Saturday, July 07, 2012

Jay Budziszewski: What We Can't Not Know (5th most popular)

"Pure Gold." 
87 + / 7 -
I have read hundreds of books on religion, morality, and philosophy, but Budziszewski has taught me much that I did not know, or at least realize. C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man is wise warning to an age in which we tinker with the formula for man: but Budziszewski  goes beyond Lewis.

In Jesus and the Religions of Man, I asked, "Where did Marx go wrong?" I pointed out that Marxists created a three-fold hierarchy of moral values for "the classes, the masses, and the enlightened." They criticized capitalists for oppressing the poor, nagged ordinary people to work hard, don't spit, and take thought for comrades, and justified their own actions by a loose "end-justifies the means" code. The existence of these three systems side by side seemed not only hypocritical, but ironic, since Marx himself said communism "abolishes" all morality. But I did not have an explanation for the phenomena, beyond noting that moral law seems hard to abolish.

Budziszewski does not say much about Marxism, but he does explain this, and similar, behavior. He argues that "deep conscience" exists in everyone, and that ultimate values -- neatly summarized by the Ten Commandments -- are indestructable. His writing is lucid and brilliantly (and perhaps deceptively) simple. Even though this book is chock-full of interesting ideas, it is easy to read.

I found two main weaknesses, one negative, the other positive. The negative weakness is that Budziszewski's case would be not only easier to digest, but also stronger if he referred to non-Western cultures more. (Having lived many years in and studied several Asian cultures, examples that confirm his argument spring to mind.) The positive weakness is that Dr. B argues in too much the Ivan Karamazov fashion -- cherry-picking newspaper clippings of sordid acts, and holding them up to our noses as if they were "where the culture is going." His arguments about sexual promiscuity and abortion suffer less from this problem. And some of the stuff he dredges up is truly frightening.

One star reviews may perhaps be explained by the fact that Budziszewski does not do what I just did -- critique an error in another culture -- but attacks the "culture of death" in the West. The reaction often shows more emotion than careful thought. Consider:

(1) "B gathers up all his personal prejudices and political opinions and declares them 'natural law.'" Not really. In fact, "B" focuses on the Ten Commandments, which was in existence well before any modern political party, and has close parallels in (for example) the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. (Including bans against killing babies in the womb.)

(2) "B's conversion to Catholicism demands that he opposes birth control and abortion." In fact he opposed abortion long before becoming a Catholic. Indeed, he joined the Catholic church the same year this book was published.

(3) The book "might be impressive for those who mistake religious superstition for reason." If the critic means Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Kepler, and Lewis would love it, I think so, too.

(4) Two critics accuse Dr. B of "preaching to the choir." "Why write a book for people who are already convinced they are in the moral right because the Bible sys so?" As he makes clear, the Bible says NO ONE is in the moral right, including the choir. We can all benefit from Dr. B's work of making the logic of sin and rationalization clearer, because these are forces that work on everyone. Besides which, members of the choir live in a world where these forces go largely unchecked, and in which we are called to be "salt and light." Anyone, including skeptics, may benefit by thinking more clearly about right and wrong.

(5) Another complaint is about a "substantial section about ID" which the reviewer found "distant from a philosopher's roots" and "extreme." I have my doubts about ID. But I only found one long paragraph on the subject, the relevance of which was clear. Besides, I have recently read books by philosophers who made evolution a centerpiece of their skeptical philopophies -- what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

(6) One person is mightily distressed that Dr. B defines an agnostic as someone who "claims ignorance about God." He calls these "loaded words" that indicate a "weak and desperate intellect." But "a" means "not," and "gnostic" means "knowing" -- is "ignorant" so loaded a synonym for "not knowing?" In fact Thomas Huxley, who invented the term "agnostic," used the word "ignorant" himself to explain his view. But perhaps the reviewer was ig -- I mean, did not know that.

(7) Further: "An agnostic's contention that it is impossible to know whether there is a God is the most rock solidly honest viewpoint that any person can take." Really? This claim implies that the agnostic can somehow KNOW that God cannot possibly reveal Himself to man. How can anyone possibly know that? It seems to me simple confession of personal ignorance (rather than making a universal dogma of it) is far more reasonable.

It is not surprising that some nails complain when Dr. Bud hits them resoundingly on the head! But as the Proverbs say, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." Read this thoughtful, essential book, and see if people (including ourselves) act like that. Then pass it on to a friend.

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