Ethical Perspectives 7 (1):1-2 (2000)

William Desmond
Villanova University
The contributions in the current issue of Ethical Perspectives mainly derive from a conference on Catholic Intellectual Traditions organized jointly by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the Erasmus Institute, University of Notre Dame, and held at Leuven from November 10th to the 11th, 2000. As the reader can see from a quick perusal of the table of contents, the contributions cover a diverse range of topics. The reader might well ask what such contributions have to do with a journal concerned with ethical perspectives. What do contributions bearing on religious themes from literature, or reflections on mystical love, or on Catholicism and modern scholarship, have to do with a journal devoted to ethics? Surely we have all learned to our benefit from Kant that ethics is entirely autonomous with respect to religion. If there is a relation, it is one that must respect that autonomy, and not muddy the waters by bringing back the outmoded promiscuity of religion and ethics, and especially it must guard against religion trying to sly its way back to dominion over ethics once again.A reply to this line of reflection would be that Ethical Perspectives is concerned not only with perspectives, not only with what happens within perspectives, but with ethical perspectives as themselves coming to articulation within contexts that contain all the richness of human life as lived. Such contexts cannot be considered apart from serious reflection on religion as expressing the sense of ultimate worth that humans understand and try to live diversely. Contexts have to do with the ethos within which ethical perspectives, and our determinate address to specific ethical dilemmas occur. The practice of a religion, or the absence of it, or indeed the rejection of such practice, communicates something of our sense of the most ultimate ethos of being, and its goodness.Clearly this communication will also be effected in a diversity of ways: for instance, in the understanding we have of the economy and the state as serving, or despoiling, the worth of human life; or in the art and literature that offer us images of significant human possibility set forth for imaginative contemplation with a forthrightness more integral than the confused flux of everyday life allows; or in the secret love of prayer that draws the human soul towards its most extreme abandonment and adoration. Ethical perspectives do not make full sense in the determinate terms they overtly set forth, but draw from sources of value that more often than not remain implicit and intimate to the perspectives themselves. Full ethical reflection requires mindfulness of these more intimate sources, and an honest address towards our religious being is demanded by such reflection. Such honesty is asked of a non-believer as of a believer. Both indeed may be differently called into question by that honesty.If the conference was organized with reference to Catholic Traditions, does this indicate a kind of sectarian narrowness for the intellectual, despite what the word `catholic' might betoken? It will be evident from the contributions that no such narrowness is here at work. Quite the opposite: it is the rich diversity that is striking. One does hear reference to the `ghetto' of Catholic ways, perhaps Church ways, perhaps Christian ways generally. This is a very interesting word: `ghetto'. The discerning reader will note in some of the contributions a strong sympathy for Judaism. But in some instances we will be urged to get out of our `ghetto'. It might seem that as `Catholics' or `Christians' we are already `Jews'. Who put us into the `ghetto'? Is this self-incurred? It seems there are some who have consigned themselves to their own `ghetto', but while this may be true, are there not `ghettos' of religion that are the afterlives of certain Enlightenment ways of thinking about religion, afterlives internalized by those religious who would get out of this now self-imposed ghetto, and make their accommodation with more enlightened ways. How delightfully tangled it all is! We preach repentance and wonder at the end who it is that needs to repent, perhaps we the preachers! One thinks of Lear telling the judge to bring the lash to himself. I don't believe Lear was a Catholic, but he certainly was not an Enlightenment intellectual.There is a question worth asking here, in that for not a few the notion of a `Catholic intellectual' or `Christian intellectual' is an oxymoron. To be a real intellectual is not to be affiliated to an organization that already knows in advance what the truth is. One is reminded of those debates earlier in the 20th century between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston. Russell: You are a Catholic, ergo you already know the answer, ergo you cannot honestly ask the question, ergo what you do cannot be philosophy, that is, free thinking.Very clever, of course, and not without some truth. Do we have to agree with Heidegger that a Christian philosophy is a round square? The problem here, of