So while I was on vacation, another skirmish broke out between David French and some of French’s critics, and so I thought that it would not be out of place if I entered the discussion, kind of, with some day-late-ten-dollar-over observations.
I say kind of because I am not going to get into any of the particulars of the dispute. What I want to do is remind every Christian involved in such affrays to remember the potency and inescapability of presuppositions. Presuppositions, by their very nature, are rarely under the microscope. For most people, they are the microscope being used, and not the thing on the slide being looked at. But if we are going to make any headway in this challenging hour, Christians have to learn how to look straight at the meta, and then they must learn how to defend the meta.
What Goeth On
Secularism is an epistemic Ponzi scheme, the kind of operation that robs the older investors as a way of recruiting new investors. When you short the old-time investors, they become aware that you are bankrupt in principle but, as P.T. Barnum so memorably put it, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” For a time, it appears that there will always be fresh meat. All the new investors don’t know about that, and they have their money at the ready. The only way they could find out about the record is to study the record, and that resembles work a little too much. For just one example, how else can you explain the allure of socialism? Socialism is a series of smoking craters, all of them blue around the edges, with dead bodies stretched out to the horizon. It is also a hot prospect with a bunch of up and coming voters.
But let us get back to the other epistemic Ponzi scheme, the one we were talking about. The scheme only works because the people do not understand how cultural presuppositions operate. We don’t understand where they come from, how they function, or what sustains them.
Now the central difficulty in the secularist approach is the myth of religious neutrality. That is to say, it is the notion that second-level ideas, second-level presuppositions, can, without adequate justification, simply be assumed and presented to the public, as in ta da! It is the idea that cultural values that are dependent upon other foundational presuppositions can still be maintained even though the foundation of those values has been formally abandoned.
Cut to the Chase
Certain plants grow in certain climates. Certain plants need a particular kind of soil to thrive. In the same way, religious liberty cannot grow under Sharia law. Religious liberty cannot thrive under fundamentalist secularism. Religious liberty has defined preconditions, and it not possible to establish vineyards up on the North Slope, even though there is a lot of available land up there.
Secularism is not the friend of religious liberty, any more than the prodigal son was the friend of his father’s money. Secularism can spend all the religious liberty we had painstakingly acquired over the centuries, but it has no capacity to save it up.
Think of it this way. In Roe, our culture formally determined that the lives of 60 million Americans was a price worth paying for the sake of our sexual convenience. In Obergefell, our highest court solemnized sodomy, calling it matrimony. Under the regime of the current tranny-frenzy, we are pretending that men can pretend to be women and women can pretend to be men, and all the rest of us are supposed to stand around with solemn faces. Do you seriously think that a society so detached from biblical law, from right reason, from natural law, and from common sense is a society that could have any notion of what sane and responsible religious liberty might look like? No. They don’t understand it at all, and any aspects of it that they do understand they despise.
So if you want a culture that honors and respects religious liberty, then you are saying (whether you intend to or not) that you want that culture to be Christian in its foundational assumptions. You are urging us—whether you –to fight for a mere Christendom.
But we have many Christian leaders who are fighting for our religious liberties as though the older order were still intact. It is not intact. The older order has gone the way of that parrot in that Monty Python skit. The shared consensus that we used to have, the one that made religious liberty a coherent concept, has joined the choir invisible
The center has not held. The best lack all conviction. The worst are full of passionate intensity. And a zombie secularism is slouching toward Bethlehem. Christians need to deal with it.
A first-level presupposition would be something like the triune God lives. A second-level presupposition would be something like religious liberty is an essential cultural value. A third-level presupposition would be something like kindergartners ought not to run with scissors.
All such presuppositions stack, one upon the other. When you have stacked them all up, you have the theological aspect of a worldview. Now worldviews include more than just these theological commitments, but they certainly include the theological commitments. For example, other aspects of a worldview would include narrative history, lifestyle, and ritual or liturgy. More about that another time.
First-level presuppositions are the kind that do not admit any further inquiry. They are the rock bottom axioms. The triune God of Scripture lives. Reason is the light in which we understand anything. Love alone is compelling. All ultimate questions are in this category. Because we are finite creatures, our reasoning has to begin with foundational axioms that neither admit nor require proofs.
But second-order presuppositions are in a different category—murderers should be executed, trials should be impartial and fair, and religious liberty and liberty of conscience are valuable and essential.
These second-order presuppositions can be interrogated, and we can ask them to justify themselves. But they can only justify themselves if they can be resolved back into a first-order presupposition. They do not justify themselves.
Religious liberty, as I never tire of saying, is not a neutral value. It is a religious value. And as a religious value, it grew out of and is sustained by one particular religion, and that particular religion has been banished from the center of our cultural life. If you want your religious liberty back (for yourself and for others) then you will have to get the true religion back to the center.
Anything else is like trying to praise the terroir that produced your North Slope Pinot Noir.