope while rejecting its reductionism.

But perhaps the thing that bothered me most this morning was the acute absence of that other crucially important social idea: solidarity’s sister, subsidiarity. Here was this guy, from somewhere probably half-way across the continent, calling me – a complete stranger – to ask me to listen to a pre-recorded spiel from some overpaid lawyer who wants to argue a silly case in a federal court somewhere, and finally to place my essentially anonymous name as a quantifiable object on a petition (assuming one actually exists) to be submitted as evidence that there is some sufficient mass of people within the republic who object to the theological rape of the public square. Good grief.

Can a handful of judges and lawyers really be allowed to determine the religious character of a nation of over 300 million people? Do we really need lawyers to tell us how and when to pray at all? Is this what citizenship has been reduced to: reciting your name (in perhaps an indignant tone) into a computerized phone bank’s storage array? And what does it mean to fret about a symbolic national prayer event when local churches close for lack of parishioners; families fracture at a continually alarming rate (when they even bother to form at all anymore); the fundamental communal institution of marriage is recast as a personal lifestyle choice of the self-focused individual – until we no longer even know what marriage means; entire generations continue to be reared in a “pop culture” that stridently and effectively promotes alienation from society; employers routinely lack any fealty toward either the communities that support them, or their employees; and political speech has been largely reduced to a propaganda of binary options embracing either faster or slower centralization of power and decision making into a federal bureaucracy.

We don’t need a national day of prayer; we need to stop expecting Leviathan to fix our problems for us. We need to re-learn the idea of community, as an antidote to unfettered individualism – beginning with marriage. And we need to start building a national fellowship based not on cues taken from distant politicians, but on a broad commitment to the commonweal rooted in the social cultivation of virtue – a true patriotism, which can only take place in a society that is open to honest and vigorous religious (and moral) dialog in the public square. This, it seems to me, is not something to be accomplished through national campaigns, events, and petition drives, but by the simple practice of virtuous citizenship, and by the practice of a truly hopeful religious ecumenism: one that refuses to sacrifice truth for serenity, but insists that a real knowledge of God is possible among honest men and women.

‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’

Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 (6:45 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011:

Jonathan Last, in a review published at the Wall Street Journal Online of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, a recent book by feminist Mara Hvistendahl:

Ms. Hvistendahl is particularly worried that the "right wing" or the "Christian right"—as she labels those whose politics differ from her own—will use sex-selective abortion as part of a wider war on abortion itself. She believes that something must be done about the purposeful aborting of female babies or it could lead to "feminists’ worst nightmare: a ban on all abortions."

It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can’t help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue. Yet, while she is not willing to say that something has gone terribly wrong with the pro-abortion movement, she does recognize that two ideas are coming into conflict: "After decades of fighting for a woman’s right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right."

Late in "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl makes some suggestions as to how such "abuse" might be curbed without infringing on a woman’s right to have an abortion. In attempting to serve these two diametrically opposed ideas, she proposes banning the common practice of revealing the sex of a baby to parents during ultrasound testing. And not just ban it, but have rigorous government enforcement, which would include nationwide sting operations designed to send doctors and ultrasound techs and nurses who reveal the sex of babies to jail. Beyond the police surveillance of obstetrics facilities, doctors would be required to "investigate women carrying female fetuses more thoroughly" when they request abortions, in order to ensure that their motives are not illegal.

Such a regime borders on the absurd. It is neither feasible nor tolerable—nor efficacious: Sex determination has been against the law in both China and India for years, to no effect. I suspect that Ms. Hvistendahl’s counter-argument would be that China and India do not enforce their laws rigorously enough.

Despite the author’s intentions, "Unnatural Selection" might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of "choice." For if "choice" is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against "gendercide." Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s "mental health" requires it. Choice is choice. One Indian abortionist tells Ms. Hvistendahl: "I have patients who come and say ‘I want to abort because if this baby is born it will be a Gemini, but I want a Libra.’ "

Though the selection quoted here paints Ms. Hvistendahl as something of a crackpot, the review is largely appreciative of what Last takes to be a worthwhile expository work which explores some of the unintended consequences of what people saner than Ms. Hvistendahl recognize as the fundamentally evil franchise of legalized abortion. The practical social implications of the abortion movement are chickens slowly but surely coming home to roost, and represent nobody’s sexually-liberated utopia, needless to say. Nevertheless, it is truly astonishing to see how writers like Hvistendahl can maintain their ideological blindness in the light of such damning evidence of their murderous folly.

