On O’Connor’s Politics and a “Compassionate Liberalism”

As one does on a Saturday afternoon, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed. In between tweets about the misdeeds and particular awfulness of the Trump White House and the goings-on across many different professional sports leagues, I came across this tweet by the author (and famed Twitter user) Joyce Carol Oates:

cover-500My reaction to Oates’ tweets has in the past either been positive or indifference and, generally, her political tweets have been things that I’ve found myself in agreement with. This tweet, which featured a re-tweeting of something delightfully snarky that Flannery said about academics, was one that did not sit well with me. It’s not that surprising that Oates would hold an absolutist or negative view of Catholicism but to cast O’Connor as an “ultra-conservative” reflects a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of both O’Connor and Catholicism. While O’Connor’s religious belief made her “conservative” in the sense that it sought to preserve a tradition or connect to a past order (as William Clancy describes in a 1960 issue of Commonweal describing the liberal Catholic point of view, “In the first place, every Catholic—and this includes every “liberal” Catholic—is in a certain sense a conservative. And this is true by definition. It would be monstrous to maintain otherwise. The Catholic accepts a Revelation that was once and for all delivered to the apostles; it is part of his patrimony to conserve this Revelation and to pass it on”) to describe her as an “ultra-conservative” is to take things a step too far. While no one would confuse O’Connor with a strict liberal or progressive, to cast her as a strict conservative misunderstands her and what she espoused.

Talking about who Flannery would or would not have voted for or supported seems like a pretty wasteful use of one’s time. Would she have sneered as some elements of the left and liberalism in the present? Absolutely. But she would sneer at just about everything in the modern world because that was her position, a healthy skepticism with many things about the modern world in which she lived. One shouldn’t overlook that, along with all the fools that think they’ve overcome the need for religion through science and modernity, O’Connor also portrayed the foolishness of those who turned to a performative and overly simplistic religious belief for a sense of superiority. There was certainly a great deal of O’Connor’s writing that criticized and “sneered” at those who claimed to be truly religious but were merely using those things for their own purposes, the kinds of people with which we are inundated and make up much of the right of the present political spectrum.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized it reflected the issues I do have with some elements of liberalism as it is understood in America at present. While, to be certain, much of what I think is in line with modern liberalism in America– a robust welfare state, a free-but-justly-regulated market economy, subscribing to the notion that the government is something that can help achieve the common good and benefit the population, etc. etc.– what Oates hints at, particularly as it relates to organized religion, gives me pause. Those who share this point of view seem to inhabit the Kierkegaardian notion, in my rough understanding of his philosophy, of the ethical stage. In particular, that the laws and the system are the end unto themselves and that order and morality is all that matters.

My view of liberalism, or at least as it is presently constructed in the United States, is that it is the tool, the best one in my estimation, for doing the most good for the most people efficiently. It is not perfect, sometimes it will take smaller steps than one might like, but on the whole it does this job. The emphasis on the individual that is present is something that I find in line with my existentialist sensibilities and is part of what I find unpalatable about more Marxist/leftist/socialist lines of thinking, philosophies and beliefs that do not allow (in my opinion at least) as much freedom and importance for the individual but rather speak in terms of large groups and movements that undervalue or underestimate the individual’s importance.

But liberalism and the structures of governance that come along with it are instruments, they are not the end unto themselves. Kierkegaard makes the point, as he discusses the stages in which one must pass, that the ethical is not overlooked or forgotten once one moves into the third and final stage, the religious. Rather the ethical is subsumed into it, continuing to exist but its existence is predicated by the acknowledgment and acceptance of that larger figure that is (take your pick) God/the divine/the absolute. For the kind of liberalism that comes out through that tweet by Oates, there is not that acknowledgment of that thing which goes beyond, which provides the more lasting and eternal reason for the existence of the ethics or morality that the laws and government reflects.