course, is philosophical. I would say: to be a philosopher is to be able to ask about anything, including religion. But the how of the asking is very important. The asking about religion might well seek a confirmation for what is held beforehand. But this holds true of the critics of religion as much as the sympathizers. The shoe is sometimes on the other foot. It is not only the apologetic Catholics who bring presuppositions to bear on the asking of a question, but so also do those critics who, mirabile dictu, strangely often find their own presuppositions confirmed once again. How easy to accuse the other of not being a `real' intellectual; how galling when it turns out that one's own practice of the free intellect mirrors one's chained opponent.The lesson I take: we inevitably bring fundamental presuppositions to bear in the asking of determinate questions. And it is these presuppositions we need to understand as much as the determinate questions and determinate answers. We are all put to the test. This is more catholic than the offensive critic or the defensive apologist. But you must have trust in mind to be willing to let one's thought be thus open. Such trust cannot be accounted for fully in the determinate ideas one explores or defends. It is interesting also that this trust, in the how of asking questions, mirrors the trust in the how of a person's faith or hope in God. This trust bears on this and that situation or difficulty, but it is in excess of this or that determinate situation or difficulty. It concerns sources of expectation in truth and goodness that are more than we can determine in advance. They are more than we can ever determine completely, since they make our determining possible. We are given to be in this expectation which we cannot completely determine through ourselves alone. And one might say that religion is the way we are given to keep open our communication to these sources of ultimate trust. Russell's cleverness is admirable, but that cleverness will not do to deal with the issue. If the issue concerns ethos or context in the sense implied above, cleverness will never do justice to that. While religion has the power to make us more discerning here, there is a cleverness that tends to make us obtuse.Of course, we intellectuals and academics love cleverness, since we think we are very clever ourselves. Here is one of our sources of difficulty with religion. People who are not clever like us also seem to be religious. If so, one might be tempted to say: being religious then cannot be the same as being clever; it might not even be clever to be religious; ergo to be a truly clever intellectual and academic, I must leave religion in my youth, and put on adult ways of thinking. One might even add to the clinching argument: for ethical reasons we must leave that behind, for just as our thinking must be autonomous, so we must our being ethical become entirely autonomous. Adieu religion!There is an argument here, but one wonders if there are also hints of the operation of a sly process of shaming. We now live in a time where processes of embarrassment are often at work in the initiation of young academics and intellectuals. I hear it said, or rather I hear the significant silence saying this: “It is not that we argue against religion, it's just that well, we real intellectuals don't talk about such things anymore”. We may speak at the top of our heads as post-modernists who have robustly deconstructed the Enlightenment ideal, but at the level of the more elusive and intimate embarrassment we are unself-conscious children of the Enlightenment. But did not the Enlightenment tell us no longer to be children. But now, with our heads we postmoderns tell ourselves we no longer want to be children of the Enlightenment, but in our hearts with regard to religion we are still such children — I mean children of the Enlightenment. Is it not time for that child also to grow up. If I were allowed to prophesy — and of course I am not allowed, since prophecy is now said not only to be inadmissible but impossible — I would inadmissibly and impossibly have to say that at the end of that growing up being religious might again wait gently for this stout child. How galling this will be, I do not prophesy, since we will then have to make our peace with all those people there who are not as clever as we are.We all know Kant's remarks about Enlightenment freeing us from self-incurred tutelage. And of course, our servility to spiritual despots and priestly powers was part of that tutelage. And so we have become autonomous thinkers. What if this autonomy comes to mean that we substitute for self-incurred tutelage a kind of self-incurred spiritual mutilation? If God is the distinguished thing , this may be so; and no amount of self-exculpation, not even ethical self-exculpation, in terms of our being denizens of the epoch of the death of God, will quite exonerate our blasé lack of urgency about divine ultimacy
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DOI 10.2143/EP.7.1.503787
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