The Ethic that Haunts the Secular

Comprehensive doctrines that a culture nurtures provide a framework for societies to live by even if they merely approximate it and individual behavior don’t always correspond to the highest ethic of the society. That is, religious doctrines (or something similar) are not entirely lived by but are only approximated in cultures.

To understand what haunts the Western secular society in its post-Christian avatar, it is important to locate the shifts in moral reasoning that Christianity introduces within cultures where it first began to take root. It has become a common belief to imagine that the advance of moral reasoning was achieved against the regressive religious morality. Often, the progress of secularization is mistakenly seen as the victory of secular morality over traditional religion— an attitude that continues to inform the current mood against religion in the West.

Although it cannot be fully developed here, the nature of cultural shifts in the conception of virtue accomplished by Christianity is pivotal, precisely because we would then locate what haunts the secular about Christianity. Christianity does not own all the virtues of secularity, nor do all virtues originate within the New Testament. However, clearly what the world had identified as virtues underwent a dramatic shift with the influence of Christianity.

The cardinal Greco-Roman virtues: temperance, prudence, courage, and justice began to shift to include the unlikely ones such as mercy and charity that became socially visible, in addition to (the more spiritually visible) faith, hope, and joy. As E A Judge observes of the ancient time, “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders” [“The Quest for Mercy in Late Antiquity,” 107].

Humility, a rather unlikely candidate within the Greco-Roman virtues came to be highly valued within the Christian culture. Humility was, after all, the very nature of Christ, (Phil 2:1–11) who the faithful were called to imitate. Despite it being repeatedly abased by some great thinkers like Nietzsche or Freud [and some not so great thinkers like Ayn Rand? :-)], humility continues to be seen as a virtue today. In short, these “new virtues” of Christianity would permanently transform cultures and societies by altering not merely what was seen as virtues but the very conception of humanity itself, in that it redefined what it means to be human.

Impracticality of Christian Ethics and its Consequence

Societies influenced by Christian ethics, as in the case of other societies, do not always live according to its highest virtues. However, throughout the history of the Church, Christian influence of cultures was not by way of determining everyone’s choices in favor of a higher ethic. Rather, its influence was in the manner it plagued Christians to practice an impossible ethic. That, in short, is the lure of Christianity! As David Bentley Hart observes, “It is the sheer ‘impracticality’ of Christianity . . . its extraordinary claims, its peculiar understandings of love and service, which down the centuries have not so much dominated Western civilization as haunted it, at times like a particularly engrossing dream, at others like an especially forlorn specter” [Atheist Delusions, 222].

Yet, it is precisely the ideals that haunt a society that shapes its culture. It is in holding certain virtues as an ideal that the culture approximates the value, however poorly. Thus, the secularization of the Western cultures does not mean a sudden absence of Christian virtues from the society but in the gradual shifts toward deliberate numbing of that which haunts them. Hart expresses such nostalgia when he writes, “the question with which I find myself left at the far side of my narrative is what must become of our culture once that benignant or terrible spirit has finally departed” [Atheist Delusions, 222]. Loss of Christian morality is not so much about a sudden disappearance of certain virtues from a culture as much as it is about the disappearance of the lure of an ideal, which had always remained humanly impractical.

That the ethical standards of Christianity are so high that they are humanly impractical entails a certain course at least along two tracks: a theological track and a cultural track that move in quite the opposite directions. Theologically, it leads to a form of pietism that relocates the moral and epistemic capabilities from the human to the divine. Ethical life in this classical theological frame would be understood as a form of divine-enablement and not as a human accomplishment.

Theological understanding thus tends to focus on God/Christ/Spirit as the ethical enabler of humans; the central idea being that humans are inherently incapable of meeting God’s moral demands. Particularly important is the Johannine understanding of Jesus as the Spirit-baptizer who enables a believer to live a spirit-filled life rather than a life led by the flesh. Similarly, pivotal are the Pauline explications of Torah/flesh antithesis of 2 Corinthians 3, Gal. 3–6 and its development in Romans 7–8 and flesh/spirit antithesis in Gal. 3–5 and Rom 7–8.

Culturally, particularly as instanced within the “secular culture”, it tends to have quite the opposite effect in that the culture tends to deal with an impractical ethical requirement by redefining it to more attainable levels by lowering the moral bar to the realm of human possibilities. Søren Kierkegaard accuses the Danish culture of his time to have precisely done that. Using his typical irony, Kierkegaard argues that the people turn against the ideal and ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.” [Judge For Yourself, 156–7].

This can be seen as the flip side of Protestant Reformation, which as Taylor argues was “a drive to make over the whole society to higher standards” [A Secular Age, 63] but in reality, it did quite the opposite. James K A Smith succinctly summarizes Taylor,

What had been intended as a division of labor between religious and lay vocations had taken on this hierarchical ordering and become a ‘two-tiered religion” (p.63), a ‘multi-speed system’ (p.66) with monks and clergy on a fast track, looking disdainfully at the domestic slowpokes mired in ‘the things of this world’ (even though their labor and profit sustained the monasteries and abbeys). Conversely, because spiritual pressure was sequestered to the religious vocation, the ‘weight of virtue’ was relaxed for the wider populace. Carnival was effectively generalized, and some felt that the laity was being let off the eternal hook [How (Not) to be Secular, 35–36].

