MICHAEL KELLY.  Liberal culture and revelation

Nov 25, 2019

Western humanism has religious and transcendent sources without which it is incomprehensible to itself.    Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism. 

Faith in revelation does not destroy the rationality of knowledge but rather permits it to develop more fully.    Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas     

It has been said that Western culture rests historically on three pillars: Jewish religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law; and to this we might perhaps add Roman practical inventiveness. Let us imagine, for a moment, that the Jewish component had never occurred: that the people who traced their ancestry to Abraham, and who centuries later escaped slavery in Egypt, and who invaded and settled in Canaan, had simply never existed.How would things now be different?

We would, of course, have inherited some culture; and whatever its shape, it is a fair speculation that under its influence we would not only admire virtues such as honesty, kindness, and courage, but like most peoples we would see in them a significance which we would link to belief in an after-life. This belief might be expressed in polytheistic myths resembling those of ancient Greece, Denmark, or Egypt, or it might have evolved from an animist strain originating in Africa or America; or, like ancient Persians, we might believe in a heavenly war between principles of good and evil whose varying ascendancies were reflected in good and bad seasons on earth. Greek philosophy, if it had been preserved for us, might have led us to subject such beliefs to critical analysis. We might then have accepted an ultimate Being who was the source of order and truth, based on the Neoplatonic conception this Being as “The One”. And this may, perhaps, have been grafted onto Buddhism or Hinduism if those religions had spread westwards, in might have been a noble marriage.

But in this scenario we would have missed much more. Almost certainly we would not have week-ends. Quite certainly we would not have Islam. Possibly we would not have modern science, for it was the Moslems who brought Greek learning to a Europe slowly recovering after the Dark Ages; and it was Christians who between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries developed it into the beginnings of what we now call physics and chemistry. We also might not have modern democracy, whose remote roots may reach to Ancient Greece and even the Americas, but which grew more immediately out of the mediaeval city-states and guilds, and out of monastic and church organisation which provided one of the paradigms for the election of modern governments.

Even more importantly, we would almost certainly not have absorbed into our culture certain principles. These include at least the following: that before God, who is no respecter of persons,  all people are infinitely precious and in that sense equal; that the rich have an obligation to the poor; that, no matter how deeply someone has wronged us, we should strive to forgive; that we should return good for evil; that we can never judge the depths of anyone’s conscience; that ideally at least we should value and try to help criminals; and that, in the end, the meaning of human life is not found in experience or self-assertion or wealth or success or even wisdom, but in love.

Not that these principles are widely accepted to-day, and not that they have ever been fully observed. European individuals and nations have been appallingly rapacious. But where the Judeo-Christian influence has been strong the principles have always been present, at least subterraneously, and have influenced our history deeply, often giving rise to reforming movements. Our cultural debt to the Judeo-Christian revelation is, therefore, incalculable.

This is not often explicitly recognised, and sometimes all that is most humane in our culture is attributed, not to four thousand years of written and of oral tradition, but to three hundred years of Western European philosophy: that is, to the Enlightenment.

For that movement did lead to more liberal theories of society and politics, including the secular ideal reinforced by the French Revolution. But it, too, had a pre-history. It occurred in Western Europe, and even those of its writers who attacked traditional religion had themselves grown up in a world soaked in Christian ideas; a world where respect for the poor and compassion for the outcast were such prominent elements in the heritage that no one could claim to have newly discovered them. On the democratic ideal,  Locke and Rousseau – whose social-contract theory was primarily responsible for the view that government requires the consent of the governed – were themselves Christians; and the later reforming movements of the nineteenth century in education, prisons, abolition of slavery, establishing a nursing profession, were in practice mostly promoted by Christians.

A sceptic may claim here that this is a sort of happy accident: that the modern world has distilled some valuable lessons from a valueless religion. From a purely logical point of view that may be possible in the sense that at least some (though not all) of our inherited principles can be written down without mentioning religion. But a logical point of view may be facile. In practice a principle like “forgive those who hurt you” requires a suppression one’s own retributive instincts and an appreciation of the pressures on the other, and for this we need some motivation beyond a hope that it will maximise a purely practical harmony: we need something intimately connected with the meaning of life. Something  which can inspire us to make a very considerable effort to value that other in spite of ones’s natural inclinations. Historically our culture has in fact drawn its spirituality from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its moral insights have been linked to religion – to use a chemical metaphor, not as a mixture but as a compound, and an organic one at that. Whether those insights would ever have occurred, and would have survived at least as ideals for centuries, in a world with no religion has not been tested. Personally, I doubt it.

Such a skeptical view may be more likely among those who do not realise that the Bible  presents a developing message. It has passages which can only be understood in the context of a people moving gradually towards greater moral enlightenment. Moreover, it is always the enemy of magic. Certainly some of the Jewish prophets at critical points referred to extraordinary events and signs to support the supernatural origin of their message: but whether or not those accounts are always to be understood literally,wonders and signs alone would not have convinced the people of the time, or us, that a teaching came from God unless it also passed a concatenation of other tests. It must exhibit moral nobility and intellectual integrity. It must reveal things which we sense are beyond the scope of unaided human knowledge; or at least, confirm things it is difficult for us to settle simply by argument. We must be convinced that the doctrine somehow reaches to the depths of the meaning of human life.

There is a common phrase about something being “too good to be true”; I suspect that when we take revelation seriously we see that it is too good not to be true. Obviously, an opponent might assert that this is simply wishful thinking. But I believe it can be argued that ultimately our perceptions of the true and the good converge. The high point of this convergence is the fundamental message of the bible as a whole that God loves us unimaginably.

It is a great loss if the attempt to replace that message by treating bare human reason as the last and only absolute reality ever fully dominates our culture. For while reason must be satisfied and in its own sphere be autonomous, it does not itself lead to the belief that it is competent to answer every question it can pose, or that humanity is the pinnacle of reality. On the contrary, it reveals our limitedness in a way that complements biblical revelation. And what is best in our contemporary culture has resulted from religious tradition and reason in a progressive partnership.

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