A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Mind Of Benedict XVI

Of course, nobody yet knows His Holiness' mind. For it will certainly have to be significantly rearranged to cope with the duties of his elevation, and his contact with those duties is barely a week old. But, since, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he had a reputation among the cognoscenti as being quite a theologian, I thought I would dip into some of his more pointed writings simply to get intellectually acquainted with him.

Following the lead of Matthew Yglesias, I have been reading the written text of Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today, which the good Cardinal gave as an address in Guadalajara in May of 1996. I was very pleased to find that the future Benedict had the kind of razor sharp intellect, and incisive powers of analysis, which always appeal to me. He is very different in temper and character, if not in actual content, than John Paul II, whose prose had a naturally orotund and oratorical flourish, fine in itself, but less to my taste for sharp, strong, and spicy flavors.

Much of his discussion, of course, is beyond my ken and my depth, involving Christian authors whom I have not read about theological issues that have not commanded my attention. But he does occasionally make remarks about things which I do know or have read, so I will indulge in a little intellectual criticism of his characterization of them. He's big enough to stand it, I suspect, and I think he would agree with me that the keenest intellect in the world is of no use if it is operating on faulty premises or inadequate information. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger:

Marxism had been the last attempt to provide a universally valid formula for the right configuration of historical action. Marxism believed it knew the structure of world history, and from there it tried to show how history could be led definitively along the right path. The fact that the presumption was based on what was apparently a strictly scientific method that totally substituted faith with science and made science the praxis gave it a strong appeal. All the unfulfilled promises of religions seemed attainable through a scientifically based political praxis.

The nonfulfillment of this hope brought a great disillusionment with it which is still far from being assimilated. Therefore, it seems probable to me that new forms of the Marxist conception of the world will appear in the future. For the moment, we cannot be but perplexed: The failure of the only scientifically based system for solving human problems could only justify nihilism or, in any case, total relativism....

We can start right here. First of all, in the works of Marx and Engels, at least, there is considerably less direction about how to make a world revolution happen than there is philosophical (and not scientific) hypothesis about how a world revolution would happen whether we tried to make it or not. The basis of that hypothesis is the "materialist conception of history".

So the first thing to point out is the absence of the name Lenin in the good Cardinal's analysis. What collapsed in 1989 was the Leninist program and blueprint to make a world revolution happen before it's time.

Why is the absence of this understanding by the Cardinal an intellectual flaw, and, in some respects, a disingenuous one? Because by refusing to acknowledge the contribution and importance of Lenin to 20th century Communism, everybody and anybody can avoid an honest philosophical confrontation with Marx, who supposedly stands "refuted" by the failure of a governmental system he never even lived to see. He is no more "refuted" by it than the doctrines of the Catholic Church are "refuted" by the recent sexual scandals among American priests.

The constant intellectual dishonesty which surrounds Marx among most of his non-Marxist critics subsists right there. Why is the refusal to look at the "materialist conception of history" and engage it philosophically on it's own terms--rather than merely implicitly labeling it "wrong science"--intellectually dishonest? Because it is a way of avoiding the reason Marx and Engels developed the notion of historical materialism.

That reason is called Capitalism.

The overwhelming bulk of Marx's work is about Capitalism, not Communism. Marx and Engels were attempting a rational and reasonable explanation of the facts of Capitalism and their relation to politics. From our vantage point, their explanation is probably not complete and possibly in error, but most of their critics are simply content to pretend that Capitalism is like ozone in the air, a set of facts completely independent from the problems of politics.

We can note that, as far as the good Cardinal is concerned, Capitalism doesn't even exist as a term in the political equasion:

In turn, relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy. Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better. Therefore, all roads seek something common in dialogue, and they also compete regarding knowledge that cannot be compatible in one common form. A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments. Therefore, a liberal society would be a relativist society: Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future.

In the area of politics, this concept is considerably right. There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative-the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people--cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies.....

What we see here is the commonly held pretence among most non-Marxist critics of Marx, that nothing in the material world that has happened since about 1789 makes any real difference to our politics or our lives.

Well, Capitalism has clearly made an overwhelming difference to, say, the architecture of Manhattan. And if I were to pretend that the current architectural state of St. Peter's Basilica had nothing to with the economic mercantilism of the European Renaissance and its transformation into the strong, and economically competitive, royal nation states of the European Baroque, I'm certain that most of my readers would find this attitude to be quite odd.

So is the Cardinal's. So is the attitude of almost every non-Marxist critic toward Marx.

