Fundamentals

Richard Rorty is the author of contingency, irony and solidarity, a concerted philosophical challenge to faith. But on thoughtful consideration, it seems the best Rorty can do is show us where we would be had we not the faith. Thus he forces us to ask: Since we do have it, what is its true foundation? Read this way, he performs a very great service.

Rorty denies there is any permanent, pre-linguistic essence that defines human nature. Opposing his view, one might adduce the Augustinian gnawing in the bowels, the unrest which will not be quiet until we find rest in God. (Confessions 1:1)

Even though that unrest may be universal, it can be muffled, and it is profitable to distract people from it; to convince them it can be palliated by something we have to sell. People eagerly accept distractions, which feel to them like relief. But the gnawing does not really go away. It is a self-renewing longing, which a distracted sufferer must treat again and again, like addiction. Only a truly spiritual address can put an end to the cycle. The Church ought to be the institution which stands outside the consumeristic culture, and therefore have the ground from which to make that address. Does it? Or is it merely another party with something to sell?

The question is not merely social and political. It is a philosophical one as well, with its roots in the thought of Immanuel Kant. For he it is who best articulates, if he does not single-handedly carry out, the anti-Copernican revolution by which man again becomes the center of the universe, as he had not been since the middle-ages. For if man is the center, and God has not the initiative, then the gnawing in the bowels is just gas, and Kant is perfectly correct: God is an Idea of man’s Reason. (Kant thought of this as an exalted status for God.) If Kant is right, God is not outside us, but within us, as so many preachers love to say. If so, God has nothing to offer which is not already ours, for he is contingent upon his own creature.

Stated so baldly, the absurdity of the thing is clear. We need to hide the absurdity from ourselves; we sustain an illusion of a god beyond ourselves by a psychological trick. The trick is replayed every Sunday in churches across the land, conservative and liberal, simple and sophisticated. It works by promoting that other great Idea of Reason, the Moral Imperative, which supports the first like a second drunk, holding up his companion, both of them in want of a light post. It matters little whether the morals are communal and political (the left-liberal hobbyhorse), or personal and familial (the conservative one). Both crowds take the customs of their class as descriptions of God’s Will. —And if there is a God’s Will, there must be a God, mustn’t there? Such is our contemporary version of the ontological proof: if we can think it, it must be so.

Such is the logic to which we fall when we omit the initiative of God, capable of revealing himself, and freely offering himself. As a corrective for that omission, we ought to be less disdainful of the fundamentalism of the right wing, however debased. For it is the faint echo of a doctrine of revelation. Whatever its flaws, it reminds us that without some such doctrine the edifice of belief falls to the ground. This is probably the explanation for the durability of fundamentalism in spite of its absurdity. If a Christian refuses to resort to trickery, then he has almost no other choice.

Almost. There is a better way. That is to accept the self-offering of God in every breath we take, in the Eucharist, and in the faithfulness of God toward his people—as one fine preacher puts it, God’s longing to embrace us as his people. That is what is truly fundamental: more so than our faith, our decision, our commitment toward God. The latter things are notoriously weak, and we ought to be bold about saying so, rather than hide the fact. For that weakness, that stark contrast between the two faiths, God’s and ours, is the true—and truly biblical—measure of our need and God’s mercy. And where there is such mercy there is surely God.

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