An All-Too Common Word

Posted: Monday, August 4, 2008 (11:40 pm), by John W Gillis


Yale Divinity School last week hostedLoving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims,” a conference on global inter-faith dialog, which was a follow-up to a written dialog commonly referred to as “A Common Word,” started back in late 2006 by several dozen Muslim leaders responding in an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI regarding Benedict’s famous University of Regensburg address, in which he infamously used some quotes from an obscure Byzantine text of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to help make what was an extraordinarily well articulated appeal to the importance of nurturing a renewed understanding, in Western intellectual circles, of the profound and necessary interrelatedness of faith and reason.

Quite a bit could be said about this ongoing effort at promoting world peace through the attempt to moderate religious fanaticism, but if the opening keynote address of the conference, given by Senator John Kerry, is any indication of the direction this dialog is taking, I do not hold out much hope for the outcome. Perhaps it is not fair to tar the working group with Kerry’s views, but they did invite him to give the address, which at least raises some questions about their understanding of the character of the problem they assemble to confront. He’s not even credible within his own religion; I don’t see how he could be taken seriously as a spokesman for inter-religious dialog

Mr. Kerry, of course, is the junior U.S. Senator from my home state of Massachusetts, as well as a former Democratic Party nominee for U.S. President (2004). He is also a Roman Catholic, by upbringing and by personal affiliation, but is one of several prominent American politicians who have become lightning rods for criticism in conservative Catholic circles for their continued superficial embrace of Catholicism – and assertions that they remain in communion with the Church – despite their very public and materially efficacious dissent on fundamental matters of faith and morals, among which abortion perhaps looms largest, but hardly alone.

Senator Kerry’s address contained numerous occasions of what I consider to be, at best, muddled thinking, but there is one particular statement that I think reflects not only the lunacy of commonly held Western views of religion’s role in global issues, but also just how badly the intellectual world needs to listen closely to the pope’s message of the imperative of reintegrating faith and reason – the alleged jumping off point of this entire enterprise:

Somehow, we have to find a way to agree that faith may be worth dying for, but it cannot be worth killing for. John Kerry, 7/28/2008

At first blush, this statement perhaps looks very noble – enlightened, even. It appeals, if you will, to both sides of the aisle: by paying homage to the seriousness of held religious belief, while aiming to express the very common sentiment that religion should foster peace – and peaceableness. Implicit, however – and not too subtly – is the idea that this will require some kind of change: that religion currently – and historically – foments violence and animosity.

Now, the question of whether religion has done more over the course of human history to cause warfare and violence, or more to tame the same, I will leave unexplored here – though personally, I think an honest and reasonable assessment of the question would infuriate religion’s cultured despisers. Rather, I’d like to look at the admittedly very popular proposal that religion (“faith,” as Mr. Kerry actually puts it) cannot be worth killing for.

This claim may sound innocuous enough, but only of we don’t stop to ask the question: is anything worth killing for, and if so, what?

The question might make many people uneasy, but only because our modern culture has weaned us on euphemism. Simply put, it’s a question of whether or not there is anything in the world worth going to war for.

I’m quite certain that John Kerry is not a pacifist. It is well-known that he honorably served two tours in Vietnam, and he campaigned only four years ago to be commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. I think it’s safe to say that John Kerry – like almost everyone in the world, thinks at least some things are worth killing for. If I asked Mr. Kerry if “freedom and democracy” (which is shorthand for “American political ideology”) is worth fighting for, I’m pretty sure he’d come back with a pretty quick affirmative.

So what does it mean to insist that faith, or religion, is not to be counted among those things worth fighting or killing for?

The reasons people go to war are complex. Not only are there almost always in each case a complex of reasons, but it is a different question to ask why states go to war versus why people participate in war. It is a different question again to ask why people engage in other acts of collective violence that do not fall (at least not at first) into the category of war proper, such as rebellions. Likewise, states and tribes do not war in the same way, and it seems dangerous to try to reduce the whole matter to an historically pertinent formula.

