MICHAEL KELLY.  Liberal culture and revelation

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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4 Responses to MICHAEL KELLY.  Liberal culture and revelation

  1. Michael Furtado says:

    An interesting exchange! One senses that Kelly’s pith is in his closing paragraph, which prudently, in my view, stops short of stating that a lived experience of religion must entail an engagement with some form of spirituality. The risk here is that this self-restraint reduces his contribution to that of a culturalist position that has been challenged by his first two respondents.

    I dare to attempt to address that gap, which speaks to a hunger for and search for a spirituality despite, and perhaps because of, the strictly secular terms in which this discussion is framed – to some extent, and evidently of necessity, even by Kelly himself because of the extreme pitfalls encountered in the use of language about what it is precisely that sustains our creative vitality, to the point sometimes of deep intransigence
    and, on evidence, occasional burn-out.

    In that sense, one has to ask about the source or fount or origin of social action that evidently motivates so many policy-insurrectionist contributors to this site. In a former rationalist life I encountered many fellow rationalists who burnt themselves out on combatting the overwhelming imbalance of forces arraigned against a just and peaceful
    solution to the multiple problems of policy injustice exposed in these columns and, it can safely be said, common to the concerns of all its participants.

    The question then is: what is the source of our inspiration? How do we avoid burn-out? From where do we get the wherewithal to return to the fray? And the answer – for want of a better word – has to be from our spirituality. Sure, this involves, deeper and more critical thinking, better and more up-to-date research, persistence in seeking more support and employing all the tools of a by now abandoned religious fervour, including the search for new recruits to our cause, that in an earlier age would have been called evangelisation.

    In this, and judging from his extensive portfolio, it cannot be said that Kelly proselytises. Indeed, his evangelistic fervour is suffused with appeals to justice and rationalism. But it also reveals a steady and unswerving attachment to a spirituality, by which I mean a method that serves a cause and doesn’t necessarily rely on creedal positions to explore.

    For Kelly I imagine this spirituality is Ignatian, as is sourced in the reflective method of the founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius Loyola, and to which Kelly belongs. However, I have encountered non-Jesuits, and indeed, agnostics who use this method to beneficial effect, viz. access to a major aspect of Ignatian spirituality, which is its emphasis on a process called discernment.

    Discernment enables one to assess situations, pay attention to various clues, interrogate our intuitions and suspicions with rigour and abject honesty, (especially about our motives) and then act decisively both individually and collectively to bring about long-term change. I suspect that one reason for the Jesuits being so influential in the liberation theology movement is their attachment to the Ignatian method. It may also explain why they were among the first to call out the false spirituality, associated with secrecy and fascist causes, that is the hallmark of other organisations like Opus Dei.

    While Ignatian spirituality is grounded in the conviction that there is a ‘God’ who is active in our world, it may help sceptics (among whom I count many Jesuits) to know that the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “I reject a God that is remote from my everyday work in science. For me that ‘God’ is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — my heart and my thoughts.”

    And despite, nay because of my own scepticism, I am attracted by Kelly’s view which to me challenges us to think of revelation as food for the very onerous journey that many in these columns evidently encounter, and which must be faced with courage and optimism if our goals are not to be lost sight of.

  2. Mike Scrafton says:

    This is a topic too big for these pages. And there are too many points of entry into this piece to be dealt with in less than a book.
    The patronising suggestion that Europeans would have only ‘inherited some culture’ without Christian revelation and the outdated notion of a Europe slowly recovering after the ‘Dark Ages’, a category now replaced by the more meaningful Late Antiquity, each require a lengthy dissertation.
    Put simply, this is the sort of idle, simplistic, and fatuous historical drivel that is not only so Euro-centric to be blind to the potential and accomplishments of non-white, non-Christian, and non-European human beings but is the sort of grand vision of Western cultural superiority that is fodder for white supremacist and white nationalists.
    This analysis highlights the social, cultural, political, and religious things that survived only because over long cruel and violent centuries Christian Europe extirpated alternatives before they could flourish and express their full potential.
    That Christian Europe is solely associated with the events over the last two millennia is because of Christian Romans brutal repression and elimination of a successful and widespread pagan culture and the medieval Church’s destruction of alternative versions of religious truth through ruthless warfare, the Inquisition, burnings of heretics and the expulsion of dissident populations.
    It uncritically posits that there is something holistic about Christian theology whereas in its myriad of different interpretations its often looks like a collection of different religions. It assumes that without the particular suspension of belief required to accept the literal veracity of scripture humans would have been unable to make progress. Yet many Protestant varieties of the faith had radically different attitudes to the Bible. In this, the demonstrable handiwork of numerous fallible human authors of the Testaments and the origins of the Biblical cannon in bitter, self-interested human political machinations is over looked.
    In focussing on a few ideological matters that had pertinence to a scholastic elite ignores the misery and fear instilled into European populations by priests threatening hell and damnation and labelling natural human inclinations and urges as sins. It ignores the enormous suffering and destruction wrought by the wars of religion. It ignores the spread of the culture and community destroying colonialism that the Europeans inflicted on the rest of the world curtailing any prospect peoples other than Europeans might have to find progressive outcomes on their own. It ignores slavery.
    The piece implies that we can say that where we are now is in fact better than if some other path had been taken. To say “what is best in our contemporary culture has resulted from religious tradition and reason in a progressive partnership” is a highly contestable statement, to say the least. Perhaps the real question is how glorious could the world have been without superstition and metaphysics?

  3. Michael Butler says:

    “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.”
    I dispute this entirely.
    If the social sciences have taught us anything, it’s that compassion and altruism are eminently practical, necessary for a civil society and ultimately to the benefit of all concerned.
    I’m no expert on other cultures and religions but I’d be surprised if many didn’t feature similar edicts – when you’re trespassed against, seek justice then be done with it (so society can keep functioning) etc.
    I appreciate your erudition and don’t dispute that it’s important to understand how our culture has shaped our world view, but I think the notion that only Christianity can be the basis of ethical behaviour is utterly wrong.
    Ultimately, your arguments only hold if you’re a Christian; if you’re an atheist then I don’t think they have much grip.

  4. Chris Borthwick says:

    You’re loading the dice. You ask
    “Let us imagine, for a moment, that the Jewish component had never occurred…. How would things now be different?”
    However, the counterfactual you present is (other objections aside) simply now minus – you don’t allow for the possibility that somebody else, or so other culture, would have expanded into the vacant space. You seem to suggest, for example, that if the prophets had not said that ‘that the rich have an obligation to the poor’ the thought would never have occurred to anyone else in the history of the world. This sounds highly improbable.
    I mean, we’re talking about the philosophical/religious version of that film where suddenly everyone has forgotten all the Beatles’ tunes and the one person who remembers them can sweep the world….. only rather less likely.

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