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The Drawbacks of Pure Secular Reason, especially in the midst of Hurricane Katrina

As we were trying to write this article about putting flesh on the Gospel in the world, we were constantly interrupted by telephone calls from desperate people, a weeping, battered woman with a battered upbringing, Spanish-speaking immigrants arriving from New Orleans and Mississippi from Hurricane Katrina seeking shelter, and one person after another with serious medical problems threatened with homelessness. Families started arriving who had taken in up to 20 refugees from the hurricane in their homes to ask for food.

A Houston Police person suggested we should put the immigrants and refugees out to make room for victims of the hurricane. The next day it came out in the papers that tens of thousands of the hurricane victims from New Orleans were immigrants. That same day contractors began arriving at our houses to hire our immi-grant guests by the dozens to go to Louisiana and Mississippi to rebuild-they knew that these were the hardest workers, who would spend the hours and hard work required to begin the construction anew. Each time there has been a hurricane in the Southeast our workers have gone to rebuild.

It was difficult to recognize in all the suffering we encountered and encounter each day the great progress in human history acclaimed by Enlightenment writers or touted by various writers today.

Dorothy Day often retold the story from Dostoevsky about a selfish old woman:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman, and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell God. ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her on the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her out when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”

This story is a perfect illustration of the contrast between what the philosophers of the “Enlightenment” called “enlightened self-interest” and the Word of the Gospel and the lives of so many saints. It has to do with solidarity.

René Descartes influenced the whole Enlightenment period greatly when he reduced of all life to thought: “I think, therefore I am.” Right there, engagement, solidarity, beauty, and love went out the window.

The Enlightenment philosophy told us that one could save oneself and direct one’s life without God. Secular reason was enough. One did not have to be too concerned about other people. Adam Smith taught that if people seek only their self-interest, seek their own profit, all will work out for the best. Life and the economy will function well if things are left to the forces of nature-even corrupt nature. In this philosophy what can only be called greed came to be seen as “virtue.”

Virtue came to the scene as working hard, saving, acquiring, and achieving for one’s self-benefit. These were not evil people, but people who spent their lives and all their energies in acquiring material goods. Still today, the virtuous person is perceived as the one who works hard, achieves, and purchases a big, then bigger house filled with accumulated things.

“Every man for himself,” instead of “No man is an island” became the dominant philosophy. Rugged individualism is promoted over responsibility for others. Being a go-getter is seen as being preferable to being a go-giver, as recommended by Peter Maurin.

Smith’s legacy was the bourgeois family. It was not only self-interest, but also “my own family interest.” The economic liberals (laissez-faire) ignored or were unaware that their policies actually made it very difficult for poorer families to survive. Charles Dickens described graphically in his novels where this type of capitalism led for so many poor.

Roberto Goizueta points out the problem, or even hypocrisy, of neoconservatives who embrace exactly this type of economics, while speaking of the importance of family values: “… the weakness of sentimentalized, neo-conservative evocation of family values. That is, neo-conservatives fail to recognize how the life of the ‘home’ is not isolated from but embedded in ethical-political and economic relationships. It does little good to promote family values while, at the same time, supporting political and economic struc-tures that, by promoting autonomous individualism and an instrumental understanding of human life, lead to the breakdown of the family. When forced to make their way within such structures, family values have little chance of survival” (Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment. Orbis Books, 1995). The only difference here is that today’s “neocons” put a veneer of religion on their brutal capitalism.

Along with Adam Smith’s “enlightened self-interest” came his division of labor, which as Kropotkin said, divided people into classes as clearly and permanently as did the castes of old India. Those who speak today in glowing terms about the glories of “wealth creation” and what it does for society neglect to acknowledge the workers who labor long hours at less than meager salaries (now often in other countries) to make possible the enormous salaries of CEO’s and stockholders who rake in thousands and millions of dollars.

The division of labor was a practical manifestation of the much larger problem of fragmentation of thought into strict, compartmentalized disciplines. Peter Maurin critiques this, believing that fragmentation limited human freedom and personal responsibility.

