I usually refrain from using this space except when I have quite a bit to say about a subject. But I have been ruminating some on the idea of a transcendent order, and so I'd like to do some public ruminating as well. So this will ramble some and I make no pretense towards a cogent thesis.
It started, as so many conversation these days do, with a Facebook comment exchange. The first instance caught me off guard. The post was about an elderly gentleman who gently approaches women approaching an abortion clinic. He does not moralize, condemn, or criticize. He simply talks to them about their situation and the decision they have to face. He believes that life is precious, and by all accounts he is genuinely concerned that these (usually young) women are about to make a decision that could haunt them forever. I was caught off guard that anyone would find this man problematic.
Most people are unwilling to concede this as a result of their worldview. As a student of philosophy, I have been a witness to the convoluted ethical systems designed to preserve the essential elements of basic morality without needing to invole transcendence. My contention is that even this fellow, though playing brave, is at his core unwilling to part with certain central ethical tenets. He does not need to be convinced that it is immoral to take an infant from his mother and use the baby as kindling for a fire.
C. S. Lewis uses this premise - that men generally resort to some standard - in his delightful and dense work The Abolition of Man. He calls the overarching tradition of morality the "Tao" - shorthand he adapts from his study of Eastern religions. The idea is that individual moral principles develop out of the transcendent moral standard. The individual tenets of morality are the branches of the tree, and they are dependent on the tree itself for their existence.
This notion is implicated in the writings of the modern "declinists" (Mark Steyn and others) who remind us that a civilization can only live on its accumulated cultural capital for so long. Eventually, that capital is spent and we are left with nothign but a list of protected groups and a menu of empty platitudes from which to choose. Similarly, I think, the branches can only survive so long without the tree.
I find it cute and mildly amusing - but at the same time, despairing - when atheistic (right or left) writers posit their code of basic morality as a substitute for traditional morality. Look here, they seem to be saying, we can develop a perfectly serviceable system of ethical behavior without needing to invoke some invisible deity who never shows himself. But the exercise is self-defeating. Why are these serviceable ethics? Because they preserve the species? Why is the species worth preserving? Even in vapid leftist productions like the movie 2012, the suggestion is that the species needs to demonstrate it is worth saving. (Battlestar Galactica makes a slightly more convincing showing on this point. For one, they explicitly address it when facing murky ethical dilemmas; they also include the theme of God or gods or a transcendent universe or something.) But the assumption is that showing that we are virtuous in some inviolable way is the criterion by which we decide whether the species is worthy of survival. But why? On the assumption of Darwinian evolution, the virtuous species should be concerned only with its own preservation, regardless of how many or whatever members of that species need to die. Or even avoiding biological theories of origins, what makes humanity worth saving, if Don Cheadle can't convince Dick Cheney to let the masses on to the Ark?
There is no answer. To implicate a more current example, why should we think severe income disparity is a problem? To what greater principle can we appeal that the concentration of resources should be evenly divided? Is that somehow a transcendent principle on its own? The absurdity of that response is clear on its face.
Eventually we come back to humanity's only problem: replacing God with something that isn't God. Every proposition is dependent on some other proposition except one: I Am that I Am. If we attempt to replace the only non-dependent fact/force/entity with something that is dependent, we don't even have a house of cards - we have a pile of cards, and we can pick some and use them, but we know all along we're just pretenders. If God is the lawgiver, we substitute some other law. If God is our hope of salvation, we devise our own strategies. If God imports ultimate meaning to all existence, we will build a culture build on distracting ourselves from this unavoidalbe truth.
This post was prompted by this unsupported and unsupportable list of commandments by the prominent libertarian Penn Jillette. They all seem like generally reasonable propositions. But why do they seem reasonable? What is it that we rational animals instinctively compare it to that makes us think they are sensible? And if we can't anwer that, then surely we cannot answer why they matter at all. We might as well negate all of them and call that our list of commandments.
God is the rightful holder of first place in all things, prime mover, ultimate meaning, sovereign, redeemer, creator. The world's problems, as commentators are wont to discuss, are all attributable to the human heart. And every defect of the human heart stems from this one central root of sin: that we make not-God to be God.