A conversation partner told me yesterday: “I’m desperately searching for certainty.” The natural reply would be to point to Descartes’ attempt to provide a rational foundation upon which modern culture could stand, but is that where this hunger–and anxiety–began?
The historian Brad Gregory doesn’t think so. In his excellent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012), Gregory takes us back to the Protestant Reformation where, he avers, the seeds of our current moral and political disagreements and dis-ease began. (Descartes, in The Discourse on Method, was responding to the religio-political dis-ease of his time.)
Seeing the corruption in the Catholic church, Protestant Reformers sought to provide a new foundation for the Christian life. Sola scriptura, or “only scripture,” was to be the standard by which how to live in accordance with the Word of God. The trouble became apparent almost immediately: different Protestant Reformers–magisterial and radical–disagreed not just with Catholics but also among themselves.
This “search for the criterion”–to quote the Roman Stoic Epicurus out of context–led some, in light of the above, to formulate a revised standard. If one were to be imbued with the Holy Spirit while reading scripture, then one’s interpretation would be correct. However, disagreements soon arose among competing reformers, all of which claimed to be imbued with the Holy Spirit yet none of which agreed on the proper interpretation of the Bible.
So that some, reading Matthew 7:16, 20, urged: “You will know them by their fruits.” Would the fruits of the practice be sufficient to show who the true Christian was? Again, disagreements abounded.
All of which opened the door, Gregory contends, to another essayed alternative: the standard of reason propounded by nineteenth century deists and others. Did reason on its own provide its apologists with the ground upon which they could answer the Life Questions and therefore rest as ease? It did not as is plain to see, for then as now there are different canons of rationality as well as different conclusions reached by those advancing reason as their sole guide. To date, academic philosophers have reached no consensus on matters of general concern.
Gregory’s history, which I have summarized very swiftly, intends to demonstrate how it was possible for what he terms “hyperpluralism” to emerge–and explode. If we can’t all agree, then wouldn’t the prudent thing to do to be to construct a new theory of government called “liberalism” or “classical liberalism”? Such is what happened–and here I’m referring to liberalism–and such too (and now to hyperpluralism in train) is what has come to pass, with individuals and groups able to live as they see fit provided that they do not harm others while doing so. Thus it is that one can meet, on any given day, a Flat Earth aficionado, a Deep State conspiracy theorist, a vaccine doubter, an astrologist, a Wicca, a secular humanist, an Eastern Orthodox religious, and so on. The level of what Alasdair MacIntyre, writing in After Virtue in 1981 called “moral incoherence,” has own grown apace in the past 40 years.
Which brings me back to my conversation partner’s conundrum. At a time when–to use ancient skeptical language–dogmatists can be found on every street corner, so do ancient skeptics for whom there seems to be no basis for firm convictions. If the convicted would stop screaming so loud and if the skeptics would cease their shoulder shrugging, then maybe we’d be able to hear more audibly the muy triste confusion within and without.
We need a new culture, a sacred one.