Saturday, June 17, 2006

Our Pragmatic Reality

There was a piece in The Washington Post on Tuesday by E. J. Dionne, Jr. that described the anguished speech of Cardinal Ratzinger just before he was elected by his peers to be the next Pope. This is an important article and important subject, because what it is really about is the inadequacy of soul that leads people into ideational absolutism, sometimes known as blind faith.

Ratzinger is a fairly notorious person in his own right, a martinet, an absolutist, intolerant of others, a bully, a doctrinaire dogmatist. But, Ratzinger is not unlike thousands and probably millions in America whose souls' need is for an absolute certainty about something, almost anything it seems, but surely about spiritual matters, those parts of mental/emotional life that quickly end up in the cul-de-sac of impossible ignorance when we are left to our own devices.

Interestingly, James Fallows in The Atlantic this month (July/August) also wrote about the tension in our country (and others, of course) between Idealism and Practicality. It is a tension that could be said to have been first enunciated well by Gov. John Winthrop in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when he described the City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem, the notion that America is special in the eyes and in the hands of God. But, there was a strong, vigorous native pragmatism even then, though, and it was not weaker than the idealist faith of Winthrop. This pragmatic streak in American thought was expressed in academic terms a couple centuries later by Dewey and James, as we all know. So the question has ever been which tether is the stronger. Are we founded on immutable ideals, Christian or otherwise, or are we really quite a bit more secular and pragmatic than any of the Puritans would like to admit, and are we really just one nation (albeit powerful) among many.

The resolution of philosophy, as I understand it, is that since Hume and Kant and the emergence of Analytic Philosophy the tacit agreement is that all systems of thought have their axioms and postulates that cannot be proven within their systems. In the 20th century this has led some thinkers to very elaborate and to simple forms of relativism and contextualism, the very evil that Ratzinger so abhors. What is so appalling about Ratzinger is that he presumes that all human beings are led by their gonads or other beastly glands to spiritual relativism--the so-called shopping cart view of Roman Catholicism. He does not, (and we presume the whole College of Cardinals does not) believe in the rationality of homo sapiens sapiens, which to my mind is as complete a negation of our best view of ourselves as you can find. But DUH! When did they ever care about rationality.

The matter is settled for most of us. We recognize in our daily lives that we have different views of things at work than we do at home, and we act differently. We are different at 21 from what we were at 18 and more different still at 65. We know that this is true not only in 2006, but in every year of human experience back to Caesar crossing the Rubicon and farther back still. We know that we are relativists and contextualists. Why should we allow ourselves to be made to feel guilty about this? To shore up the political power of the Vatican? Surely you jest! To give credence to the notion of aristocracy, whether genetic or economic? To support the inept in their headlong flights of military imagination in the deserts of the middle east? By no means!

This short essay is about understanding the roots of Liberalism, for it is completely the case that Liberalism is contextualistic and relativistic. It depends on an allegiance to principles, but with the caution that one must be vigilant against dogmatism and dogmatists, the power hungry and the foolish.

James Richard Brett