@ 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.


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, as G. K. Chesterton says: 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! 🙂

“Thou, my Fellow Traveller as I Go”

Normally, I use this blog space to rant about random thoughts that cross my mind. The random thoughts are still there, but I could not write as much as I would have loved to. Partly, it is because, over almost the last couple of years, the thoughts have turned inward– toward failings, disappointments, and inabilities.

Becoming acutely aware of the need for a mentor, I went ahead and found one. He passed on to me an old copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, which has since become a treasure. Tucked in this morning’s prayer, I found these sweet words.

It has pleased Thee to withhold from me a perfect knowledge; therefore deny me not the grace of faith by which I may lay hold of things unseen. Thou hast given me little power to mould things to my own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desires to pass within me. Thou hast willed it that through labour and pain I should walk the upward way; be Thou then my fellow traveller as I go.

So then, I reflect. The epistemic humility that we are forced to acknowledge, for “our knowledge is imperfect” and so are we (1 Cor 13:9), need not be resisted. The calm assurance of the fellow traveller will suffice.

Ashers Bakery, Gay Cakes and Freedom of Conscience

This piece is not an argument about gay marriage or the moral reasoning that undergirds the debate. This is a reflection on the grounding of the recent ruling against Ashers Bakery, especially its use of an improper comparator, which singularly tipped the judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled on the 24th October 2016 that Ashers Bakery, run by local Christians– Karen and Daniel McArthur, acted unlawfully when they refused to write, “Support Gay Marriage” on the cake that Gareth Lee, a Gay activist, ordered. The McArthurs were slapped with a fine of £500, which they are required to pay Lee unless the UK’s Supreme Court decides otherwise.

Peter Kreeft, the Christian philosopher, articulated the classical understanding of tolerance with the phrase: be egalitarian towards persons and elitist towards ideas. True tolerance is not acceptance of any/every idea. After all, not every idea is true or valid and therefore, not every idea is equal. There are clearly some stupid ideas out there!

But tolerance necessarily would have to presuppose that all persons are equal. The Christian concept of Imago Dei is robustly egalitarian. That everyone is made in the image of God accords a non-negotiable value upon each individual irrespective of his or her background, gender, status, race, etc. Accepting of an individual would mean that the rights that are basic and fundamental are extended to each person without discrimination.

The Bakers did not refuse to bake a cake for the Gay activist. And rightly, businesses established to serve the common civil society should not refuse services to people merely because they disagree with their lifestyle. The bakers claimed that they “would have supplied a cake without the message ‘support gay marriage’ and would also have refused an order from a heterosexual customer whose order included the same message as that sought by the respondent.” In short, they claimed that they were not discriminating against who was placing the order, but only with the message that conflicted with their religious belief.

Why would they refuse to write those words while not objecting to bake a cake? Cannot the words “support gay marriage” be construed as just a part of the decoration? Would it be different if it wasn’t a slogan and the words merely read, “Happy Anniversary: Adam and Steve”? When the cake finally made its way to its intended audience, would the bakers be construed as authors of those words? These questions could raise varied responses.

However, in this case, the bakers felt that they were forced to participate in a slogan which made them “responsible for the message”, which contradicted with their religious belief. The ruling, they felt, was a way of “coercing them into promoting other people’s views.”

Common as it is when called upon to pronounce judgments in such cases, the judge invoked a comparator.  The judge argued, “if a comparator is required, the correct comparator is a heterosexual person placing an order for a cake with the graphics either “Support Marriage” or Support Heterosexual Marriage.” The judgment argued that the bakers “would not have objected to a cake carrying the message ‘support marriage’ or ‘support heterosexual marriage.’” The ruling further argued,

We accept that it was the use of the word ‘gay’ in the context of the message which prevented the order from being fulfilled. The reason the order was canceled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community. Accordingly, this was direct discrimination.

In my view, it is the erroneous comparator that the judge employed that tipped the judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

Proper Comparator and Meanings

Key to answering the question whether the slogan “support marriage/heterosexual marriage” functions as a proper comparator to “support gay marriage” lies in surfacing the distinct meanings of the comparators in each case as understood by the parties involved. Merely juxtaposing two similar-looking statements does not ensure that they are the proper comparators. When drawn into participating in an idea, the slogans, “support heterosexual marriage” and “support gay marriage” don’t function quite the same way as the judge assumed.