Still, not being above trying to make myself look foolish, it seems to me that the motive for warring can be broken out into three general categories, which are by no means mutually exclusive when it comes to providing motivation, and which each contain a wide breadth of expression.

  1. Gain. Let’s be honest: this is the primary motivator for most warring, whether it takes the guise of greed for booty, slaves, or natural resources; the lust for power; the pursuit of glory; or perhaps even the modern euphemism “national interest.” Other examples abound. Despisers of Christianity would want to see pursuit of indulgences included here – fair enough.
  2. Ideals & Conviction. While some wars may be fought purely for selfishly immoral ends, some are fought for convictions. I have no illusions either that these ends are mutually exclusive (I’d say they’re usually pretty much mixed together), or that some convictions, however well-intended, might be thoroughly immoral. But that fact remains that there is a world of difference between fighting for ideals and fighting for gold. I think these convictions can be broken out into two sub-groups: religiously formed conviction, and political ideology.
  3. Duty. I again see two basic sub-categories here: self-defense, and love of neighbor – where love of neighbor involves things such as the willingness to sacrifice in defense of your family, community, or nation, as well as the willingness to come to the aide of other vulnerable peoples who have been or are being wronged by a greater power. The promise of indulgences aside, it is here that I would place the greater part of the motivations for the Crusades. That observation raises the point that perhaps these duty-oriented motivations should really be subsumed under the above subheading of religious convictions – which I think is absolutely true – but I’ll leave that for now.

So, where does that leave John Kerry, and the myriad others who think like him?

If there exists a human being naive enough to think that man’s propensity for warring can somehow be mitigated by barring religious conviction from the calculus of political decision making, he can look to the grotesque and murderous history of the last century to see just what a religion-free political ideology will buy you. Somewhat ironically, I write this on the day I read of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, so he won’t be available for comment, but his body of literary work should suffice.

Indeed, Solzhenitsyn would seem to have had little patience for attempts to marginalize religious conditioning of political thought, a modern trend which he saw as a bane of both modern East and West: “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.” At Harvard, in 1978, he had this to say on the subject of the “cleansing” of religion from political life:

It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.

No, Mr. Senator, war would not go away if we banished faith from the table of those things we find worth fighting for. Instead, the ideals and duty motives that are part of the calculus would be reduced to those that are informed by ideology. Ideology, by definition, rules not by appealing to truth – to something “out there” by which all can be judged – but through power accomplished by compelling conformity to a desired, manufactured, status quo. Religion, in however perfect or imperfect a form, at least has the advantage of seeking its goal in some kind of transcendent meaning, rather then the purely political and self-interested machinations of ideology.

The highest ideals that people possess are their religious ideals- whether they are explicitly religious, or even atheistic. Claiming that society must advance by making peoples’ highest ideals about the only things not worth fighting for is sheer lunacy. There is no way that such an approach to statecraft could make the world anything but more barbarous.

It is precisely this kind of divorce of religion from public rational processes that Pope Benedict inveighed against the German scholars for in Regensburg, which prompted this whole discussion to begin with. Benedict, of course, was not promoting religious warfare – he was in fact condemning it as an irrational means of advancing religion. But as long as states resort to warfare, it is imperative that religion provide civilizing boundaries. Furthermore, it is religion, with its transcendent moral requirements, which must provide the framework for reason to work out the differences among peoples, so that warfare can be avoided.

Not all religion is created equal, but the real value of inter-religious dialog needs to be the pursuit of truth for the sake of reforming religion, not the marginalization of religion from the public sphere.

If faith and reason are cooperative forms of God’s revelation of Himself to man – as Benedict, speaking for the Church militant, expectant, and triumphant, insists – the end result of genuine dialog will not be a means for all of us to get along cheerily with our differences, but the correction of bad religion, and, ultimately, unity of faith. If God is truly One, then there can be no other end but unity.

We may be a long ways off, and we may need to ensure that the road leading us there is peaceful enough to be fruitful, but we should not confuse the means with the end – or allow muddled thinking to subvert our highest ideals by renouncing them for ideology.