Developing also was the idea that as long as we were working for a good purpose, any means to achieve that goal was acceptable, never mind fine points of morality or how one’s actions may affect others. This Machiavellian philosophy was embraced and blamed on the Jesuits. Machiavelli actually endorsed the idea that the end justifies the means. The refusal to use impure means was a hallmark of the thought and practice of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), one of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers, rejected any concept of authority or tradition, saying that “enlightenment is the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.” Kant meant by this that, “Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another.” (Quotes here regarding the Enlightenment and progress are taken from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

Contrast this with the words of Jesus, “unless you become as little children you shall not enter into the Kingdom.”

The statement that religion is not for intelligent people, but for women and children, still holds sway among many. Recently, we worked with a priest from India who had spent time studying in Europe. He was made to feel there that his faith was childish and not something for adults.

Few were wise enough or brave enough to see or speak up to acknowledge that embracing a philosophy whose only source of information and inspiration springs from secular reasoning while rejecting the wisdom of those who have gone before, leaves us unenlightened and uninspired.

The Enlightenment brought us the autonomy of reason and the rejection of what others have said or will say. This wholesale rejection of traditional beliefs and institutions led some philosophers like Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who disagreed, to question their self-aggrandizement and respond that “the accumulated wisdom of past generations is more likely to be correct than the ideas of an individual philosopher.”

Enlightenment philosophy prepared the way for Scientism, which claimed that “philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.”

The philosophy of utilitarianism which developed alongside the push for the autonomy of reason and “enlightened self-interest,” completed the justification not only of self-interest, but self-indulgence. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines utilitarianism as “an approach to morality that treats pleasure or desire-satisfaction as the sole element in human good … on a direct utilitarian view, acts are not right or obligatory because of their inherent character, their underlying motives, or their relation to divine or social dictates, but because of how much overall human or sentient well-being they produce.”

No wonder personal sacrifice for the good of others became unpopular!

Characteristic of the Enlightenment philosophers was “a robust sense of confidence in human progress,” improvement of everything over time, especially the gradual perfection of humanity. They enthusiastically expressed a view of “the human race, emancipated from its shackles, released from the empire of fate and from that of the enemies of its progress, advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness.”

The “shackles” they referred to related to God and what he asks of humankind-and especially what the voice of God through the Catholic Church asks. They saw God and the Church as a threat to human freedom and the source of the imposition of guilt. They perceived the laws of God and the laws of the Church as interfering with freedom rather than an enhancement of it. If only religion did not interfere, what freedom could be had!

It was the French who gave honor to the goddess of reason in Notre Dame Cathedral-a new goddess, a new religion, and a new sacrament-the guillotine-along with tremendous persecution of the Catholic Church. Priests were dragged through the streets.

France is a great example of what happens by following secular reasoning, the rejection of all authority, and the establishment of limitless free-dom-governments are em-powered to chop off heads to assure the exercise of freedom. And soon the chopping of heads includes more and more people of different points of view.

The opera “The Dialogue of the Carmelites,” text written by Georges Bernanos, is commentary on the French Revolution where innocent nuns experience the newfound freedom by losing their heads, every single one of them being guillotined.

One wonders why the French Revolution is touted as a great freedom celebration, as a model for all.

Even the ideal of democracy from the French Revolution in many instances leaves much to be desired. It has led to the idea that morality itself can be voted on and that the results of opinion polls should decide the most important questions in life. As Peter Maurin said, however, “Fifty thousand Frenchmen can be wrong.”

These secular philosophies continue to have tremendous influence even among believers. Those who left the Catholic Church in earlier centuries were soon influenced by these currents of thought. Calvin gradually allowed enlightened self-interest to take its place and even changed the centuries-old Christian prohibition against the taking of interest (usury).

After Luther, it didn’t take long to go from “faith alone” to “reason alone.”

After two or three centuries the results of these philosophies are not impressive. Reflecting on the last century, the twentieth, one can only conclude that the fruit of the pure reason and self-interest of the Enlightenment was Nazism, Russian and Chinese Commun-ism, and brutal capitalism-what Peter Maurin called a new Dark Age. The freedom sought in the rejection of God did not fulfill the promises of the philosophers.

The Eyes of Faith

We do not want anyone to be confused and think that we are against philosophy or using one’s mind. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin read widely, and we do the same. We try to follow the Scriptures, however, and were very conscious of the readings of recent Sunday Masses:

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may perceive the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearch-able his ways! (Rom 11:33-34)

Faith and reason go together.

