Life & Death After Christendom by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.

Life & Death After Christendom

The Moralization of Religion & the Culture of Death

by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.

The third millennium opens as a post-Christian, postmodern, post-metaphysical, post-traditional age. The ubiquity of the prefix post underscores the radical changes that mark our times. We have experienced a rupture, a fundamental change in our dominant self-understanding.

We are first and foremost after Christendom. We no longer live in a culture that directs history from Creation, the Fall, and Redemption to the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. Most no longer live as if they expected to be judged at death or the world at the Second Coming. In the light of its liberation from ecclesiastical control, the marginalization of the culture of worship and the loss of a history rooted in human redemption have largely gone unnoticed. The Christian message in the public forum now often seeks expression in the lingua franca of the principles of moral theory. Most significantly, liturgical life has been relocated within a private space, and the moral discourse of the public forum has been rendered thoroughly secular. Crucially, there is little suspicion that praying well is essential to morally knowing rightly. Morality is now to stand on its own without being located within a prayerful turn toward God.

The culture of death can only be understood in terms of the larger issue of the post-Christian culture within which we find ourselves and the radical cultural transformation that frames our age with its cardinal affirmation of autonomy and liberation. These phenomena are allied with the marginalization of the culture of worship and moralization of religion, the view that the truth of religion lies in the morality it sustains, which leads to a culture of death affirming abortion, as well as physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

As a consequence of this metaphysical and historical loss of orientation, our society does not possess a univocal sense of human destiny or purpose. In the wake of this loss, we have the possibility of alternative histories and competing moral narratives, along with the emerging specter of nihilism. The very character of those developments and the appropriate responses, if any, are themselves controversial.

For traditional Christians, these developments can be nothing but foreboding. After all, the traditional Christian focus is on liberation through submission to God. For some others, these changes mark the vanguard of human development and self-liberation from arbitrary authority and superstition. The new culture does not regard itself as a culture of death, but as a culture of life and liberation. Each culture is to the other a counter-culture, marking a profound break in our history, our self-understanding, and our appreciation of life and death.

Liturgical Loss & Moralization

To understand the emergence of our new culture of death, two intertwined matters must be addressed. The first involves the move from a liturgical to a post-liturgical culture. By this I mean in part the secularization of a once-Christian culture, a culture that in the past celebrated its prayers in public spaces and thickly sanctified its life by an intensive rhythm of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. My analysis is not necessarily a call for the reestablishment of Christendom. Rather, and most crucially, it is a recognition that there is an epistemic bond between moral knowledge and the spiritual life. Believing and worshipping rightly bring moral knowledge and discernment.

In this brief study, this crucial claim will be explored, though not defended. This view finds adequate elaboration and defense in the works of St. Isaac the Syrian (613–?),1 St. Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022),2 and St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359),3 as well as elsewhere.4 Moral knowledge grows through a rightly ordered spiritual and liturgical life. Unlike the different, albeit important, claim of Catherine Pickstock regarding the liturgical consummation of philosophy, the claim here is one concerning the spiritual nurturing of the human heart as a moral and noetic faculty.5

A second and related matter concerns the moralization of religion, by which I mean the late-Enlightenment understanding that the core truth of religion is to be found in a just and moral life. In the grip of Enlightenment dispositions regarding religion, few are inclined to recognize that the moral life once disengaged from a culture of worship loses its grasp on the moral premises that rightly direct our lives and foreclose the culture of death. The culture of death develops naturally from the moralization of religion, in that morality as secular cannot appreciate the moral premises needed to understand the evil of the culture of death. By default, secular morality is driven to acknowledging as central the permission of actual moral agents, thus rendering the availability of abortion, consensual homosexual acts, and physician-assisted suicide, along with euthanasia, licit. Then, through the affirmation of free choice, permission becomes not merely a side constraint as a source of authority, but as autonomous choice to be valued in itself.6 The solution to the moral decrepitude of our culture lies in philosophy as an ascetical, noetical undertaking, not as a discursive, intellectual endeavor.7

