Nothing Sacred

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 [1840]).

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 [2001]).

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.

6 thoughts on “Nothing Sacred

  1. Pingback: Nothing Sacred | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. One of the theses that I would hazard in reference to Christianity is that Christianity articulates a moral system based on fewer prohibitions than any other religion – radically fewer. This reduction of the number of prohibitions is one of the features of the creed that makes it more difficult to live than creeds with a surfeit of prohibitions, the function of which, after all, is to tell people what to do. Another way of framing the thesis is to say that Christianity has a higher freedom-quotient than any previous or other religion – and freedom is frightening. Sometime between 1050 and 1950, Christian civilization, somewhere, in one of its plural manifestations, achieved a maximum of moral responsibility and thus also a maximum of freedom, but the achievement could not be sustained. (We might discuss the specifics of when and where.)

    Yet another way of formulating the argument is to say that Christianity is a radically de-sacralizing religion, which is likely why it gave rise to science. Liberalism would be a frightened reaction to that moment of maximum responsibility and thus also of maximum freedom. This notion explains, inter alia, the obnoxious ubiquity of the cell phone: It functions as a device whereby its users seek news of and sometimes, perhaps frequently, discover instructions for what they are supposed to do, or like, or dislike. Or what is sacred at the moment.

    You are quite right, J.-M.: Political correctness is a retreat into primitive religiosity, with its stifling surfeit of totems and taboos. I remark that with every advance of political correctness, science becomes less scientific and more frightened.

    [Added later] Some years ago at Lawrence Auster’s website, Kristor, Alan Roebuck, and I, and perhaps some others who are connected currently with The Orthosphere, pursued in a long colloquy the idea that liberalism can be understood as a sacrificial cult. That idea is consonant with the idea that liberalism multiplies sacralities. (An side to a non-human interlocutor – Yes, Spellcheck, “sacralities” is a word.) Sacrality is an unstable phenomenon: A sacred thing is more prone to being sacrificed than a non-sacred thing, precisely because it has more status than a non-sacred thing; thus its immolation is more spectacular than the immolation of something banal or trivial. Homosexuality was until recently one of liberalism’s most sacred totems, but when a Muslim massacred forty homosexuals in a nightclub, liberalism threw gaydom under the bus to side with Islam, which, also being a sacrificial cult, liberalism resembles. Reducing the number of sacralities reduces the likelihood in a society of violence; multiplying the number of sacralities increases the likelihood in a society of violence.

    • You may be right. We can be certain that Christianity began as a movement to abolish empty external forms of piety and enforce internal transformation (i.e. repentance and rebirth). I do think there was, early on, a recognition that this exceeded the capacity of a great many ordinary people, and so external forms were instituted. The Reformation was another fit of housecleaning that aimed to discard what the reformers viewed as empty external forms of piety. The roots of American liberalism are found in yet another round of the very same sort of housecleaning in the mid eighteenth century. All that rhetoric about “reason and virtue” was simply a way to call for “internal transformation” leading to purity of heart and mind. This reaches a peak in the unitarians and transcendentalist (e.g. Channing), but thereafter degenerates into external forms that are little more than shibboleths of the cult. P.C. is simply pharisaical liberalism.

      Sacrifice properly understood (in my view) is a visible renunciation of idolatry. That which is sacrificed must be good–so good that there is a danger that it will become an idol–and to prevent this it is given up to a greater good. This is my reading of the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham was in danger of idolizing (i.e. sacralizing or sanctifying) his biological progeny, but overcame this temptation to blasphemy by summoning the will to sacrifice that line to the Word of God. Sacrifices of edibles can be explained in this way.

      Liberals have shown a willingness to sacrifice sacralized groups before. Notice what has happened to the working class! They are now deplorables. Perhaps this comes of the same instinct to renunciate idolatry, since the liberal recognizes that there is a danger of idolizing some particular instantiation of oppression, and thereby loosing sight of the ideal essence of oppression. Thus yesterdays victim group gets thrown under the bus.

      • If we were both right (and we seem to me to argue convergently), then we might well reach this conclusion: Liberalism, taking fright in respect of freedom, seeks to scapegoat freedom by endowing it with that omni-applicable pejorative label, oppression. The Left thus left-handedly confesses that it finds freedom oppressive and wants to deconstruct (i.e., immolate) freedom as fully as possible. Being terrified of freedom, liberalism is also terrified of Christianity, which it likewise declares to be nothing more but also nothing less than oppression, and which it hates with the same fervency that it directs at freedom.

        Another word – a hoary, sacrificial word – the Dionysiac true name – of deconstruction is: Sparagmos.

  3. Pingback: Nothing Sacred | Reaction Times

  4. Pingback: The Uses of Privacy – The Orthosphere


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