Intolerable Secularists

Interview With Author of “The New Fundamentalists”

ROME, AUG. 24, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Aggressive relativism is the newest form of fundamentalism, according to author Deacon Daniel Brandenburg, and Catholics are called to stand up and do something about it.

In this interview with ZENIT, Deacon Brandenburg, who will be ordained a priest of the Legionaries of Christ this December, comments on his book “The New Fundamentalists: Beyond Tolerance,” recently published by Circle Press.

Q: In a nutshell, what is the new fundamentalism that you address in your book?

Deacon Brandenburg: When we hear fundamentalism, what normally comes to mind is religious narrow-mindedness, perhaps with an irrational or even fanatical bent, like that displayed by some Muslim followers after Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address.

The “new” fundamentalism that I describe in my book often displays the same intolerance, irrationality and extremism. The key difference, however, is that the new fundamentalists profess to be secular followers of no religion. Yet closer examination shows that the relativistic dogma underlying their worldview excites more religious fervor than do many tenets of the great world religions.

John Paul II’s experience with Nazism and Communism — two completely secular ideological systems — led him to write in “Centesimus annus”: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.”

I would say that what Nazism and Communism were in the past, relativism is today in our times. The methods are different — softer and more subtle, working from the inside out — but the effects on people and social structures and relationships do bear some comparison.

Secular religion did not die with those defunct systems. During an address last June 11, Benedict XVI touched upon the difficulties of passing on the faith “in a society, in a culture, which all too often makes relativism its creed. … [I]n such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth.”

We face a new fundamentalism — a new secular religion — that assumes there is implicit arrogance in any statement of truth, especially if it implies a value judgment about morality or the merits of one religion or worldview in comparison to others. The relativism of our time admits no rivals and is aggressively intolerant.

In the end, when truth is taken away or ignored, might makes right. That applies for any brand of secular religion.

Q: Your book opens with a case study of a college student named Jeff who is virtually blackballed on campus for standing up for his faith, even though he did so in a reasonable and respectful way. What is the urgency of combating secular fundamentalism on college campuses?

Deacon Brandenburg: Jeff’s case is one of countless true stories, all of which call us to an essential point: It’s not enough to understand the nature and dangers of this new fundamentalism. We also have to equip ourselves and others to oppose it, using the tools of logical argumentation and reasonable dialogue.

This is of the highest urgency, since relativism has a corrosive effect on almost every area of human life, from religion to morality to the organization of social and political life. The battle is not limited to college campuses, but extends to all levels of education, the media, politics and social life.

Q: What specific solutions do you propose as an antidote to the influence of relativism?

Deacon Brandenburg: Since this new fundamentalism is both a human and a religious malady, the medicine I prescribe at the end of my book has a human and a religious ingredient.

On the human level, I urge mutual respect, dialogue and honesty. This last point of honesty is vitally important, since it entails a constant attitude of openness to truth.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be continually challenged by truth. It might seem easier to dig our heels into what we already know and just settle into a familiar landscape of facts and opinions that we feel we have mastered.

But truth is not something we can possess and put in our pocket. It is something that masters us, possesses us, and constantly challenges us to grow. To avoid that challenge would be to run away from growing into our full stature as human beings … and as children of God, who is truth.

On the religious level, I believe the remedy is authentic religion: a faith rooted in the personal encounter with a God who transcends and loves us, leading to deep attitudes that build on the best of human virtues and surpass them.

For example, authentic religion builds on the principle of mutual respect and elevates it to the virtue of charity. In a similar way, faith takes dialogue to a higher level of impact by opening man to the fullness of his spiritual nature. And honesty is brought to its full wingspan when man reaches after objective truth with all his strength.

Relativism and agnosticism clip man’s wings by discouraging him from inquiring after the great questions and actively seeking the answers to his most profound longings. The liberation of faith is that it brings back that wide horizon of ultimate questions and sets man free to search for the answers.

