The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 25, 2014

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Recovering the Western Soul
Wilfred M. McClay (from IR 42:1, Spring 2007) - 01/01/09

We can no longer put off the question of whether our way of life requires a metaphysical grounding; and the answer to that question is becoming increasingly clear. It is perhaps indicative of the nature of our new challenge that the figure of Pope Benedict XVI looms so large in it—less as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church per se than as the world’s most visible, articulate, and astute spokesman for the view that reason and faith are mutually dependent, so that reason without faith is as pernicious and false as is faith withoutreason. His important address at the University of Regensburg, titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” (September 12, 2006), was not, as careful observers have pointed out, primarily directed at Islam. It was addressed to those in the West who would “de-Hellenize” Christianity by claiming that faith and reason have nothing to do with one another—a position that he believes leads to, among other things, violence in the name of religion. But it need hardly be said that his argument also goes the other way, that the effort to “de-Christianize” reason is equally misguided and will lead to a weightless, aimless, horizonless world in which man will have lost any sense of the properly human ends to which all the ingenious improvements wrought by instrumental rationality should be directed; a world in which all moral limits on human choice and behavior will come to seem increasingly flimsy and arbitrary; a world in which the value of the human person will dwindle to nothing.

No less a secular paragon than the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has come a surprisingly long way toward a similar perspective, a development that was made plain in a series of dialogues he engaged in with Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI). “For the normative self-understanding of modernity,” Habermas said in a recent interview, “Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”5 This of course does not amount to a credo or conversion on Habermas’s part. He is careful to hew to the Rawlsian position that in a modern liberal democracy religiously based arguments must always be susceptible of translation into secular vocabularies. But even that dictum can be understood as roughly compatible with Benedict’s own view about the relationship between faith and reason.

And there is reason to wonder whether that dictum itself can ultimately survive without modification. According to the historian Richard Wolin, what produced the shift in Habermas’s perspective and led to his dialogues with Ratzinger was the issue of bioethics. In 2002 Habermas had published In Defense of Humanity, which addressed itself to the perils of biological engineering and human cloning by affirming the right of each human being to a unique human identity.6 It is not a particularly convincing argument, and it is not hard to see that the sustaining of such a right will be very difficult, in the end, if it is to be attempted on purely secular grounds. But the very fact that Habermas felt compelled to make such an argument bespeaks an admirably troubled moral sensibility in him, a moral awareness that a Christian might say is “written on the heart.” It suggests that any principle short of the imago Dei, the idea that our very existence is a gift, will be unlikely to give adequate shape to that sensibility.

All of which is to argue that what we mean by “the West” will henceforth have to take such themes into account, and lay bare the need for the right kinds of presuppositions, in order for the inquiry that Bloom so greatly, and rightly, treasured to go forward. Everything that Bloom believed about reason, about natural rights, about friendship, and about the search for truth and the love of wisdom—all his solicitude for the souls of his students—depends on something else, something more, that it perhaps never occurred to him, or us, to acknowledge. But those were different times.

  1. Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
  2. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 34. Further references to this book will be given parenthetically in the text.
  3. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizationsand the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
  4. David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
  5. Richard Wolin, “Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies,” Chronicle of Higher Education (September 23, 2005), B16.
  6. Ibid.
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