Thursday, January 05, 2006

More on Jeffrey Hart (but no synthesizing!)

Doug Kern agrees with Jeffrey Hart that conservatives would be well-served to apply Burkean thought to contemporary times...but that's about it:
The great shame of Hart’s essay is not simply that it fails, but that it fails at a task that urgently needs to be done right. Conservatism aches for the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk as it confronts the novel challenges of biotechnology, immigration reform, and nation building, to name just a few. Now more than ever, the conservative masters of old must speak clearly. Hart is right in this respect: we do need “Burke interpreted for a new constitutional republic and for modern life.” But it will not suffice to sprinkle Burke over a hodge-podge of snobby, disjointed attitudes and call it conservatism. Conservatism deserves better.
Kern in particular takes issue with Hart's version of "proper" religion (if you will):

Hart’s dismissal of unappealing religious faith is, well, unappealing.

“Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion -- repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms. […] The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.”

Let me make a confession. I had intended for this essay to be humorous, light-hearted, and sarcastic in a smart-alecky way. But every time I re-read the above paragraph, I became too angry to maintain any cocky fa├žade. My objections are manifold:

  • Theological disputes are notoriously divisive, inflammatory, and hurtful. In the above paragraph, Hart engages in such disputation for no good reason. No one on the Right wants internecine religious warfare. Why does Hart provoke it?
  • Conservatism does not have so many friends that it can afford to alienate millions of Americans who adhere to “emotive” faiths.
  • Pentecostal and Evangelical faiths have thrived in this country since before its inception. No traditional American conservatism can dismiss them so glibly.
  • Intellect, when applied to religion, cannot construct anything unto itself. Many professors of religion possess towering intellects, but lack belief. Many theologians of great subtlety are not especially kind, charitable, or pious. Indeed, it could be argued that intellect is even more unreliable than emotion in matters of the spirit.
  • Faith, not intellect, is the key to spiritual renewal. Many religions “not based on a structure of thought” possess faith in great abundance. Does Hart care?
  • Do any of these religions “not based on a structure of thought” have names? Or is it easier to demean them in the abstract?
  • The fate of the mainline churches should give any thoughtful commentator pause before extolling the praises of “intellectually and institutionally developed” religions over emotive religions.

I omitted one sentence from the above quotation because it deserves special scrutiny:

“What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy.”

I have no idea what these words mean. They sound terribly erudite. They encompass an impressive capitalized noun. Individually, they make sense. Together, they are nonsense. How can the Resurrection be a “fulcrum” for a structure of metaphysics? What is meant by “established as history?” What will Jews and atheists use for a fulcrum? What on earth is Hart talking about?

Plato's Child may have the answer:

Jeffrey Hart's WSJ screed on conservatism features this curious paragraph:

What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy. The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.

Contrast with Paragraph 83 of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio curious no?

83. The two requirements already stipulated imply a third: the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth. This requirement is implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself. Here I do not mean to speak of metaphysics in the sense of a specific school or a particular historical current of thought. I want only to state that reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical, and to vindicate the human being's capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical. In this sense, metaphysics should not be seen as an alternative to anthropology, since it is metaphysics which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of their spiritual nature. In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry.

For more on the debate, first read Jeffrey Hart's "The Burke Habit" and then read the following posts in the below order (which isn't the order in which they were originally posted):

Synthesizing a Running Debate: Hart's New Conservative Consensus

Synthesizing a Running Debate II: Hart's New Conservative Consensus

Synthesizing a Running Debate: The Rebuttal

Synthesizing a Running Debate: White House Reaction (Plus a few more)

UPDATE: Finally, the New Criterion blog Armavirumque has much more on the Hart/Neuhaus portion of this debate.

Additionally, Joseph Knippenberg has more thoughts.

3 comments:

Plato's Stepchild said...

Jeffrey Hart's metaphysics paragraph not only appears to be a graduate student level quick-shot summary of something that an English student would glean from a technical philosophical monograph, but it also manages to ignore the stunning resurgence of metaphysical realism in Catholicism.

Pope John Paul II was an extraordinarily talented philosopher who has held court with other European philosophers and theologians of extraordinary talent.

Hart writes as if an atomic bomb levelled the Vatican in 1901 and radiation poisoning killed every Thomist metaphysical realist on the rest of the planet.

Memo to Jeffrey Hart: As a philosophy exam answer, your terms are muddled and your analogical metaphors ham handed and misplaced.

A D+ for your efforts, sir.

josh narins said...

"No one on the right wants internecine religious warfare?"

I've met Evangelicals who feel differently about Mormons than you seem to suggest they do.

Perhaps their priorities were different, and the religious aspect of things was far more important than the political ramifications thereof.

Note: I am no barometer of cultural religious trends, not even close.

Marc said...

Josh,
Pls note that the comment you quoted was made by Doug Kern, not me. (Posting from others can lead to this kind of confusion).