• Secularism •
June 1, 2005
The continent of Europe is now experiencing a civilizational crisis. Once the cradle of Western civilization, Europe is transforming itself into a hyper-modern culture of nearly undiluted secularism. Once constituted by a sense of Christian identity, Europe is now attempting a vast experiment in secularism, and this experiment shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
May 27, 2005
ITEM ONE: John M. Swomley, Professor Emeritus of Christian Social Ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is worried that Justice Antonin Scalia might be nominated as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing in Christian Ethics Today, he cites the fact that Scalia, a Roman Catholic, regularly attends the annual Red Mass, which he describes as “a medieval institution that has been repackaged in the United States in the twentieth century to influence judges and other lawmakers as well as the culture of the states and nation.” According to Dr. Swomley, “there is an underlying assumption that law and morality began with the Roman Catholic Church and divine revelation.” Well, the law and morality didn’t begin with the Roman Catholic Church, but they are ultimately established by divine revelation. From whence–or from whom–does Dr. Swomley think they have come?
Several years ago, Dr. Swomley argued in the same periodical that “abortion per se is not morally wrong, but should be left to private decision and medical judgment.” Further, “Public policy must defend the rights of existing living persons as over against religiously based claims made on behalf of fetal life.” And just who are those “existing living persons,” anyway?
ITEM TWO: Norman Mailer writes “On Sartre’s God Problem” in the current edition of The Nation. He accuses Jean-Paul Sartre of having “derailed existentialism” by his godlessness. Atheism, Mailer avows, is “a cropless undertaking when it comes to philosophy,” supposedly able to deal with ethics, but unable to contend with metaphysics.
Mailer would replace atheism with theological relativism: “Great hope has no real footing unless one is willing to face into the doom that may also be on the way. Those are the poles of our existence–as they have been from the first instant of the Big Bang. Something immense may now be stirring, but to meet it we will do better to expect that life will not provide the answers we need so much as it will offer the privilege of improving our questions. It is not moral absolutism but theological relativism we would do well to explore if our real need is for a God with whom we can engage our lives.” In other words, Mailer is characteristically absolutist in his program of theological relativism.
Above all, Norman Mailer retains the power of expressive language. He describes Martin Heidegger as having “spent his life laboring mightily in the crack of philosophy’s buttocks, right there in the cleft between Being and Becoming.” Perhaps not the most sophisticated philosophical analysis, but rather hard to forget.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The anointed talk about the sexuality of the young as if they had discovered it and copyrighted it. Why do they think people in olden times had such things as chaperones, early marriage, separate dormitories, and a thousand other ways of trying to cope with youthful sexuality and its consequences?” –Thomas Sowell in Barbarians Inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays [Hoover Institution Press].
May 20, 2005
What really happened in the 1960s? Stanley Kurtz argues that America’s divisive culture wars really began during that tumultuous decade. Furthermore, he argues that the 1960s saw liberalism transformed into nothing less than a secular religion. What does this mean for America today?
May 11, 2005
Roger Kimball is out with an interesting new essay in The New Criterion that sugests how the American university can be recovered from postmodern chaos. Kimball, one of today’s most insightful cultural critics, suggests that public outrage over the Ward Churchill affair at the University of Colorado is a sign that recovery might be possible. In “Retaking the University: A Battle Plan,” Kimball acknowledges that reforming the university will not be easy. “It is a peculiar moment in academia,” he admits. “In many ways, things have never been worse. All those radical trends that got going in the 1960s and gained steam in the 1970s and 1980s are now so thoroughly entrenched that they are simply taken for granted.” Yet, he is not willing to throw in the towel. “The chief issue is this: should our institutions of higher education be devoted primarily to the education of citizens–or should they be laboratories for social and political experimentation? Traditionally, a liberal arts education involved both character formation and learning. . . . Since the 1960s, however, colleges and universities have more and more been home to what Lionel Trilling called the ‘adversary culture of the intellectuals.’ The goal was less reflection than rejection.” The rejectionists have been in the driver’s seat for decades now, experimenting with every pernicious ideology to come down the pike. Kimball’s article offers both [guarded] hope and insightful analysis. While on the subject of chaos in the academy, consider this paragraph from Kimball’s 1990 book,Tenured Radicals: “With a few notable exceptions, our most prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities have installed the entire radical menu at the center of their humanities curriculum at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Every special interest–women’s studies, black studies, gay studies, and the like —and every modish interpretative gambit–deconstruction, post-structuralism, new historicism, and other postmodernist varieties of what the literary critic Frederick Crews aptly dubbed ‘Left Eclecticism’–has found a welcome roost in the academy, while the traditional curriculum and modes of intellectual inquiry are excoriated as sexist, racist, or just plain reactionary.” Well said.
