Hadley Arkes, Matthew O’Brien and Theology: Beyond Polite Conversation Theology has been a curious non-interlocutor

in the recent debate between Hadley Arkes and Matthew O‟Brien on the primary epistemic source of moral knowledge. (See Micah Watson‟s A Tale of Two Philosophers; Matthew O‟Brien‟s Constitutional Illusions, a review of Hadley Arkes‟ book Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths, which began the exchange; Hadley Arkes‟ The Particular Appeal of Universal Principles, his reply to O‟Brien; Matthew O‟Brien‟s The Ambitions of Natural Law Ethics: A Reply to Arkes; Hadley Arkes‟ Kant the Bogeyman; Hadley Arkes and Matthew O‟Brien‟s The Grounds of Our Judgments, the wrap up of their exchange). But I think the issue they and the public square with whom they are wrangling are dealing with what is ultimately a theological issue, one with clear and arguable logical, ethical, philosophical, legal and political ramifications and components, to be sure, but one that is, when all is said and done, inseparable from supra-rational argumentation and content. I think this inseparability of faith and reason, in both theory and practice, is the main point of Benedict XVI‟s encyclical teachings. We can debate the political and philosophical ramifications of the affirmation that we are made in the image of God, that God loves us, and that he commands us to “be perfect as His father in heaven is perfect”; however, in the end, we either affirm these or we do not based upon whether we have or have not encountered the living Christ, caritas in veritate, or have encountered those who have. So, if human acts are a matter of experience, choice and grace, not just logic, evidence and demonstration, whether Aristotelianeudaimonistic or Kantian-deontological, then any debate about the metaphysical, epistemic, and rhetorical aspects of ethics must invite theology as an interlocutor. And this neglect of theology is the reason, I think, that the debate between Arkes and O‟Brien, between reason and tradition, rationality and experience, discursion and intuition, nature and supernature, seems irresolvable. I think O‟Brien is right that arguments about and declarations of principled moral prescriptions and proscriptions, even rigorous and true ones, cannot ensure a public commitment to and embodiment of Christian or even humanistic values in our postEnlightenment, neo-pagan, pluralistic political culture. But I also think that Arkes is right that though moral principles have experiential, cultural, and historical genealogy in the subjective apparatus of human recognition, ultimately we can transcend these contingencies to see and act on principles in an absolute, universal, and eternal way. In other words, although reason is tradition-dependent (pace Kant), it is also tradition-transcendent (cum Kant). Somehow we must hold these together. But here‟s why I ultimately come down on O‟Brien‟s side, the side of Tradition as epistemically primary. In the absence of a shared intellectual tradition to ground, not just the abstract meaning of universal, absolute, and eternal rights and values, but the appropriate ethos for the effective, authentic, and integral political and legal embodiment of these values, Arkesian discourse-of1

But what Maritain failed to reckon with adequately was the fact that in many cultures and notably in that of modernity plain persons are misled into giving moral expression to those capacities through assent to false philosophical theories. with citizens divided in traditional allegiance. has failed and must continue to fail. is the bases for political consensus: What Maritain wished to affirm was a modern version of Aquinas‟ thesis that every human being has within him or herself a natural knowledge of divine law and hence of what every human being owes to every other human being. Arkes' model is analogous to Maritain‟s. According to MacIntyre. culturally dependent rational animals” who cannot effectively separate our beliefs from our values and the actions derived from them. then. For we are “tradition-constituted. In practice. So it has been since the eighteenth century with assent to a conception of rights alien to and absent from Aquinas‟ thought. a strictly principled. The plain pre-philosophical person is always a person of sufficient moral capacities. philosophical. and value and pursue moral goods without conscious deference to a particular philosophical theory or religious belief.” in reality. especially not on the foundational moral values of the political order. MacInytre is critiquing Maritain‟s “democratic charter. obligation-laden. possesses implicit and unconscious philosophical commitments that influence and condition the character and interpretation of that evaluation and pursuit. the former inevitably takes the shape of the particular lived tradition of which it is a part. but only particular rationalities informed by particular religious. it is a house built on sand with a sinking foundation of entirely disparate understandings of that lexicon 2 . logic-derived articulation of moral goods and rights cannot serve as the political foundation of a tradition-pluralistic regime. Since rationality itself is a practice. These commitments determine to some extent the character of behavior that is the conclusion of the practical reasoning that begins with the evaluation and pursuit of a particular good. one should not expect rational agreement on practical matters of a moral nature. a neo-Enlightenment moral project. there is no rationality as such. they.moral-principle is ultimately sterile. anthropological. nevertheless. I think Alasdair MacIntyre has successfully demonstrated that this. Here MacIntyre sums up what he considers the essential problem with a natural-law morality and argumentation that tries to transcend contingency and experience. Though the citizens in a pluralistic polity may share a common lexicon of “human rights” and “democratic values.” For MacIntyre.” where natural-law norms. and epistemological commitments that condition the manner in which that rationality is applied to practical questions. As MacIntyre argues in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? “There is no way to engage with or to evaluate rationally the theses advanced in contemporary form by some particular tradition except in terms of which are framed with an eye to the specific character and history of that tradition on the one hand and the specific character and history of the particular individual or individuals on the other. Therefore. not religious or philosophical particularity. and so it does not sufficiently account for the fact that while men may argue and think about moral truth.

