Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
In the previous blog post, we explored Pope Benedict’s account of the roots of relativism — roots which ultimately blossomed into full-scale secularism in the West. Again, Benedict sees the problem in reason itself, or what has been done to reason.
To review, while secularists claim to champion reason, they actually put forth a constricted form of reason — so constricted that it mutilates both our reason and our humanity. Reason, secularism asserts, must be restricted only to what is material and measurable. The mutilation occurs because secularism then assumes that what is not material and measurable is not real, or at best, merely a subjective fancy.
Secularism thereby embraces materialism. Materialism not only denies the existence of God and the human soul but also reduces human beings to mere physical, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding animals, whose reason is solely an instrument of their passions. Thus, secularized rationality breeds an ultimate embrace of irrationality. The heady ambitions of the 18th-century Enlightenment end in the elevation of irrationality and the will to power in Nietzsche at the end of the 19th century — an “end” that the secular West has not really been able to move beyond.
It is no historical accident, then, that the end of the 19th century signaled what came to be called “the decline of the West” (a theme, Benedict notes in his Without Roots, explored by Oswald Spengler), and that the 20th century was marked by the greatest and most destructive totalitarian regimes in human history. Irrationality in philosophy led to irrationality in politics.
“The totalitarian model … was associated with a rigidly materialist, atheistic philosophy of history,” Benedict explains in Without Roots, “it saw history deterministically, as a road of progress that passes first through a religious and then through a liberal phase to arrive at an absolute, ultimate society in which religion is surpassed as a relic of the past and collective happiness is guaranteed by the workings of material conditions.”
But it was precisely in embracing materialism as rational, and hence as scientific, that totalitarianism brushed aside all moral restrictions as naïve and historically passé, relics of our infantile religious phase.
That “scientific” brushing aside can be quite blunt and brutal.
“This scientific façade hides a dogmatic intolerance,” notes Benedict, “that views the spirit as produced by matter, and morals as produced by circumstances.” In other words — and quite ironically — to be scientific means to embrace the notion that there is no truth, that our ideas are merely reflections of material causes and circumstances. And that means to reject the notion that there is moral truth as well. Morality, too, is purely relative, an artifact of circumstances.
This “scientific” view will not tolerate anyone who believes that human beings have a soul capable of knowing the truth. It will not therefore tolerate anyone who believes that we can know and follow the moral truth. But these are precisely the claims that Christianity makes with the greatest vigor, and so the secular “scientific” view is dogmatically intolerant of Christianity in particular.
In declaring truth, especially moral truth, to be relative, the secular scientific view demands that we abandon the historical moral formation given to us through Christianity, and replace it by a purely utilitarian view. As Benedict makes clear in Without Roots, “According to its dictates, morals should be defined and practiced on the basis of society’s purposes, and everything is deemed moral that helps to usher in the final state of happiness.”
Totalitarianism is the result, because no truths, no moral “Thou shall nots” stand in the way of what those in power might find useful. “Depending on circumstance, anything can become legitimate and even necessary; anything can become moral in the new sense of the term,” Benedict says. “Even humankind itself can be treated as an instrument, since the individual does not matter, only the future, the cruel deity adjudicating over one and all.”
The cruel deity of “progress,” as we found out in the 20th century, is a Saturn devouring its children by the tens of millions. That is the price of the secular demand that we live in a world without God, without the soul, without truth, and without a moral order written into our nature. As the spread of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in 21st century liberal democracies attests, the secular Saturn is still hard at work.
Christians find themselves in the rather interesting position of having to evangelize reason, to come to the aid of truth. Secularized reason cannot lift us out of our difficulties. As Benedict, indulging in a bit of understatement in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, states “A reason that has its origin in the irrational and is itself ultimately irrational does not offer a solution to our problem.”
In contrast to the Enlightenment barbs against the faith, Christianity did not reject reason. Because of its doctrine of Christ as logos, and of human beings made in the image of God, it embraced and transformed reason by faith. That is why, Benedict argues in Truth and Tolerance, Christianity in its first centuries took what was best in Greek philosophy and transformed it, and left behind Greek skepticism, materialism, hedonism and relativism.
How ironic that once again, Christianity must come to the rescue of reason at the beginning of the third millennium. But that is one of the great tasks of the New Evangelization.
“The person of faith … must work in favor of reason and of that which is rational: this, in the face of dormant or diseased reason [reigning today], is a duty he or she must perform toward the entire human community” (Without Roots).