THE MOST IMPORTANT WORD IN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE IS “CREATED”: So Upturned Earth picked up my “no such thing as a secular reason” post, which is good… because that was a ridiculously sloppy post, and I knew it at the time, and I’m grateful for the nudge to clarify and maybe push the conversation forward. Or, at least, be sloppy in different ways.

This is a post whose structure owes too much to Rube Goldberg. I’m going to try to sort out the parts so that they make sense, but there will be a bit of looping back and forth, for which I Apologize in Advance. It’s also way too long. Hilariously, I’m reading The Imitation of Christ right now, in which the basic message is, “Have you considered shutting up?” So take this for what you paid for it.

First off, I think the argument comes in three parts (at least!). 1) There is no secular philosophy. And here, I totally didn’t follow through on my promise of controversy! All I could offer was the weak, “…philosophy at its best takes part in the same eros as religion…”. And even that should probably be “sister” rather than “the same.”

I really like this comment, and I think its phrasing gets at some of the central issues. While I think love of Christ is a lot more than “comprehensive doctrine,” Catholicism also does seem to be the kind of thing we mean when we use that clunky unaesthetic phrase, so I can roll with the phrase for the moment.

My real thing, in these posts, is that there are two levels of question: a) What is justice? and b) Which kinds of answers to a) are secular? And both are eventually going to implicate your underlying “comprehensive doctrine,” if someone pushes you hard enough. Both are eventually going to require you to come clean about whom or Whom you love. You can’t get out of the religious implications of a) by switching to b). I will track you down!

2) The things we can discuss in purely secular terms aren’t the things we’re really fighting over. For this, I’ll go to the wall–I think this is a basic, obvious, and important truth about contemporary American politics.

Think of it this way: Recently we’ve seen a lot of fairly pathetic attempts to argue that socialism plus legal abortion is America’s best hope of reducing the abortion rate. (Of over a million a year, just by the way.) This is an attempt to circumvent first-things politics in favor of we-can-all-agree-that politics.

And yet… would anyone accept this if the issue were child abuse? Would anyone really say, “Well, we all want to reduce child abuse, and I have this study saying that laws against child abuse don’t actually prevent it, whereas rich people [a) beat their children less or b) don't get written up by CFS as often] so really we need to focus on the economy, and forget about the child abuse laws!”?

Or… work with me here… would your views of the underlying issues maybe, a little bit, affect your judgments both of the evidence about expedience vs. moral-legislation and of the relative importance of expedience vs. moral-legislation? In other words, I’m pretty sure you’d be both more skeptical that the expedience argument was true, and more skeptical that it was the best way to address child abuse.

So yeah: No matter how hard you try to avoid moral politics, it just keeps happening.

3) Therefore, make your political/moral/ethical points as intensely as possible, even when that requires sectarian language. This is another place where my initial post was really weak. I basically said, “Use sectarian language when it will work, and not when it won’t!” This is the reverse of the Sorites Paradox problem faced by my interlocutors.

Basically many of them say, “You can use sectarian arguments, but only when there could maybe be secular reasons in there somewhere.” But who decides which reasons are sufficiently secular–and why?

If I can dredge up one atheist who thinks we need to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance because it reminds us to be humble, even though (let’s say; I’m making this up) 99% of the people who want the phrase in the Pledge are God-fearin’ believers… is this an acceptable public-square sectarian argument? How many atheists do I have to convince of any particular position (from “gay marriage is an oxymoron” to–what should be far more controversial–”human nature has no history”) before it’s sufficiently secular? How many atheists before it’s Febreezed?

And which sects and anti-sects are sufficiently far apart? If a Cat’lick and a Prot agree on something, is that no longer sectarian? What about a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim? How close to “…walk into a bar” territory do we have to get before an argument is considered broadly-enough-accepted?

(Does it matter if the Catholic is Camille Paglia, the Jew is Naomi Wolf, and the Muslim is Irshad Manji? Because I bet I could get that lot to agree to some whacked-out things.)

If it’s, “I know it when I see it,” well that’s fair enough, but it’s hard for me when I see something different. If you think “nature” or whatever is a Jesus word that contaminates your pristine politics, I really need you to argue for that (and try to convince me on my ground from your premises, the same way I’m doing from my side) and not just assert that I’m out of bounds for saying the taboo word.

I need you to tell me what makes your abstractions boringly obvious and mine scarily sectarian, and so far, no argument I’ve seen has convinced me that this can be settled a) without reference to metaphysical beliefs or b) faster than we’d settle things if you just let me argue politics in whatever way comes naturally.

This is an especially knotty problem for my opponents because my whole claim is that our culture conditions us to find some claims obvious and other claims risible, and those divisions don’t match up well with the truth. But I’m going to deal with the cultural-blinders problem in a moment, and tackle the parallel problem in my own position first.