ethical. Yet it is just such abstraction in respect of both of the theses to be debated and the persons to be engaged in the debate which is enforced in the public forms of enquiry and debate in modern liberal culture. including a common reservoir of theological. yet we conservatives also tend to limit the participation in and scope of these practices and discourses to the in-house crowd. thus for the most part effectively precluding the voices of tradition outside liberalism from being heard. and Liberal traditions. the demographic and sociological exigencies of the modern. we pursue a program of translation—of dogma. and so we must accept the limitations of our “concrete historical ideal. But can such be done? Is this kind of acquired schizophrenia necessary to be a good pluralist citizen? I think O‟Brien is right to doubt this. Rousseauian. even if it seems impossible. and especially the natural law. and circumstance. philosophical. to individuals conceived as abstracted from their particularities of character.” as Maritain would say: the fact of religious pluralism requires us to attempt. shared moral evaluation and understanding is extremely limited. that constitute a shared tradition. as it were. but rather…the idea that there is a set of values which are of general appeal across a range of traditions. Humean. Thomist. ritual. in the absence of a shared tradition of practical rationality. as O‟Brien rightly points out. stable and strong political order. et. We 3 . we have so much moral disagreement in our public discourse. This is why. including the Nietzschean. al. and you will thereby make the kind of rational dialogue which could move through argumentative evaluation to the rational acceptance of rejection of a tradition of enquiry effectively impossible.” MacIntyre again: Abstract from the particular theses to be debated and evaluated from their contexts within traditions of enquiry and then attempt to debate and evaluate them in terms of their rational justifiability to any rational person. For MacIntyre. legal. robust. especially the architectonic practice of politics. But let us suppose it is true that citizens belonging to the same narrative tradition would form a more unified. Unlike liberal theorists. history. if that is what he is doing. the separation of the public. We can‟t have forced conversions to our narrative of choice. political sphere from the particularity of our traditions. and anthropological concepts. if not impossible altogether. For those outside our tradition. and Arkes mistaken to put his hope in it. so that exceptionless and self-evident rights and laws deriving ultimately from the law of non-contradiction and man‟s obvious end-inhimself dignity. and common virtues and goods attained in and through the various practices. Kantian. charitable acts. Deweyean. Tracey Rowland describes MacIntyre‟s position: “Macintyre‟s analysis raises the question of whether there can be any such things as „universal values.and radically disparate traditions of practical rationality: Thomist. and for the secular public sphere in general. we conservative theists endorse wholeheartedly the infusion of integrally religious practices and discourse into the naked public square. Nietzchean.‟ understood not in a natural law sense. would serve as the most effective public discourse. Nevertheless. pluralistic nation state preclude such narrative unity.

masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. The first is that there is such a thing as the “secular. which are themselves mediated by history and culture. products of tradition themselves. This seems to be O‟Brien‟s main point. For it is always through a particular tradition that we ascend to universal truth. an ideologically neutral. For MacIntyre. where any affirmation of true or good are unmasked as wither mere idiosyncrasy or the will to dominate. or the will to power. it is only through active participation in particular authentic traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving their ultimate good. We are. thereby secularizing. if there is no objective. “tradition-dependent rational animals. and souls are. The second idea that must be reconsidered is the easy separability of theoria and praxis. universal “public reason” to strangers.urge ourselves to speak only the language of principled. Outside of tradition coherent knowledge and discovery of the good is practically impossible. Regarding the existence of a secular reason or public space neutral to any particular tradition. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility. universal. in MacIntyre‟s improvement on Aristotle‟s classic definition. largely. one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded. public reason.” As Paul 4 . minds. universal. because our bodies. then all we are left with are the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion. MacIntyre writes: Either reason is thus impersonal. to render it intelligible to non-Catholics and practically effective for secular society. However. As body and soul composites. that membership in a particular type of moral community. moralizing. and I think O‟Brien invites us to this examination.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition. is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry. What else can we do? However. even if it is an incoherent and considerably defective one like the tradition of liberalism. our encounters with reality are mediated by bodies. abstracted from the practical and speculative particularities of tradition. this strategy presupposes two fundamental ideas that need to be reexamined. the confidence that one can effectively strain out from the concrete practices and particularist discourse of one‟s tradition a secular. if not. and politicizing what is distinctly theological and spiritual in our tradition. both in doctrine and in practice. tradition-specific. the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested.” that is. Indeed. public world accessible to and based upon a universal public reason. universally accessible and intelligible remainder intelligible to all regardless of traditional allegiance. and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests. without tradition we are unable to make any sense of reality at all. Arkes would insist and is right to insist. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality. the law of non-contradiction is not. as Arkes suggests.