Marx and Engels proposed the most extreme answer possible to the philosophical question of, How does Capitalism mesh with our politics?. They say that our politics are totally determined by Capitalism. This may or may not be true. But once they raise the question it is incumbent upon any honest person to acknowledge the question and try to reach a different answer to it if the Marxist answer is wrong. Merely pretending that the question doesn't exist, has somehow already been answered, or is irrelevant to the problem of establishing a just society, as the good Cardinal appears to do, won't do.

If, in fact, Cardinal Ratzinger is right and new forms of Marxism will emerge in the future and claim authority in our politics, it will be solely because the whole question of Capitalism and politics has been virtually ignored by everyone else.

Moreover, Cardinal Ratzinger's characterization of political relativism as being the foundation of democracy, and as having "considerable" merit because "no one can know the one true way" in politics, as contrasted with revealed religion, is a prudent elision of the chronic and long term problems the Catholic Church has had in its stance toward democracy, its philosophy, and its institutions.

Like most Catholic thinkers since the rise and fall of European fascism, the Cardinal appears to equivocate greatly about the more definite pronouncements on democratic principles in the Catholic past. For past Catholic thinkers, and past Popes, have not scrupled to apply the certain knowledge of revealed Catholic Christianity to articulate definite, and presumably true, opinions about the proper relation of citizens to the state, and the explicit philosophy behind democratic government.

To get a sense of Ratzinger's dilemma in this matter, we can read the excruciatingly vague and convoluted article on "Catholic Democracy" in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Such a definition is certainly intensive so that not everything done by Catholics, among the people or for the people, can be technically termed Christian democracy, or popular Catholic action. Action in this definition is taken to mean an organized movement with a definite programme to deal with the pressing problems that come before it. Popular has reference to the people, not inasmuch as they are a nation or collective whole, but as the fourth estate: the plebs, the tenuiores, and the tenuissimi of classical antiquity. Lastly, Catholic (and therefore Christian through and through) signifies that this organized action in favour of the people (plebs) is the work of Catholics as such. Popular Catholic action, therefore, means that the scope mapped out for the activity of the organization is the well-being of the people; and that the movement proceeds along Catholic lines, under the guidance of Catholic leaders.

A far clearer statement on these matters, which is less reassuring, though much more logical and more consistent with the claims of absolutely certain religious knowledge, was made by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII in "On the Origin of Civil Power" of June 29, 1881:

Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.

I think it reasonable to say that among the philosophers disagreed with would be the names of Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, as well as all the others of that committee of men who drafted the following statement of democratic philosophy:

We the People of the United States of America, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Having drawn the distinction between the "considerably right" notion of relativism in politics and the highly problematic notion of relativism in philosophy and theology, Cardinal Ratzinger proceeds to assert that one of the primary sources of such relativism stems from the religions originating on the Indian subcontinent:

On the one hand, relativism is a typical offshoot of the Western world and its forms of philosophical thought, while on the other it is connected with the philosophical and religious intuitions of Asia especially, and surprisingly, with those of the Indian subcontinent. Contact between these two worlds gives it a particular impulse at the present historical moment.

[In] religious relativism, there is a strange closeness between Europe's post-metaphysical philosophy and Asia's negative theology. For the latter, the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live; it always manifests itself in relative reflections and remains beyond all worlds and notions in an absolute transcendency.....

The previous history of religion had shown that the religions of India did not have an orthodoxy in general, but rather an orthopraxis. From there the notion probably entered into modern theology. However, in the description of the religions of India this had a very precise meaning: It meant that those religions did not have a general, compulsory catechism, and belonging to them was not defined by the acceptance of a particular creed. On the other hand, those religions have a system of ritual acts which they consider necessary for salvation and which distinguish a "believer" from a "nonbeliever."

In those religions, a believer is not recognized by certain knowledge but by the scrupulous observance of a ritual which embraces the whole of life. The meaning of , i.e. right acting, is determined with great precision: It is a code of rituals.


Now I would have to say that this characterization by Cardinal Ratzinger severely foreshortens both Hinduism and Buddhism, making them appear, in consequence, deficient in intellectual content and merely arbitrary and superstitious ritual activity, with no true knowledge or thought behind it. This is simply not the case. To be a Hindu or a Buddhist does not mean that you believe in nothing and merely do things.

There is an extensive tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism--corresponding to the analysis of orthodoxy in Christian theology--of intellectual examination of the foundation of religion. The thinkers both of Hinduism and Buddhism have much to say, in quite precise detail, about how the sacred relates to the mundane.

