"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ever ancient, ever new...arguments

My online friend Owen White, aka The Ochlophobist, has delivered himself of a rambling post in which he quotes and discusses, mostly critically, my words on a couple of theological subjects. It took me only slightly less long to read that post than to read Francis Collins' The Language of God—a book I highly recommend for its clarity and honesty, if not always for its theological depth. Let me say at the outset that I look forward to having a beer with Owen someday despite knowing that, given his taste in beer, the occasion could well take even longer than reading his post did. In the meantime, now that I've had some time to digest that post along with other, less appetizing features of my life, I've decided to respond one point at a time.

But not all at once. Owen is Orthodox and his readership is largely Orthodox, just as I am Catholic and mine is largely Catholic. And my ample, recent experience with attempting Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical outreach on the Internet is much like my longer but more intermittent experience dealing with Catholic trads on the subject. Unless one has prayed and fasted for a week beforehand and resolves to love for better or for worse, one is likely to end up feeling the way I once did while trying to cross a busy, eight-lane freeway on foot. So I'll think I'll put off his bit about ecumenism until my next post. There's nothing like ecumenical outreach on the information superhighway to make the truckers put the pedal to the metal. With gusto.

The issue I want to focus on today is what Catholics—or theologically educated Catholics, anyhow—would call "natural reason." Apparently a comment I made in passing last week about Orthodox attitudes thereto caused a bit of a stir, which Owen picked up. The mistake I made was to use the word 'obscurantism' for the common tendency among Orthodox to hold, in my words, that "nothing can be well studied while prescinding from divine revelation." He apparently agrees that his co-religionists have that tendency, yet sees nothing wrong with it. And I must concede that the label I used for it belongs in a recognizable collection of labels, such as 'fascist', that almost always rile more than inform. Since Owen himself quotes my comment in full, I won't bothering requoting myself. It is his substantive criticisms that call for attention, if only to clear up misunderstandings that the Lowerarchy so often uses to its advantage.

First, he writes:

Mike is correct in his assessment of Orthodox inclinations. Everything is theological. And although there have been practical advantages to the separation of various fields of study from theological considerations, these have also brought there own ghastly nightmares with them. Thus now we have so many attempts by Christian conservatives, notably Catholics, to reintroduce faith into the public square and into the consideration and "ethical" discernment processes of the sciences (hard and social) and the humanities. What sad irony.

Let's start with the relationship of science and religion. Perhaps I'm just a thick-headed Catholic humanist, but I can't detect the irony or even the actual argument. All I see is repetition of the slogan I tried to interpret.

I can only surmise that what Owen means by "ghastly nightmares" are the ghastly things that scientific knowledge enables humanity to do, such as make atomic bombs, reproduce artificially, poison the environment, etc. But I'm not sure what the argument is supposed to be. If the argument is that theology-laden natural science would, at one and the same time, give us ever-greater knowledge of the physical universe and yet not give us the knowledge needed to do such things—well, that's a pipe dream. Given what knowledge of the natural world is like, we cannot acquire the knowledge to do the many great things science has enabled us to do without acquiring the knowledge to do the ghastly things science has enabled us to do. Given what people are like, the knowledge to do evil can and will be used by some people some of the time. Indeed, corruptio optimi pessima. Such is reality.

Perhaps, though, the claim being made is that the great good which theology-free natural science, as it has developed in the modern world, has enabled us to do is not worth it, because the evil it enables us to do is greater still. If so, I know of no argument for that either. And anybody who wants to press that argument had better articulate the premises better than Owen has.

Yet again, the claim might be that the natural sciences as such would, somehow, benefit as such if pursued as branches of theology. But I do not know how anybody would mount a serious argument for that. Consider some examples.

