Religion as Private Feeling and Theology as Universal Knowledge
By Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
It is fashionable in the modern world to argue that religion is a private opinion that has no place in the public forum. No one who is pro-life should “impose” his views on others; no one who believes that the meaning of marriage is the union of one man and one woman should act “judgmental” and deny to others their different version of marriage, namely, same-sex marriage. This strange way of thinking Pope Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism,” the worldview that most influences moral and political thinking in the twenty-first century. There is no absolute right or wrong, no true or false, no good or evil in the realm of morals. There are as many ideas of God or morality as there are political opinions, ranging from conservative to liberal to libertarian to socialist. There is no such thing as maleness or femaleness, no such thing as a true Church, and no universal human nature–only constant change, evolution, and shifting opinions as the new and the progressive replace the old and the traditional.
However, religion is not a private matter, but a universal view of right and wrong that is absolutely true for all people, in all times, in all places. The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the commandment to love God and neighbor do not change from age to age or from culture to culture. The seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, avarice, lust, and sloth are always grave evils. Abortion, contraception, and sterilization are always wrong—“intrinsically evil” as the Church teaches. Man and woman have a God-given, fixed nature that orders them to fatherhood and motherhood and calls them to the vocation of marriage. No one can invent a new morality or redesign human nature as the modern world attempts to do.
As C. S. Lewis illustrates in the Appendix (Illustrations of the Tao) to The Abolition of Man, all the world’s religions and cultures reveal a consensus on the meaning of moral and immoral. For example, under the category of “Duties to Children and Posterity” Lewis records the following statements from the sacred writings, philosophers, and moral codes of ancient civilization: “Children, the old, the poor . . . should be considered as lords of the atmosphere” (Hindu. Janet.8); “The Master said, ‘Respect the young’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects. Ix.22); “Nature produces a special love of offspring” and “To live according to Nature is the supreme good” (Roman. Cicero, De Officiis. I iv and De Legibus, I, xxi). As Lewis explains, what far Eastern cultures call the Tao, Western civilization knows as the natural law. Religion, then, as a source of moral truth is not subjective or relative, but common in all civilizations as a source of authority.
Once religion is made private or marginalized as if it were some insignificant opinion or odd custom, then the absence of God in human society and culture leads to not only relativism, but also atheism. Instead of worshipping the living God who appeared in the Burning Bush and said His name was “I am Who am”, man makes himself a god. Instead of recognizing Christ as wisdom, truth, and reason, the Word (Logos) made Flesh who said “my words will never pass away,” man worships himself and makes himself the almighty ruler that determines who lives and who dies and which relative “truth” rules the day.
No one can believe in nothing. If he does not worship the one true God who reveals Himself in history, in the natural law, and through the sacraments of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, he will worship false gods of the Old Testament (the golden calf or Baal) or the false gods of the modern world: power, status, money, pleasure, and fame. There is no such thing as neutrality or privacy in religion. A person’s or society’s idea of God changes the whole world around him. Ideas have consequences. Where people love and obey God, Christian culture prospers, and orphanages, hospitals, schools, universities, the arts, and science create a civilization of love and peace. On the other hand, if men ignore the reality of God or think of religion as superstition or myth, then, as Dostoyevsky remarked, “If God does not exist, all things are possible.” That is, every imaginable form of evil or violence becomes legal, customary, normal, and commonplace— tyranny, genocide, the Holocaust, war, abortion, divorce, and cloning.
From the late 1960s to 2014, America and Europe have acted as if God does not exist or does not matter. Replacing God with the worship of money, man in his greed causes unjust, inhuman economic systems that force persons to become slaves to debt. Worshipping pleasure, man makes an idol of the body and destroys the purpose of marriage and the meaning of love, aborting millions of babies. Making a god of power, man instigates unjust wars and ignores the cost of human lives and destroys families. All economic, moral, and political problems of the world follow when “the dictatorship of relativism” becomes the ruling god and true religion becomes a private matter.
As Blessed Cardinal Newman explained in The Idea of a University, to eliminate theology as a branch of universal knowledge creates a vacuum which some other body of knowledge will occupy: “If you drop any science out of the circle of knowledge, you cannot keep its place vacant for it; that science is forgotten; the other sciences close up, or, in other words, they exceed their proper bounds, and intrude where they have no right.” To privatize religion, then, and reduce it to a matter of personal taste and individual opinion leaves an emptiness in the circle of knowledge that some other authority inevitably preempts—a United Nations, a Supreme Court, a political party, a president’s executive orders. But as Newman argues, “Religious doctrine is knowledge, in as full a sense as Newton’s doctrine is knowledge”—as universal as the laws of mathematics and science and as worthy of authority as the constitutions of governments and the might of ruling powers.
Absent the universal knowledge of religion and morality in public affairs, the other fields of learning presume to have the final word and act as sources of absolute authority “exceeding their proper bounds.” Without the light of religion’s universal knowledge, a secular world cannot tell the difference between sacred and profane, true and false, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, and legal and just. Without the universality of religion’s teaching, man never distinguishes between what he can do or legalize by sheer power and what he ought to do by way of conscience or love, between real freedom based on truth and “reproductive rights” determined by court decisions and party politics.
Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. earned degrees in English from Bowdoin College (B.A.), The University of Kansas (M.A.), and The University of Iowa (Ph.D.). He has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire (Thomas More College, The College of Saint Mary Magdalen, Mount Royal Academy, and New England Classical Academy. He is a contributing editor of New Oxford Review, writes for Saint Austin Review and Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and reviews books for The Wanderer. He has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Fisher More College and Fisher More Academy
Reprinted with permission from Human Life International’s "Truth and Charity Forum.” (http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/religion-as-private-feeling-and-theology-as-universal-knowledge/).