Sunday, July 21, 2013

Futures: A Sunday Rumination

Back at Eternity Road, I used to do these faith-oriented Sunday Ruminations fairly regularly, usually every Sunday. Somehow the steam ran out of them; I'm not sure why, but they sputtered out. When I migrated over here, a few readers asked if I planned to revive the series, and I declined to speculate.

Maybe it won't be a series. Maybe they'll just emerge as the Spirit moves me. We'll just have to see.

For a long time now, I've maintained that all human beliefs, convictions, and "knowledge" fall into three categories:

  • Mathematics: That which can be proved or disproved.
  • Science: That which can be disproved, but never proved.
  • Religion: That which can neither be proved nor disproved.

In my estimation, this partition is the key to human amity. We can't have peace -- of any sort -- without it. For only when it's been accepted does it become possible to mount a rational campaign against religiously animated violence and oppression.

The sting in the tail is that the category of religious conviction encompasses far more than the creeds that openly call themselves religions.

One of the least pleasant and most frequently averted objections to a demand for this or that is "Prove it:"
Prove that what you demand is yours by right.
Prove that the changes you advocate will do more good than harm.
Prove that history offers us any evidence whatsoever in support of your theories.

Virtually no one raises that objection in its simplest, purest form. The losses have been staggering.

"You say your convictions are absolute? A clear matter of right and justice?" the counter-proselyte says to the proselyte. "But you can't prove them, can you? No, I can't disprove them, but neither am I inclined to allow you power over others on your representation. Go back where you came from and keep company with others of like mind. We'll have no truck with you here."

This is practically the American credo...which we persist in setting aside with distressing frequency, usually in the hope of mollifying some noisy pressure group. Indeed, it's been off the socio-economic-legal-political playing field since about 1913. And in consequence, the promoters of nostrums crazier than any Napoleon-wannabe have had their way with us as we've stood by goggle-eyed.

Yet a healthy majority of those promoters sneer at the New Covenant of Christ. It is to laugh...hollowly, and with many a regretful tear.

I am a Catholic. Though I have differences with the Church on a few doctrinal matters, I regard Christian theology as brilliant and beautiful, and Catholic ethical teaching as the closest anyone can come to a perfect scheme for living. I regard those teachings as categorical imperatives, and I strive to cleave to them as best I can.

I make no secret of it, for I believe that the promulgation of the Christian faith is the key to human advancement. Christ would not have told the Apostles to "Go, teach all nations" had it been otherwise. Beyond that, there is substantial historical evidence for the proposition that only the sincere embrace of Christian ethics can support a peaceful and prosperous society...and that only the acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind will sustain the ethical code He proclaimed:

Now a man came up to him and said, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?" He said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." "Which ones?" he asked. Jesus replied, "You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself." [Matthew, 19:16-19.]

And also:

Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40]

The emphasized sentence might be the most important string of words ever uttered. Small wonder that it took the Son of God to utter them.

Among latter-day proselytes of the Christian ethic, the name of Clive Staples Lewis shines brightest: not because he penetrated theological mysteries no one else had solved, but because he insisted on a few simple principles of logic, without which even Christian ideals would hang unsupported in the ether. Here's one such sally, which I regard as one of his most important:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. [From The Abolition Of Man]

What Lewis said in the above is an absolute refutation of the figure he calls "the Innovator:" his term of derision for one who insists that traditional ways and norms are entirely arbitrary and can be set aside without further consideration. For Lewis understood that there are things we "know," in the religious, neither-provable-nor-disprovable sense, that we "learned" from centuries of experience and socioevolutionary winnowing. It is impossible to construct a rigorous proof of any of the tenets of Practical Reason -- Lewis's Anglicized term for the Tao. That doesn't mean they're incorrect; ask Kurt Godel about that one. And it certainly doesn't mean they're unimportant.

So much of what is critical to the future flourishing of Mankind belongs in the category of religion. So little of what we claim to "know" is even disprovable, much less provable. Yet polities worldwide repeatedly bend to Innovators peddling snake-oil nostrums they claim will reopen the Garden of Eden to suffering Man. Those nostrums share a single common feature: the dismissal, whether explicit or implicit, of Christ's dicta to the "rich young man:"

"You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself."

