There has been a dustup in the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) over a keynote address recently delivered by the great Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne. Apparently many not-so-great Christian philosophers were triggered, traumatized and terrorized by his remarks, and the SCP president consequently felt himself constrained to issue what may or may not be an official apology. Swinburne reportedly had the cheek to publically agree with the two thousand year Christian tradition that homosexual behavior is very hard to reconcile with scripture, the magisterium, and natural law. This was too much for New Light Christian Philosophers, who apparently have some clout in the SCP, the result being the aforementioned apology and dustup.
My information comes by way of William Vallicella and Edward Feser, whom you can sample here and here. You may also appreciate the article at Rightly Considered (here), a blog run by “philosophers who think being perennially orthodox is worth being presently heterodox.”
In the comments to a second post by Edward Feser (here), I noticed one by the Christian blogger Lydia McGrew, who has sometimes made her presence known here at the Orthosphere. In fact, back in 2013, she made her presence known by attempting to haul me behind the woodshed for a post in which, she said, I was insufficiently censorious of antebellum slavery (here). In her comment to Feser’s post, and also at her own site (here), McGrew defends Swinburne with characteristic robustness, intrepidity, and directness.
Bravo! Lydia McGrew (but no apology for what I wrote in 2013).
Here I’d like to pick up on one thing she says in her comment. She writes:
“There probably aren’t many people who would take quite that literally a meta-position that there are no views beyond the pale. Indeed, I myself don’t think that there are literally no views that are beyond the pale . . .”
This remark of course caught my eye because, back in 2013, I was in McGrew’s eyes “beyond the pale,” and it has stuck in my head because I am not at all sure that I agree with it. There are, to be sure, views that are manifestly ignorant or insane, such as that the moon is made of green cheese, or that Macbeth was written by a scullery maid in the kitchen of Nonsuch Palace, but I do not believe that this is what McGrew is referring to when she writes of views that are “beyond the pale.” When she writes of “views beyond the pale,” I believe she is referring to views such as mine, back in 2013, which fail to show sufficient respect for some holy object, and are therefore guilty of sacrilege.
My apologies to McGrew if I have misunderstood her, but my reading is congruent with the fact that sacrilege is clearly the outrage with which Richard Swinburne has been charged. Sacrilege is irreverent handling of a holy object, and Swinburne’s arguing that homosexuality might be a form of “disability” was, in the eyes of more than a few members of the SCP, irreverent handling of a holy object. McGrew agrees that there are, indeed, holy objects, and that they should not to be desecrated by irreverent handling, but denies that homosexuality is one of them.
I am not about to defend the nonsensical view that “nothing is sacred,” since this view simply makes sacrilege a holy object that must be protected at all costs. This nonsensical view is popular among comedians, who like to dress low mockery in the robes of noble thought. It is also popular among militant atheists, who are scornful of all reverence except the reverence they feel for scorn. What these sophistries point to is the fact that there can be no society in which “nothing is sacred” because a shared sense of the sacred is what makes a society a society, and not just a mass of men.
This is why St. Augustine wrote:
“Whatever it loves, if only it is . . . bound together by an agreement as to the objects of love, it is reasonably called a people” (City of God, chap. 24).
This is why, in the essay on Coleridge in which he conceded the value of conservative philosophy, John Stuart Mill wrote:
“In all political societies which have had a durable existence, there has been some fixed point; something which men agreed in holding sacred . . . . [It is essential] that there be in the constitution of the State something which is settled, something permanent, and not to be called in question” (London and Westminster Review ).
Every society has its holy objects and its penalties for those who handle those objects irreverently. In other words, every society has a religion, which Maurice Cowling defined as “the attribution of sanctity to existence.” And because every society has a religion, every society recognizes (and punishes) the outrage of sacrilege. This is true, Cowling goes on to say, “whether or not individuals believe themselves to have been liberated from religion” (Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, vol. 3 ).
My problem with McGrew’s comment is that “the pale” of the society in which she and I actually live is a pale that she and I are most decidedly “beyond.” We are out there in the drizzle with the other bog-trotters and Hibernian savages. What is more, this pale is, as Richard Swinburne has learned, nowadays an exceedingly elastic zone of propriety. Anyone who doesn’t stay on their toes and keep their opinions up to date is very likely to find himself “rezoned” to exile with the bog-trotters, Hibernian savages, Smith, and McGrew.
Every society will have its holy objects and its proscribed acts of sacrilege, but as John Stuart Mill observed, these matters ought to be “settled” and “permanent.” When they are not, they become instruments of persecution and phariseeism (i.e. “holiness spirals”). If someone has the power to suddenly declare potatoes holy objects, and thereafter pounce with righteous furry on any poor soul who is found peeling one, they will be a tyrant of the worst possible description. And this is, of course, the point for those who seek to sanctify existence in a novel fashion.
The basic problem at the bottom of all of this is that we are no longer a we. The SCP is not a society, and it is not part of a society. It is a small mass of fractious men that is part of a large mass of fractious men. In this mass there is nothing sacred, which is why it is a mass and not a society. In this mass there can consequently be no sacrilege and no pale.
This is where we are, and a great deal of fustian folderol could be avoided by facing the fact squarely.