Saturday, January 01, 2005

Aristotle's God and the public forum

Over at The National Review Ramesh Ponnuru (did I spell that correctly?) takes a look at some current efforts to rule discussion of God of out place in public life. The full article is only available to subscribers--but the key point that I would like to pick up is relatively short.

RP cites Peter Beinart over at The New Republic: the problem with appeals to God is that they are private, and can't be discussed as appeals to reason in a public forum.

1. Question: does this exclude the Declaration of Independence as valid public reasoning?--"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?"

2. The key point here is the dramatic shift in the understanding of reason that has taken place in many Western universities over the last generation. Jefferson and the authors of the Declaration of Independence were still working within a framework ultimately descended from Aristotle: God was seen to be key tenet of critical reason and essential to explain the order in the cosmos. As late as JFK's inaugural address in 1961 this was still uncontroversial in public forums. The full citation is worth a look:

"Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens, we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

So in 1961, John F. Kennedy could still say in public that the Cold War was a clash between those who thought human rights came from the state--and those who thought human rights came from God. By the time of the early Reagan administration, a similar comment from Secretary of State Alexander Haig brought derision and scorn from the Washington press corps.

3. What Beinart and others want to do is uphold the First Amendment: no establishment of religion. Well and good. But what is missed is this: for the founding fathers, the existence of God was a fact amply attested by both philosophy and science. Religion was how you worshipped that God. There was therefore no contradiction for Thomas Jefferson in affirming separation of church and state in Virginia, and writing a Declaration of Independence that plainly states that human rights depend on a creator-god. The notion that references to God somehow violate the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment are based on a mistake in history.

4. Of course, much postmodern philosophy is based on a root and branch rejection of Aristotle: for postmodern relativists, God is dead, his existence is unprovable--and not even philosophically interesting. But what is interesting is that in the process of killing off God, postmodern relativism has killed off reason along with it. Postmodern relativists deny not only the existence of God, but the validity of human reason. Some years ago, Francis Schaeffer summed this up perfectly in a book titled: Escape From Reason; Schaeffer had read Foucault, and had identified exactly the trend of postmodern thought.

5. The point here--which I hope to discuss in more depth in later posts--is that today everything has come full circle. Aristotle saw clearly that God and reason were tightly bound together. The unraveling begins with Kant in the 1780s; and there is reason to think that the decisive move took place with Darwin--it would take longer to move from philosophy departments to public officials. But the key is this: for Aristotle and classical philosophy, God and reason were paired. The Enlightenment project tried to eliminate God in the name of reason; the result was the Postmodern project of eliminating reason itself.

6. Over at The Nation Richard Rorty has not been unaware of the issue. As a key figure in contemporary postmodernism, he has been sensitive to the charge that postmodernism's rejection of reason runs the risk of fascism.

7. But this basic point--that philosophical reason and the existence of God are historically bound together--overturns the myth of history common in much current public thought. For a whole generation of today's thinkers, reason is something you preserve by eliminating God--which is a form of irrationalism, and based on blind faith. For them, the story of history is the story of reason, triumphing over faith, bigotry, and irrationality. That this myth of history has little to do with any of the real history of Western civilization will be the focus of later posts.


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