Breaking out of the prison of self-invention

For the past many years, I have been maintaining an internet ministry that allows me, through comment boxes, to listen in on the questions, complaints, and pontifications of thousands of people in regard to religion. I have noticed that these commentaries sort themselves out in fairly predictable ways, centering around issues of God's existence, the problem of suffering, the uniqueness of Christianity among the religions of the world, and the whole range of the Church's sexual teachings.

But another theme that presents itself with remarkable regularity is the denial of the objectivity of truth and moral value. I have encountered this position frequently over the years, but in the past few weeks, a spate of such objections have surfaced in the wake of a recent video of mine on the subject. Here is one typical response: "Thirty seconds in, and he's ["he" means me] obviously dumb: objective moral values? Those aren't real." Though this gentleman focused on moral values, many of the commentators on this score have equal disdain for the objectivity of truth claims.

Though, as I said, this is a commonly held view, a moment's reflection reveals how silly this position is. Since he has bothered to complain about my point of view, he obviously holds that there is something the matter with articulating an incorrect opinion, that this is something I shouldn't do. Furthermore, since he is appealing to the public, he must think that this standard of rectitude is not merely a subjective whim of his own but a standard that is generally known. In a word, he is holding to the very principle that he denies; namely, that some objective and universal moral value exists. Moreover, in making bold to call me "dumb," he also indirectly affirms the objectivity of truth, since he could make no such determination of my mental acuity unless he believed in some clear epistemic criterion. In a word, he is hoisted on his own petard. Even the most radical and thoroughgoing skeptic is necessarily standing on some ground when he launches his criticism. He might quarrel with someone's understanding of a moral or intellectual value, but the one thing he cannot coherently say is that there is no such thing as moral or intellectual value.

C.S. Lewis, arguably the greatest Christian apologist of the last century, saw this problem and endeavored to address it in his short but marvelous book "The Abolition of Man." He took as his starting point a famous story told of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As Lewis recounts it, the poet was standing with two acquaintances in the presence of a stunning waterfall. One of his interlocutors announced that the sight was "sublime," and the other that it was indeed "pretty." Coleridge enthusiastically confirmed the first characterization and apparently turned away in disgust at the second. The authors of a popular book of English composition (with which Lewis was familiar) opined that Coleridge's discrimination was baseless, since each person was simply describing the emotions that he felt in the presence of the waterfall and not anything intrinsic to the waterfall. C.S. Lewis thought this was so much nonsense. Rather, as Coleridge correctly intuited, the reaction of the first person was appropriate to the real quality of the cascade, and the reaction of the second person was pathetically inappropriate to it. The objective rules the subjective and not vice versa.

Lewis' discussion vividly calls to mind Dietrich von Hildebrand's distinction between the objectively valuable and a subjective value response. For von Hildebrand, the point of good mentoring is to help a student recognize value in the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemic orders and then to call forth from her the response, both affective and intellectual, commensurate with the value. Once again, value language doesn't refer to feelings, but rather to the things and events that awaken the feelings. And both Lewis and von Hildebrand harken in this sense back to Aristotle who said that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. In short, feelings and affections should be trained and not simply valorized.

I mention all of this because what C.S. Lewis saw in that book of English composition some 80 years ago is now everywhere in our culture; it is in fact the default position of practically everyone under the age of 40. It is commonly held that what we call "values" are just projections of our feelings and subjective whims, and consequently, anyone who dares to speak of properly objective truth or objective moral value is engaging in an oppressive play of power. The upshot of all this is that we have locked ourselves into millions of little prisons from which we have little choice but to hurl invective at one another. Perhaps the principle advantage of acknowledging objective value is that it provides the opportunity for all of us to fall in love together with something good, true, and beautiful. It permits us to break free of the prison of our egotism and to enter, together, a journey of exploration.

So don't let people seduce you with the rhetoric of self-invention and being free to make up one's own values. In the final analysis, there is no project duller and more suffocating than that.

- Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.