Religion and the Age

George Weigel gives Christian answers to the West’s most pressing questions.

by Bruce S. Thornton

City Journal

A review of Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, by George Weigel (Crossroad, 2008, 352 pp.)

Few commentators these days recognize that the war against radical Islam is the latest battle in a 14-century-long spiritual conflict between two very different schools of belief about man’s relationship to God. Catholic theologian and nationally syndicated columnist George Weigel is a happy exception, and this alone makes him an invaluable source for anyone wanting to understand what this war is about. Unlike those who try to comprehend jihadist violence solely in materialist terms, Weigel focuses on the spiritual dimensions of the conflict: on the one side, an Islamic revival fired with certainty about the rectitude of its beliefs and their sanction by Allah; on the other, a West that, having driven God from the public square, is riddled with self-doubt and uncertainty about its own beliefs and political ideals, which the jihadists despise.

In his previous books, such as The Cube and the Cathedral and Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, Weigel has examined the spiritual crisis of the West. Against the Grain collects 12 essays from the last two decades that approach this problem from the standpoint of Catholic theology and social doctrine. The essays, Weigel writes, are “attempts to show how Catholic understandings of the human person and human society, human origins and human destiny — all of which derive from the basic Christian confession of faith — can shed light on controverted and urgent questions of public life.” Contrary to the dominant secularist myth that the “American project” banished Christianity from the discussion of political questions, Weigel shows in these elegantly written, meticulously argued pieces that the American political order is incomprehensible—and its problems unsolvable—without that Christian framework.

The first eight essays explore the limitations of democracy when understood in “functionalist or proceduralist terms.” Such a view, Weigel writes, sees freedom as a “matter of willfulness or choice” and relegates “questions of personal and public goods” to private life — a reductive and impoverished perspective contrary to that of the American Founders. In contrast, Weigel recognizes that democracy depends on addressing “questions of public moral culture and civil society” and on tending to “the institutions of civil society and their capacity to form genuine democrats.” Catholic social doctrine provides a robust tradition for addressing these questions, but our current fundamentalist secularism seeks to banish religion from what John Courtney Murray called “the public argument.” Weigel reminds us that we face two urgent challenges, one domestic, the other foreign: a “pragmatic utilitarianism” that banishes such questions to the private sphere, thus leaving them hostage to bureaucratic technicians and the vagaries of political interests; and “political Islamism,” which answers the same questions in ways inimical to the fundamental goal of the American political order.

Weigel examines the implications that restoring Christian — and more specifically Catholic — philosophical and theological perspectives to our political discourse would have in a host of areas, including foreign policy, globalization, the problems of the Third World, the role of faith in politics, abortion, bioethics, the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad, and many others. Weigel’s analysis of political freedom is particularly valuable, for the starting point of all other political disputes is our understanding of liberty.

Weigel’s essay “Two Ideas of Freedom” begins by critically examining Isaiah Berlin’s influential notion of “positive” and “negative” freedom: the former is the freedom “to,” which allows us to pursue some perceived greater good; the latter is freedom “from,” particularly from governmental intrusion into private life and interference in the individual’s pursuit of happiness. But Berlin fails to address “the crucial question,” Weigel writes, which is “the truth about man — the truth about the human person — on which any defense of human freedom with real traction must ultimately rest.” Thus Berlin’s notion of freedom reduces it “to a matter of one human faculty — the will — alone.”

Pointing out that Berlin’s analysis is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy and ignores earlier thinkers, Weigel revisits pre-Enlightenment thinking in his discussion of William of Ockham and Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, freedom “is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny,” Weigel writes. Freedom helps us to “choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit.” Only then can we pursue happiness suitable for a rational, moral creature and “build free and virtuous societies in which the rights of all are acknowledged, respected, and protected in law.”

In contrast to Aquinas, Berlin’s intellectual ancestor Ockham reduces freedom to “a neutral faculty of choice, and choice is everything — for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power,” Weigel writes. Thus freedom has nothing to do with goodness, truth, or virtue. The moral life is now severed from human nature, and humans are severed from one another, “for there can be no ‘common good’ if there are only the particular goods of particular men and women who are each acting out their own particular willfulness.” Moreover, by putting reason into conflict with freedom, Ockham “created a situation in which there are only two options: determinisms of a biological, racial, or ideological sort, or the radical relativism” that eventually leads to nihilism. “In either case,” Weigel believes, “freedom self-destructs.”

