It seems that society is moving from one crisis to another lately — a breakdown of morality in business, an enormous financial crisis, social and familial breakdown, the scandal of abuse in the Church and an ever-growing government taking a bigger role in our lives.
Our time and its troubles are not unique. Every age has its crises. No perfect time has ever existed, and each generation is called to be stewards of their time. While the challenges I mentioned are serious, they are not the key problems of our time. They are manifestations of more significant civilizational crises that must be addressed if we’re going to see the current challenges clearly. Pope Benedict XVI has been addressing these deeper crises throughout his pontificate.
First is the crisis of reason. As the Pope discussed in his now famous Regensburg Address, we have limited our concept of reason to the empirical. Under this limited notion, anything that cannot be demonstrated empirically — by mathematical or scientific experiment — is not considered rational or reasonable. This means that all discussion of truth, goodness, beauty, right or wrong is relegated to the realm of emotion or opinion. Yet this position is untenable because it’s impossible to demonstrate empirically that reason should be limited to the empirical. As Benedict has argued, we must expand our concept of reason to include logical and moral reasoning. To limit it is irrational.
The second crisis is the rejection of truth — or what Benedict appropriately called a “dictatorship of relativism.” We’re all familiar with the person who argues that truth does not exist. Saint Thomas Aquinas dealt with this objection centuries ago. If a person says there’s no such thing as truth, we must ask a simple question: “Is that true?” To argue that truth doesn’t exist is a self-refuting proposition. Some may protest that that is the only truth, but that of course makes two truths!
The same applies to the person who says “The truth may exist, be we cannot know it.” “Really? Do you know that? If you do, then you know at least one truth.” This isn’t a word game. It’s the nature of reality. Truth, Aquinas wrote, is “conforming one’s mind to reality.” To reject the existence of truth is to ultimately reject the intelligibility of reality. Yet think what the limitation of reason and rejection of truth does to morality. If truth does not exist and all value judgments — right, wrong, just, fair, etc. — are non-rational, then how can we to expect people in government or businesses to be concerned with anything more than serving their own petty interests at the expense of others?
The third crisis flows from the first two: a crisis of freedom. Many people view freedom as merely the ability to exercise one’s will in whatever manner he likes. But as Benedict wrote: “An irrational will is not free.” If I start banging my head on the edge of a table or poking myself with a fork, no one would think, “Wow, that guy is so free!” No, they would think I had lost my mind, because freedom unhinged from truth and reason is not free. Think of all of the broken marriages, lying, stealing, abuse, harm and sadness that have come from this deceitful (and irrational) concept of freedom. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we have created a tyranny of tolerance and the result is generations of damaged lives.
The fourth is a crisis of beauty. Beauty has been reduced to merely being “in the eye of the beholder.” We have taken a partial truth — that the unique nature of persons means that each individual is going to perceive a certain work of art, a landscape or piece of music differently, and thereby be able to contribute a new perspective to his fellow man — and turned it into the idea that beauty is merely a matter of opinion. We’ve turned the sublime into the banal.
This may not sound very important, but it has a host of serious consequences. One is that the grotesque, the ugly, the disgusting and the shocking are now placed on the same plane as the lovely, pretty, beautiful and sublime.
Plato believed that if we lost the ability to say what was beautiful in art and music, education itself would be compromised. Do we think that when St. Paul exhorted us in his letter to the Philippians to think about whatever is true, beautiful, noble, gracious, lovely and excellent, he was merely telling us to reflect on our own banal subjective feelings? No, he was calling us out of ourselves and into a life of excellence rooted upon the foundation of Christ.
What can we do? The ironic reality is that we as individuals cannot do much about the financial crisis, immorality on Wall Street and in Hollywood, or the growth of government. But we can do a lot about the civilizational crises. We can do a lot within ourselves, our families and communities to think clearly, to think like Christians, and to recreate a Christian culture. We can teach our children, and we can “renew our minds” in Christ. One person at a time, this will change the culture, business, politics, economics and the Church.
Michael Miller is the Director of Programs at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.