The suggestion of the comparator in the judgment indicates that the judge failed to see that in one instance the message carries a contradictory view and in the other instance it carries a subalternate view. That is, in one instance, the message “support (heterosexual) marriage” can simultaneously (or subalternatively) be true along with the plaintiff’s belief, say, “I believe in gay marriage.” In contrast, the other message, “support gay marriage” cannot simultaneously be true along with the defendant’s religious beliefs and contradicts his belief that marriage is exclusively a heterosexual union. The bakers were asked to endorse a contradictory view and not a subalternate view. 

Tolerance, by definition, is reserved for that which one disagrees with. If one supports gay marriage, then it would be incorrect to argue that she is tolerant toward gay marriage. But tolerance should be equally directed towards those who believe differently on gay marriage. This case really surfaces the intolerance of the plaintiff and of the Equality Commission toward the defendants and their beliefs. [See Neil Midgley’s As a gay man, I’m horrified that Christian bakers are being forced to surrender their beliefs and Peter Tatchell’s It sets a dangerous and authoritarian precedent]

For instance, for someone who eats all meat, the particular message “eat beef” does not contradict his beliefs and thus does not cause the same offense as the message “eat pork” does for an orthodox Muslim. Therefore, the slogan, “eat beef” (when it is subsumed within acceptable alternatives– be it an instance of someone who eats all meat or someone who doesn’t eat all meat, as in specifically, say, an orthodox Muslim), is not a proper comparator to the slogan, “eat pork”, which is contradictory to his belief. If freedom of conscience is honored, then a Muslim or Jewish baker should legitimately be exempted from writing an endorsement that reads, “Eat pork” or “bacon is kosher”.

The undergirding assumption is that people should be free to hold their views and the state should not coerce them into leveling those views. This is precisely the kind of reasoning that would allow a similar right to a gay baker who’d want to be exempted from writing “support only heterosexual marriage” on the cake he bakes.

In short, a proper comparator is identified on the basis of how the meanings of the comparators are understood. While the law should rightly support those that are at each end of the polarity of beliefs, it is unfair for the Court of Appeal to require each party to also hold as true that which they in their good conscience cannot. That is, while the law can hold contrary and contradictory views as equal before the law; it is unfair to require someone to affirm a belief that is contradictory to his religious views.

Conversely, the ruling becomes an instance of discrimination of persons (the bakers) merely because of their ideology/beliefs. When the law of a land begins to discriminate against persons for their beliefs, we’re thrown back to a medieval societal calculus and becomes oppressive to one group or the other. That the bakers were happy to bake a cake for the gay activist clearly suggests that they were not discriminating of persons. One ought to have the right to refuse to subscribe to an idea. Unfortunately, the ruling takes a coercive turn in not leaving room to ideologically disagree with gay marriages.

In short, this ruling failed to differentiate between propagating an idea and equality of people. One must be egalitarian towards people and be elitist towards ideas. Some ideas are better than others. As to what ideas are better can be deliberated till all the cows come home!

A Prayer

When one is at a loss to write anything edifying, one draws from the greats who’ve gone before.
A Celtic blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

“Secular”– The Prodigal Child of Christianity

A helpful way to understand secularity is to see it as the prodigal child of Christianity. It helps not only by giving a location to the “secular”, but it also provides a way to make sense of the cultural conflicts that increased secularization brings. In its infancy, the secular was merely an internal categorization that was primarily used to differentiate between the mundane tasks, such as, farming, plumbing, or playing a game from the sacred tasks, such as worship, baptism, or reciting ecclesial liturgy. Irrespective of whether we now think that such a separation is warranted or not, we can understand the rationale for such a categorization within its historical context.

From being an internal ecclesial classification, the “secular” has now come to be understood as “exclusion” of religious belief, especially in the West. Alongside this morphing of the meaning of the term, the secular as a movement has now reached the stage of rebellious adolescence, where it is understood as being against religious belief.