From Christendom to the Cult of Permission

To gauge the claims of the culture of death, one must appreciate how radically post-Christian our culture has become. From St. Constantine’s recognition of Sunday in 321 to the French Revolution’s cult of reason,8 Christianity was the established religion of the West. From the end of the eighteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, Christianity in various steps and to various degrees has been disestablished. Christian religious observance once provided the West’s moral and cultural framework. Our new age is post-Christian in the very straightforward sense that Christianity is no longer the official source and foundation of morality and culture. Even the dating of time in the style of the year of the Lord is giving way to a secular usage invoking the Common Era. In the ruins of what was Christendom, Christians, former Christians, and non-Christians receive conflicting instructions regarding the meaning of the universe and the purpose of human life.

Philosophical modernity hoped to prevent this confusion by establishing a new, enlightened, universal, and rational culture: a cosmopolitan secular moral narrative or account of the human condition. It hoped as well to establish a non-clerical, secular, non-spiritual grounding of the general rudiments of Christian or Judeo-Christian moral sensibilities in terms of either the requirements of human reason or a secular rational reflection on human nature, the human condition, and/or human sentiments. The universality of values and rights sought by modernity through liberating humanity from the particularities of culture, the falsehoods of superstition, and the constraints of ecclesial powers fed what became the contemporary passion for universal human rights and a universal, enlightened celebration of the virtues of cosmopolitan liberalism.

Because the liberal cosmopolitan project of establishing universal human rights and liberating humanity from the dead hand of the past is grounded in a fundamental commitment to the discursive rational critical assessment of all moral claims, modernity was destined to bring even itself into question. The Socratic commitment to know at least what one does not know unearths the contingency of the content of all moral views, if they are found and received within the hermeneutic circle of immanence. Not only Christianity, but modernity itself is brought into question by the critical assessment of the foundations and grounds of moral and metaphysical claims.9 We confront not just an ongoing competition between Christian and secular understandings of moral probity, there is also a recognition on the part of secular thought that it can no longer provide a univocal moral grounding for a single, canonical, moral understanding or narrative. The moral conflicts we experience are not just between modernity or the Enlightenment on the one hand and Christianity on the other. One often finds modernity and Western Christianity aligned on the one hand against the diverse particularities of postmodernity on the other. Talk of the culture of life and death must be located within the much larger context of a fundamental transition in our expectations concerning values, metaphysics, and eschatology. We have changed from being a Christian to being a post-Christian, postmodern culture.

Permission versus Asceticism

Postmodernity can be understood as the acknowledgement not only of a plurality of secular moral narratives, but of the impossibility of choosing in a secularly principled fashion one single, secular, moral account as canonical, including the culture of life.10 The universality of morality and the global aspirations of cosmopolitan liberalism are themselves brought into question by the very intellectual forces that lie at their roots. To possess universality, morality must forego a univocal content and by default appeal to the concurrence of persons. To have content, a secular morality must settle for a contingent content. As John Paul II rightly recognizes, our philosophical reflections occur against the background of this “profound crisis of culture, which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and his duties.”11 The West has lost not only faith in its traditional faith, but also faith in reason’s capacity to ground a metaphysics that can inform us regarding the elements of natural theology and a universal, canonical, content-full Natural Law.

The result is a diversity of moral hermeneutical perspectives, none of which can establish a secular, canonical priority. In the end, all is brought into question by the critical eye of discursive reason. In circumstances of foundational moral disagreement, the moral lingua franca is found in permission. Permission, agreement, and consent supply the grounding for contracts, the free market, and very limited democracies with robust areas for rights to privacy. These practices secure a moral fabric that can bind moral strangers, although they are embedded in a diversity of moral communities and moral perspectives. What is secured is a sparse fabric of agreements lacking any independent normative moral content, so that neither abortion nor euthanasia can plausibly be prohibited in general secular moral terms.

Neither Western Christianity nor modernity can celebrate this state. Traditional Christianity understands true freedom to be liberation from death and one’s passions, not from this-worldly oppressors. Modernity sought a thick canonical account of freedom and justice. Yet, postmodernity must by default leave each to pursue his own vision of human dignity, liberation, and self-realization, while repeating a litany of injunctions to social justice and mutual respect, the content of which remains a matter of interminable dispute.

