The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Breaking out of the prison of self-invention

Don’t let people seduce you with the rhetoric of self-invention and being free to make up one’s own values.

(Image: Denny Müller/Unsplash.com)

For the past many years, I have been maintaining an internet ministry that allows me, through comment boxes, to listen in on the questions, complaints, and pontifications of thousands of people in regard to religion. I have noticed that these commentaries sort themselves out in fairly predictable ways, centering around issues of God’s existence, the problem of suffering, the uniqueness of Christianity among the religions of the world, and the whole range of the Church’s sexual teachings.

But another theme that presents itself with remarkable regularity is the denial of the objectivity of truth and moral value. I have encountered this position frequently over the years, but in the past few weeks, a spate of such objections have surfaced in the wake of a recent video of mine on the subject. Here is one typical response: “Thirty seconds in, and he’s [“he” means me] obviously dumb: objective moral values? Those aren’t real.” Though this gentleman focused on moral values, many of the commentators on this score have equal disdain for the objectivity of truth claims.

Though, as I said, this is a commonly held view, a moment’s reflection reveals how silly this position is. Since he has bothered to complain about my point of view, he obviously holds that there is something the matter with articulating an incorrect opinion, that this is something I shouldn’t do. Furthermore, since he is appealing to the public, he must think that this standard of rectitude is not merely a subjective whim of his own but a standard that is generally known.

In a word, he is holding to the very principle that he denies; namely, that some objective and universal moral value exists. Moreover, in making bold to call me “dumb,” he also indirectly affirms the objectivity of truth, since he could make no such determination of my mental acuity unless he believed in some clear epistemic criterion. In a word, he is hoisted on his own petard. Even the most radical and thoroughgoing skeptic is necessarily standing on some ground when he launches his criticism. He might quarrel with someone’s understanding of a moral or intellectual value, but the one thing he cannot coherently say is that there is no such thing as moral or intellectual value.

C.S. Lewis, arguably the greatest Christian apologist of the last century, saw this problem and endeavored to address it in his short but marvelous book The Abolition of Man. He took as his starting point a famous story told of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As Lewis recounts it, the poet was standing with two acquaintances in the presence of a stunning waterfall. One of his interlocutors announced that the sight was “sublime,” and the other that it was indeed “pretty.” Coleridge enthusiastically confirmed the first characterization and apparently turned away in disgust at the second.

The authors of a popular book of English composition (with which Lewis was familiar) opined that Coleridge’s discrimination was baseless, since each person was simply describing the emotions that he felt in the presence of the waterfall and not anything intrinsic to the waterfall. C.S. Lewis thought this was so much nonsense. Rather, as Coleridge correctly intuited, the reaction of the first person was appropriate to the real quality of the cascade, and the reaction of the second person was pathetically inappropriate to it. The objective rules the subjective and not vice versa.

Lewis’ discussion vividly calls to mind Dietrich von Hildebrand’s distinction between the objectively valuable and a subjective value response. For von Hildebrand, the point of good mentoring is to help a student recognize value in the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemic orders and then to call forth from her the response, both affective and intellectual, commensurate with the value. Once again, value language doesn’t refer to feelings, but rather to the things and events that awaken the feelings. And both Lewis and von Hildebrand harken in this sense back to Aristotle who said that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. In short, feelings and affections should be trained and not simply valorized.

I mention all of this because what C.S. Lewis saw in that book of English composition some eighty years ago is now everywhere in our culture; it is in fact the default position of practically everyone under the age of forty. It is commonly held that what we call “values” are just projections of our feelings and subjective whims, and consequently, anyone who dares to speak of properly objective truth or objective moral value is engaging in an oppressive play of power. The upshot of all this is that we have locked ourselves into millions of little prisons from which we have little choice but to hurl invective at one another.

Perhaps the principal advantage of acknowledging objective value is that it provides the opportunity for all of us to fall in love together with something good, true, and beautiful. It permits us to break free of the prison of our egotism and to enter, together, a journey of exploration.

So don’t let people seduce you with the rhetoric of self-invention and being free to make up one’s own values. In the final analysis, there is no project duller and more suffocating than that.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Bishop Robert Barron 198 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. This is the summit of what is good and true and beautiful:

    “In this is love, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    Blessed be the name of Jesus.

  2. I believe that whoever is denying objective truth has been “taught,” or has embraced diffused errors. The existence of objective truth is self-evident. It takes some nonsensical “philosopher” to help people rationalize their way out of such. There is a good chance that whoever is commenting has an agenda to “convert” others to his cause, so the sample may be skewed and the denial of objective truth may not be as widespread as it appears. (Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t still something to be concerned about.) If there is one subject which ought to be completely banned from being taught it is modern “philosophy.”

    C.S. Lewis wasn’t a Christian, but was a Protestant. This is very important to keep in mind.

    “For von Hildebrand, the point of good mentoring is to help a student recognize value in the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemic orders and then to call forth from her the response, both affective and intellectual, commensurate with the value.”

    I have come to a conclusion that the usage convention, “For [author],…” came from postmodernism – the hallmark of which is a denial of objective truth. It amounts to saying, “This author believes X, but that is just his point-of-view. There isn’t any objective understanding here. Whether you agree or disagree with him doesn’t matter with regards to truth.”

    An alternative would be “von Hildebrand thought that the point of good mentoring is to help a student recognize value in the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemic orders and then to call forth from her the response, both affective and intellectual, commensurate with the value.”

    I understand that the whole focus on “values” came from Nietzsche. It is an error. To have incorrect values (e.g. “bodily autonomy” or “privacy”) is to have immoral ends typically disguised as “rights.” It is to NOT have charity or love for God, but to love oneself.

    • C. S. Lewis was a Christian. It’s neither accurate nor appropriate to label Protestants as not being Christian.

      • The word Christian predates Protestantism. All Catholics are identical in faith to those who were first named Christians. Protestants are heretics, so they aren’t Christians.

        One could specify definitions, but theologically this is most accurate. In other words, Protestants are essentially different from the first Christians, so using that word to describe them is inaccurate or ambiguous and borders on the heresy of religious indifferentism.

  3. When faith and reason left the field circa the Sixties phenomenological projection, the conviction [as Bishop Barron and CS Lewis indicate an anomaly] that we perceive what we anticipate according to personal sentiment. Psychologists largely agree although the better among them also agree in objectivity. What doesn’t change is our divinely ordained inclinations toward affirming reality. What is denied are those inherent inclinations of the rational appetite, that is, the will, and reason. A prime example, David Barash U of Washington in The Myth of Monogamy. He argues fidelity among people is artificial [a religious, or conventual oriented projection] and closer to animal behavior. Barash’s projection of values lacking objectivity is actually a personal repudiation of the inherent affirmations of conscience, the effect of truth suffocated under layers of rationalizations. So, for many, the truth is particularly for young adults what we desire it to be, our personal predilections. Perhaps offering reasons why the objective offers benefit rather than not is a good prima facie. Ending with a bit of humor, perchance offering pause for thought for pesky commentators who question our pontifications.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Escaping the prison of self-invention - JP2 Catholic Radio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*