Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Volume 1, No. 4


Asking the God Question

by Douglas Farrow

Early in his City of God, Augustine cites the famous definition of a people proffered by Scipio in Cicero's Republic: " 'The people' he defines as being, not every assemblage or mob, but an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgement of law [ius] and by a community of interests." Pointing out the limited usefulness of Scipio's definition, Augustine later suggests an alternative: "If we discard this definition of a people, and say rather that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love." What, from this perspective, defines us? What do we cherish or prize? What do we refuse to cherish or prize? What are the common objects of our love?

It won't do, of course, merely to say that we love hockey, and beer after hockey. Or that we love the wilderness and the prairie, or the mountains and the sea, or the comforts of urban life. It won't even do to say that we love freedom, if indeed we do still love freedom. We cannot give a proper account of the Canadian people without these and other such loves, but we must be able to say something more than that.

We might get closer if we said that we love the British common law and parliamentary tradition as the form of our freedom. But that seems to be disappearing, along with its Gallic counterpart, as both are folded into the Charter jurisprudence and politics that Trudeau designed to replace them, precisely because (like our languages) they weren't common and couldn't bind us together. Something more universal was preferred, based on rights if at the cost of tradition.

There is our record in the wars, speaking of tradition, and a small body of art and music and literature—a body some would say has declined since the wars—in which we might find some clues. Moreover, there is still a certain enthusiasm about not being American (Americans being too enthusiastic) and, in English Canada, remnants of respect for royalty or at least for the Queen, who embodies a sense of piety and stability that evokes memories of days before the Red Ensign disappeared through a conspiracy that began, if memory serves, in the Suez.

Yet when we inquire after our common loves with a view to disclosing our character as a people, we find it increasingly difficult to identify them once we get past the hockey and beer, a bit of flag waving—now with an autumn leaf quivering on the tree—and a few platitudes about democracy and rights and universal health care.

Not that it was ever easy to satisfy such an inquiry. Confederation was argued on the basis of prosperity and especially of security, a community of interest in the preservation of our British heritage against the threat of Americanization. While binding us together, it was supposed to preserve as far as possible the existing multicultural reality—the peoples who each had their own land and loves, languages and dialects.

We can debate Confederation's success or argue about its real intent. But today we are being asked to do something different, I think, than what we were asked to do at the nation's founding. We are being asked to love "the multicultural reality" abstractly; to love it as such and for its own sake.

Multiculturalism, or normative pluralism as we prefer to say in Quebec, is meant to be our defining characteristic. Put another way, and still more absurdly, we are asked to define ourselves in terms of what we do not have in common.

As evidence of that I offer the fact that tolerance, rather than justice (per Cicero) or charity (per Augustine), has become our chief virtue. Tolerance is seen as the one essential virtue in a society that owns no norm but the plurality of norms, no culture but a plurality of cultures. Tolerance is what we are told we must teach our children above all else.

Now, tolerance is a virtue and so is the ability to appreciate cultures other than one's own. But tolerance is not and never can be the glue that holds society together. Tolerance requires a tradition and a culture. It requires moral, legal and political bearings. It requires the existence of a people—it can neither produce nor maintain a people in either Cicero's or Augustine's sense.

Tolerance is what you have for that which is outside the people's communion in common objects of love, without being outside the law itself. And if there is no longer a genuine communion in things commonly loved or commonly despised? The closer we come to this sorry situation, the harder we hammer on the virtue of tolerance. But we hammer in vain.

One of the telltale features of our time is that we are divided along the old, pre-Confederation lines as along a line that cuts right through the country, separating not only the urban from the rural but even the urban from the urban. It is not everywhere definite, but it is certainly discernible.

To the one side are those who follow Cicero, seeking a common sense of ius—of right or justice—and a community of interest in a well-governed dominion that allows for human diversity within a basic moral unity. Many of these take Augustine seriously as well, recognizing that common loves are decisive and that, among these, the love of God and the love of neighbour are two loves that a happy, hopeful and well-governed people cannot do without.