Benedict’s Challenge to American Anti-Authoritarianism

Posted: Saturday, April 26, 2008 (10:01 pm), by John W Gillis


Pope Benedict XVI’s Yankee Stadium homily last Sunday was quite a celebration of American Catholicism, but the pontiff never strayed far from his theme of the unchanging need for faithful Christians, as a community rooted in the apostolic heritage, to be a sign of the gospel’s hope for mankind in the face of sin and death, through bearing witness to the unity of the truth found in the Word of God, revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

This rootedness is not something Benedict sees simply in the hierarchical form of the Church (even if he makes a point of the necessary visibility of the Church’s apostolic unity), but also in the faithful handing down of the gospel from generation to generation, and in the public presence of the fruits of our life in the Spirit, as manifested in various works of mercy and charity. He praised the “successive waves of immigrants” for the ways they have enriched American society, and called upon their descendants to faithfully follow in their footsteps, so as to “hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land.”

In a society, not unlike the one he himself hails from, that suffers from distorted understandings of freedom, it was important that he speak of what freedom truly means. For too many Americans (and other Westerners), freedom is what excuses one from being subject to authority, or bound to obedience. Even in our families, the idea that parents have, by nature, an authority over their children is coming into conflict with the sensibilities of the age. The notion that children owe their parents obedience is being eroded by the new sensibility, which maintains that parents should reason with children, of any age – that parents owe their children explanations for every decision. Furthermore, it’s a cultural expectation that children will rebel – indeed, must rebel – against their parents, in order to “come into their own.” The public schools are a mess with rampant disrespect. And in the spheres of religion or morality, the idea of the legitimacy of authority has become almost laughable.

The concept of authority is in disrepute, indeed.

In all relationships that are not governed by either the power of actual or implied violence, or the hierarchy of economic dependency in employment, authority is generally viewed as an unwanted relic of a now-overturned, oppressive order from a pre-critical age. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Authority can no more be put aside than air could be put aside – it can be polluted, but it cannot be “replaced” by freedom.

Indeed, what we see happening in Western culture is not at all the disappearance of authority into a new order of egalitarian bliss, but instead the movement of the locus of authority from relationships based on community order, to relationships based on the exercise of dominative power. Authority is being reduced to having the power to exercise one’s will: do this, or I will hurt you, jail you, fine you; this is legal because we have the votes, or we have the money. In short, might makes right. This is the predictable offspring of ideology. In fact, isn’t power the whole point of ideology?

But as the Catholic Church rightfully understands authority, it is not reducible to power. Indeed, power is itself subject to authority, because authority comes from God. Authority is ultimately nothing but the truth. Authority is that which is authoritative. It is reality. It is what is, and reflects Him who said “I am who am” (Exod 3.14).

When human exercise of authority is not in conformance with the revelation of the Author, it ceases to be genuinely reflective of the good, becomes socially dysfunctional, and leads to idolatry. But this is not a valid reason to reject authority itself; it is reason to work to ensure that authority is exercised in conformance with the truth – meaning not as a function of opinion and ideology. The rejection of authority itself is the rejection of the order established by God – it is, in other words, a rejection of reality, and every bit as much a descent into idolatry as any kind of impious authority worship.

This is why freedom cannot be coherently understood as existence outside of, or beyond, authority. Such an existence is an existence in falsehood. Any attempt to be one’s own authority, to make up, or “discover,” one’s own morality – or “reality” – is an attempt to take the place of the Author. And this is not freedom, but rebellion – which leaves one enslaved to sin, as it manipulates the passions.

Freedom, on the other hand, – true freedom – can exist only when it is aligned with reality, when it is grounded in the truth that Christ promised would make us free (Jn 8.32). Freedom must be subject to truth, or it is false. The Holy Father put this quite well in his homily:

The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves (cf. Lk 17:33). True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. “In his will is our peace”.

In this, Benedict’s penultimate address during his apostolic visit to America, he left no doubt that he thinks it is time for the Church in America to pick itself up from its recent troubles, seek the unity of faith found in the freedom of a lived fidelity to the living apostolic witness, and go about the task of bearing our own witness to the liberating truth of the gospel – in particular the truth of the Divinely defined dignity of the human person, a truth so often obscured in our day by ideologies – and religions – that would reduce the human person to a means to an end.

Hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land, and bear witness with the authority of the apostolic faith, and so honor our fathers and mothers.

ΑΩ