In my first post, it sounded like I was basically saying, “You should only use sectarian arguments if they’ll be convincing to people outside your sect!” This is an obviously silly thing to say to people who lack the Second Sight. It would be better to say that you should seek to express your beliefs in ways which should be, or maybe which you might expect to be, compelling outside your sect. (In other words, yes, I should’ve been more hardcore about the fact that sectarian arguments are valid.)

Pretty obviously, this is as true for atheists as for believers. The most difficult, but maybe also the most fruitful, way to do this would be to seek places where what you love matches up with what your opponent loves, and work from this shared beloved to a consensus on what that love requires.

IF MEN NO LONGER KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING AT, THERE MAY BE OTHER UNICORNS IN THE WORLD YET–UNKNOWN, AND GLAD OF IT. My whole point here, I think, is that what is controversial is not some kind of objective fixed point. Different things are controversial at different times. If I can’t tell natural law from “let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” does that really mean we have to ditch the concept of human nature entirely?

(I use that example for two reasons: a) I really can’t fathom natural law, as a thing, and generally think it assumes way too much cultural consensus on teleology to be useful for us; and b) I agree with the Straussian critique that modernity is defined by the loss of a belief in a teleology of the natural world, and therefore loss of the belief in human nature–pretty sure this is coming from Natural Rights, Natural Right, though it’s been over a decade since I read it–and you can’t go home again, and that’s bad. In other words, “human nature” is a concept I find both necessary and deeply problematic. It’s one place where I find it really hard to negotiate the tensions between contingent, changing culture, and unchanging truths.)

Here, let me try this another way, a story I’ve told before: Before I became Catholic I went on a trip to Italy with my high school’s Latin class. One of my more striking memories from that trip is of a church with a huge statue of Saint Sebastian stretched out across the ceiling of the church. Like seriously, you look up, and the guy’s practically dripping blood in your face.

And I was revolted. In fact, all depictions of St. Sebastion repelled me. They all seemed so fetishistic, so much in love with suffering, so intensely what I was trying to escape in myself. (“Relativism means never having to say you’re sorry.”) I just literally could not see a St. Sebastian as artistically valid or interesting; my only response was rejection.

That changed after I converted. I started noticing St. Sebastians which were genuinely sublime. Not all of them, obviously; but it was an iconography which had been opened up to me. Or I had been opened up to it.

There are a lot of different possible interpretations of this change.

You could say that a work of art which requires the viewer to be Catholic already is a smaller work of art than one which commands a more universal audience.

You could say that I should’ve been open to more kinds of beauty and sublimity before I converted.

You could say that I should’ve become a Christian sooner.

(You could say that there might be a tradeoff between universality and intensity, which would make the first possible interpretation perhaps less helpful.)

But I think unless you take the first interpretation wholly uncolored by the others, you should be able to recognize that there’s a place for rhetoric–political imagery, and political reasons–which may attract some outsiders and repel others, but which is explicitly embedded in a particular and controversial religious tradition.

I THINK I’VE GOT THE ALIAS–ALIAS!–THAT YOU’VE BEEN LIVING UNDER, GLORIA: This is a minor point, but maybe it’s worth saying: If you get people to stop talking about the sectarian reasons for their moral and ethical beliefs, you won’t actually cauterize their faith. You’ll just force all of us–atheists, believers, croyantes-on-cold-nights–to hedge and fudge and talk around what we really mean to say.

Think about the bad-faith accusations in this claim:

“The idea here is to strengthen Jewish identity, but you can’t do it in an open way because you run afoul of the law,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a critic of Hebrew charter schools. “So you end up having rabbis and Jewish educators involved, and in all probability promoting Jewish commitment is exactly what they are looking to do, but they can’t do it openly. It simply will not work.”

(from here)
Ask yourself whether you want all our politics to be conducted in a kind of bubble-wrapped Kremlinology, where no one can say what he really thinks or why. Ask yourself whether that’s really showing respect for one’s fellow citizens.

IT NEVER RAINS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: Finally, I want to address this

America was founded on the modern liberal ideals of not delegitimizing entry points into the public debate, so to appoint yourself the determinor of what starting points are too “banal” to count isn’t just illiberal but anti-American in the most essential way.

just because it hits on one of my pet obsessions. (All my pets are obsessions.)

I think the basic mistake here is thinking that national character is determined by traits, not tensions. In my view one thing which typifies the American character is the problem of how to negotiate religion vs. politics… not one particular proposed solution to that problem. Jonathan Edwards, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Oh Freedom,” and Lincoln’s second Inaugural are as American as the Transcendentalists, the libertarians, and (I have to put something awesome on this side of the ledger) Invisible Man. If that means I have to accept that pop-Rawlsianism is also as American as… things that don’t suck… well, okay, so be it.

And on that irenic note I will close! Fight more in my email inbox!

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