Unlike Enlightenment philosophers, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day found their deepest freedom and meaning in the Church-the freedom to be connected with their destiny and calling, the freedom to make a difference in the world and in the lives of people, the freedom to live the Gospel in its fullness and to deepen in knowledge, truth, beauty, and goodness.

People seek meaning for their lives in secularism, in the accumulation of things, in keeping busy. The emphasis is not just on possessing things, but possessing special things, as the latest in technology, the biggest cars, etc. Meaning and truth are sought on the left or on the right-often anywhere but in the beauty and depth of the Incarnation, which also implies suffering. Somehow there is lack of awareness that technology and economics should be at the service of humankind, not humankind at the service of technology or economics at the service of a small percentage of the population of the world.

Embracing religion is seen as almost suicidal in our culture, confined as we are by secular reason, whose tentacles are everywhere, even in the churches. The idea of making one’s life decisions from the perspective of the Gospel is deemed strange in a world where economics is the primary concern of life.

Don Francisco Martinez has suggested that the whole work of the great theologian Henri de Lubac has been to unearth tradition and liberate it from the confinement of secular reason ((Francisco Javier Martinez, “Beyond Secular Reason:,” Communio, Winter 2004, Vol. XXXI, No. 4).

Hans Urs von Balthasar points out that “It is the eyes of faith that see the beauty of faith and the vacuity of its seductively dazzling opposite.” (Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. III, Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles, Ignatius Press, p. 427) Perhaps secular reason (alone) and the hedonism that comes with utilitarianism are the seductive opposite.

Like Dorothy Day, and Dostoevsky, Balthasar emphasized beauty and aesthetics in theology and Christian life: “Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. … We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past-whether he admits it or not-can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love. (Vol. 1: A Theological Aesthetics, 18).

Constantly seeking self-interest, even though it may sometimes be sanctioned by society, does not go with beauty, the disinterested one, much less with justice and solidarity.

Balthasar insists that beauty cannot be separated from truth: “The essential thing is to realize that, without aesthetic know-ledge, neither theoretical nor practical reason can attain to their total completion. If the verum (truth) lacks that splendour which for Thomas is the distinctive mark of the beautiful, then the knowledge of truth remains both pragmatic and formalistic. The only concern of such knowledge will then merely be the verification of correct facts and laws, whether the latter are laws of being or laws of thought, categories, and ideas. But if the bonum (good) lacks that voluptas (pleasure) which for Augustine is the mark of its beauty, then the relationship to the good remains both utilitarian and hedonistic”–which Augustine knew so well. (Vol. I, 152).

Dorothy Day quoted Dostoevsky as saying, “Beauty will save the world.” William Miller, her biographer, commenting that words like beauty and love have often come to take on different meanings, explained what they meant to Dorothy:

In this era when even the word ‘love’ means something that has lost all harmony with an ideal of beauty and of the eternal, Dorothy has lived for love and suffered for love in a way that is a striking example of how beauty can be restored. When Dostoevsky’s doddering old professor says that ‘beauty will save the world,’ he is referring to the beauty that is built on love” (William Miller, All is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day, Doubleday, 1987).

Balthasar presents Charles Péguy as one of the people who was able to go beyond pure reason and salvage heart and soul. Theology in some centuries had perhaps not presented in its fullness the glory and splendor of God and the call to solidarity with others–especially those most in need–which is so strong in the Gospel, the prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church. Péguy’s works explore what this means for the way followers of the Incarnated Jesus live in the world-how the spiritual must continue put flesh on the Gospel in the world today.

Péguy, a French Catholic poet, was deeply engaged in the world: “The aesthetic, for Péguy, is in its depths identified with the ethical, and this on the basis of God’s becoming man in Christ: The spiritual must put on flesh, the invisible must give proof of itself in form, and only that which is just and justifiable in the sight of God can be right in worldly terms.” The spiritual must take on form in the world and the form is Christ. The implications are enormous-“The form that is achieved and lived out must be a pure and seamless fabric….” (401-402).

Balthasar’s words about Péguy stand out: “… he is rooted in the depths where world and Church, world and grace, meet together and interpenetrate … Perhaps, after the long record of Platonic variations in the history of the Christian spirit, the Church has never been placed so firmly in the world as in Péguy’s thought, and as a result of this, the idea of the world is allowed to remain free from any taint of uncriticized enthusiasm, what-ever its source-whether in mythology or eroticism or in optimism about the future” (404).