The one I am most familiar with is Nagarjuna's Madhymaka or Middle Way analysis as developed and articulated in the Tibetan monastic colleges. This tradition makes a quite detailed "theological" criticism both of the "eternalist" views held among Christians, Muslims, some Hindus, and even Materialists like Marx, as well as the "nihilist" views held by the various versions of agnosticism and skepticism found in every philosophical tradition, and proposes a correct and true "middle way" between them. I have written my own small and limited understanding of the view of the Madhyamaka, here.

Granted, ordinary Hindu worshipers or Buddhist practicioners are not very well acquainted with this sort of thing. It is a matter for specialists. But how many ordinary Catholics delve deeply into the issues of theological orthodoxy beyond occasional reference to the Catechism? Most of the more devout among them merely take the sacraments and rest content in faith. But that doesn't mean Christian theology doesn't exist. Cardinal Ratzinger is a specialist, just like my friends the monks of the Tibetan colleges.

Hinduism really is more than merely burning ghee in a triangular hearth as a fire puja to Agni, and Buddhism is more than merely offering incense and water to the Buddhas of the Ten Directions and the Three Times.

Now, of course, it is Cardinal Ratzinger's intention to draw the maximum contrast possible between what he calls "orthopraxis" and "orthodoxy" to make a particular point about contravening Christian theologians and New Age pagans. His view of Indic religions is merely incidental. But since this contrast is highly exaggerated, to say the least, in his characterization of Indic religions, I am less than sanguine about its accuracy in describing anyone else.

Beyond this I cannot venture further into Cardinal Ratzinger's arguments with much precision. He appears to be still struggling with the problem of Theological Modernism as derived from Immanuel Kant's view denying the possibility of knowing the truth about God through Pure Reason:

The indigence of philosophy, the indigence to which paralyzed, positivist reason has led itself, has turned into the indigence of our faith. The faith cannot be liberated if reason itself does not open up again. If the door to metaphysical cognition remains closed, if the limits of human knowledge set by Kant are impassable, faith is destined to atrophy: It simply lacks air to breathe....

For human reason is not autonomous in absolute. It is always found in a historical context. The historical context disfigures its vision.... The historical instrument of the faith can liberate reason as such again so that by introducing it to the path, it can see by itself once again. We must make efforts toward a new dialogue of this kind between faith and philosophy because both need one another reciprocally. Reason will not be saved without the faith, but the faith without reason will not be human.

Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance? I would say the following: because it is in harmony with what man is. Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede. Kant himself must have recognized this in some way with his postulates.

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.

However oratorically heartening for the faithful Ratzinger's conclusion is, I cannot see where merely saying that mankind wants to know the metaphysically infinite is in any way a sufficient refutation of Kant's reasoning that mankind can't know the infinite. Merely because I want something does not make it possible.

Kant, like Marx, must be addressed on his own terms if he is to be validly addressed at all. Kant's plain question, What can I truly know?, cannot be legitimately avoided, once asked, merely by calling it a vision disfigured by it's historical context. It remains a plain, obvious, and sensible question still, a question that ought to have an answer from any vantage point, and reasons to believe that answer.

Perhaps some more direct information about Nagarjuna might be useful to conclude this post:

Nagarjuna did believe that doubt should not be haphazard, it requires a method. This idea that doubt should be methodical, an idea born in early Buddhism, was a revolutionary innovation for philosophy in India. Nagarjuna carries the novelty of this idea even further by suggesting that the method of doubt of choice should not even be one's own, but rather ought to be temporarily borrowed from the very person with whom one is arguing! But in the end, Nagarjuna was convinced that such disciplined, methodical skepticism led somewhere, led namely to the ultimate wisdom which was at the core of the teachings of the Buddha.

I, for one, evaluate my own response to any philosophy not my own by referring to this standard of argument.

4 Comments:

Blogger Dave Schuler said...

There's an extraneous start emphasis tag somewhere in the vicinity of “Now I would have to say that this characterization by Cardinal Ratzinger” that leaves the rest of the page with emphasis on.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

I think I got it, Dave. The original change in the page was not apparent when I viewed the post from my computer. If you stop back by, please let me know if the problem still persists.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Nagarjuna did believe that doubt should not be haphazard, it requires a method. This idea that doubt should be methodical, an idea born in early Buddhism, was a revolutionary innovation for philosophy in India. Nagarjuna carries the novelty of this idea even further by suggesting that the method of doubt of choice should not even be one's own, but rather ought to be temporarily borrowed from the very person with whom one is arguing!"

Terrific, we solemnly await the next
Pope Dubious I.

11:10 PM  
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10:30 AM  

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