God and Liberal Modernity

All around us we can see the results of excluding God from our understanding of the world.

“How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

“Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

What lies behind the radically anti-Catholic form of society to which we are tending, one in which Catholic beliefs count as patently delusional and Catholic moral doctrine as an outrage that must be suppressed? The power and durability of the tendency show that some basic issue is in play, while the difficulty of opposing it suggests that the issue is somehow hidden, so that people have trouble grappling with it directly.

In fact, the issue is the most basic of all: God or no God. What we see around us are the results of excluding God from how we understand the world.

The very size of the issue makes it hard to see clearly. It’s difficult to stand back and get perspective on something that changes absolutely everything. Western people are mostly practical atheists who see God as an add-on to a world that can pretty much get by without him. Everyday habits and practicalities carry life forward, so ultimate beliefs seem beside the point. When problems do come up—when our neighbor leaves his wife or starts picking pockets or whatever—it is easy to find particular causes: it’s because of the economy, it’s what people see on TV, the guy’s got personal issues, and anyway there have always been problems and religious people are no different from anyone else.

So the link between ultimate causes and their effects becomes obscured, and people who insist on a connection between religion and how we live together seem like cranks. Still, man is rational in the long run, and the basic principles he accepts eventually take hold and determine actions and attitudes. We deal with life as we see it, and how we see it is determined by what we think is real. Since God is the ens realissimum, the most real being, getting rid of him changes everything.

For example, most of us want to deal with life reasonably. To do so we need to be able to stand back and ask ourselves whether what we think and do really make sense. And to do that we have to see the world as ordered not only physically, but intellectually and morally, so that some beliefs and purposes make more sense than others by standards we don’t invent but are implicit in the way things are. That creates problems if we take God out of the picture. We can’t make sense of the world if the world does not make sense, but why should it? Why shouldn’t it be blank incomprehensible chaos?

The obvious response, to Catholics anyway, is that the world exists and makes sense because ideas, meanings, and intentions went into its making: “The heavens show forth the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). There are influential people who do not agree, however, and public discussion has to be based on what such people generally are willing to treat as knowable and real. In an age that rejects God in favor of physical demonstration, and rejects natural moral law for the same reasons it rejects God, the knowable and real turn out to be the objects of modern natural science—the things that can be observed, measured, and described mathematically.

But if that’s what’s treated as real, there’s no place for purpose or meaning. That’s a problem: if the world does not itself make sense, to make sense of it is to falsify it. Indeed, if the world is purely physical, we can’t even talk about it. Speech is something within the world, and if it’s purely physical it can’t have non-physical properties like “meaning” or “aboutness.” (See philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of such issues in his “Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” and Ed Feser’s comments on same.)

These are—to put it mildly—major problems. We necessarily view our speech as meaningful, our thoughts as directed toward knowledge, and our actions as guided—at least somewhat—by reason. So what do we do? If neither God nor natural law gives us a setting that is morally and intellectually ordered, so that speech, knowledge, and rational action make sense within it, we’ll use main force, and try to impose order and meaning on a purely physical world through our own will. We’ll say that the meaning of the world is the meaning we give it, and its order is the intellectual and practical order we establish to control and shape it to our wishes. In other words, we’ll make will and technology the supreme principles of life and thought.

So it’s Man the Maker instead of God the Creator. We manufacture meaning and order as well as frying pans. Not surprisingly, the substitution of man for God causes problems. If there is no natural order and purpose, because nature lacks those features, the meaning and order we impose on the world will be our own arbitrary inventions. There is nothing to draw on that can make them otherwise. At the level of politics, that means tyranny. Nothing has an intrinsic order and meaning, so those in power invent their own and force them on everything, silencing anyone who spoils the fun by pointing out the emperor’s nakedness. Hence totalitarianism, which is not so much government by terror as government that recognizes no standard outside its own will and purposes: Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”).

Also hence liberalism and its consequences. Liberals note that if no purpose makes special sense then all purposes must be equally good. The obvious result, since there’s nothing but force and fraud to say which purposes should prevail, is a war of all against all that ends only when one faction wins and forces its preferences on everyone. To avoid that result, liberals propose an alternative: we want our own purposes to be accepted as worthy of support, simply because they are our purposes, so we agree to say that all other purposes are equally worthy. The result is a social contract that takes equal freedom as the highest standard, and makes giving everybody what he wants, as much and as equally as possible, the highest political goal.

The technocratic liberal state expresses that contract. It tries to give everybody what he wants, so it is thought to promote all good things, and outside itself it sees only war, oppression, and ignorance. Liberals believe it delivers on its promises, to a large and increasing extent, so they find it monstrous and incomprehensible to reject it. Since it is based on equality and technological thinking, it is considered the only legitimate and rational form of political association. It is therefore, people believe, our duty to spread it throughout the world, and in our own society to develop its principles and apply them in an ever more detailed and comprehensive way.

But does it work? Does the present-day liberal state succeed in avoiding the totalitarianism that seems implicit in rejecting an authority above human will? Does it avoid the nihilism implicit in rejection of knowable objective goods? And if it respects everybody’s purposes, how about the purposes of Catholics? On the face of it there are obvious problems: how can purposes be given equal status when they conflict? How can equal freedom be the basis of government, when government means command? And assuming there really are basic problems with present-day secular liberalism, so that it doesn’t work as advertised, why do people believe in it, how does it really work, and what do we do about it?

Those are big questions. When influential jurists, theorists, commentators, and politicians insist that Christian moral doctrine is fundamentally immoral, something is askew and it’s important to figure out what it is. We started the exploration last month by discussing problems with the secular liberal conception of freedom. There’s much more to do, though. I’m not going to run out of topics for columns any time soon.

About James Kalb 67 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).