Worlds in Collision

One of the more interesting collisions waiting to happen is the coming head-on crash between those who believe in the American dogma of equality and those who believe in pure empiricism and skeptical rationalism. Often, these people occupy the same head, but they do not seem to realize that their two cherished worldviews are wholly incompatible.

Take the skeptic first. Such folk are fond of warning about the insidious effect of religion (what they like to deride as “mysticism”) in the public square and spend much energy chattering about the triumph of reason and the march of progress and the assured results of science, and so on. Faith in the unseen God, revealed truths, or mystical doctrines such as the Eucharist and the Virgin Birth are laughed off the stage of public discourse by these folks. Accordingly, they say, we should order our public lives on the basis of hard, cold facts and observable evidence. If we don’t, we’ll return to the Dark Ages when ignorance and prejudice ruled because mysticism clouded the minds of human beings.

The problem is this: On a purely empirical basis, there is nothing less obvious than the cherished American dogma, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For in plain fact, nothing could be less self-evident. Some people are strong, others weak. Some are bright, others stupid. Some good-looking, some ugly. Some healthy, some sickly. Indeed, nothing about the inherent equality of all human beings was obvious to a thinker like Aristotle, precisely because Aristotle was simply going by “hard, cold facts and observable evidence.” On the basis of these, he concluded that some people were “natural slaves.”

So where do we get this deep conviction that all are created equal? Not from empirical evidence but from a purely mystical doctrine found in the Judeo-Christian tradition and expressed in numerous ways: God is no respecter of persons. Man and woman—not just white men, not just white men and women, not just Jews, not just Christians, not just Americans—are made in the image and likeness of God. It’s on this basis and this basis alone that we based our belief.

True, the inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition (such as the slave owner Thomas Jefferson) have often failed to grasp its ultimate import. But this is hardly a reason to reject the tradition itself and replace it with an ideology of empiricism; after all, that ideology is even more blind to the mystical truth of human equality than the Christians who failed to be true to Christian teaching. A Christian society that kept slaves had within it the seeds of doctrine capable of destroying slavery. But a purely empirical or rationalist society opens the way to slavery, since it cannot say anything at all about the existence of odorless, colorless, non-empirically observed rights. To the rationalist and/or the empiricist, the existence of God-given rights is as nonsensical as the existence of God-given guardian angels. If the strong can dominate the weak, why shouldn’t they? It’s nature’s way, isn’t it?

The reply is the paradox that underlies all of human life: that only those things we cannot see, taste, feel, and measure are worth living for. Pro-lifers are constantly and scornfully challenged by abortion zealots with the demand “Show me a soul, and I’ll believe in one.” This sort of high school debate tactic is trotted out to show that nobody can spot a fetus being ensouled. Problem is, the empirical mind also can’t spot whether Martin Luther King Jr. had a soul. And so the empiricist who defends abortion on these grounds wins only a pyrrhic victory.

Empiricism is preserved temporarily from mystics who would temper it with other considerations, but only at the cost of denying that there is anything at all that really distinguishes King, or our child, or any of those we love from a dog or a rat. Indeed, love is mere sentiment in the empiricist’s world; it is no match at all for the ideology of power and appetite that remains once all such mystical claims as God, the soul, and love have been debunked. In such a soulless world, there is no hope higher than winning. And that is not good news for the weak—including members of minority groups.

The hope of Catholics is that anybody can believe and live the mystical gospel of Christ. The hope of the West is that anybody can think according to the social principles that the gospel reveals. A major collision of our time is not really between geographies, ethnicities, or races. It’s between the truth of revelation (available to anyone anywhere) and the folly of human beings (whether they live in North America or Outer Mongolia) who measure human worth by empirical evidence alone. “For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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