To the other side are those who know no ius except the dictates of tolerance. They look for a dominion of tolerance in which Ciceronian and Augustinian judgments have little purchase, where even the dictates of conscience are overruled by the demands of tolerance. Some wish to reconfigure justice itself in terms of individual choice or identity politics, rather than by reference to right and wrong in any objective sense.

As for love or charity, they will not hear—not in public—of love for God. Love for your neighbour is a concept almost equally foreign. It has been replaced by the language of rights or entitlements.

This dividing line is not between right and left or even between social conservatives and progressives. It cuts more deeply than that. It takes us down,past the level of party or policy, to the level of core beliefs and commitments—to the level to which George Grant tried to take us in the final chapters of Lament for a Nation, the level on which it is necessary to make "judgments about goodness."

Those to the Ciceronian side ground their loves in the bedrock of natural law. They assume that there is a discernible difference between good and evil. Moreover, the goods they pursue they believe to be the gifts of a good Creator. They regard some things as pre-political or supra-political just because they are predetermined by the Creator. They hold to the supremacy of God and, just so, to the rule of law. Many of them believe that human beings are the special objects of the Creator's love; hence they believe also in the sanctity of human life.

This makes it difficult to accept attempts to confine public discourse to the unstable overburden of the supposedly amoral. To say with neo-conservative politicians "We won't try to legislate in areas of morality" is really to say "We won't try to legislate about anything that matters to this people as a people." Which makes nonsense of the Ciceronian and Augustinian traditions. A people cannot be defined merely by their concern for their pocketbooks or their private property.

Or to say with neo-liberals that "rights" (a popular substitute for morality) can be grounded in nothing more reliable than empathy and in nothing more certain than politics—that it becomes idolatrous, as Michael Ignatieff insists, the moment it tries to transcend politics—is really to say "We don't believe in anything more fundamental than politics, or than general well-wishing; indeed, in politics as anything other than general well-wishing." Which is not so much cynical as frivolous.

Those whose loves are thus grounded tend to doubt that the most serious threats to our peoplehood lie in the area of equalization payments or other such thorny issues arising from Confederation. Some of them, rather, think that they lie in the area of what it means to be human, and how far Canadians intend to remain human. Why shy from the obvious illustration? When we are told that promotion of the equality of women necessitates the condoning, if not the encouragement, of abortion—even, ironically, sex-selective abortion—we are told something that threatens our very humanity. Something of our humanity, hence also of our peoplehood, dies with every infant deliberately torn apart in the womb.

The well-informed know, or should know, that our confidence in the equal dignity of the sexes is rooted in the very same (broadly Augustinian) tradition that rejects abortion and infanticide. But anyone who thinks politics idolatrous when it refuses to allow that some things are above politics, anyone who believes that some things are simply right or wrong in themselves, is capable of observing that abortion is among those things; that the destruction of nascent human life, male or female, is a fundamental violation of the moral law, hence also of any legitimate political order.

And if our loves are not thus grounded? Well, things look very different. Those annual crowds on the Hill, peaceably protesting abortion, are not taken with the same seriousness as students marching through the streets of Montreal protesting (rather less peaceably) a very modest tuition hike.

On the other side of the line, there is still an inchoate sense of the natural law, of course, but there is no longer any consideration of a fundamental moral order as such. John Rawls has virtually forbidden it. The Ten Commandments are set aside as sectarian religion. The dominical advice "Judge not," is severed from the dominical warning "that ye be not judged." Even Kant's postulates of practical reason—God, freedom and immortality as limiting or motivating conditions for the exercise of good will—are disregarded.

Our moral discourse in general, like our legal discourse in particular, is increasingly incoherent just because no contact with bedrock is permitted. There are no norms but the plurality of norms, no absolutes but the absence of absolutes. Practical reason was never less practical, never less reasonable.

Now, it must be allowed that there are some who try as private persons to be on one side of the line I have drawn so crudely, and as public or political persons, to be on the other. Our Prime Minister, perhaps, is among them. But this is both philosophically and psychologically untenable. It is also politically futile. To stand with one foot on one side of a fault line and one foot on the other does nothing to prevent the ground under your feet from coming apart.