To be clear, I don’t think that more leftist (and, again, feel free to pick the specific term you want to use to signify what I’m talking about here) lines of thought get away from this. Those almost have too much of an absolute or, put another way, that ethical component is tossed aside rather than being incorporated in. While the most orthodox and strict of liberals today are only stuck in that ethical stage and don’t suppose a “religious” stage, the leftist standpoint would suppose that the ethical is the religious. Also, as I said above, I find my conception of the individual and the emphasis I place on it by virtue of my existential sensibilities does not mesh well with the ways in which much of this leftist thought reduces the individual to being strictly a piece within these larger and strictly economic groups. But just because I have these major issues with the left does not mean that  I find all manifestations of liberalism palatable and the kind that comes to mind from Oates’ tweet and the attitude towards the religious it espouses is one I have issues with as well.

It should be noted that I am aware that I am talking about things in a very oversimplified way and talking about very big ideas in a very broad and sweeping way, whether it be the philosophy of Kierkegaard or these political systems and movements. I also know that, in terms of the politics, I’m generalizing a bit and there is certainly nuance to be found within all these different schools of thought. But while I am talking in these broad, perhaps reductive, terms I do think this point is one worth making.

I find myself thinking about Matthew Sitman’s recent essay in Dissent on our current need for a vocal and present Christian Left. In that essay, he writes:

This basic moral posture means viewing people in terms other than efficiency and utility. It demands humility in the face of social problems: refusing to pathologize the poor; understanding how circumstances or bad luck press upon us; and grasping that we are fallible and flawed beings, not utility-maximizing agents. No human being should be a mere abstraction, a person whose life and livelihood is made expendable by the supposed demands of creative destruction. It also means seeing through the illusions of those who believe the present order of things, the “winners” and “losers” of the status quo, have truly earned all that they have. It becomes a plea to de-link our politics and economics from notions of deserving and undeserving, from the self-serving justifications of meritocracy. We have to strip away the illusion that things are the way they are simply because of differences in virtue.

“The starkest divides that we face are over these matters,” Sitman follows “[a]nd when it comes to such fundamental convictions—on what serving the dignity of the human person means, on what our neighbors deserve—religious people, social democrats, the populist left, and compassionate liberals can find agreement,” and on this he is assuredly true. What must be at the heart of one’s liberalism in this time is a compassion, a care about one’s fellow-man and the world around them that goes beyond mere utility and efficiency. While I don’t think that compassion has to come about from religious belief (or, more specifically, a believed in an organized religion), I do believe it requires an acknowledgment of something larger that goes beyond a mere technical preference or a grounding in something akin to Kierkegaard’s ethical stage. What Oates’ tweet misunderstands about religious belief (in this case, the Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor) is that it is not just a conservative source but also the driving force for a “compassionate liberalism” that is so important, both in this time and throughout recent American history.

The Sin of “The Sin of Believing”

Last week I wrote a pretty critical review of Rod Dreher’s book-length articulation of his proposed course of action for the world in which we all live– The Benedict Option. I had many issues with Dreher’s conservative reaction to the modern world and the way in which he thought one must act to preserve a “true Christianity” in the midst of what he sees as a deluge of things that would pervert and subvert it.

However, in a wonderful bit of serendipity, I have been provided with an opportunity to push back the other way as the Times Literary Supplement has published an article on its website that swings entirely too far the other way and fundamentally misunderstands religion.

Arif Ahmed writes in “The sin of believing” that:

Religious beliefs are supposed to be “special” in a way that demands special respect. They are not special; they are just plain false. And as Clifford shows, but we seem unable to learn, they deserve no more respect, or funding, than the contrived absurdities – for which there is quite as much basis in observable fact – of the “birthers”, the “truthers” and the Elvis revivalists.

Ahmed, a member of the philosophy faculty at Cambridge, draws upon a statement by British philosopher W.K. Clifford that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Using this as his starting point, Ahmed argues for the immorality and injustice of religion because it is something that cannot be proven in an “objective” or “scientific” way. Comparing religious belief to conspiracy theories and climate change denial, Ahmed writes of how one might “deny that men walked on the moon because the evidence that they did, overwhelming if treated in the ‘ordinary’ way, is simply irrelevant if taken in some special way that happens to suit you. How is religion different?” as “The evidence is all on the side of unbelief.” It is because of this, because it cannot be proven in this “objective” and “evidence-based” way that religion and religious belief should be thrown on the ash heap as something that is immoral and wrong.

