Saturday, May 08, 2010

The roots of morality

My friend Robert passed on to me a review by William Portier of Bruce Ward's Redeeming the Enlightenment: Christianity and the Liberal Values, from the current issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. Both author and reviewer are distinguished theologians.

I won't comment on the book, because I haven't read it. According to the review, Ward is interested in the provenance of the liberal virtues of equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion. As embodied in the Western Enlightenment these are a kind of secularized Christianity, Ward apparently suggests, "a glittering parody of Christian moral ideas."

According to the review, Ward wants to reclaim these virtues from a secular humanism that cannot sustain them, and bring them back into a Christian context where they had their origin and properly belong.

There can be no question, I suppose, that the Enlightenment values of equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion are shared with Christianity, at least in so far as Christianity reflects the virtues espoused by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is certainly true that the Enlightenment sought to wrest these virtues from their supposed transcendent roots and exalt them for their own sake; that is, to ground them in human nature. Whether we need to re-rescue the liberal virtues from the Enlightenment -- well, that is a matter for debate.

What struck me about Portier's review is the fact that both author (apparently) and reviewer make no mention of the possibility that the "liberal virtues" might be universal. We have instead phrases like "humanism founded on Christ," ""transcendent love," "the light from beyond," and "whatever love [Christians] have managed to muster by the grace of God." This seems to rather arrogantly suggest that equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion are a Christian or Western monopoly. I would be inclined to think that even those cultures that preceded or had no contact with Christianity or the Enlightenment practiced altruistic behaviors to the same degree as anyone else, before or since, Christian or otherwise.

On the evidence of the Commonweal review, Ward and Portier come across as more sophisticated and intellectually-nuanced versions of the evangelical preachers who assert that there is no morality without God, and, more specifically, without Christ. This grievously shortchanges secular humanism, the Enlightenment project, and human nature itself. The Golden Rule is too universal for any religion to claim exclusive provenance.

Portier reminds us approvingly of the Act of Contrition that we Catholics and ex-Catholics learned to recite as youths:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all, because I have offended Thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins and to amend my life. Amen.
Like most other post-Enlightenment secular humanists, I do not dread the loss of heaven or pains of hell, nor do I believe in a personal God who is deserving of all my love and who would cast me into eternal flames if he doesn't get it. I value equality, authenticity, tolerance, and compassion because I choose to believe that my fellow humans are deserving of all my love. To the extent that my practice of the liberal virtues is innate, I will leave to the evolutionary biologists to decide. Certainly, there are reasons enough -- biological and otherwise -- to embrace them without out invoking Christianity.