I put it to you that the ground is coming apart and that the crack in the foundations of Canadian society is widening. There is no political epoxy capable of sealing that crack for long. Certainly further injections of "tolerance" will only make it worse because the true effect of that is to smother our basic liberties. Freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association—these cannot breathe where virtue and morality are reduced to tolerance.

That said, I do not think that there is any deep pluralist or socalled modus vivendi solution whereby Canada can be reduced successfully to a patchwork quilt of fundamentally different societies bound together only by very minimal agreements on the economic, military and environmental levels. That was difficult enough in the days of the founders; it is virtually impossible now that new technologies have made us mutually dependent to a much greater degree.

Pluralism has always been a fact of life; and a healthy pluralism is necessary for life. But only a pluralism that knows and can articulate its own limits—limits that arise from underlying beliefs and commitments held in common—can nourish a given people or society. And that is precisely what we are having difficulty with.

We no longer have a common understanding of what constitutes human dignity, of whether and when human life may be taken, of what marriage or the family is, of who is responsible for the children and has the right to educate them, of what constitutes public decency or indecency, of what freedom of speech means, or freedom of conscience. These represent deeper differences than differences of language or race. They are differences of creed that go to the core of what it means to live and act together as a people.

A people who do not care to debate such things may be found to be of low character and dim prospects. But a people who desire to debate them and cannot, because they no longer have common axioms or premises on which to conduct their debates, is not a people at all.

What is the case with us? Are we a people? Or are we like those Romans over whom Cicero lamented because they had permitted the really precious things, the foundational things, to pass away as in a dream?

The Romans still had many good years ahead of them and so perhaps may we, if disasters economic or environmental or military or demographic—hastened or even brought on by moral failure—do not quickly overtake us. But this description fits only too well. We have forgotten the moral inheritance that is at the root of our now-fading civilization.

The only solution that remains is to re-examine the objects of our love and to ask hard questions about our character as a people, based on those loves. Yes, and to reconsider what we have of late refused to love, for a people or a commonwealth, as Oliver O'Donovan points out, is defined as much by what it refuses to love as by what it does love.

That, however, will require the courage to ask the hardest question of all—the very question that, in hopes of suppressing the problem of differing creeds, we have most tried to set aside. It is the question about God, which Augustine already showed us cannot, from a Ciceronian perspective, be set aside.

Why not? Because "where there is not true justice, there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgement of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero." But how can there be true justice, according to which each is given his due, where the Creator himself is not honoured and so not given His due? And how can we learn to order our loves aright, either individually or collectively, where the very font and principle of order is hidden from us?

Augustine understood what too many today, even within the Ciceronian camp, have failed to understand, though the Charter preamble at least alludes to it: no reckoning with God, no grounds for justice; no grounds for justice, no possibility of a people.

To all who would pitch their tent in that camp, the challenge must therefore be put: if we refuse to honour God in our common life—in other words, if we insist that the great Commandments taught by Moses and Jesus shall have no definitive role in our commonwealth—then in what moral soil will our character be rooted? What will keep us from becoming merely a mob, "an indeterminate multitude unworthy of the name of 'people' "? What will keep us from coming apart at the seams, from deteriorating into a collection of competing mobs? What, indeed, will keep us from succumbing to gods we have not known and to ideologies we once repudiated?

Let it not be objected that asking the God question anew is unrealistic in a secular society. Let us agree rather that, in the long haul, it is unrealistic to bypass the big questions of justice and charity to move too quickly to the lesser questions of economics etc. that cannot be answered properly except by reference to justice and to charity, and that the latter, in turn, can only be grasped by way of reference to God.

To ask and answer the God question—Is God, the God acknowledged by our forefathers in their various ways, still in any sense the common object of our love?—is not to betray our secularity but to realize it. For we are not secular by virtue of some new constitutional arrangement to ignore and so to dishonour God; we have always been secular. We are secular simply by virtue of belonging to the saeculum.

Charles Taylor suggests that "we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching whose outcome no one can foresee." He is careful not to side with those who think the Enlightenment, which gave birth to an "exclusive humanism," is simply a mistake, or with those who tend to identify Christian faith with civilizational order. But he does not think that we have closed the book on religion.

