God and Liberal Modernity


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ABSTRACT God and Liberal Modernity: Catholic World Report HOME ARCHIVED ARTICLES EDITORIAL CWR BLOG VIDEO ABOUT US NEWS BRIEFS / RSS FREE eNEWSLETTER DONATE ADVERTISE CWR Archive:   Ecclesia et Civitas Ecclesia et Civitas Print   /   Share   /   Send God and Liberal Modernity March 07, 2012 All around us we can see the results of excluding God from our understanding of the world. James Kalb “How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?” — Friedrich Nietzsche “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn What lies behind the radically anti-Catholic form of society to which we are tending, one in which Catholic beliefs count as patently delusional and Catholic moral doctrine as an outrage that must be suppressed? The power and durability of the tendency show that some basic issue is in play, while the difficulty of opposing it suggests that the issue is somehow hidden, so that people have trouble grappling with it directly. In fact, the issue is the most basic of all: God or no God. What we see around us are the results of excluding God from how we understand the world. The very size of the issue makes it hard to see clearly. It’s difficult to stand back and get perspective on something that changes absolutely everything. Western people are mostly practical atheists who see God as an add-on to a world that can pretty much get by without him. Everyday habits and practicalities carry life forward, so ultimate beliefs seem beside the point. When problems do come up—when our neighbor leaves his wife or starts picking pockets or whatever—it is easy to find particular causes: it’s because of the economy, it’s what people see on TV, the guy’s got personal issues, and anyway there have always been problems and religious people are no different from anyone else. So the link between ultimate causes and their effects becomes obscured, and people who insist on a connection between religion and how we live together seem like cranks. Still, man is rational in the long run, and the basic principles he accepts eventually take hold and determine actions and attitudes. We deal with life as we see it, and how we see it is determined by what we think is real. Since God is the ens realissimum , the most real being, getting rid of him changes everything. For example, most of us want to deal with life reasonably. To do so we need to be able to stand back and ask ourselves whether what we think and do really make sense. And to do that we have to see the world as ordered not only physically, but intellectually and morally, so that some beliefs and purposes make more sense than others by standards we don’t invent but are implicit in the way things are. That creates problems if we take God out of the picture. We can’t make sense of the world if the world does not make sense, but why should it? Why shouldn’t it be blank incomprehensible chaos? The obvious response, to Catholics anyway, is that the world exists and makes sense because ideas, meanings, and intentions went into its making: “The heavens show forth the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). There are influential people who do not agree, however, and public discussion has to be based on what such people generally are willing to treat as knowable and real. In an age that rejects God in favor of physical demonstration, and rejects natural moral law for the same reasons it rejects God, the knowable and real turn out to be the objects of modern natural science—the things that can be observed, measured, and described mathematically. But if that’s what’s treated as real, there’s no place for purpose or meaning. That’s a problem: if the world does not itself make sense, to make sense of it is to falsify it. Indeed, if the world is purely physical, we can’t even talk about it. Speech is something within the world, and if it’s purely physical it can’t have non-physical properties like “meaning” or “aboutness.” (See philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of such issues in his “Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” and Ed Feser’s comments on same.) These are—to put it mildly—major problems. We necessarily view our speech as meaningful, our thoughts as directed toward knowledge, and our actions as guided—at least somewhat—by reason. So what do we do? If neither God nor natural law gives us a setting that is morally and intellectually ordered, so that speech, knowledge, and rational action make sense within it, we’ll use main force, and try to impose order and meaning on a purely physical world through ou.......