Weigel traces the consequences of an Ockhamite understanding of freedom shorn from virtue and moral truth, or the “freedom of indifference” that dominates “much of Western high culture.” Advances in genetics and biotechnology entice us with the promise of human engineering for perfection and immortality, while cloning and stem-cell research destroy human embryos in the service of various ends. By ignoring Aquinas’s notion of “freedom for excellence” we are unlikely “to deploy our new genetic knowledge in ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soulless dystopia of the brave new world.” More immediately dangerous is moral relativism, which has been on display throughout the culture in response to the challenge of Islamic jihad; it is an outgrowth of the separation of freedom from moral truth. Meeting the Islamist challenge, Weigel writes, requires not the flabby tolerance or guilty self-loathing engendered by such moral relativism, but rather a patriotism that is the “expression of a nobler concept of freedom than mere willfulness.” For ultimately, “Homo Voluntatis cannot give an account of a freedom worth sacrificing, even dying, for.” Absent such patriotism, we will end up in the state of appeasement that Weigel documents in his essay “Is Europe Dying?,” a brilliant survey of a culture that can no longer reproduce itself or act against Islam’s “aggressive anti-humanism fueled by a distorted theism.”

Three Weigel essays explore how best to conduct the war against jihadism in the context of the “just war” tradition in Christian theology, which he describes as “a sustained and disciplined intellectual attempt to relate the morally legitimate use of proportionate and discriminate military force to morally worthy political ends.” Contrary to what we have heard from many Christian leaders, the just war tradition does not begin with a “presumption against war.” Instead, the tradition begins “by defining the moral responsibilities of governments, continues with the definition of morally appropriate political ends, and only then takes up the question of means.” In other words, war can be a moral instrument, one amenable to rational discussion and “subject to moral scrutiny.” And that scrutiny reveals that one should start with the ius ad bellum — the reasons for going to war — and then proceed to the ius in bello, which addresses issues of proportionality and discrimination. To reverse the order of questions — as do many pacifists — is to build a priori obstacles to just war, which can in turn have dangerous consequences for “the legitimate sovereign’s moral obligation to defend and promote right order.”

In two essays, Weigel applies this proper understanding of the just war tradition to the war in Iraq. He concludes that, on the terms of this tradition, the war is indeed just, no matter what errors in strategy and tactics have been committed. Along the way, he gives a concise and informative justification for the war, answering the cavils of those who continue to argue that it was unjust or unnecessary. The three just war requirements — “competent authority, just cause, and last resort” — were met, he argues, in the decision to invade. Weigel dismantles the notion that the United Nations, rather than the United States, was the only “competent authority” for deciding on the rectitude of the war by documenting that institution’s sorry record of corruption and incompetence. He also points out that the U.N. is not a sovereign body but a collection of sovereign states — a body that has no monopoly on legitimate force, and in fact possesses little credible force at all. Weigel’s catalog of Saddam Hussein’s crimes, lies, and duplicity in the 12 years after the Gulf War should leave no doubt that the U.S. had “just cause.” Finally, the public-relations nightmare of 12 years of sanctions that enriched Hussein as they increased the suffering of the Iraqi people; the relentless efforts of China, France, and Russia to dismantle the sanctions altogether; and the failure of U.N. weapons inspectors to determine definitively whether or not Hussein possessed WMDs, all left war as the “last resort.” Whatever one’s opinion about the conduct of the war, Weigel makes clear that it is justifiable by the criteria of the just war tradition.

Weigel’s learned, clearly written, and tightly argued essays stand as the best evidence for his claim that the Christian tradition is indispensable for any serious discussion of the challenges facing our country. In contrast to the materialist determinism or secularist scientism dominating our public discourse, Weigel himself exemplifies what he describes as the “Christian realist sensibility — an understanding of the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history; alertness to unintended consequences; a robust skepticism about schemes of human perfection (especially when politics is the instrument of salvation); [and] cherishing democracy without worshipping it.” These habits of mind will be sorely needed in the coming years.

©2008 Bruce S. Thornton

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