Dr. Berger’s juxtaposing of the Catholic Dignitatus Humanae declaration and the coincident event of a German journalist exposing his government’s policy of considering 15 million West Germans expendable should nuclear warfare with Russia breakout is historically ironic.
Circa 70 C.E. Roman Emperor Titus Flavius demolished the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and forced the Maccabean zealots to mass suicide at Masada, if historian Josephus is to be believed. Arguably, Titus may have commissioned Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (and Titus’ mistress Bernice and Secretary of State Alexander) to write the Christian Gospels to create a new spiritual, pacifistic and tax paying religion to replace militant Judaism.
This tends to prove Dr. Berger’s point that the “dignification” of man (and women) was once divorced from the Christian church: the notion of unassailable human dignity wasn’t a prominent part of Catholic Christianity during the Crusades or the Inquisition.
I believe it was sociologist Malcolm Hamilton who pointed out in his book “Sociology and the World’s Religions” that the Catholic Church is the institutional legacy of the Roman Empire. Whether the Romans conspired to invent Christianity or not, it is ironic that Catholicism should end up the institutional carrier of liberal democracy in Europe. Sociologist-historian Max Weber might say history is accidental. Others might say even providential.
Berger asks where Huck’s recognition of Jim’s inviolable humanity comes from. He says Christians would attribute it to the Judeo-Christian tradition but that it has other origins, too, and can, therefore, be divorced from Christianity (although he would agree that true Christianity cannot be divorced from it). Atheists are quite capable of recognizing inviolable human dignity. But if we view Huck’s anagnorisis as a signal of transcendence, then we would say that the experience comes not from the tradition of the visible church but from God. The experience does not presuppose familiarity with any religious tradition—God is no respecter of religious credentials and speaks to theists and atheists alike. Berger has argued in a number of places that religious traditions are two-edged swords: they perpetuate the kerygma—and they domesticate and corrupt it. So membership in a church is not necessarily an advantage in getting close to God or being moral.
But if Huck’s anagnorisis does not presuppose “deductive” religion, is it not the starting point of “inductive” religion? Huck’s experience is not a consequence of religion but is the origin of religion. So when we say that anthropology precedes ethics, we must be careful not to imply that morality is autonomous—independent of religion, coming and going. If atheists and agnostics are to take morality seriously, their anthropology, like the “primordial human gestures” discussed by Berger in “Rumor of Angels,” must have an “intrinsic intention [which] points beyond itself and beyond man’s ‘nature’ to a ‘supernatural’ justification’” (p. 60). It is not necessary that the intention be made explicit—again, explicitness can lead to doctrine, routinization of charisma, and corruption—religion may be most vital (but also most precarious)when it is inchoate, uncodified, and undomesticated. But if we uncouple morality from the transcendent altogether, then we will end up talking about “the moral animal” like evolutionary psychologists.
I once asked a Marxist sociology professor where our human nature “resides.” (Yes, it was a gotcha question!) He couldn’t say that, since we are made in the image of God, human nature resides in heaven. He couldn’t say that it resides in our DNA without joining the hated sociobiological positivists. He said, “I don’t know where it resides”—meaning that he wasn’t going to take the bait, and he wasn’t going to stop talking about human nature (or human species being) as if it resides in Camelot. But human nature and morality do, after all, have a residence, and it is in the Transcendent. So, while it is a good idea to give non-religious people credit for the quality of their moral intuitions and notice the moral failings of religious people, the conclusion to be drawn is not that morality is independent of religion but that the invisible church is not congruent with the visible church.
What I took from Dr. Berger’s discussion is that without institutional ethics we are left with someone’s equally good or even superior ethical system or behavior but with little consequence. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is wonderful literature but as the impetus for the end of slavery as an institution it has real power.
On the other side of the coin I have difficulty with those who reduce religion to ethics, especially when the moral consequences of our actions or public policies are often unknown (thus Berger’s “postulate of ignorance”). The consequences of most social policies and social movements is often the opposite of what was intended; witness Daniel Moynihan’s classic work “Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding” about poverty programs. This might be useful in claiming moral “oneupmanship” while the welfare of humans is made worse; or the belief systems that give people meaning are destroyed.
In the 1970’s Dr. Berger wrote a book Pyramids of Sacrifice about the ethical implications of social change. He warned about the “myth of growth” and the “myth of revolution.” It seems to me the U.S. experienced the “myth of growth” with the Mortgage Meltdown of 2008. Evangelical christian activists often advocated for low income housing for the poor with disastrous consequences for the beneficiaries of “sub-prime” loans with foreclosures, short sales, marriage dissolutions, and wiping out many small businesses that had loans collateralized by the equity in their homes. I have yet to hear of any regret, let alone repentance, for those religious motivated activists who advocated such ruinous policies. Let’s call this moral cognitive dissonance: the more evidence one is presented of the ruination of families and businesses the stronger one’s religious self righteousness becomes. Some Catholics also joined the chorus for affordable housing. So much for Dignitatus Humanae.
