Friday, January 22, 2016

The Form of Human Dignity

The Newman Rambler, a McGill Newman Centre based publication, has issued a new edition, and I have a piece there on human dignity in its philosophical and theological context. It appears in an issue dedicated to the question of euthanasia and the lead-off article is a must-read from Margaret Somerville. Also recommended are the other essays that tackle the issue of euthanasia from a variety of vantage points. Mine only tangentially deals with euthanasia.

Primarily, I am dealing with the linguistics over the usage of the term human dignity, with attention to some the genealogy of dignity in recent popular science and academic philosophy/theology. As many have noted, the 'dying with dignity' movement assumes that the word dignity is equivalent to the personal autonomy that it prizes (and prizes alone). As I try to show briefly, this is a one-sided understanding of dignity because, among other things, it does not take seriously the notion of the form of the human person. Click through to the full text.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mid-winter delight

If you can spare 10 minutes of your day and you need an uplifting reminder that the gift of reason can be a delightful thing to behold, then go no further than Edward Feser's review of another new atheist screed, the latest book on science and religion by Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Edward Feser is a philosopher and a logician. He also has a really deft way of taking no prisoners. Coyne should now go and hide somewhere.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Qualified Thumbs Up for 'Je ne suis pas Charlie'

This article in London's Independent is a very good summary of what is wrong with the ongoing fixation with the tawdry, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Apart from what reads to my eyes like a subtle endorsement of censorship of the magazine, this article is a major contribution to the argument that 'Je ne suis pas Charlie' is the better response to that magazine's 'journalistic' output. And, as the author, Nabila Ramdani underlines, nothing in her critique or any other critique of the magazine takes away from the rightful disgust and sympathy for the families of the victims in the attacks which took place over a year ago.

One other qualification to my endorsement however. Near the end, Ramdani writes:
Secularism and liberalism are not meant to subjugate religion. On the contrary, if they are applied properly they create a respectful society in which all expressions of faith can flourish, along with those who are atheists or agnostics.
 But this is not completely right. Liberalism and secularism cannot be applied in a positive way, just as much as they should not be applied in a negative way. A liberal society does not apply liberalism, it allows for liberalism to flourish out of an essential passivity. Or, at least, the sense of passivity that comes from separating powers: separation of the government from the judiciary from the police and security forces. A passivity that allows an ordered liberty to flourish in which speech is not monitored or censored and where the judiciary does not usurp the powers that rightly belong to parliaments and legislative assemblies. And vice versa. Etc. etc.

She appears to have bought into a part of the problem with secularism that she means to decry. A friendly amendment to this article would say this: religion will flouish so long as it is freely chosen in a liberal society. As Locke might have said it, the only kind of religion worth having is religion that is chosen by and for oneself and one's children. Likewise, a liberalism that is worth having is a liberalism that could not conceivably be foisted upon anyone to begin with. Her main point is that secularism is being applied by governments in an illiberal way, and on that score, she is absolutely right.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Barth v. Harnack. Almost a Century later...

I read this great short piece from Giles Fraser in the Guardian (of all places, some would say) about Karl Barth and the theological imperative of not letting Christian faith or the church be subject to the whims of cultural and political connivance. The conflict between Barth and his doktorvater, Adolf von Harnack, is well known among academic theologians, but not sufficiently appreciated beyond the theological ivory tower. Fraser's article is a wonderful service in rectifying this gap in cultural knowledge. The takeaway in Fraser's piece is this paragraph near the end:

"The problem, for Barth, was that the religion of “good people” had become just another sphere of human activity – like playing golf or going to a concert. And, as a consequence, its theology had come to be imprisoned by the dominant cultural imagery. Locked away in private prayer, Christianity abandoned its critical engagement with the fullness of reality, and so had no grounds for objection when the state shaped a pliant and deferential cultural Christianity for the purposes of statecraft. Germany had sacralised the culture-state complex, and by so doing, had come to worship something other than God: the military-industrial complex. Something Barth called Woden, the Nordic God of war."
Image result for Barth
What Fraser shows, I think, is that a certain form of Kantian reasoning (Christianity as a form of practical morality) is well suited for the purposes of taming faith, neutering it. Fraser's example of David Cameron, an insincere politician of a rather high order, is therefore spot on: the use of religion for political agendas neither of the church's making nor in its interests - something Cameron appears guilty of doing - has to be resisted. The problem is rather more acute among Christians of a quietist bent: those in the pews who are keen to see church/culture chasms bridged on any terms. The convenience of having a truce between faith and the world of political conflict means pursuing the goal of a "relevant" faith. It is in this context that stories about tensions within evangelicalism and among Catholics over what Pope Francis means to say - should be properly understood.

This piece by Fraser pertains to a course on religion and politics that I will teach this semester, and some of the most interesting recent reading I've been doing is relevant to World War One (and its significance for how to understand the rise of Nazism in a supposedly Christian nation, Germany). I recommend Michael Burleigh's book Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, From the French Revolution to the Great War. Nota bene: the use of the word 'clash'. In other words, there is plenty to suggest from over a century of evidence, according to Burleigh, that the Christian churches did not aid and abet political agendas that were antithetical to their raisons d'etre. That is: pace Barth, the Christian churches, theologians and many political actors saw in Christian faith the necessary grounds for resisting imperialism, the vagaries of capitalism, racism and a host of other malign forces at work in Europe at the time. Burleigh goes one step further on a number of occasions and without exonerating the churches of blame for various failures of courage or conscience, he details their relatively benign posture in comparison with other forces at work in rendering Europe prone to conflict.

Take the question of violence, for instance (a topic that has become especially contested over the past few years with most scholars lining up on against the idea that religion is inherently violent). In addition to a careful and thoroughly convincing analysis of the zealous, anti-religious motives for the violence of the French Revolution (chapters 2 and 3), this quotation from p. 440 is eyebrow raising in the context of World War One:

For it is important to emphasise that the clergy were no more, and often significantly less, bellicose than the artistic avant-garde, academics, journalists, scientists and the wider intelligentsia. Whether one thinks of the Socialist Barbusse, the German conservative writer Ernst Junger or the British Marxist biologist Haldane, there were many secular-minded people who positively revelled in the prospect of apocalyptic carnage. Many of these groups subscribed to materialistic creeds, such as Social Darwinism, that were no less questionable than that of a Christianity made serviceable for battle.
So, Barth was right in his denunciation of Harnack's 'liberal' theology, we know. But despite Harnack's role in speech writing for Kaiser Wilhelm (at one point, inserting a reference to Germans as "the chosen race" in a speech delivered by the Kaiser), by 1914, he and his class of clergy theologians held a power that was largely nominal. Barth called them out. Harnack's reputation sank after the war was lost to the allies and the stage was set in Germany for the later emergence of the Confessional Church, resistance to Nazism from Niemoller and Bonhoeffer among many others, the ecumenical movement's endorsement of a public theology, the later rise of liberation theology and the demise of 'altar and throne' conservatism. A more Augustinian view of church and state has been under construction since the 1970's. Accommodation: the modus operandi of so many liberal Catholics since Vatican II looks more Harnackian by the year. More on that later.