A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Problematic Notion of Rights #4

Unalienable Rights as One More Arbitrary Standard of Truth

The great irony of those who advocated a modernist approach to history and morality is that they believed by discarding and thus transcending the particulars of doctrine and theological reflection, an unbiased and objective understanding of history and morality was possible. What this modernist understanding gave to the world instead was just one more biased view-- a view biased toward a closed universe, which meant that Christianity must be reinterpreted and wrestled away from the "superstitions" of "orthodox" Christianity. Since doctrine was simply emotive, theology was not useful for public discussions of morality, which left ethics in the hands of the politicians. Along with this came a bias against the church, which left authority in the hands of either the autonomous individual or the state; and a bias against Scripture, which left Enlightenment philosophers with arbitrary moral convictions that found their grounding in the notion of unalienable rights.

The point is that when the particular is rejected because it is seen as a polar opposite and a hindrance to the universal, one must find a justification for one's "universal" moral perspective that is not subjective. (Modernists would have saved themselves a lot of further trouble if they would have rejected the objective/subjective distinction as well.) That justification is the notion of unalienable rights, which transcend the particulars of time and place and culture. How do we know what unalienable rights are, and what is and is not a right? All reasonable people know. These truths are self-evident.

The twist of fate in all of this is that the general ethics of modernism, which was supposed to transcend the particulars of all religious convictions, sure looked Christian in many ways. It appears that Western thinkers were unable to transcend their context. In addition, modernist accounts of morality looked very Western European and Pre-Victorian, as well as sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. It was hardly the kind of moral account anyone could embrace regardless of creed.

Moreover, such a general account of morality was so vague and watered down as to be quite unhelpful. Ben Franklin believed that the purpose of religious moral instruction was to produce kind and decent people who would be loyal to the state. The summation of such a moral narrative amounts to nothing more than, "Be nice to everybody." This is hardly the profound principle for which Jesus gave his life.

It is the truth of the matter that truth is intrinsic to the particulars of history. If love is important in the ministry of Jesus, it is only significant and authoritative in the context of a first-century Jew who was faithful to the Torah and who died and rose again. A general account of morality has failed to live up to expectations because the particulars of history, doctrine, and theology are too important to our identity to be discarded. One cannot have Christianity and discard the resurrection. One cannot have Judaism and reject Torah, one cannot have Islam and abandon the Qur'an. Particularities-- narratives-- are identity forming. If we discard them, we discard ourselves. The notions that all religions say basically the same thing is not only false, it can all too often be used in popular culture as an excuse to be intellectually lazy when it comes to understanding religion. It is also patronizing to the faithful adherents of all religions down through the centuries.

The notion of unalienable rights undercuts the indispensable significance of doctrine and the theology of the church, which are both necessary for moral reflection, personal and public; which is a false distinction in and of itself. All ethics are social ethics.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Moral development is based on developing man's reason, which is a universal and the goal of education. This is a universal and is based on facts. These truths are what make our country's universal ideals so great! It is based on natural revelation, which is open to all.

Traditiom. on the other hand, is based on context and is particular. Tradition is not universal, except it does describe how cultures understand themselves concerning "god". Tradition gives culture a "color", which is held within customs, norms etc. These should coninue to be diverse.

Our country is great because it recognizes the individual right to freedom of religion, the press, assumbly and speech! Without these rights, we have no just government which protect particulars. Freedom or liberty is the first and foremost right to protect, for without it, we have no choice and without choice we have no moral value.

Humanity is made in God's image, but this image is beyond our ability to narrowly define, except within the broad universal principles that underwrtie our country's ideals. And yes, I do believe that there is a "call" to re-interpret Christian faith. It is not about Jesus death, being a sacrifice, but in being one among many examples of a life well-lived under God. Individuals are made to develop and this develpment happens within the right environment, but the outcome will not be the same as each individual will "come out different".....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, I find it 'problematic" if rights are not upheld for the indivdiual. Justice is defined by the laws that protect one from another's action. Belief cannot be legislated, or mandated, as it is an issue of the heart.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

You say, "Belief cannot be legislated, or mandated, as it is an issue of the heart." My post never said otherwise. I am simply trying to say that rights language is just as context dependent as tradition. And if one argues within the context of modernism, as I think you are, (I don't want to misinterpret you here.), than rights language is just as arbitrary as "tradition." If one rejects the modernist perspective, at least at this point, the discussion then looks very different. In fact, more than a few philosophers actually speak of the "tradition of reason," (which implicitly affirms reason's context dependence.

You also say, "Moral development is based on developing man's reason, which is a universal and the goal of education. This is a universal and is based on facts." Just what are those "facts?" And how do they transcend the particular?

By the way, I do believe in the "universal." But I reject the universal/particular, objective/subjective, fact/value, absolute/relative distinctions. What is "universal" (and discovering that is precisely the rub) does not transcend the particular, for that is impossible. The universal is found within the narratives of history. To be sure, the universal can and does cross through the various narratives, but they do not and cannot transcend those narratives.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree with you, for this is what diplomancy is about...undertaking to negotiate between two parties who disagree as to what justice means....But, our country's First amendment rights are universally applicable, as they do protect the particulars of historical narratives that are contained within tradition. But, I do wonder when fundamentalists "impose" their views upon text, persons, etc. how that is any different from oppression, intimidation, manipulation and control, which is antithetical to any "god" I would want to serve...Desires of any kind, in their framework are to be denied and "crucified", as they are aspects of "self". This is unhealthy psychologically, and morally. People who have suffered spiritual abuse are "gun shy" as to having anything to do with such. Can you blame them? Justice in this case, is what?

BTW, I just bought a book that deals with this in understanding human nature. It is a dialogue between Norm Chomsky, as sceintist from MIT and Foucault....I think it will shed light on this subjective/objective "problem"...