Additional note to above comment: Perhaps “ethical cognitive dissonance” or moral blindness is the opposite of Berger’s “anagnorisis” or recognition.
Religion can blind us or help us “recognize” a sense of paradox in life. For those who want to reduce religion to striving for social justice and human rights – via Digntatus Humanae – through an agnostic process (agnosis) religion can often end up diluted and dissolved and transformed into nothing but a political movement.
But socially engineered secular modernity also often leads to the unintended consequences of social breakdown, chaotic relativism, and human suffering as demonstrated by the recent economic breakdown and malaise. The “anagnorosis” experience mentioned by Berger can also help us recognize this paradox.
The self’s capacity for insight would seem to be a basic characteristic of consciouness. The quality of insight has changed in the course of our development. As anagnorosis it described the fatal dilemma of the logic of contradiction in Greek drama (“Count no man happy, till he be dead”), and provided the catharsis that came with recognition. With Aristotle it refered to empirical knowledge. Under monotheism, the inner world of a self-reflected Self revolved around questions of human individuality and the relationships it made possible, so that a notion of human dignity took on depth and complexity previously unheard of.
Both religion and positivist science today try to reduce the historical consciousness to something caused by another (and so in their logic have moe in common than they would like to admit). Scientific reductionism would like to believe in biological cause and effect, religious fundamentalism in divine cause. The third possibility is rarely discussed, that our nature is causa sui, an emergent phenomenon of our biological and social complexity.
Ethics requires no cause, biologically internal or externally through a divinity. Our dignity lies in our capacity to reflect upon selfhood. I and Thou are categories of subjectvity, not objects created by another. If God has any reality, then it is as an image of the possibility of subjective consciousness itself, and as such has been an essential point of reference for understanding what it can mean to be human.
Today, self, differentiation and trancendence are being superceded by questions of interrelatedness, mortality and embodiment. Nature and cosmos are more helpful points of reference for this emergence than subjective divinities. Dignity at this stage seems to be a question of empathy and a capacity for engagement, in what Dr. Berger refers to as the intrinsic ability to perceive the dignity of nature and humanity. As this is now after thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history, universally available, religion may still provide useful orientation in its non- dogmatic form, but it is no longer required, and we are free to move on.
Tom K says we are now free to move on—beyond the external causation of self by God or nature. He proposes a little-discussed third possibility that we are “an emergent phenomenon of our biological and social complexity.” If I understand him rightly, he is saying that biological and social evolution have brought us to a point of self-consciousness where we are now autonomous—or can be, if we are willing to grow up and move on (.org?) But are we free NOT to move on—without being irresponsibly childish? He says that today issues like transcendence are being “superseded” by concerns about mortality and embodiment. In other words, instead of trying to become immortal by getting on the good side of Big Daddy, we are becoming adult enough to face the natural phenomenon of death. Nature and humanity, he hears Berger saying, have an intrinsic dignity.
But here is what Berger says in “Questions of Faith”: “A popular cliché, elevated into alleged wisdom by various schools of philosophy, proposes that suffering and death should be accepted because they are ‘natural.’ This proposition must be emphatically rejected. On the contrary, it is ‘nature’—in the sense of the biological order of things—that is unacceptable. Death in particular is a brutal denial of the very essence of being human” (p. 40). There is a little more daylight between nature and humanity in Berger than Tom suspects. That is because Berger feels free NOT to move on. There is no imperative to embrace the “progressive” liquidation of the supernatural. Tom says “ethics requires no cause.” Berger says that “love for other human beings is linked with love of God. . . . Faith in God provides a transcendent meaning, an ontological foundation for all moral judgments and actions” (Ibid., p. 161).
It is precisely because of the tendency of “enlightened” intellectuals to read God out of the universe and read progress in that I worried that Berger’s “Anthropology precedes ethics” would be misread as an invitation to do just that. I hope Tom will forgive me for using him as exhibit A, but individual exhibits are hardly necessary—one can point to European “Christophobia,” as George Weigel does in “The Cube and the Cathedral.” (The cube is the modernist structure—within sight of Notre Dame—that houses The International Foundation for Human Rights. Weigel uses it as a symbol of “ultramundane” or atheist humanism. Weigel, by the way, mentions Berger in his acknowledgements and has an essay in Berger’s “The Desecularization of the World”).
In “Questions of Faith,” Berger cites Augustine’s observation that “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable” (p. 12). Or, as Berger might paraphrase it, no one believes anything for which there are no plausibility structures. Because the cultured despisers of religion have succeeded in destroying the plausibility structures for religion in enlightened circles, many intellectuals do not feel free, but compelled, to move on.
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