Q: Your book occasionally cites insights from Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th-century Frenchman who wrote “Democracy in America.” What do you think De Tocqueville would say if he could see the impact of relativism in America today?

Deacon Brandenburg: I think De Tocqueville saw the potential danger from the beginning. He was one of the first to say that a democracy is worth only as much as its people are, and that the character of a nation is dependent on the moral character of its individual citizens.

One of the points I argue in the body of the book is that the doctrine of tolerance is having a clear and measurable impact on marriage, family and the quality of social relationships as a whole; it is weakening the people who made our nation strong.

Q: What do you think are the key concepts that help us to engage effectively in debate and action?

Deacon Brandenburg: Many people might argue that tolerance is the key to interpersonal relations, but I would venture to say that charity and truth are much more important.

If I really care about a person — charity — I will seek the truth for them. A doctor does his ailing patient a disservice to tell him he has nothing wrong, just as a parent destroys his child’s future by tolerating self-destructive activity like engaging in premarital sex or taking drugs. We need to go beyond tolerance and pursue truth; hence the subtitle of my book.

We can’t be afraid to say that truth exists. The relativistic ethos of our society tends to frown upon statements of objective truth because it assumes that growth in intellectual maturity runs on par with growth in skepticism. For the modern mind, intellectual sophistication seems to require systematic doubt, an ability to see all sides without committing to any one point of view.

Of course, there is no doubt that there is a legitimate complexity to many things in life and answers are not easy to find. Yet this will never legitimate the lack of absolute answers to anything.

Maturity means moving from doubt to renewed conviction about what is good and true. Truth, in this context, is not just a soap box to stand on, or a state of intellectual stagnation to sit in. On the contrary, seeking after truth is dynamic, active, growing, and yes, critical and discerning, because it requires going beyond skepticism to a deepened and perhaps purified grasp of reality in all its dimensions. Again, it’s a matter of allowing reality to challenge and change us.

We can respect people and tolerate their right to hold their own ideas while still affirming that some ideas are true, and others are just plain out of touch with reality. Part of dialogue entails this respect for the person and the willingness to engage in debate based on the objective merit of the ideas.

That’s what this book is intended to drive forward: to provide the tools and means for committed Catholics — like Jeff — to engage in reasoned dialogue with the secular world without losing confidence in the truth they have received.

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Comments

  1. The wolves among the sheep must silence the barking dogs in order to get in among the flock.

    As for reasoned dialogue, I feel that that is not going to convince the secularists in and of itself. They must take their own leap of faith.

  2. Dean, secularism is not the same thing as not having faith in God. Secularism is a new ordering of the traditional moral narrative, a non-Christian world view that sounds Christian because it has appropriated the Christian moral vocabulary (look for my article in AGAIN magazine coming out in September that speaks to these themes). Appeals like “leap of faith” (which does not really exist, BTW), don’t speak to it.

    Reason in of itself won’t penetrate the moral fog that secularism engenders, especially since the Christian (or Jew for that matter) often employ the same language. The author is correct (haven’t read the book yet), that only truth can penetrate the fog (and ultimately vanquish it like the sun on a cool morning).

  3. Dean Scourtes says:

    Religion serves an important role as a counterweight to the unquestioned moral authority of the State. In the ancient drama, “Antigone” by Sophocles, a woman draws upon moral law to challenge a King’s decree that an enemy of the state must be left unburied. During the Roman Empire the morality of the growing Christian sect served as a silent but powerful rebuke to the state-sanctioned theft, cruelty and debauchery of Rome’s pagan rulers.

    Later, challenging the supremacy of temporal authority, Saint Augustine would write that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Martin Luther King would refer to Saint Augustine in his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” to develop his argument regarding civil disobedience and the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Christian moral sensibility informed the Abolitionist movement which worked to outlaw slavery and animates the Pro-Life movement today.