What Ahmed gets wrong is apparent from the start, something that so many who argue in this sweeping and overly generalized way against religious belief get wrong as well. Ahmed does not fully grasp what religion is, what it addresses, and what it tries to answer. I do not aim to speak on behalf of all religious beliefs so I will be focusing mostly on Catholic/Christian belief as it is what I am most familiar with as a (very bad) Catholic. But these things apply to most-to-all forms of religious belief.

Ahmed describes religious belief as though it needed to be a scientific method and process when it is something that has to be taken on faith and, almost by definition, cannot be proven in the same way as a scientific theory. One of the great philosophers, particularly of the Christian variety, Soren Kierkegaard addresses this notion throughout his writings. I won’t aim to put together a comprehensive selection of all the points where  the Danish philosopher discusses these things, but I will call to mind selections from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. In that, Kierkegaard writes:

“It is Christianity itself that attaches an enormous importance to the individual subject; it wants to be involved with him, him alone, and thus with each one individually […] It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence […] Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.”

What Kierkegaard references here (and what recurs throughout his writing) is this emphasis on the individual (a hallmark of existentialism) but particularly in matters of religion and religious belief. The faith of Kierkegaard is one that cannot be arrived at through a rational or logical process but rather comes from revelation and personal experience. In short, what Ahmed wants religious belief to be or to do is simply what it cannot do. Religious faith, particularly Judeo-Christian faith, is something that cannot be arrived at through scientific processes and validated through evidence as other things might.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Another idea that Kierkegaard refers to throughout his philosophy is the idea of the paradox being at the heart of religious belief (with the biggest example being Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in Fear and Trembling). It is the paradox, the state of exception, that defines religious belief (particularly as it’s depicted by Kierkegaard). The core tenet of Christianity, that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins to give him eternal life and to defeat death, overturns the established and natural order. This doesn’t address what Ahmed would require out of religious belief but it shows how what Ahmed wants is not something that religion will provide and that it would not suppose to provide. That is not the question that religion is answering.

It also makes sense for me to refer to Walker Percy here because his thinking about religion is particularly apropos, given that he was a man with a background in medicine and science and one who had the utmost respect for the logical and scientific in matters where they were apropos. When Percy was asked in an interview for The Paris Review, he described his Catholicism (one steeped in existential philosophy as well) as “a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding—all of which he is, but not entirely.” The idea being that in addition to all these different ways that man can be understood (as a biological organism, as a member of an economic system), there is something more to him. Man cannot be reduced to simply one thing. Again, I cannot speak authoritatively about the many belief systems but what persists throughout the many Christian denominations (and throughout the religions of the Abrahamic faith) is this view of the individual. Rather than oppressing man, as Ahmed and others might argue organized religion does, it liberates man by accepting man as something special and unique. While science can and does offer explanations and answers for many things, it does not provide the answer for everything. What is not answered by the scientific, these things that go beyond what can be defined in such concrete ways, is addressed by religion. The inability or unwillingness to understand this dynamic is what hinders Arif Ahmed’s article and that leaves it as a polemic against a two-dimensional conception of religious belief rather than what religion actually and truly is.

Terry Eagleton, in his wonderful review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for the London Review of Books, makes an excellent point:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

Ahmed, (not surprisingly) like Dawkins, requires the evidence of the “chain of cause and effect” to show between God and the world for religious belief to be justified. But what many, dare I say most, religious believers and thinkers know is that is not what God is and not the purview of religion. While the rational and scientific do have their place, it is the realm of religion that deals in this decidedly irrational and superfluous act of love that is creation and existence. This is what is at the heart of religious belief (particularly the Judeo-Christian belief) and it is also that which Ahmed so conspicuously overlooks.