Ashby D. Boyle II, JD PhD, a Utah residence and a Wall Street lawyer is currently spending a year as a research fellow at Yale, returning after being away for two decades.
After 20 years away I have returned to Yale.
I’m back to work on – to finish — two books, one on the Book of Mormon and one on religion and the Constitution.
These notes are from my adventures with the Book of Mormon at Yale.
Right now, piled around me are the works of Charles Taylor, one of the world’s most celebrated philosophers, and the reading is slow. Taylor is a critic of our secular age’s defects, who has traced skepticism as an academic exercise to its current status as our nation’s default set of values. What he calls “exclusive secularism” has evolved into a functioning surrogate religion quicker than it could be critically scrutinized.
Secularism matters to Mormons because it is a social force intolerant of faith, excluding God from public places, from public debate and even from public manners. It is increasingly bad etiquette to even speak of religion in mixed company (“Keep it to yourself!”).
I’m studying Taylor to rewrite my Yale dissertation with update criticism of the United States Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence as the second book I’m working on.
I’m at the start of an inquiry of the use Taylor makes of “agape,” a New Testament word in Greek for love, as in the love of God for his children and of how we are to love our neighbor. The love of good is translated as “charity” in the KJV, so in common scholarly usage, using the Greek “agape” is “almost uniformly,” one scholar notes,” the referent for any alleged distinctiveness in Christian love”
Taylor the philosopher appears to be timid about doing theology, so because there are no signposts for my search for agape, I’m mining for a heart of gold, with preliminary results. My report is that Taylor’s use of agape is more of a pivot in his critique of secularism than Taylor knows.
The love of God or agape takes its meaning from the narratives of scripture. In the Book of Mormon, the love of God is, for example, set forth in the Book of Ether right after the Lord explains that His “grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me, for if they humble themselves before me I will make weak things become strong unto them.” (Punctuation and parenthetical phrase altered).
“The original Christian notion of agape,” states Taylor, “is of a love God has for humans which is concerned with their goodness as creatures. Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature.” “[A]gape involves permanent stability,” according to Yale Professor Gene Outka. “The loyalty enjoined is indefectible; neither partial nor fluctuating. Whatever a person does in particular never in itself qualifies or disqualifies her from such attention and care.”
Moroni in chapter eight and Matthew in chapter 22 as well as the Old Testament concepts of “chesed”, or God’s loving kindness, all make clear agape is a predicate of God known through his self-revelation.
Secularism defines reality or institutions as bearing no relation to deity or religion, and its substitutes or surrogates of agape are defective, according to Taylor. This is a problem that is just beginning to manifest itself in America the Secular. Taylor is saying that secularity requires agape and grace in order to succeed. No secular substitute is adequate to providing a person with the renewable moral energy needed, which only the divine affirmation of the person can produce. Secularism in short short-circuits, is values fail. Secularism can only succeed in self-contradiction by relying on expressly religious values which it condemns. Otherwise, the values of justice and benevolence promoted by secularism not only fail, but in failing they threaten to those values per se.
Society has, from several different premises, reached a kind of consensus, and endorsed an ethic of benevolence and justice. That ethic is not at issue.
What is at issue is this: What sources make possible realization of these moral principles?
Taylor’s conclusion, and I admit to smoothing out his writing here, is that, after decades of secular surrogate values, this test of time now leaves agape revealed as the decisive source of moral power.
Clearly, secularity never was any good at divine affirmations of the self, but it is just such an enduring positive evaluation of the person – agape — that generates an on-going source of moral energy. “High standards need strong sources,” Taylor states without agape’s positive affirmation agape, “[o]ur secular society is living beyond our moral means”
“Morality as benevolence on demand breeds self-condemnation for those who fall short.
” Moral failure is the experience of self-condemnation and self-hatred or even the fear of self-hatred. “Man is either a supported being, or he dissolves into mist, into a mirage,” Czeslaw Milosz observes.
Secularism sets us up for self-condemnation. Individuals, the most conscientious especially, without the affirmance of God’s love are left to feelings of failure without remedy or escape. Eventually, our experience of being an ethical loser even threatens “a depreciation of the impulses to self-fulfillment,” which self-fulfillment secularity promised in the first place.
If this experience of guilt and failure is left to fester, it drains away the moral energy needed to enable our social values to endure and function. Absent the affirmation of the worth of each of us bestowed by the love of God, we are drained of moral energy, perpetually running faster than we have strength.
Absent agape, our society’s ethic of benevolence flips over on top of us.
Benevolence is now itself morally corrupting to the individual. If the reasons I should act with benevolence lack agape and are merely negative, through fear of the law, social stigma or the hell of being candid with myself, then the ethic of benevolence is, in fact, indefensible on any secular basis.
Beneficence by itself lacks any affirmation of the person who is being helped or the person who is helping as a being of value. Without agape, the light has fallen out of secularism’s lantern, and this can become deeply problematic or even, Taylor notes, “dangerous.”
Absent a positive underpinning that persons are worth helping or treating with justice, or a positive underpinning of a sense of their dignity or value, secularism is stuck without any solution to meet the moral standards secularism promotes.
There is a still deeper level to the critique.
Reading Taylor on secularism’s need for agape is like reading The Miracle of Forgiveness without reading the chapter on forgiveness. (To continue the analogy, there actually is no such chapter in secularism.)
Those who fall short and experience moral failure experience, as a result, feelings of self-condemnation and self-hatred or the fear of self-hatred. These experiences fuel anti-social consequences. Out of the unendurable pain which moral failure can wreck on a person – the pains of meaninglessness, guilt, and isolation – there arises a source of relief that is malevolent. The projection of feelings of failure, Taylor notes, lead all too frequently to the creation of a scapegoat.
From the “threatened sense of unworthiness” now comes the false attraction of release by identifying with a group that has already identified what and especially who must be opposed. This type of thinking helps provide direction and a sense of purity to assuage the self’s sense of moral failure and self-loathing.
By lining-up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness represented in the scapegoat, a troubled soul can experience a release from all the negative feelings which moral failure engendered. As Taylor explains the ‘logic’ in all of this creation and use of a scapegoat: “My conscience is clear . . . because I oppose them. And they stand in the way of universal beneficence.” If I have read Taylor correctly, agape is –on secular grounds–a valuable secular resource because it provides a functional remedy for our inevitable moral failures, while secularism manifestly lacks an analogous source of moral energy to sustain our ethic of benevolence.
Taylor’s argument can be imagined in a musical way. Imagine “Amazing Grace” with all references to religion removed. What’s left? “Amazing Grace” as referring to the wretched life of one lost and blind but without finding forgiveness. In a secular society, a soul such as mine that “once was lost” stays lost.
In short, when our current options for a morally habitable society are compared, agape is secular reason’s only choice for an ethic to hold the good in society together.
For secularism, however, the choice of agape is the name of the love it dare not name.
(c) 2010 Ashby D Boyle II