    A nation without religion is a nation at grave risk for the development of totalitarianism and state sponsored evil. The experience of the decade preceeding World War II, serves as a warning for this. Germany was one of the most advanced nations in the world, but without the strong moral voice of religion to server as a counterweight to that of the state, it became a nation where human beings were packed into boxcars to be sent to extermination camps. In the Soviet Union, merely being a Christian made you an enemy of the state because it implied that you had a different moral code than that promoted by the state.

    Because the institutional church has often sought to curry favor with political leaders we tend to forget that in the history of mankind Chistianity was truly a revolutionary concept. But all of the social progress that has occurred in the last 2,000 years, from the gradual abolition of slavery, efforts to uplift rather than exploit the poor, equality of the sexes, has it’s origin in the powerful and dramatic impact of the teachings of Christ on a previously corrupted, debauched and dispirited people.

  4. #3

    In Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King paraphrased Thomas Aquinas in regard to Natural Law, not Augustine.

  5. Dean Scourtes says:

    King actually referred to both Aquinas and Augustine:

    You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of Harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

    http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/letter.html

    The important question is this: If we silence the voice of religious conscience, and the state appropriates or controls secular values, what other moral authority can we turn to if the values of the state become evil or oppressive.

  6. #5 Mr. Scourtes

    Thanks for correcting me.

  7. We face a new fundamentalism — a new secular religion — that assumes there is implicit arrogance in any statement of truth, especially if it implies a value judgment about morality or the merits of one religion or worldview in comparison to others.

    Would someone like Christopher Hitchens be a relativist under this definition? It seems that he would not, because he takes a firm stand against religion (For example, his book “Religion Poisons Everything.”)

  8. Dean Scourtes says:

    I started reading this book last night, “God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now” by John Dominic Crossan

    The renowned and prolific Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan begins his latest book by building upon an indisputable premise: empires (civilizations) have almost always been united by and strengthened by four types of power – military, economic, political, and ideological; paradoxically, though, virtually all empires (think Rome and its successors, including contemporary superpowers and their religiously inspired challengers) also have faced (and will face) almost certain destinies: they rise and fall because violence is inextricably associated with their power.

    Going beyond that foundational, historical observation, Crossan demonstrates ways in which the historical Jesus (and the Jesus Christ of the New Testament) set himself against Roman power through a simple though revolutionary assertion: any kingdom (empire), and more particularly the Kingdom of God, could (and would) bring justice (and civilized stability) to humanity only through peace rather than through violence.

    In another step beyond those initial observations and demonstrations, Crossan argues extensively and persuasively that the future of the world now depends upon a renewed understanding and adoption of Jesus’ assertion. Moreover, as argued by Crossan’s reading of the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and Revelation (the too frequently misinterpreted and most disturbingly co-opted apocalyptic vision that ends the canonically organized and limited Christian testament), human beings (and their dangerously premised empires) have no other sensible option if they wish to enjoy the promise of heaven on earth; in fact, says Crossan, the current (and prospective) political climate brings with it a certain urgency, and only a revised and improved (and apolitical) understanding of Jesus’ message will save this violence prone world from inevitable self-inflicted annihilation.

    http://www.bookloons.com/cgi-bin/Review.ASP?bookid=7891

    While I’m a little wary of Crossan due to his association with the Jesus Seminar, I agree with him here. The Book of the Revelations isn’t only warning us of some future anti-Christ, but the anti-Christs of our own time, the powers and princes of this world who set themselves up as rivals to God for our loyalty and obedience. I fear a world that becomes so secular we lose the moral and ethical tools to recognize them.

  9. Crossan is about as credible as John Shelby Spong, which is to say he doesn’t have much.

  10. Note 7. Phil asks:

    Would someone like Christopher Hitchens be a relativist under this definition? It seems that he would not, because he takes a firm stand against religion (For example, his book “Religion Poisons Everything.”)