Usually the dismissal is implicit, by allowing the State an exemption from those laws, especially in the matter of stealing. All the same, the Innovator cannot proceed on that basis without also rejecting Christ's Authority, as the Son of God, to proclaim the Law. He must dismiss the Christian faith and its ethic to have his way, whether he or anyone else realizes it.

If that's never occurred to you before, Gentle Reader, take my word for it: You're not alone.

In 1996, when I first sat down to write Which Art In Hope, I was near the beginning of a painful and difficult process. Ironically, it was a process initiated by the novel I'd just previously completed, On Broken Wings. When that process worked itself out all the way, I was once more a convinced, practicing Catholic, which, despite a Catholic upbringing, I hadn't been for the thirty years previous.

Which Art In Hope is a "hopeful" novel. It depicts an anarchic society that works infinitely better than the ones we endure today. Yet I knew, even then, that anarchy is inherently no stabler over the long term than any form of government. As I wrote, I searched for the principles that might stabilize it or any other social order.

And I found them. They were the ones taught to me as a child, by a series of priests and nuns whose grasp of human realities I'd never properly appreciated. When I accepted them consciously, fully, and humbly, I became something I'd never expected to be: a Christian fantasist, whose stories are animated by the Christian faith and propelled by the writer's consciousness of its importance to the welfare of Mankind.

That journey has continued through several other novels, and is currently shaping Freedom's Fury, the conclusion to the "Spooner Federation" trilogy begun in Which Art In Hope.

Maybe that's more information than you need. Maybe it will prejudice you against my books. I can't afford to care. This is too important to Mankind's future, both in this life and the life to come.

Every good person wants others to be well and happy. Most persons are essentially good persons, despite their individual flaws, the gaps in their knowledge, and their missteps in reasoning. But far too few of us -- even the best of us -- have grasped that only Christ's dicta make possible the hope of a positive future.

Yet there are those who insist that America is not "a Christian nation," or more exactly, that it shouldn't be. I have no doubt that such Innovators think themselves not merely smarter than the rest of us, but more moral as well. I've known too many of them.

To whom would you prefer to entrust the human future -- and on what Authority?

May God bless and keep you all.


Roman Con said...

Great observations! I thoroughly enjoyed the article. Help me out with something: I completely agree with the idea that to acquire the property of another, the State must violate Christ's commandment not to steal. But how do we reconcile that with the admonition to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?" While I'm too cowardly to be a tax protestor (at this point), I've always had trouble wrapping my head around those two concepts.

Differ said...

Thank you; that was inspirational.Now I need to read your books.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Jesus worded that statement as He did precisely because of our need to interpret "the things that are Caesar's." What things are Caesar's? What have you agreed to concede to the State? Are any of those in your possession?

The contractarian logic behind a constitutional republic such as ours embeds certain defined "concessions to Caesar." As long as the State remains within those bounds, it's acting, as nearly as is possible for a human institution, within Christian ethical norms. When it goes beyond them -- and yes, America's governments go way beyond them -- it's thieving and tyrannizing.

Saint Paul was being a bit naive when he said, without qualification, that government is a force for good. But then, he was a Pharisee before the illumination on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Hanify said...

Well done missive, and in a direction I myself have taken of late. I am re-reading That Hideous Strength.

I do, however, agree that the American state, as conceived by the Founders, was a force for good. Canals, roads, street lamps and police promote the common good, and promote commerce and felicity. Obviously we no longer have good morals, or good sense, so we can no longer conceive of anything so down to earth.

It did my heart good to read this, Francis. Good work.

doubletrouble said...

Three years ago I returned to the Church after a forty year absence.
As a (now) practicing Catholic, this post 'bout knocked the breath out of me; I wish I had the talent to express what I feel as eloquently as you have done.
Especially to the people I know on the edge of understanding.

"And my people, upon whom my name is called, being converted, shall make supplication to me, and seek out my face, and do penance for their most wicked ways: then will I hear them from heaven, and will forgive their sins and will heal their land."
2 Paralipomenon 7:14

Greg RN said...

It is Wonderfull when "The Holy Spirit" does His Thing.