Against this background, the ascetical and worship-directed culture of traditional Christianity appears pre-modern in the worst senses of this term: It is superstitious in crediting the influence of both benign and malign spirits, and otherworldly in recognizing eternal salvation as providing the meaning for this life. It focuses on a very particular understanding of morality, metaphysics, and the human condition, regarding all in terms of the birth, death, resurrection, and second coming of Christ. Because of its commitment first to love God above all things, and then in the light of this unworldly love to love one’s neighbor as oneself, traditional Christianity affirms an ascetical turn to God as the foundation of all true social justice. As a consequence, traditional Christianity relocates the conflicts between a culture of life and death within a more profound conflict, a conflict between a culture of ascetical worship, which leads to a noetic experience of God, and a culture of immanence in which passions for liberation and for social justice inevitably lead to secular moral understandings that nurture a culture of death in the service of freedom from biological and societal limitations.

Killing as Responsible Liberation

Ours is a culture of death. To put the matter bluntly, premeditated killing is an accepted element of secular moral life. It is integral to contemporary, taken-for-granted secular moral responsibilities.12 This is nowhere more salient than at the beginning of life. Abortion supports the self-liberation of persons from the tyranny of their biology. It is not just that abortion is the remedy for contraceptive failures, thus securing enhanced financial expectations and the ease of a wide range of heterosexual lifestyles. It is not only that the availability of abortion guarantees that career plans will not be encumbered by reproduction at an inconvenient time or financial plans disturbed by the unexpected need to raise a child. In addition, prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion are now integral to responsible parenting: Responsible secular parents are those who, with the aid of responsible health care practitioners, take measures to ensure that the children they do bring into the world are healthy and wanted, even if this involves infanticide, as in the case of partial-birth abortion. To act otherwise would be to limit the autonomy of others and to impose a particular moral narrative of reproduction and suffering. Within this ethos of liberty, parents discharge perceived secular moral obligations not to burden society, themselves, or their future children with handicaps and disabilities.

More fundamentally, abortion is now integral to humanity’s liberation from the blind forces of biology that encumber free choice and life projects. In particular, abortion supports the liberation of women from the biological necessities of reproduction that can always threaten that an active sexual life will conflict with a vocation outside of the home. Contemporary secular moral understandings of heterosexual intimacy, career plans, and responsible reproduction presuppose the easy availability of abortion to terminate unwanted or inconvenient pregnancies. The non-availability of abortion comes then to be recognized as an act of social violence against women and human beings generally. Enforced pregnancy as the non-availability of abortion paradigmatically supports pre-modern, patriarchal structures and biological dominance. In this light, the killing involved in abortion is accepted as essential to the revolution of enlightened persons against the oppression of traditional social structures and against surd biological constraints. The blood on the hands of abortionists is reconstrued as the regrettable but unavoidable cost of a struggle against the domination of nature and unjust social power. The revolution and liberation, of which abortion is a part, marks the ethos of our contemporary age and is integral to its appreciation of freedom.

This web of contemporary moral obligations to responsible liberation from the past and from biology on behalf of personal freedom is sustained by underscoring a decisive moral difference between human biological and human personal life so that the killing of human biological life can be accepted as morally licit. By drawing this line at birth, one can then attempt without disingenuity to recognize a duty to protect human personal life from injury, while maintaining the contemporary, secular, liberal cosmopolitan sexual and parental ethos. Since by this account abortion is only taking human biological, not human personal life, one can then regard oneself as at liberty both to prevent the inconvenient emergence of human personal life in the form of unwanted or handicapped children and to set aside the tyranny of biology.

There is also an emerging, secular ethos affirming self-killing at the close of life, physician-assisted self-killing, and the direct killing of patients by physicians as ways of respecting the autonomy of dying persons and their interests in a death with dignity. Again, there is a theme of liberation from surd biological necessity: The good death is associated with a death freely chosen through one’s own actions or the invited interventions of others. One is able to set aside the impersonal forces of nature in favor of the personal choices of humans.

