June 3, 2009
So I was in Minnesota doing my "Philosophy 101--Discovering the Powerful Philosophies Behind the Media" workshop for homeschool parents, held at a secular college. In my workshop, I identify 13 philosophers/philosophies that are most influential today. They are arranged on a chart with slogan, view of the human person, goal and result:
I identify which philosophies (or some forms thereof) are compatible with the Gospel/human dignity or not.
After the workshop, a college student (who had been working in the soundbooth) approached me to talk. This young man was very intelligent, an economics major, with a keen ability to think logically and philosophically. He had no faith, and seemed to only have had courses in contemporary philosophy (he had never heard of "essences," for example). We ended up talking for about an hour, but we could/should have gone on.
The first thing he told me is that I seemed to be "hostile" toward some of the philosophies. Something he wasn't used to. Here at the college, he said, the philosophies are just presented as neutral and you choose which one you like. I told him I thought I was extremely fair, actually! That others would not have thought certain forms of certain philosophies compatible with the Gospel/human dignity. I told him some of these philosophies have been historically proven to be very harmful to individuals and nations, so I'm not just guessing.
Next, he said he thought of himself as a relativist (for him, the highest good is "as long as nobody gets hurt") and didn't see how I identified the result of relativism as greed, might makes right, war, etc. (We spent a great deal of time on this.) I asked him how he actually knew what was good. How did he really know what was good or bad for someone else, or even for himself. If he was ever hurting himself, that would be hurting someone. I told him that if we have no reference points outside ourselves, it's very hard to determine that, actually. We can look around and see that people are identifying completely opposite things as "good" that WILL effect others.
He eventually asked me: "What is it that we have to look to outside of ourselves? God?" (He really groped to find the word/concept of God--it didn't feel like a conversion moment.) I said, Yes! But if you can't jump right to God, you can look around at how things are, nature is speaking to us, natural law, things are intrinsically what they are, things have objective meaning and value (not just "the meaning and values we give them"). I told him how the Greeks' minds were blown when they came in contact with Judaism's tetragrammaton: "I AM." The Greeks instantly got it: God is the one Being who's very essence is existence. We talked about how we are so limited, there's a time we didn't exist, we get sick and die. We NEED to look outside ourselves for the source of our existence. I told him if God stopped thinking of us or loving us for even a nanosecond, we would cease to exist because He not only created everything, but actively keeps us all in existence.
I admitted that, yes, we MAY choose something good (and provided we stick with it), relativism, for us, may not lead to greed, war, etc., but we are only going on good will (or chance) in our choosing of that good thing. [I also told him that I would mention that from now on in my workshops--that not ALL relativism leads to greed, war!] I told him that good will is a big deal (the Christmas angels said the Good News was for people of good will!), but at the same time it's a starting point and an almost flimsy place to STAY. I told him one of the major tenets of relativism is that YOU COULD (AND MAYBE SHOULD) CHANGE YOUR MIND TOMORROW, so you can't even tell me that you WILL stick with that good choice. (He readily agreed.)
We talked about how Kant just presumed that everybody had good will and wants to be good (that's the only way his system will even sort of work). I talked about the fact that most people DO have good will and want to be good and are trying to be good, but asked: What about all the evil that people do in the world? Where does that come from? I told him how I argued with a philosophy professor who was enamored of Kant. I just kept saying to her: But why be good? Isn't the fact that I CAN choose away from the good prove that I'm human, isn't that my glory? She finally sighed: "You reason like the Marquis de Sade." The point was, not that I believe what the MDS believes, but I CAN see his point, and I CAN reason like he does IF there is nothing outside of myself that I need to refer to. At this point, I'm not sure if the young man was able to admit that the depths of evil might live in him, too. [We really needed to develop this point. We all like to believe we're good people, but unless we can believe we are capable of great error and evil, we can justify anything in our lives. Because we are basically good people, right? I should have said to him: "Can you admit that there is something wrong with the world? Could it be that we all have a part in it?" When G. K. Chesterton was asked: "What's wrong with the world?" He answered: "Me."]
My dialoguing partner was also surprised that I said certain forms of existentialism were compatible with Christianity. "Most existentialists are atheists," he said. When I mentioned that Kierkegaard, the founder of existentialism, was a Christian, he said: "Oh, that's just because he couldn't be an atheist in the culture of his time." (The "cultural" argument!) I told him that Nietzsche, from a long line of Lutheran ministers, had no problem being an atheist. I told him that these thinkers were radical and had no problem breaking away from cultural expectations.
My young friend wondered if President George W. Bush was a relativist, because he created his own reasons to go to war. I mistakenly agreed with him, but actually, W was a utilitarian in this.
My friend was SCANDALIZED, as many young and not so young people are, when the Christians in the audience (during one of the media clips) seemed to be cheering for a pro-war character's position. He just couldn't understand that. I told him of my own anti-war stance, the Church's original pacifist/nonviolent action stance, the fact that the so-called just war theory has been in question ever since WWII, and of the Pope/Vatican speaking out on the immorality of both Iraq Wars. He wondered aloud why Catholics wouldn't listen to the Pope/Vatican. [Egads.] I just told him it was totally tragic. [I need to be much stronger when I present nonviolent action and how it ends violence and creates lasting social change and improved societies. My Catholic audiences seem to scratch their heads on this one. Nonviolent action, too, is historically proven to be effective: India (Ghandi), Philippines, Poland, the Berlin Wall, USA (MLK), etc. One takes on ONESELF the violence and evil--in a very Christlike manner--in order to end the cycle, rather than retaliating. It requires LARGE numbers of citizens in order to work.]
When we talked further about this urge in people (men?) to go to war, he said: "Now you sound like Scientism." Ha ha. I told him we call it "original sin," but at this point our conversation got cut off. I wanted to tell him that Scientism believes we have no free will, but that we do have free will even though we have impulses, instincts, etc. ["Sin is crouching at your door, but you can be its master." --Genesis 4:7]
Please pray for this sincere young man.