"The secular age," he observes—or, as I would prefer to say, the age that is now wrestling with its character as something bracketed—"is schizophrenic." If people "seem at a safe distance from religion," they are nonetheless moved by a Mother Teresa or a Blessed John Paul II. They are also faced with the challenge of "finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily... in the 'higher' forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively." Appeals to transcendence, to the divine, still promise some help.

Taylor's patient dialectic gives both sides pause for thought and, indeed, reveals that it is oversimple to speak of only two sides. I mention it for that very reason and not only to support the claim that the God question continues to present itself in our time. Nevertheless, I worry that Taylor's own Rawlsian aversion to bedrock (in political theory) prevents him from squarely facing certain realities that are pressing a schizophrenic people to the breaking point.

The God question, which John Paul II raised very pointedly for us during his apostolic visits to Canada, demands an answer. And that answer, whether we realize it or not, is being given in various ways, including our abortion policies, our euthanasia policies, our marriage policies, our education policies, even our economic policies. Are we really content with our answer?

No doubt many will insist that they see no alternative to what we are currently doing, or to the answer we are giving, short of a complete rejection of multiculturalism or, worse, some theocratic conflation of religion and politics: perhaps even a bonfire of the vanities complete with religious vigilantism, if not with actual religious policing.

But is it not sobering to observe that we have already begun to see such fanatical policing—of violations of the doctrine of tolerance? Attacks on the liberty of dissenting individuals and institutions are now commonplace. Should we not at least ask ourselves whether we may have made some quite basic mistake? Whether we have embarked on some misguided Savonarolan reform of our own?

I say again: the God question must be answered. We have been giving a negative answer. Why should we not rather give a positive one? Did we never do so? On the contrary, Europeans, both French and English, and natives from many tribes did just that. Were they wrong to do so?

Kateri Tekakwitha is to be canonized this October. When this event takes place, we would do well to weigh again John Paul II's words to us at Huronia, in commemoration of our patron saints: "Truly Canadians are a people of many races and languages," he said, "and thus it gives me great joy to pray with you at this holy place, the Martyrs' Shrine, which stands as a symbol of the unity of faith in a diversity of cultures."

By putting the Martyrs' Shrine in that light—unity in diversity, achieved by faithful and sacrificial love—he did not have in mind the creation of a theocracy of some kind. Far from it. That would not be to fulfill or perfect Canadian politics, which in the saeculum must not aim at such a fulfillment, but would only be to falsify the martyrs' own religion. "There can be no question of adulterating the word of God or of emptying the Cross of its power," he insisted, "but rather of Christ animating the very centre of all culture."

The God question has been asked—asked from the very outset where Canada is concerned—and it must be answered anew in each generation of Canadians. There is no need to fear that a positive answer would mean that only believers in God,believers indeed in the Biblical God, would in future have a place in the Canadian people. That has not been the case in the past.

There is no need to fear that it would mean the end of religious freedom or of freedom to be irreligious, for freedom (if John Paul II and our patron saints are anything to go by) has no more astute defenders than its Christian defenders. It would mean that Canadians, in order to be or remain a people, collectively acknowledge their religious heritage and the principles of civil order that flow from it.

Obviously this would require a far-reaching reform of our contemporary approach to politics and jurisprudence, as to family and civil life—a reform, I dare say, that can only begin with genuine repentance, with metanoia, or a change of mind. But such a reform can be conducted on the basis of lessons learned: learned from our best and most patient scholars, such as Grant and Taylor, from our pioneers and martyrs, and from a rich heritage that runs back not merely to the 17th century but indeed to Augustine and to Cicero.

To persist in rendering a negative answer is also possible, of course. Augustine, remember, offers a definition of a people that does not preclude a negative answer. To either side of the line I drew earlier, a people is conceivable. It is just that they cannot be the same people.



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About Douglas Farrow

Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, taught formerly in the United Kingdom at King's College London. He is the author or co-author of Ascension and Ecclesia (1999), Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society (2004), Divorcing Marriage (2004), Nation of Bastards (2007), A Matter of Conscience (2009), Ascension Theology (2011) and other books, as of many scholarly and popular articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Council for the Institute on Religion and Public Life (New York) and a contributor to First Things.