May 10, 2005
Columnist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post is a brave man, and a survivor. He slipped into Oprah Winfrey’s “Live Your Best Life” tour and lived to tell the tale. In his report, “Church of Oprah,” he tells what it was like to see thousands of women, each paying at least $185, sit in awe of their mentor and spiritual guide. The few men present were “corks bobbing in a sea of estrogen,” he informs. The crowd of “well-behaved, beautifully dressed” women “seemed to have a certain light in their eyes as they waited to see a woman who comes into their lives daily through her talk show and monthly through her eponymous magazine, whose every cover she glamorously graces.” Yes, Oprah smiles from the cover of every issue of her own magazine. Her “Live Your Best Life” tour will take her to Denver and Dallas later this year, but the crowd of devotees in the Washington Convention Center was looking for something more than encouragement and advice–they were looking for meaning in life. Robinson says that a little voice in his head starting murmuring, “Cult of Oprah. Cult of Oprah. Cult of Oprah.” Yet, Robinson decided that the cult metaphor was wrong. Instead, “Oprah presides over something grander and more significant. It’s more like a church.” Robinson is on to something here. Consider his analysis of what Oprah means to so many women, and why: “Oprah’s great gift, and the foundation of her lay ministry, is her understanding that even women who have enjoyed great success in their personal and professional lives can still struggle to find meaning and fulfillment, and that they can learn from Oprah’s own search for the same things.” For Oprah, meaning is autobiography. As Robinson relates, “Oprah gets fat, Oprah goes on a diet, Oprah loses the weight, Oprah gains it back, Oprah loses it again, maybe this time for good. Oprah fights an ongoing battle with her hair. Oprah’s relationship with her significant other seems to lack something, since she and Steadman never get married, but she hangs in there with him anyway. Oprah has a best friend, Gayle, who sticks with her through everything. Oprah makes charitable gifts. Oprah promotes books, mostly by women writers or with strong female characters, many of them difficult books that offer not comfort but more questions.” Oprah offers spirituality and meaning without reference to any God in particular. Marriage and motherhood are for other women. Oprah will just sail along on her own quest for the perfect diet, satisfying relationships, and global harmony. She will use her television program and media empire to chide parents who have hang-ups about their children’s desires for sex-change operations and will feature a constant cast of human weirdness. She assures us all that our choices are empowering and that all sexual lifestyles are equally valid and fine. Robinson is a brave man because writing anything even remotely critical of Oprah will bring an avalanche of hate mail. [I can offer personal testimony.] But Robinson is wrong on one count. The Church of Oprah is a cult.
May 10, 2005
Stephanie Coontz, author of a soon-to-be-released book on marriage, contributed an eye-opening op-ed column to today’s edition of The Los Angeles Times. In “Our Kids Are Not Doomed,” Coontz argues that calls for a return to the traditional family are misguided and unnecessary, since kids have just learned to adjust to new family forms, single parenthood, parental divorce, etc. Coontz promotes a postmodern form of the family–relativizing family structure and eliminating any notion of “normal.” As she paints the picture, statistics indicate that children are coping better than in the past, parents are learning to “handle divorce better,” and parents are spending more time with children. She admits that social pathologies persist, but argues that “it doesn’t help today’s diverse families to be told their children are doomed unless they can shoehorn themselves into a traditional marriage.” Her answer: “It’s time to stop predicting social catastrophe from the transformation of family life and start helping every family build on its distinctive strengths and minimize its weaknesses.” Of course, her utopia of “diverse families” distinguished only by different strengths and weaknesses exists only in her imagination.
May 9, 2005
David Brooks moved to The New York Times in 2003, taking possession of a rare opportunity to serve as a columnist for the nation’s most influential newspaper. Brooks was touted as a conservative who would help bring balance to the overwhelmingly liberal slant of the NYT editorial and commentary pages. A veteran of The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal, Brooks had genuine conservative credentials. Beyond this, he is often a masterful writer, combining deep cultural understanding with a fine reportorial eye. His books, especially Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, are filled with keen insights and clever anecdotes, even if both suffer from a lack of final judgment. His moral analysis often suffers from the same fundamental failure–no final judgment.
May 9, 2005
“It need not further be denied,” argued James Orr, “that between this view of the world involved in Christianity, and what is sometimes called ‘the modern view of the world’ there exists a deep and radical antagonism.” James Orr observed this ‘deep and radical antagonism’ over a century ago. Can we possibly fail to see it now?
May 2, 2005
What should be the relationship between Christian morality and public law? There are many in Western societies who are now absolutely convinced that there should be in fact no relationship whatsoever between Christian morality and public law. For these, it is axiomatic that public law should be essentially and purely secular.
April 29, 2005
The rise of strict separationism in church-state relations came at the urging of American Protestants afraid of Catholic power. Now, many evangelicals are unaware of how we contributed to this crisis of secularism.
April 11, 2005
When Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”