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Monday, February 18, 2013  

External to What?

Rod Dreher, a writer I often admire, has a bit of a sad about the pope's abdication and the end of what has been called the "Catholic moment" in American politics:

We religious conservatives believe that the secular order must be dictated by the sacred order, however attenuated. Many others — most others, I would say — believe that there is no such thing as a sacred order, at least not one knowable to and share-able by all. The desiring Self is the sacred thing — something I say not as a criticism, but as an observation. In this worldview — which I believe is thoroughly mainstream — to deny the legitimacy of the Self’s desires is felt as a denial of personhood, and of rights. The moral order, then, must be built around the ongoing expansion of individual rights, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality, because Truth emerges from the individual’s heart, not from an external source of authority, such as the Catholic Church. We can’t have a meaningful conversation because we cannot agree on the source of moral order. (emphasis added)

This strikes me as a pretty fair expression of what "religious conservatives" seem to think they're doing, but if you've been with us here for a while it should be evident why it is enormously problematic. 

Take this first point, that "the secular order must be dictated by the sacred order." This is at bottom a Platonic image, one with a long history in Christianity but only a shadowy basis in the worldview of ancient Israel or Jesus of Nazareth. But consider the ways in which the "sacred order" has proven to be useless, or even a hindrance, in understanding the "secular order" that we live with every day. It's easily forgotten that the world of invisible substances, essences, qualities, and a priori principles once surrounded every visible phenomenon, from the human embryo to the stars. And little by little, this "sacred order"--the Great Chain of Being that authorized monarchy; the crystalline spheres moving in uniform, circular patterns above the visible heavens; the ideal forms behind every individual of a species--has simply fallen away. One might very well prefer the old dispensation--"We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos," as Bernard Nightingale says in Stoppard's Arcadia, "Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe"--but it's just gone. There is no philosophical or ethereal super-stratum from which matter and knowledge and truth flow to us as if downhill. There is no "sacred order" and "secular order," there's only "order," and the various means we use to establish what it is. 

But what, then, of Christianity and Jesus and the rest? Good question! While I don't really know what to do, any longer, with a Platonic model of the cosmos, I don't think it's what Jesus was talking about exactly. If you replace the ungainly and theistic phrase "sacred order" with something more Biblical--let's say "kingdom of God" out of some deference to our titular Savior--you get a rather different picture. Unlike the shadow-world of invisible forms implied by "sacred order," the kingdom of God is pretty straightforward: good news brought to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord's favor (that is, the jubilee year in which titles and debts were abolished and the society started over). That's in Luke 4, in which Jesus quotes Isaiah, but you can find many other statements of the same idea. 

This "sacred order" was signaled by things like a table-crashing protest at the Temple (you know, the one where people worshiped the God of heaven and earth), a running battle with civil and religious leaders, and ultimately the execution of that order's chief herald. It's a "sacred order" that, inasmuch as it breaks into the "secular order," gets ignored, ridiculed, stomped on, co-opted, or killed. That a whole civil, legal, and ecclesial order decked with jewels and gilt crosses and prime real estate claimed this "sacred order" as an authorization is a testament to the inexhaustible ingenuity of the human race, but it bore only a fitful relationship to Jesus and what he seemed to be doing. An individual or a society that wants to have Jesus as its source and ground for unswerving order has a big task to accomplish. 

In any event, whether you are a "religious conservative" who is loyal to an idea of "sacred order" invisibly animating the world of sense-perceptions or a Christian progressive who is loyal to the idea of the "kingdom of God," the world we live in today is bound to feel a little grubby and bourgeois. So let's grant that Dreher's somewhat polemical depiction of a "desiring Self" that has become a "sacred thing" especially where sex is concerned is fair enough for the purpose. Even so, what are we to make of this idea that "Truth emerges from an individual's heart, not from an external source of authority, such as the Catholic Church"? First of all, does anyone who holds the view Rod is explaining here think in terms of capital-T "Truth"? I'm pretty sure there's only the regular sort of truth, the kinds of things that can be identified and ratified by experience and subject to revision as needed. The notion that the individual has a pipeline to the kind of super-true Truth once claimed only by desert prophets and people in very special clothing is more Romantic than postmodern. This is not a small difference.

Because what, then, is the nature of the "external source of authority"? What, exactly, is it external to? The Self, I supposed. So I think about those sources of authority that are external to me. There's the police, I suppose, though I pay taxes and have some nominal democratic oversight of their work. But they're definitely external, in that they can compel me to do certain things whether I wish to or not. The police power doesn't seem to be what Rod has in mind, however.

What else? Well, there's a university faculty. They get to decide what does and doesn't count as scholarship, and I have to accept their judgment if I want the degree they grant. Hopefully I will also learn to appreciate their guidance and align myself, at least in important ways, with the tradition of knowledge they curate. This may be the sort of thing Dreher has in mind, but it's worth pointing out how limited that authority is. My English professors taught me a great deal--God bless them all--but they didn't choose my favorite Shakespeare play for me (though they were no doubt influential in forming the consciousness that chooses), much less define marriage for me or tell me how to vote (though in those things, too, there is a kind of gentle and unconscious influence). 

And then there are the intellectual and literary traditions themselves. Here we are all eclectics, I imagine, but if you incline toward Stoicism or Christianity or Marxism you are going to have some kind of canon that centers that identity. I love and revere Abraham Lincoln. He was a far smarter man and a far better writer than I'll ever be. He still can't solve my political dilemmas for me, even as I try to internalize as much of his genius as I can.

So what, then, is this "external source of authority"? The pope and the bishops are the expert faculty on the topic of Catholicism, we'll grant that--not least because "Catholicism" and "acknowledging the authority of the pope and bishops" are mutually defining concepts, a fact that cynical people may dwell on but I will not. They get to decide what Catholicism means and doesn't mean, just like the professors get to decide what does and doesn't count as anthropology. They are the curators of a vast intellectual, philosophical, and moral tradition that one may or may not identify with. Have we gotten any closer to understanding what, exactly, it is that they are supposed to do for us poor, Self-burdened subjects? Do they impose their judgments by a kind of moral police force? Do they grant and withhold privileges like a faculty? Do they curate a tradition to which we may assent in greater or lesser degree?

These are not meant to be rhetorical questions. But I do think they get at the limits of this sort of bare need for a principle of heteronomy that Dreher seems to express here. It's not a blameworthy need. As a dabbler in the sea of the ages, I fancy the idea of plopping down next to Heraclitus and watching the multitude of gods escaping from the burning log, or even the idea of humbly recanting my theological hypotheses upon pain of excommunication and hell pronounced by my bishop. But the great happiness and the great sorrow of our time is to have discovered that there are no gods in the firewood, no crystalline spheres anchoring the heavens, and no demigod underneath the robes of sanctimony. We might be tired of our Selves, but there is no Other who will relieve us of them.  

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:11 PM
OK, I got a little lost in the Plato paragraphs, but I think I'm on board with you. It's ironic that Dreher picks the issue of sexuality as an example of his beleif that sacred order must dictate secular order. It has been the secular world that has been way out in front of the church on this issue, and actually pushed the church to a more gracious understanding. Recently, it was the secular Occupy Movement that slammed the brakes on a society that was moving rapidly in a direction away from the poor and the stranger. Secular Europe has a health care system that is much more compassionate than our own. Dreher is right that sacred order should form and inform secular society, I just don't know if he realizes that sometimes it's the secular vessel that carries the sacred.
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