Robert Royal, who runs the Washington-based Faith & Reason Institute, has a new book out from Encounter, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West . The argument of the title and subtitle is persuasively set out, and we will be giving the book more attention in the pages of First Things . But I am struck by a review of the book in the New York Sun by Brooke Allen.
She writes: "Mr. Royal’s belief that religion has acted as a restraint on human cruelty rather than an instigation to it addresses a question that probably will never be settled satisfactorily. He points out, as others have, that anti-religious regimes like Mao’s and Stalin’s murdered many more people than religious persecutions ever did. While this is certainly true, Mr. Royal does not take into account the fact that ideology functions as a sort of religion in its own right, offerings its acolytes the feeling of transcendence normally associated with faith, and the sublimation of the ego in a larger cause."
This is part of a very old word game. If you say anti-religious ideologies are more destructive than religion, it is only because anti-religious ideologies are, in fact, religion in another guise. Part of the problem, of course, is in the defense of religion-in-general. Any thoughtful Christian has to have at least a modicum of sympathy for Karl Barth’s solution, which is to insist that Christianity is not a religion. In this view, religion is a human enterprise aimed at reconciliation with, or manipulation of, transcendent powers such as God or the gods. Christianity, by way of sharpest contrast, is not a human enterprise but the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a human enterprise only in that a community of human beings, the Church, responds to that revelation, but that, too, is the work of God in engendering faith in response to God’s revealing initiative.
That brief description does not do justice to the argument of Barth and Barthians, but it suggests one way of drawing a sharp distinction between Christianity and religion-in-general. The whole idea that there is such a category of human belief and action that can be fitted into the category of "the religious phenomenon" is misbegotten, as Robert Royal points out in his critique of "religious studies" departments in higher education.
An alternative to the Barthian strategy is to observe that all thoughtful people are engaged in a search for the truth of things and the wisdom to live in accord with the truth of things. At one level, one might simply call this "thinking," although traditionally we have called it philosophy¯meaning the love of wisdom. In the Christian intellectual tradition, the early church fathers called Christianity the "true philosophy." The claim was that Christianity, grounded in the logos or reason that created and sustains all things, makes more sense of more facts than alternative ways of thinking about reality.
In this view, it is entirely misguided to speak of philosophy, on the one hand, and religion, including Christianity, on the other. But, of course, over the last centuries, and dating back to the initiatives of Bacon, Descartes, and Kant, a philosophy that aspires to account for the whole of reality is called not philosophy but religion. In our day, John Rawls influentially warned against "comprehensive accounts" that, according to Rawls, do not count as public reason. Authentically public reason, or philosophy, is limited to ways of thinking that assiduously refrain from thinking about the really big questions about, for instance, the final and formal causes of existent beings.
These are huge conceptual problems with a very long history, and the dichotomy between philosophy (or reason) and religion is deeply entrenched in our intellectual culture. The problems are luminously addressed in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio , but even there we have the difficulty of a title that, contrary to the substance of the argument, suggests a sharp division of labor between faith and reason. That faith is an integral and necessary part of reason is very powerfully argued in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, a book I never tire of recommending to people engaged by these questions.
While I am in warm agreement with the case that Robert Royal makes, I do wish he had chosen a subtitle other than How Religion Built and Sustains the West . Christians have no stake in defending religion as such. Except to the degree that all rational people have a stake in exposing the irrationality of a philosophy of ideological secularism that refuses to engage the big questions that secularists dismiss as "religious." In addition to Polanyi, I suggest Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought as an important aid in rethinking the way that Christianity should position itself in relation to other ways of thinking. It is the great work of the next generation of Christian intellectuals to rehabilitate philosophy in a way that makes it possible to persuasively propose Christianity as the "true philosophy."
Today, September 8, is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. It was on this day in 1990 that John Cardinal O’Connor received me into full communion with the Catholic Church. And it was on this day a year later that he, assisted by an impressive company of cardinals, bishops, and priests, ordained me to the presbyterate. Well, not exactly on this day, since in 1991 the Nativity of Our Lady fell on a Sunday, so the ordination was on September 7. But it is today, September 8, that I celebrate fifteen years as a priest of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church most fully and rightly ordered through time. I invite you to join me with hearts lifted up in eucharistic joy at the reception of a gift far beyond my deserving.
I take the occasion to note that today is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ordination of my friend, Father George Rutler, the justly celebrated pastor of Our Saviour Church in Manhattan. He was an Episcopalian, I was a Lutheran, and now, along with many others who have been led from lowercase to uppercase catholicity, we are the Catholics that we were called, and always intended, to be. Deo gratias .
In addition to which :
It should be a lively evening at the famous Strand Bookstore. As you undoubtedly know, the Strand, located at Broadway and 12th Street, claims to be the world’s largest used book store with its eight miles of books, or is it eighty? In any case, they have these events and on Tuesday, September 12, it is Ronald Dworkin and Father Richard John Neuhaus discussing "artificial happiness." That’s the title of Dr. Dworkin’s new book, published by Carroll & Graf. Dworkin is a medical doctor and political philosopher, and in his book he provocatively takes on the politics of the medical profession, the brain/mind/body debates, the future of religion, and, most importantly, a culture in which people have been induced to believe that unhappiness is a disease. Dworkin and Neuhaus will address, inter alia, the widespread and growing use and abuse of psychotropic drugs to create a nation captive to "artificial happiness." Tuesday, September 12, from 7 to 8:30pm. Admission free.
From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but—as we rather pretentiously put it—a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we’ll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.
Justice Clarence Thomas relishes Q & A after delivering our Erasmus Lecture of 1997.
To access the running gallery, click here .