On July 29, 1981, my dad and I were in the family pick-up truck, driving down the highway, listening to the news on the radio. The announcer was reporting about the event of the decade happening that day in London, the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. He described the pomp, the ritual, and the thrall of the crowds, remarking at the end of his story that by all accounts the wedding went off without a hitch. I turned to my dad, who was behind the wheel, and asked, “Is that a good thing, a wedding going off without a hitch?”
Just as a man and a woman cannot hope to be wed without at least one hitch, one cannot hope to be just or rational without making at least one commitment consistent with faith. Reason, justice and faith are forever bound. No one can know everything on his or her own, so faith provides the platform on which intelligence builds reason and from which the will seeks justice.
Some, of course, beg to differ.
On the website of a national group that calls itself American Atheists, the organization’s official policy statement on religion includes this paragraph:
“Atheism, the absence of religion, is the only ‘ism’ that obeys the laws of physics. There is never a ‘well you have to have faith about that part’ in atheism. Nowhere in atheism is there a text that must be obeyed, or a preacher that knows the ‘one true way’. In atheism, ‘god did it’ is not acceptable, but ‘I don’t know’ is just fine--because it’s the truth.”
The use of such words as “is the only,” “obeys,” “never,” “nowhere,” “not acceptable,” and “it’s the truth” betrays the unavoidable dependence on dogma that snares even the “anti-dogmatists.”
In a series of books written in the last twenty years, beginning with his most famous book “After Virtue,” philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre decisively diagnosed what is infecting social ethics in the modern era, identifying a madness-inducing relativism as the swine flu of morality. To be sure, many others have isolated this peculiar microbe, but Doctor MacIntyre has managed to produce a cat-scan image of remarkable power and detail.
His analysis was so compelling in fact that it converted MacIntyre himself from atheistic Marxism to Thomistic (as in Thomas Aquinas) Catholicism.
MacIntyre examined two strains of relativism: the weaponized version grown in the philosophy lab of Friedrich Nietzsche and replicated in ever-more virulent stem cell lines by proponents of nihilism (the belief that everything is really nothing), and the less potent but more widespread version that has turned most of us in today’s society into free radicals in ethics. We do not deny that there can be a moral reality, but nonetheless we are unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to one or another moral framework.
What drew me to MacIntyre’s work in the first place was a web search using the words “justice” and “reason.” I am not trained in philosophy, and so I did not know about MacIntyre’s writings, including his second book whose title popped up on my web browser, “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”
My job in advocating for the Church on social justice issues in the public policy arena prompted the internet inquiry, and a burning question drove me through the pages of that book and other MacIntyre works: Is there some neutral standard of justice and reason that everyone can accept?
My initial encounter with MacIntyre’s answer was at first disappointing. No, there is not such a neutral standard. But a more careful reading was enlightening and encouraging. The full answer is, no, there is not an abstract, value-free form of Reason or Justice that can be apprehended or understood outside of all moral tradition.
If one insists on attempting to reason from a standpoint entirely disconnected from the presuppositions of any particular tradition of moral enquiry, then one will not be able to reason at all. MacIntyre calls this madness, and the only way to escape it is through conversion, not argument.
Another remarkable book, entitled “Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” recently written by Carl Anderson and Fr. Jose Granados, uses the analogy of a rope. Speaking in the context of a life-long commitment in marriage, the authors ask the reader to think of mountain climbers tethered together.
They write: “The rope is not an obstacle to their freedom but an assurance that their potential missteps won’t be fatal. Without the rope--without the bond of commitment--the climbers aren’t free but wander aimlessly with no one to warn them away from the abyss. Absent the bond of commitment, what we get is not freedom but a ‘free fall’ into self-destruction.”
Reason and justice cannot be discovered by searching from nowhere, and the journey towards understanding will fail without others’ assistance. One has to commit to a starting point and hang onto the rope.
What is just and what is rational will bear the DNA of certain presuppositions consistent with faith, such as the conviction that nature has an intelligible order.
The subject gets a bit more complicated here, requiring further reflection in future columns. For the time being, just remember to share with anyone you know who is planning to marry that you hope the wedding does not go off without a hitch.
Daniel Avila is the Associate Director of Policy and Research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.