For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.
- Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
- There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
- Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
- Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)
While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.
We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.
The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.
The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.
The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.
This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”
This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.
The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.
Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.
The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.
Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.
Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):
“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.”
No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?
Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.
After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”
For Part II, click here.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.
Main image source: http://en.destinationsuddefrance.com/Discover/Must-See/Carcassonne