Parallel to the story of the prodigal, the secular gathers all that “rightfully” belongs to it– the cultural and moral import of the Judeo-Christian worldview: the incontestable value and rights assigned to each individual, the conception of self as a volitional being (this is changing with the increasing influence of naturalistic determinism), and despite how strange it may sound today, conceiving frugal living and humility as virtues etc.– and walks. It embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from the family of Christian orthodoxy.

The Secular Age and the Loss of Transcendence

The fading of childhood and the dawn of adolescence is something to be celebrated. Yet, it would be bizarre to imagine that one always remains an adolescent. The child of orthodoxy, through the denial of transcendence, moves away from under its authority. To become secular is to become prodigal. The uniqueness of a secular age is its denial of transcendence unlike at any other time in human history.

The secular age is uniquely a prodigal child because of a condition, which Charles Taylor calls, “exclusive humanism.” Exclusive humanism dispenses with the very idea of transcendence and thus with it, dispenses with the idea of God, the miraculous, and a divinely instituted moral order. In short, it redefines all of life purely within the framework of immanence.

One may ask, ‘If we find opposition to orthodoxy in every cultural milieu, why should we isolate contemporary secularity as the prodigal child?’ Contemporary secularity is unique precisely because “unbelief” is naturalized within the contemporary culture as in no other. Even the pagan Greco-Roman culture retained a strong idea of transcendence. As Taylor argues,

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true (A Secular Age, 18).

Secularist Nostalgia

The process of prodigalization, first and foremost, pertains to belief itself. Viewed from Orthodoxy, the process involves a choice (of the culture as a whole), to walk away from its home of faith. This creates a condition of brokenness and an unhappy separation, leaving orthodoxy with a sense of loss, even mourning. The secular, on the other hand, celebrates its newfound freedom from the clutches of Judeo-Christian morality.

Unfortunately, the conservative Western culture has often displayed a resentful attitude of the older brother, who is filled not with concern over the loss of a brother but with scorn and hatred toward the prodigal. One is left to think that such hatred combines an explicit self-righteous attitude with an implicit “he’s having all the fun” sort of gripe. This has led to an obsession with the hatred of cultural expressions of the prodigal.

However, there is also the haunting memory in the prodigal of how life used to be within the Father’s household. There is a tacit acknowledgment of the loss of transcendence and what that implies to human significance, purpose, and meaning. We thus have a prodigal who is nostalgic about the past.

The audible secularist voices that express such nostalgia– “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”, as Julian Barnes puts it, unintentionally announce the advent of the “post-secular”. Voices such as that of Alain De Botton’s, in acknowledging the loss a culture, take upon themselves the task of filling the void left by the absence of transcendence.

Driven by nostalgia, the secular philosopher is tempted to claim the position of the chief priest, called to his spiritual service as the culture suddenly senses that with the dismantling of God, it has also obliterated the framework for moral reasoning. Botton’s Religion for Atheists is an effort to redeem the virtuous aspects of religion– the sense of community, respect for the other, kindness and love, etc., but entirely from within the logic of immanence without the “baggage” of those strange religious doctrines about the supernatural and the transcendent God.

The Moulding Power of Liturgies

There are pivotal issues beyond direct acknowledgment of the absence of transcendence. To understand this, James K A Smith summons us to look beyond religion. He asks us to look at anthropology and acknowledge how we are inescapably “liturgical animals.” Looking at “secular liturgies” not only helps us recognize that we shall never get rid of liturgies and a heart of devotion but also helps us understand how we take the shape of the object of our worship!

The reasoning is this: If humans are structured in such a way that we are essentially lovers and worshippers, the dismantling of the transcendent God merely replaces God with something else; only that what we replace it with is from within immanence. It is a way of making idols. But to have idols, we need myths. A Secular Age creates its idols and weaves its myths, and those myths, in turn, make us more secular, for they are mutually interdependent.

The wisdom of the Psalmist recognized the essential connection between the worshipper and the object of his worship thousands of years ago. The words of the Psalmist in Ps 115, “those who make them (idols) are like them; so are all who trust in them” (v.8), essentially mean that one’s object of worship has the power to shape the worshipper in its image.

