Philosophy meets Faith

The Owl wishes to acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to one of his teachers, the Rev. Dr. Harvey Guthrie, erstwhile Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, who generously took him under his personal tutelage and introduced him to Richard Rorty, of whom more below.

God’s being

Operating as a philosopher, let it be noted, not a theologian, Richard Rorty denies the necessity of a god who made the world with some intent of his own, which it is our task to discover. As philosophy, this is perfectly correct Down that path lie only the pretentious creations of human minds—in other words, idols. In Rorty’s famous dictum, truth is made, no discovered. As far as we think we have the truth of God in hand, we made it up. But God’s truth is a thing of a different order, wherefore we say—or rather, we hear God say he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That is not a valid philosophical utterance; it is not philosophy at all.

Human being

But follow Rorty further and we come to matters of great importance to human being. If we grant that truth is only a property of  sentences, not a  matter of correspondence with things themselves, then what of ourselves? Or, to state the question more starkly, What of our selves? Can we, from inside our skins, speak any more confidently of our human being than of God’s?

Consistently with what he has said so far, he asserts that our personalities are results of our use of language, shaped not by metaphysical or theistic  principles, but by all sorts of contingencies. Our experiences and our resultant vocabularies form us, not vice versa. Rorty allows that certain people, poets, have the ability to expand the available vocabulary, but that is an inventive process, not one of discovery. The poet’s new terms do not correspond to what is there inside us; they are actually constitutive of human being.

With all that in view, can we talk with any cogency anout what we owe each other ethically? It turns out we can’t. And here is where we meet or fail to meet the solidarity of Rorty’s title.

As his ethical teaching, Rorty gives us what might be called the Presley doctrine: Don’ be cruel. He admits clearly there is no non-circular argument to support this move, and here is where we meet the irony of his title. In consequence he calls himself a “liberal ironist.” There may be no irreducible pre-linguistic nub to human being that philosophers can or need to describe, but humans all resist pain and humiliation. These have to suffice has as the foundation stones of ethics. And as truths, they break under the weight of heavy enough cruelty.

A thought experiment

To illustrate, Rorty gives us a brilliant chapter on George Orwell’s 1984.[1]. To his reading, 1984 is about the fact that violence can prevail after all. There being no essential humanity which ensures our mutual good, nothing stands between us and the deluge, except the determination of liberal ironists like Rorty, and a large measure of luck.

Orwell’s Winston comes to love Julia; causing harm to her would violate everything sacred to him. The torturer O’Brien has studied Winston until he knows precisely what terrifies him most: to have his head forced into a cage of voracious rats that will eat the flesh off his face. So it is done, which puts Winston under such fearsome duress that he cries out, “Do it to Julia!”

At that point, in Rorty’s terms, Winston is quite unmade. He has forfeited the integrity which in his own eyes made his life worth living, which in his own eyes made him human. Any life he has beyond that moment could only be grief and mockery to him.

If we are candid with ourselves, we know that in our century, this fiction sets forth the truth. But fiction cannot establish a clear and certain case. So take a specific example; consider Vsevolod Meyerhold, a theater director who underwent torture in Soviet prisons, and lived to write:

Lying face down on the floor, I discovered that I could wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it. One time my body was shaking so uncontrollably that the guard escorting me back from such an interrogation asked: “Have you got malaria?”[2]

When that point is reached, do we say that Winston or Meyerhold is as good as dead? Is there not still a man who calls forth our compassion? Would it not be additional evil if O’Brien were to kill Winston outright? If there is, and if it would be, then we must have in mind some essential thing about the wretched person, which is preserved even though they and we have no further vocabulary for it.

At this point, Rorty’s vocabulary is the inadequate one. Not that he doesn’t know the words; he does, but he has decided not to use them because they are theological. Winston, sinner, is a creature of God, beloved of God, especially in humiliation. His being, whether he has words for it or not, is under protection, like that Cain or Ishmael, not forgotten.

The value of Rorty’s challenge is this: it drives us back onto frankly theistic language. It will not do to say O’Brien should spare Winston because there is a rule against outright killing. Nor does it answer Rorty to say that Christ teaches compassion; so does Rorty, and so what? The real reason we theists would not kill Winston is that to do so would be to commit lèse majesté against the God who made Winston. Anything God loves enough to create, to hold in being, and to give his own life to save, we do ill to despise—ill toward God himself. Moreover, though the man’s dignity may be hidden from us, it is there—not as human potential, in the usual meaning of that phrase, but as it were presently hidden in God’s merciful will, the dignity of redeemed flesh. What this illustrates is that we cannot cogently discuss human being without resorting to eschatological consciousness, the sine qua non of authentic faith.

That is neither a philosophical nor a metaphysical principle from which one might argue toward an ethical conclusion. It is an intuition to which we are driven by our deepest instincts: the instincts that would deter us, were we the guards, from killing Winston or Meyerhold ourselves. Rorty leaves us no room outside such terms in which to negotiate. Once Winston’s humiliation is complete, we would either find ourselves allied with O’Brien—too grotesque to contemplate—, or we are brought up against this fact: at bottom ours is an eschatological faith. Only as such does it make sense to preach Christian Gospel.


[1]    Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 169–188.

[2]   quoted in “Whispers from the Abyss” by Michael Ignatieff, New York Review of Books xliii:15, October 3, 1996, p. 4.

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