    Can’t tell. The only way to answer this question is to see how he applies the Troskyite(ism) he claims should govern society. Some of course would assert the distinction between Trokyiteism and Stalinism is a distinction without a difference (I am one of them), but for the Troskyite it is a way of distinguishing himself from the carnage of the Stalinist and all subsequent Marxist regimes.

    Marxism is uniformly relativist because it is materialistic. So yes, philosophically Hitchens is a moral relativist, but at the same time he draws from the Christian moral tradition to craft morally compelling arguments in his critique against Islam, etc. The truth is he lives in two worlds, and probably would eschew the shallow relativism described in the article above.

  11. Michael Bauman says:

    Dean Re #8 Dean you quote the book as follows:

    The renowned and prolific Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan begins his latest book by building upon an indisputable premise: empires (civilizations) have almost always been united by and strengthened by four types of power – military, economic, political, and ideological; paradoxically, though, virtually all empires (think Rome and its successors, including contemporary superpowers and their religiously inspired challengers) also have faced (and will face) almost certain destinies: they rise and fall because violence is inextricably associated with their power.

    Whoever wrote this shows a depth of historical acumen I’d associate with an apathetic sophomore in college. If that is a reviewer of the book he needs to think more deeply, if the author it reveals the ideological assumption by which all evidence used will be selected and intrepreted. Even if the premise were really indisputable it is so reductionistic and incomplete as to be vapidly meaningless. It is like saying people die because they get old. DUH!!!

    BTW, the term “historical Jesus” is code for Jesus-is-just-a-man and therefore heretical.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko has a series of lectures on CD (avaliable from SVS Press) about the Apocalypse of John that make a compelling case for the liturgical nature of the Book. Oh, excuse me, that’s a solid Orthodox source. I’m sure you would not want to upset yourself by actually studying your professed faith.

  12. #8

    human beings (and their dangerously premised empires) have no other sensible option if they wish to enjoy the promise of heaven on earth;

    The promise of heaven on earth, eh?

    and only a revised and improved (and apolitical) understanding of Jesus’ message

    Apolitical? Give me a break. Every word this guy ever wrote is inspired by left wing politics.

    I agree with Michael: it’s not just that I don’t agree with Crossan, or with the reviewer, it’s just amazing how predictable, shallow, incoherent, and sophmoric this stuff is. This is all the better the anti-traditional folks can do? Makes one pine for the 19th century when the opposition was at least worthy to do battle with.

  13. Crossan is as irrelevant as Spong. They get a lot of press (“Bold new thinking!”), but when you read their books all you get is the shallow Bill Maher/Al Franken type stuff — long on moral outrage, short on ideas, a playing to the uninformed but smug (and increasingly diminishing) choir.

    I’ve read two books of Spong’s and gave up on all others. Nothing there. Professional religious types like Crossan and Spong are always a dollar short and a day late. The ideas they defend are outdated by the time they get around to defending them, except to the true believers who think the endorsement of these passive clerics actually lends credence to those ideas.

    The most devastating critique of Spong however doesn’t concern his books. Rather, it concerns the slow bleed of his former Diocese (New Jersey) once he started the cant. He virtually emptied his Diocese single-handedly, a path the Episcopalian Church seems to have adopted as a whole, unfortunately.

    For anyone interested, the month’s “First Things” has an excellent critique of the American Episcopalian Church by the Episcopalian Archbishop of Uganda. The man has great clarity and courage. Too bad he wasn’t in charge in America. The Episcopalian Church would not be dying today.

  14. Christopher says:

    I cribbed this from another site. Perhaps it will help the materialists understand Christian anthropology:

    From Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Prayer and Liturgy”:

    …there is a objection…to a God of revelation. This was already formulated in the philosophy of the ancients, but it has acquired greater force in the modern scientific and technological world. It can be put like this: a rationally constructed world is determined by rationally perceived causality. To such a scheme the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant. But if this approach is adopted, it must be followed consistently, for what applies to God applies equally to man. If there is only one kind of causality, man, too, as a person is excluded and reduced to an element in mechanical causality, in the realm of necessity; freedom, too, in this case is a mythical idea. In this sense it can be said that the personalities of God and man cannot be separated. If personality is not a possibility, that is, not present, in the “ground” of reality, it is not possible at all. Either freedom is a possibility inherent in the ground of reality or it does exist.

