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Through the looking glass

Commenter Alice, with whom I’ve had a couple of exchanges at her husband’s weblog, carries her battle into the opposition’s territory. The pile of arguments is getting unmanageably high, so I’ll set up my response as a new entry:

Dear Alice,

I agree that not all ways of viewing the world are equal. Some are more rational than others. Some are more adequate than others. The problem is to combine rationality and adequacy.

The requirements don’t really conflict, since an irrational understanding is inadequate and an inadequate understanding is irrational. They are nonetheless in tension. That’s the human condition. We didn’t make the world and it’s very hard for us to comprehend it. The problem with rationalism is that it ignores the tension. It takes principles that are clear, useful and rational, like empirical evidence and logic, and insists on treating them as sufficient when they are not. That has bad results, but the principles are nonetheless OK in themselves.

With that in mind, I don’t see the problem with Christianity using arguments a rationalist could use to debunk what it thinks is false, and then saying that rationalism is not enough. It’s true it has to be able to respond to rationalist objections itself, but that’s an old story. Christianity doesn’t “situate itself above rational examination.” If it did there would be no such thing as apologetics.

You don’t seem to take seriously the existence of apologetics, or of Christianity as a principled structure rather than the agglomeration of everything any Christian has ever said or done. You seem to think that there’s an obviously rational and rationally sufficient way to look at things, the liberal humanist way, but for some reason people sometimes arbitrarily announce “there was a virgin birth and therefore fornication is bad and if you don’t believe God has three persons you’ll roast in hell forever.”

No. The way it works is that we are involved in the world and have to understand it to act in it. How we act displays how we understand it. So we try to figure out what kind of world it is, we always have some sort of view of the matter already, various other possibilities come up, we exclude some as inadequate, we are drawn to others as illuminating, we consider assorted lines of thought, we make various demands for coherence, fruitfulness, truth to experience and so on. Eventually something comes in focus as how the world is and that’s what we take to be the truth of things. We then act by reference to that truth. That is what human thought and therefore human rationality is actually like. The way we come to conclusions as to the most general issues can’t be systematized.

For all that, once adopted a position can normally be articulated, put in order, and defended. Since it presents a full-blown view of the world, the articulation will involve a great many propositions, some of which will make no more sense from outside than quantum mechanics would make to someone who knows only common-sense physics or American constitutional law would make to Assurbanipal. For that reason, snarky remarks about Schroedinger’s cat or the incorporation doctrine do not constitute a refutation of those systems. A bit more discussion is needed.

Moving along to particular comments: I don’t suggest that “there is no qualitative difference between the claims made by religion and those made by [secularist] government.” I compare the two with respect to politics and the freedom and rationality of social life, and claim that doing away with religion doesn’t help and in fact hurts on that score. If you do away with religion you still need something that serves the same political function because you have to be able to make sense of things collectively and in particular justify coercion and sacrifice in the interests of an overall scheme of life. The result will be a secular political quasi-religion.

I agree that such quasi-religions have their own specific features. The big difference is that they are unusually stupid because of their grossly insufficient understanding of human life. In particular, they have no way to make sense of interior experience, which you will agree is of fundamental importance. Since they have no way to make sense of it, and since it inevitably connects to all aspects of human society because man is social, they deal with it in an incredibly ham-handed way, for example by treating maximum equal preference satisfaction as the highest human good. In the absence of any standard beyond that, and with the aid of the rationalist need to bring everything in line with a few clear simple principles, the result is that the things people actually care about and live by—which touch on interior experience—get crushed.

You don’t say which of my statements about Medieval Christendom is inaccurate. You do say some things I agree with. I agree that the Church was the single most influential institution at the time. I also agree that like all governing institutions everywhere and always it was often corrupt.

I deny that it was characteristically manipulative. If it were simply or mostly a system of manipulation there would have been no saints. Anselm, Aquinas, Bernard, Bonaventura, Catherine, Clare (go through the alphabet) weren’t stupid, irrational, uninformed, or lacking in other options. Nonetheless, they thought the best thing they possibly could do in life was give themselves wholly to the Church. You can’t manipulate that degree of devotion into existence. Ditto for chant, Romanesque architecture, the cathedrals of Europe, etc.

Rationalist and individualist skepticism about concepts like “the public good,” together with an inability to deal with inner experience, mean that the liberal state can’t offer good motives for obedience and necessarily comes to rely on manipulative rhetoric. I’m told that there are theoreticians today who treat manipulative rhetoric as the universal basis of public life. Perhaps some such view has crept into the way people understand other times and places, when a richer and more adequate understanding of human life had some influence so that the concept of a non-manipulative public order could affect how people acted.

I’m not sure why it’s hideous to treat marital sexual relations as morally serious, so that some attitudes toward them are wrong. I suppose a liberal individualist who considered public standards regarding human relations inherently manipulative, because human relations involve nondiscussable issues of inner experience, might be outraged by public assertion of a definite standard on such an issue. That’s just speculation on my part though.

Be that as it may, forcible repression of privately-held heresy seems to be your biggest objection to Medieval Christendom. If it matters, I don’t think they should have done that either. Similarly, I am confident that you reject execution on suspicion of disaffection and many other things liberal French revolutionaries and various progressive secularists have done over the past 200+ years.

It would be hard to find a civilization in which there has been no official oppression. The question is whether the religion or quasi-religion at the base of the civilization systematically leads to it. Here I think the objection against Catholicism is that it concerns itself with the spiritual well-being of each of us, and that leads to a perpetual temptation to use aggressive methods to investigate and promote our souls’ good.

On the other hand, modern scientism concerns itself with mental health, so the same temptation seems present. Soviet psychiatry shows what can happen. And contemporary liberalism very much concerns itself with human relations and therefore attitudes toward others—racism, sexism, homophobia and all the rest of it. Officially-mandated sensitivity training uses proactive inquisitorial methods to flush out bad thoughts in that regard. So I don’t see that there’s such a difference in principle. If anything, Christianity has the advantage: it has a built-in fundamental reason for considering voluntary adhesion essential, which the medical and community relations outlooks do not.

Ferocity of procedure and punishment seems irrelevant to the issue. On those points the Church was simply following the best legal system around, secular Roman law. Burning was the late Roman punishment for treason, and heresy seemed a kind of treason. Torture was just the way the Romans investigated the truth of a matter in dispute. I’d assume that if despite Dignitatis Humanae the Church once again fell prey to the temptation to use overly-imaginative methods of persuasion they’d also follow what the best authorities were doing in secular matters. So instead of diversity coordinators we’d have orthodoxy coordinators telling us what to think about everything.

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