which. and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect. Jews. traditionalists who have no qualms about communicating to themselves and others exclusively in their religious parlance of tolerance and diversity. and liturgical traditions wherever they go in imitation of Socrates. and euthanasia. and act distinctively as Catholics Protestants. but the orthodoxy which has been learnt from Kierkegaard and Barth becomes too easily a closed circle.” if this means a sphere of reason or action that escapes the particularism and exclusivity of tradition.” Regarding the capacity to translate particular religious truth into non-religious public reason. the most perceptive theologians wish to translate what they have to say to an atheistic world. one‟s specificity. and Muslims—bringing their intellectual. I think. Is there a solution to this dilemma? Is there a resolution between Arkes and O‟Brien? If there is. since traditions of rationality are distinguished by the particular way they grapple with matters of ultimate concern. The state cannot finally avoid affirming. David Schindler writes: “A nonconfessional state is not logically possible. they see themselves as the “true believers. in which all human content is concealed. Tristram Englehardt insightfully points out:” The new culture does not regard itself as a culture of death. the indispensable condition for its realization. our selfunderstanding. in the matter of religion. Indeed.” 5 . in the one real order of history. but perhaps not all its radical implications. obsessed only with death and control.” with us as the heretics. moral. even ones that purport to be secular. as H. Second.” the only ones truly defending “life. same-sex marriage. there is really no such thing as “liberalism.Griffiths puts it: “To be confessional is simply to be open about one‟s historical and religious locatedness. I shall point out two. both Arkes and O‟Brien recognize. whom Catherine Pickstock calls a “walking liturgy. Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. is the recognition of the illusory nature of secularist pluralism. marking a profound break in our history. But they are doomed to one of two failures.” then our “ecumenical jihad” stands no chance at converting the liberal traditionalists of the culture of death. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves. First. Each culture is to the other a counter-culture. all traditions are ultimately religious. racism. speak. a priority of either “freedom from” or “freedom for”—both of these priorities implying a theology. and our appreciation of life and death. I think. and inviting all into their liturgical practices of abortion. MacIntyre articulates what can be called the traditionalist dilemma: The theologian begins from orthodoxy.” If believing theists of diverse traditions do not think. but as a culture of life and liberation. Turning aside from this arid ingroup theology. This has great political implications. in which believer speaks only to believer.

of an alternative? The tradition they inhabit deprives them of the existential conditions required to see moral truths.” D. . even enforce them in law. all principles of reason. but absent a personal. and the market will not know their own true nature. as O‟Brien would insist. are first and foremost expressions of the divine logos.How can these deluded devotees have any hope of ever renouncing their enslaving tradition unless they are made aware of its enslaving character? And how can they become aware unless they have some palpable experience. and state. but in a life oriented toward God that creates particular practices that require the privileging of certain social institutions above others. the church is the social formation that orders all others. let alone religious ones. in the very particular place and time where His Flesh becomes available to touch and experience. theology alone can give due order to other social formations—family. principled. experiential encounter with Him through Faith. universal expressions. principles are just principles—fleshless. 6 . the family. the state. For a Christian account of this good. The goodness of God is discovered not in abstract speculation. whether moral or logical. The goodness of God can be discovered only when the church is the social institution rendering intelligible our lives. bloodless. and we should search for and declare these principles. Yet. Moral judgments are certainly principled judgments. If the church is not the church. who can be encountered in and through his manifold. Stephen Long puts the whole point powerfully: Beginning with the flesh of Jesus and its presence in the church. and dead. . . market. as Englehardt points out: “In the grip of Enlightenment dispositions regarding religion. few are inclined to recognize that the moral life once disengaged from a culture of worship loses its grasp on the moral premises that rightly direct our lives and foreclose the culture of death.

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