  15. Note 14. Which is why I argue that Hitchens and other atheists live in two worlds. If materialism is the ground of being (and thus raw non-idealist causality the only means by which operations are perceived), then the moral arguments that ostensibly debunk religion draw from a mythos the rationalist cannot rightfully claim as real. From the other direction, they hold to the concepts and vocabulary of the tradition that they argue is fraudulent, in order to deny the authority of that tradition.

  16. Fr. Hans writes: “Crossan is as irrelevant as Spong.”

    Crossan is an actual scholar with expertise in archeology, anthropology, and New Testament textual criticism. Spong is . . . well, whatever he is. Serious scholars take Crossan seriously, even when they disagree with him. Serious scholars read Spong if they have nothing better to do, like if there’s nothing good on TV. I’m not a scholar, but I’ve read both, and there is a great difference.

  17. Note 16. Jim writes:

    Serious scholars take Crossan seriously, even when they disagree with him.

    It depends what you mean by “serious scholar”. Crossan is taken seriously by like-minded peers, which is to say, the Jesus Seminar crowd that has faded into irrelevance. They used to vote on what passages of scripture they deemed “authentic” and whatever the majority decided was the rule.

    About the only thing serious about Crossan and crew is that they take themselves very seriously. Hate to break it to you Jim, but the guy is on the same crusade Spong is, and time and circumstances have revealed how shallow their efforts have been. He’s functionally irrelevant, just like Spong. We live in more serious times now.

  18. Jim H. wrote:

    Serious scholars take Crossan seriously

    Which serious scholars? Karen Armstrong? Marcus Borg? Bart Ehrman? Elaine Pagels?

  19. JBL writes: “Which serious scholars? Karen Armstrong? Marcus Borg? Bart Ehrman? Elaine Pagels?”

    How about N.T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson, Ben Witherington, and William Lane Craig, all of whom have debated Crossan?

    Have you read any of his books? The only Crossan book I own is The Birth of Christianity. It’s a 600 page book with a 25 page bibliography that examines Christian origins using Jewish and Roman history, cross-cultural anthropology, and archeology. There are things like a 28-page chapter on Galilean archeology. I’d tell you more about it, but until my new glasses arrive, the unmagnified printed word is difficult to navigate.

  20. Christopher says:

    Crossan uses a narrow methodology where “Christian origins” are explained (away) by everything/everyone is a unit in a political determinism. No wonder Jim thinks it legit – it’s materialism to the core.

    Can we talk about something related to Christianity??

  21. Christopher writes: “Crossan uses a narrow methodology where “Christian origins” are explained (away) by everything/everyone is a unit in a political determinism. No wonder Jim thinks it legit – it’s materialism to the core.”

    My point was that Crossan is a scholar, unlike Spong. I never assumed that Crossan’s books were going to make it on your approved reading list. Have you read any of his books?

  22. Christopher says:

    Have you read any of his books?

    About a 100 pages of “The Historical Jesus”, but was satisfied that his method is silly to say the least. You of course are arguing a silly point also, that “scholar” can mean anything as long as the person is “serious” or perhaps works at a university – part of your whole “neutral” and “evidential”, and materialistic worldview and lifestyle. Quite pagan, actually.

    I also read “Road & Track” but I don’t discuss that at a site called “OrthodoxyToday”. You however, insist on inserting your worldview here no how matter how irrelevant, in any way you can, perhaps because you have found no where else to go – or just like being contrarian. You are a Troll, to say the least, a stubborn jackass is actually closer to the truth. Why are you here??

