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May 7, 2005

Another Both-And: Truth and Utility

Apart from qualities of intellect and literacy, what makes Andrew Sullivan so interesting to address is the fact that he's an excellent debater and, as such, is willing to take risks with his rhetoric. As when he approaches statism to declare the Constitution a "workable civil version" of religion, he's willing to give glimpses of cards that a more cautious man with his objectives might keep obscured.

The downside is the frustrated reaction that he can inspire in those who sense that his emphasis is on debate rather than intellect — that the principles under consideration aren't really open for discussion. Consequently, the statements that make up his arguments periodically give the impression of boxing steps rather than exposition. Once frustration has subsided, however, one can look to the areas around which Sullivan has danced to discover the heart of the matter. (Whether his contradictions and avoidance are deliberate or instinctive is a question of how much credit the reader wishes to give him, and it is one on which I vacillate.)

For example, in a recent response to Jonah Goldberg, Sullivan defines fundamentalism in relation to politics and dogma:

Just as Oakeshott very carefully allows a place within Western political thought for the politics of faith, so do I within what might be called conservatism. My worry is when that faith becomes fundamentalist, i.e. less interested in political arrangements than divine imperatives.

Yet, in the subsequent paragraph, he decries neocon cynicism as follows:

I have to say I'm not too enamored of outsiders backing fundamentalism in faiths they do not share for political purposes. But, hey, that's been the neocon position on religion for a long time: we don't believe it, but it's good for the masses.

In one breath, Sullivan worries that public faith is drifting from the political realm to the religious. In the next, he complains of those who treat religious groups as factions with which they may or may not be able to join for political purposes. But if the proper role of religion in the public sphere is to make "political arrangements" (a vexingly vague term in Sullivan's usage), then why would it be inappropriate for outsiders to encourage arrangements that suit them? Or, as Goldberg puts it, "Would Andrew support outsiders backing 'reform' in these faiths?"

The curiosity is that Sullivan — who believes that "it's best to leave religion out of" political questions of morality to maximize a freedom characterized by radical individualism — handles individuals strictly according to their roles within his political framework. Neocons "don't believe [in religion], but it's good for the masses." There are neocons, and there are religious people. Folks who fall within religious segments of the broader neocon category, as I probably do, will find Sullivan's analysis particularly discordant.

Because this separation is untenable beyond a very narrow range of argumentation, Sullivan must chase it across the boundary of religion, where it renders thus: The "central tenets" of religious groups involve faith in particular facts (e.g., that Jesus was the Messiah), but drawing social and political conclusions from those facts is "Evangelical fundamentalism and the creeping infallibilism of Wojtyla-Ratzinger." Apparently, it can be a matter of religious Truth that Jesus was the Word of God, but the implications of what He actually said must remain ever open for debate — within and outside of a particular "religious tradition."

Observers of modern society, generally, and Andrew Sullivan, specifically, understand that this distinction transfers all too easily to people's personal worldviews. What they believe is one thing; what they do is another. There are religious creeds, and there are personal preferences, and the former can only be said to be true to the extent that they do not infringe on the latter.

And here we reach the heart of the matter. Sullivan professes that his "first concern with any religious argument is: is it true? Not: is it useful?" What he does not explain is how one determines whether a religious argument is true or false. Long familiarity with his work leads me to think that his determination of Truth ultimately flows from his intuition and desires. Although I would join him in arguing that the faithful must incorporate these factors into their searches, I would suggest to Andrew Sullivan — as I would to the secular neocons whom he describes — that a religion's utility toward good ends is also evidence of its truth.

One point that Christians put forward in support of Jesus' divinity is His wisdom — that His teachings ring true, that His parables apply to our lives, that His instructions effect what He promises when followed. There is certianly space in this for ecumenism and "political arrangements"; others can act in accordance with the Truth of the Word without knowing (or admitting) that they do so.

There is also, we should all agree, room for the truth in politics. If a religion's prescriptions increase the measure of good in the world, then a rational society may very well be able to trace their functions in non-religious terms. Furthermore, a rational society founded in an ideal of pluralism can properly require advocates of one policy or another to do the work that such tracing entails. Only an irrational society would mark as invalid any policies that people of faith claim to be in accordance with God's will simply on the grounds that others disagree.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 7, 2005 4:35 PM

-- ...a religion's utility toward good ends is also evidence of its truth. --

Up to a point -- the point being the edge of the mythos-ethos divide. Virtually all religions have such a divide. Sometimes the mythos is appealing and rationally acceptable while the ethos is necrotic; sometimes the ethos is wholesome and life-affirming while the mythos is absurd; sometimes neither will fly. In practical terms, whether the religion will "catch on" depends more on the appeal of its mythos, but whether the religion can survive among men depends more on its ethos.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at May 8, 2005 5:59 AM

(Whether his contradictions and avoidance are deliberate or instinctive is a question of how much credit the reader wishes to give him, and it is one on which I vacillate.)

Probably some of both.

Posted by: Mike S. at May 11, 2005 11:53 AM