If “at core”, as Thom Wolf argues, “every worldview is a worshipview. Also, every worldview or worshipview creates . . . a worldvenue: core ways of conceiving the world result in regularized ways of conduct in the world” (Wolf, “Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures”, 40), then nothing has the power to shape our lives and societies as gods do, as the object of human worship. Likewise, Moltmann argues that our imaginations of earthly kingdoms / governments are not too far off the mark from our imaginations of the kingdom of God (See The Trinity and the Kingdom). In short, we are inescapably lovers and worshippers and the object that evokes our greatest admiration has the power to shape us. But that is both wonderful and tragic at once!


While secularity may have dispensed with belief in a transcendent God, it hasn’t dispensed with the liturgical human nature. This calls us to examine not whether we have an object of worship or not, we all do. Rather, it calls us to examine the shape and character of the object of our worship and whether it deserves our devotion. The replacement of the transcendent God with something far too inferior might just be the greatest tragedy of the secular age.

The Curious Case of Plurality within Secularity

I was pleased to read this well-argued piece: Women’s-Only Swimming Hours: Accommodation is Not Discrimination, co-authored by an orthodox Jew and a Muslim. It is a critique of the secular liberal vision that tends to “level” the public spaces rather indiscriminately. For the risk of offending someone, the public spaces in the West seem to be increasingly becoming unlivable unless one is willing to sacrifice one’s beliefs and what one holds as sacred.

An obvious blind spot that rationalizes the undermining of religious belief is an underlying erroneous presupposition that religious beliefs and practices are detrimental and certainly not necessary for human flourishing. Hence, if at all allowed, it ought to be relegated to one’s private life. As James Smith elaborates,

The standard picture, we might say, sees religion as a sort of addendum to being human: all humans eat, sleep, breathe, have sex, wear clothes, are citizens of some nation, and engage in play. Then, in addition to that, some (perhaps even many) homo sapiens are ‘religious’: they are ‘believers’ who participate in religious rituals and practices, identify with religious communities, and hold religious beliefs. These beliefs and practices are generally taken to be tied to certain established traditions and institutions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). Those who study ‘believers’ are often those without this extra-human supplement: they are ‘just’ human, that is, ‘secular.’ ‘Believers,’ to them, are kind of exotic; they have conspicuous growths, like two heads. From the perspective of the secular scientist, who lacks such growths (who has been healed of such lesions, as it were), this religious addendum is a curious supplement to being human—a kind of deformation. (See, James K A Smith, Secular Liturgies and the Prospects for a ‘Post-Secular’ Sociology of Religion).

The secularist therefore zealously commits himself to the task of exorcising religious belief from the public spaces and discourses. Paying homage to modernistic beliefs and firmly committed to enlightenment doctrine’s use of “pure reason”, this exorcist commissions himself as the apostle to (to use Taylor’s imagery) disenchant the world.

Central to this problem is how “secular” is defined as “exclusion” of religious belief. As Smith argues, what the secularists fail to recognize are the faith-like epistemic framework and the secular liturgies that operate within their anti-religion calculus. Worldviews that are presupposed are nothing short of beliefs, which are religious in its form. And with increased secularization, Christian beliefs, for historical reasons, have come straight in the line of fire of the liberal exorcists.

However, belief is not bigotry and accommodation is not discrimination.

What causes disgust to a community need not be shared. Yet there needs to be a way in which a society understands that there is something innately right about not expecting a Muslim to sell pork at his meat shop or stipulating women’s only swimming hours at public pools! Civility ought to recognize that discrimination could go both ways and seek to allow people to hold views that they feel persuaded to hold. A secularity that shuts differing beliefs, religious or otherwise, is marked by a medieval calculus of coercion rather than a calculus of engagement.

Thankfully, the West with its newly imposed condition of religious plurality is forced to reevaluate the idea of the “secular”– the survival of which, could depend on how it works through some tough readjustments. In this sense, the new wave of immigration may just about help open its eyes in more ways than one.