  23. Christopher writes: “You of course are arguing a silly point also, that “scholar” can mean anything as long as the person is “serious” or perhaps works at a university – part of your whole “neutral” and “evidential”, and materialistic worldview and lifestyle. Quite pagan, actually.”

    To me a scholar is someone who has developed a significant expertise in some subject matter, and who also probably publishes on that subject in peer-reviewed journals. For you a scholar is — what — someone who has the correct theological beliefs?

    Christopher: “I also read “Road & Track” but I don’t discuss that at a site called “OrthodoxyToday”. You however, insist on inserting your worldview here no how matter how irrelevant . . .

    Yes, archeology and ancient history certainly are irrelevant to Christianity — for you. As I recall, biology, astronomy, and all of the natural sciences are also irrelevant.

    Christopher: “You are a Troll . . .”

    Yes, good point. Please again remind me of the specific rules of the blog owner that I’m violating.

    Christopher: ” . . . a stubborn jackass is actually closer to the truth.”

    I’ve always wondered why so many conservative Christians stoop to personal insult when something comes up that even remotely challenges their beliefs — even the mere mention of a single author or book.

    Christopher: “Why are you here??”

    To discuss issues with people who typically have a viewpoint different from mine.

  24. Note 21. Christopher writes: Christopher writes:

    Crossan uses a narrow methodology where “Christian origins” are explained (away) by everything/everyone is a unit in a political determinism. No wonder Jim thinks it legit – it’s materialism to the core.

    Actually, this is a pretty good definition. It fits Armstrong too. She, like Crossan, has a scholarly method, but so did Sallie McFague (“Metaphorical theology : Models of God in religious language”) of years past, who indirectly taught me that numerous footnotes does not a weighty tome make — unless perhaps you measure the book on a bathroom scale.

    Crossan, Armstong, and even Spong although in a more popularized form, seemed so balanced, so accesible, so moderate, to the untutured popular secularists who are blinded by their wistful dismissal of history and religion. Reducing history and religion to political categories pleased the left, but it’s proving to be functionally irrelevant in a post 9/11 world. (I’ve been arguing for years it’s functionally irrelevant in a post-Marxist world, but since the rise of Islam, more people are listening.)

  25. Christopher,

    I, along with I’m sure many other readers here have come to appreciate your laser-like insights on a broad range of topics. So please take this comment in its intended spirt: “faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

    Continually casting epithets like “jackass” or “troll” at Jim Holman is really kind of lame. With all due respect, you need to bring it up a notch.

    If you’ll permit me some examples, why call him a “jackass” when “lewd fellow of the baser sort” is both scriptural and has more panache?

    Instead of “troll,” how about “nabalitic churl?” It would bolster your Davidic ambience, and is so much more fun to say.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, and please say hello to your wife.

  26. Christopher says:

    Continually casting epithets like “jackass” or “troll” at Jim Holman is really kind of lame. With all due respect, you need to bring it up a notch.

    I disagree – they are accurate terms for the situation at hand, and really are at the level of most of the subject matter here at OrthodoxyToday. Attempting to hide these facts in wit will grow as old as Jim’s participation here. This blog is poisoned by two people and apparently I am the only person willing to point this out.

    Instead of talking about the post (Deacon Brandenburg, anyone remember him and what he had to say?), we are talking about whether Crossan and Spong are “scholars”. 90%+ of the threads here get hijacked. It’s ridiculous.

    Fr. Jacobse, why not be honest and rename this site “Dean&JimRefuteChristianityToday”. Really, let’s be honest and admit this site has NOTHING to do with Orthodoxy, except the occasional post by Michael and non-Orthodox but orthodox Missourian.

    Really, who could read this endless parade of militant secular and anti-Christian garbage from Jim and Dean and remain interested in anything Christianity had to say? It’s like walking into a prison food fight and trying to discern the dignity of man…