Thus reformation, which was intended to amplify the belief that “God is sanctifying us everywhere” [A Secular Age, 79] in declaring the priesthood of all believers, also entails the opposite: “If people aren’t meeting the bar, you can either focus on helping people reach higher or you can lower the bar. This is why Reform unleashes both Puritanism and the ‘60s” [How (Not) to be Secular, 37].

The recasting of traditional morality in the West may thus be understood not merely as resulting from the evacuation of God, but also that its “denial” (of transcendence) itself is a psychological defense mechanism— a refusal to accept the truth within the cultural psyche, because of being haunted by Christian ethics. Prodigalization therefore almost turns proverbial in that it recasts the moral vision of a culture. The culture shifts from defining moral freedom predominantly as the power to choose against one’s natural inclination to defining it as a right to choose according to one’s inclinations. As Taylor argues, “It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseparable from stifling convention. Morality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires.” [Ethics of Authenticity, 65].

In short, the picture of secular as the prodigal [see my previous post Secular– The Prodigal Child of Christianity] is one where the secular inherits its share of (Christian) values and embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from Christian orthodoxy, shifting cultural variables within the society in the process. While this alienation instances a loss of transcendence, to a large extent, the virtues borrowed from Christianity remain (at least for the present), although purely within the realm of immanence and are often the very stick that the secular uses to beat traditional orthodoxy with.

It is interesting to note that people all over the world tend to hold “Christian civilizations” to a higher standard. This may be instanced in the debates about immigration of refugees that predominantly remain a battle within the West. Conspicuously absent from engagement on this matter are practically every non-Western nation, including majority of the Arab countries which are among the richest in the world, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and we may add India to this list as well, given how we are dodging any humanitarian responsibility toward the Rohingya refugee crisis.

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Is Secularism Compatible with Hinduism?

Where severely contested beliefs are held within pluralistic societies, they ought to be governed by principles that provide a framework for those pluralities to be practised unhindered, if not help flourish. Secularism has functioned as a vehicle to enable societies that are plural to navigate through the stark differences in a civic manner.

However, given that secularism itself has doctrines that are presupposed, which specific parties/voices within society may or may not agree with, conflicts remain not only despite secularism but also because of it.

Therefore, one may ask, “what sorts of comprehensive doctrine within societies nurture a secular framework?” or, “is secularism compatible with doctrines that are held in a social context?” My paper specifically addresses the latter question.

SAC_ReligiousFreedomAndConversion copy

This edited volume is a collection of the papers presented at the SAIACS Academic Consultation in September 2015 on the theme, Religious Freedom and Conversion. Along with my co-editors, i hope that the book stimulates and provides direction for Christian thinking on the issue.

Deconstructing Equality

Vinoth Ramachandra

The real test of whether we or our governments understand the concept of human rights is whether we or they are willing to defend the rights of our enemies.

I believe that the near-hysterical denunciation of the white far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with numerous calls on Twitter and elsewhere for their sacking from their jobs and expulsion from universities, is evidence of a lack of understanding about human rights.

The marchers were protesting the demolition of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, one of the leaders of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Whatever Lee’s political views, no historian doubts his military genius. And if city mayors and state governors are going to expunge memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia. And, in Britain, the memorials to Churchill and a host…

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Holy Spirit and Apologetics

The narcissistic curiosity of googling one’s own name could be a phenomenon worth reflecting on. It could be a form of taking a selfie– with the exception that it is indulged within one’s own cloistered spaces, and thus, exhibits a deeper level of sophistication on the gradient of vanity– a form of deconstruction where I watch myself watching me, unlike when I google someone else!

well, in the process of all the self-indulgence, the google tossed way too many Varughese Johns– 2,67,000 to be precise, and that in 0.68 seconds.

This somewhat explains my adoption of Aruthuckal Varughese John as the nom de plume hence forth. Aruthuckal happens to be my family– house name in Kerala. My efforts to find what it means has thus far failed. It probably means pirate! 🙂

Anyway, the first use of this variant has appeared in the chapter I contributed in this book edited by my friend, Roji T George. The volume is a fantastic collection. My article is titled Third Article Theology and Apologetics.

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My paper argues that the loss of transcendence from a culture is maximally a loss of the Holy Spirit. After all, unlike the Holy Spirit, the other two members of the Trinity have a visible trail—the Father, his created order (natural theology) and the Son his historical presence (Theology of redemption). Whereas, the self-effacing Holy Spirit is “neither seen nor known” by the world (John 14:17) or by the Church that succumbs to the spirit of the age. In short, the cultural influence of naturalism has left the church Spirit-impoverished.