We could only identify with Péguy’s commentary on progress: “Let the world progress as it wills; there is in Christianity ‘no progress of any kind [Péguy puts these words in bold type]. Only modern men make progress. But we are, once and for all, no more clever than St. John Chrysostom.’ To improve Christianity would be like wanting to improve the North Pole.”

How Can One Dare Go Beyond Secular Reason?

The biggest drawback of depending entirely on secular reason is that it misses the deepest meaning of being human. As Don Francisco said, “To think of man without Christ is to leave man incompletely understood. It is to miss what matters most, even for the building of the polis ….

Yes, the goal of the Christian is to put flesh on the Gospel in the world. It is difficult, however, to respond with one’s whole life to the Gospel in our world-many tell us that they are imprisoned in a middle-class value system whose apex of achievement is having more money than other people, in an economics that breeds greed rather than planting the seeds of the Gospel.

Balthasar quotes Péguy: “One may search the Gospel in vain for any trace of contempt: all there is love (and nothing is more opposed to contempt). The terryifying wrath that flows beneath the surface of the Gospels is not wrath against nature or against man con-fronted by grace, but wrath directed only against wealth. But wealth, the axis on which the modern world turns, is no less opposed to nature than it is to grace” (420).

As Balthasar said in Love Alone is Credible, “Success is not one of the names of God, but consuming fire is.”

In our book on the origins of the Catholic Worker Movement, we did not write a whole chapter on Péguy as a major influence on Peter and Dorothy. However, there are several places in which both Peter and Dorothy refer to him or to his ideas. In one Easy Essay Peter quotes Péguy:

Charles Péguy once said:
“There are two things
in the world:
politics and mysticism.”
For Charles Péguy
as well as Mounier
politics is the struggle for power
while mysticism
is the realism
of the spirit.

Peter’s famous Easy Essay called “Ambassadors of God,” echoes Péguy’s thought:

What we give to the poor
for Christ’s sake
is what we carry with us
when we die.
Pagan Greeks used to say
that the poor
“are the ambassadors
of the gods.”
To become poor
is to become
an Ambassador of God.

Balthasar features this idea from Péguy:

“For the Greeks, the suppliant, and the one who pleaded for succour, was the truly great man, for he represented humanity to the gods. But the fortunate man was to be pitied, because he is menaced by fate, because he falls victim to fate. The suppliant at his feet is in fact superior to him, for ‘he is a representative. He is no longer himself alone-no longer even himself. Thus every other person must be on his guard. Dispossessed as he is by the same events that brought such precarious good fortune to the one being besought, a citizen without a city, a head without an eye, a child without a father, a father without children, a belly without food, a back without a bed, a bed without a roof over it, a man without possessions-he no longer exists as himself. He is moulded by the human and the suprahuman fingers of God, moulded and turned to the lathe. The gods and the Fate that stands behind the gods have deprived him of the polis. But the gods have given him his own city in return. It is in no sense a compensation, not even a sign of justice, and naturally it is not a romantic antithesis It is some-thing much deeper, much truer.'” (p. 450)

The “Aims and Purposes of the Catholic Worker Movement” specifically credited Péguy: “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to Heaven alone. Otherwise, as Péguy said, God will say to us, ‘Where are the others?'”

Saints and poets can help us go beyond secular reason. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, recom-mends the saints as models:

“What we really need are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints.

“Just think of Benedict, who, at the end of antiquity, created the form of life thanks to which the Church went through the great migrations. Or if you think of Francis and Dominic-in a feudalistic, ossifying Church, an evangelical movement that lived the poverty of the Gospel, its simplicity, its joy, suddenly exploded and then unleashed a real mass movement. Or let’s remember the sixteenth century. The Council of Trent was important, but could be effective as a Catholic reform only because there were saints like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, and man others who were simply struck inwardly by the faith, who lived it with originality in their own way, created forms of it, which then made possible necessary, healing reforms. For this reason I would also say that in our time the reforms will definitely not come from forums and synods, though these have their legiti-macy, sometimes even their necessity. Reforms will come from convincing personalities whom we may call saints” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: An Interview with Peter Seewald, Ignatius Press, 1997).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 6, September-October 2005.