Isaac Newton seemed to conceive of his physical theories as theology. But the way they've benefited humanity has nothing to do with his theology—save perhaps insofar as they were motivated by bad theology. Thus centuries later, Newton's voluminous tomes of exegesis and theology, which he thought more important than his contributions to physics, are of purely academic interest and not terribly much even of that. Charles Darwin was notoriously ambivalent about God. Although he seemed to want to be some sort of theist, "nature red in tooth and claw" generated for him a problem of evil he didn't know how to deal with. Yet none of that either aided nor impeded his observations and theorizing. Einstein didn't make his reputation by means of his Spinozistic deism, which was neither necessitated by his scientific theories nor excluded by them. And so on. To be sure, everybody would benefit if all or most natural scientists were devout Christians. Much nonsense written by scientists outside their special competence would not be written; many research projects in the social sciences would be selected, conducted, and received in a healthier spirit; and it would be taken for granted in the culture at large, not just in the Catholic Church of today, that good science and good theology can live very nicely with each other. Those would be tremendous benefits. I would love it if all or most natural scientists were devout Christians. But a scientist's religion has nothing to do with how good a practitioner of scientific method they are. Many good scientists are atheists, and scientists who are theists, or even Christians, do not become better or even good scientists by including theological premises in their hypotheses—or in their results. They probably are better people for being Christians than they would be if they weren't; but that is another matter altogether.

In sum, I do not know what argument is being made when the slogan "everything is theological" is applied to the relationship of science and religion. And of the three possible arguments I've considered, none seem in the least persuasive.

In any event, Owen seems more concerned with my advocacy of "natural law" as the basis for the idea of universal, inherent human rights. By way of criticism, he says things like this: It is worth noting that Mike's intuition is to immediately connect just polity within the branches of Christendom to the idea of universal human rights. That, I'm afraid, is an immediate misunderstanding. My discussion of just polity did not concern inter- or even intra-church relations per se, but polity in the ordinary, temporal sense. Of course, it goes without saying that what counts as universal human rights in the world at large will so count in the Church. It also goes without saying that the Church, in light of the full Gospel, will in turn go well beyond them. But my main point was just the same the Pope has making for years: philosophically, the only alternative to acknowledging the natural law, whose ultimate origin is God the Creator, is some form of "might makes right." And that holds regardless of whether the mighty are kings, dictators, or democratic majorities.

Of course recognition of the natural law will not by itself suffice to bring peace and justice to the world. We must not only recognize that law but form our consciences by it and submit to it. That is why this criticism is incorrect: "The question is whether or not notions of universal human rights will get us to justice." The question is not what is sufficient for that purpose, but what is necessary.

Our real disagreement lies elsewhere. What Owen really dislikes, like most Orthodox, is what he calls "bottom-up theology." Thus, speaking of my my "programmatic" recommendation, Owen writes:

This is very much in keeping with the general encyclical tradition coming from Rome in the last 50 or so years. There is found there what seems to be an underlying premise that we start with a basic humanism and work from there up to the Church. I have known many intellectual converts to Catholicism with backgrounds in law and philosophy who have done this very thing. Many Catholic matters are taught from the ground up as it were, from contraception, to the role of the sexes, to abortion, to economics, to inter-faith relations, and so on and so forth. "Reason alone" is where the conversation begins, and we build from there. This is simply not how Orthodox operate, nor do we tend to have much confidence that such projects will work.

That is a misconception of the project being criticized. The project I'm advocating is not to do all theology from the bottom up, as though natural theology were a necessity for revealed theology. I don't believe that the Catholic converts in question, the most recent and prominent of which is Francis Beckwith, think so either. Some people do the latter just fine without much caring for the former. All I advocate is seeking common ground, for purposes of securing the moral basis of a just society, with people who do not share our specifically theological premises. Not everybody is Christian, and Christians do not speak with one theological voice. It is not only sectarian, but pointlessly so, to rule out an appeal to reason alone as a way of discerning the moral basis for a just society.

The abortion issue is a classic illustration of what I'm talking about. We cannot expect people to see what's so horrible about abortion if all we offer them are arguments logically dependent on a "top-down" theology they do not share. Yet not only would it be unrealistic to require being Orthodox, or Catholic, or adhering to any particular religious tradition at all, as a precondition of seeing what's wrong with abortion; there's no need to do so. The empirical premise that pre-born children are human beings, and the moral premise that no innocent human being may be directly and intentionally killed, are not mysterious data of divine revelation. Any reasonable person can reasonably come to hold them, and some people of no particular religious persuasion have in fact done so.

I'm not sure whether the real issue between me and Owen (and certain other Orthodox intellectuals) is primarily evangelical or primarily theological. Evangelically, the question is whether it helps or harms our work as Christians to invoke things like natural science, natural theology, and natural law as we address ourselves to the world. One might say that the answer to that will depend on what one's top-down theology is, but that's not quite to the point. The real question is not whether invoking such things is helpful, but whether one's theology permits them at all. A theology which doesn't strikes me as deficient.
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