Thus, I explore how we may recover this loss and prioritize the Spirit? If we looked carefully, a Spirit priority seems to follow the structure of function within the economic Trinity. That is, while the Trinitarian order follows the Father sending the Son to complete the work of redemption followed by the sending of the Spirit to sanctify the Church, human encounter seems to always require an inverse Trinitarian order. It is the Spirit who testifies to the Lordship of Christ, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3), and it is in Jesus in whom the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), that we see the face of the Father (John 14:9).

Exploring the epistemic role of the Spirit, I conclude that the Spirit is the epistemic agency as well as the starting point in turning the Christian message into an intelligible account for anyone who hears it.

Given the self-effacing nature of the Spirit who points humans towards Christ, who in turn points us towards the Father, a Spirit priority inherently provides a Trinitarian mould for theological thinking and practice.

Uppsala_October (M)ending? 2 years since, still hopeful . . .

The Church of Sweden discussed a rather audacious theme, Mending the World? during October 2015 (13–15), in Uppsala, Sweden. The purpose was to explore “if, and how, and in what ways religion, church, and theology can contribute to the future of a global society in constructive ways.” My paper was titled Anti-Conversion Laws in India: Circumscribing Freedom of Conscience within Dharmic Assumptions and is published as a chapter in this edited volume (OR: Pickwick, 2017).

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My paper looks at the freedom of religion bills that have been adopted in various states of India against religious conversion. It also looks at the interpretation of the Article 25 in the context of religious freedom, which I believe, swerves away from the spirit in which it was originally envisaged. Would this be a betrayal of secularism that India is committed to? If it is, what challenges does this pose to its plural fabric?

@ the JNU Philosophy Colloquium

it was an honor to be invited to speak at the JNU Philosophy Colloquium earlier last year (April 2016) on the theme Freedom of Conscience: Navigating Between the Individual and the Community. It was hosted by the Centre for English Studies and School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies.

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I fumbled when I realized that they were recording the presentation. Yet, here I am engaging in shameless self-promotion, despite how insufferable it is! There were some great discussions that followed, although that was not recorded.

Taylor, Authenticity & Cultural Exegesis: scribbles from my talk . . .

In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor writes, “It is easy to see how standard morality itself can come to be seen as inseparable from stifling convention. Morality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires.”

This shift is from defining moral freedom predominantly as the power to choose against my natural inclination to seeing it as a right to choose according to my inclinations. Clearly, the latter is a form of freedom and one should be free to choose what one wants. But when the culture more or less entirely shifts towards defining freedom in the latter sense, then, there is a slide.

What does this do to a culture where people see moral freedom fundamentally as a “right” to do what one wants?

~ It entails a culture of narcissism where I become the center of fulfillment.

~ One could expect a slide in the level intentionality in individuals to strive towards cultivating virtues held in honor within societies, gain mastery over natural appetites, overcome compulsions for immediate gratification.

What happens when you have a culture where everyone seeks immediate gratification? Follow the law of diminishing returns- quickly we’d then have a culture where, there are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain— (btw: I google even the not so obscure literary references; and so, for those like me, this one is by Chesterton) and it can’t be said better: Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.

~The culture eliminates conventional virtues because traditional morality stifles who I am and comes in the way of my right!

Yet, no culture can exist without virtues. So authenticity replaces all other virtues. Of course, authenticity in the classical sense is great. But the redefining of moral freedom entails a redefinition of authenticity as well.

“Authenticity” now becomes the opposite of what it used to be: being true to who you are and how you feel in terms of your inclination or orientation– therefore, we embrace who we are, celebrate even, rather than change or fix us! After all, if authenticity is being true to one’s inclinations, it is one’s ethical duty to be true to oneself!

So it follows: if authenticity is the highest virtue, phoniness has to be the worst vice. So one can be an embezzler and an adulterer or whatever else one wishes . . . yet being honest about them makes him or her worthy of honor.

Btw: an interesting case is made that Trump won votes using this calculus! People could almost hear Trump retort these words to Hillary as one commentator said: “Maybe everything they say about me is true, but at least I’m authentic, at least I’m real: you, on the other hand, are a bloody, disgusting hypocrite.” But I guess people are free to advocate a particular logic and hate it when someone uses it really well.

This logic affects the church too: “by focusing on brokenness as proof of our ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity,’ we turn ‘being screwed up’ into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness.” – Brett McCracken

Given that being authentic is to be oneself– an original, one would have to express oneself uniquely. One has to create something new and shun imitations.

“Artistic creation becomes the paradigm mode in which people can come to self-definition. The artist becomes in some way the paradigm case of the human being, as agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroize the artist, to see in his or her life the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values.” – Taylor

The artistic becomes both the means and the end. But what does this do to a culture?

~ We slide again– from those times when there were a few great poets to one where everybody is one, but none of them great. My guess is, if everyone is a poet, no one is!

and if there are no great artists, will there be a culture?

ps: of course, it isn’t all that hopeless as I make it sound! 🙂