If permission is the lynchpin of secular morality, there should no longer be a hesitation to act intentionally to facilitate death, given the consent of the persons who want to die. At the end of life, there is no dispute that it is persons killing persons. The justification for such killing is found in persons waiving the right not to be killed and indeed in invoking the right to self-killing with the assistance of others, especially when one’s final days would otherwise be marked by suffering and the indignities of biological constraints unacceptable to liberal cosmopolitans. Justification for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia is thus derived from the autonomy of persons, as well as concerns with a so-called death with dignity. Physician-assisted suicide becomes a form of rescuing a person in danger of suffering. The secular philosophical attitude is then restored to Seneca’s commitment to living well, rather than as long as possible.13 At the beginning and end of life, killing is becoming a taken-for-granted element of our emerging secular culture of liberation from biological and social tyrannies.

The Meaning of Death

In our culture, these central roles played by the killing of human beings provide a warrant for characterizing ours as the culture of death. In contrast to the commitments of traditional Christianity, killing is now an element of the accepted dominant ethos and established secular bioethics of our culture.

Yet, the phrase “culture of death” is also misleading. If anything, our culture fails to take death seriously. Indeed, our culture cannot appreciate the seriousness of death, since it no longer recognizes that death is the door to the dread judgment seat of Jesus Christ.14 This sectarian and personal truth defines the true meaning of death: It gives death its eternal significance. This truth is at odds with the universal aspirations of a secular, post-Christian, cosmopolitan culture and the discourse now acceptable within its public forum. Yet, if this very particular truth about Christ is not acknowledged, then one will not be able adequately to recognize the significance of death or prepare properly for one’s dying. It is only in terms of this ultimate truth that one can adequately appreciate the evils of abortion and physician-assisted suicide.

The cultural challenge is, then, how can this religious truth be voiced in a public forum grown normatively secular, post-Christian, and liberal cosmopolitan? Publicly to recognize that the meaning of all human life and death is only to be understood fully in terms of the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus Christ, is to introduce into the public forum and its discussions of death a most particular and divisively religious, moral, and metaphysical reality. In a secular context, the particularism of this claim will often be experienced as driving a wedge between those who are traditionally Christian and those who are non-Christian or post-Christian. How can one voice such a religiously disruptive as well as non-ecumenical truth? Once the public forum is secularized and rendered cosmopolitan, the unutterability of this truth marks the hegemony of the secular age and the foundations of the culture of death. One is in general expected to be politely silent concerning the sectarian insights on which the very meaning of life and death turns, leaving the field by default to the metaphysical vacuity of the liberal cosmopolitan.

Since public discourse concerning morality, liberation, and justice occurs in a secular space defined outside of the religious truth that gives life and the universe its foundational purpose, such discussions are at best radically impoverished. They inevitably fall short of the mark, for they cannot articulate the ultimate aim of life. To regard the culture of life in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is to appreciate that culture in terms that transcend both discursive rationality and the framework of the secular public space.

The culture of life rightly understood is beyond the compass of discursive philosophical reflection. St. Paul appreciates this well when, after speaking of the centrality of the cross, he asks, “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Did not God make foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world knew not God through its wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20–21).

The true culture of life, St. Paul understands, can be appreciated only by reference to Christ’s death and the Christian’s death to the world, which can only be understood in the grace to which one can become open in a culture of right worship, “the communion of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). To locate the culture of life in terms of the culture of worship is to place matters in a context that goes deeply against the grain of our age.

The Ruined Altar & the Secular Gospel

Another way to appreciate our current context and the centrality of the culture of death is to recognize how radically other to Christianity the West has become within the last three centuries. The West has ripped itself away, at times with bloody hands, from its traditional Christian past. The West was once an instance of Christendom in the sense that Christianity was established at law and framed the expectations of its dominant culture. The twentieth century witnessed the completion of the disestablishment of Christianity that began with the French Revolution, which was directed not just against throne, but also against altar.

To take just one instance of the magnitude of these changes, on the eve of the French Revolution there were over 1,000 Benedictine monasteries for men and some 1,500 convents for women. Only five percent remained half a century later.15 This marginalization of religious social presence was in part a direct result of the French Revolution. Other changes came independently, as with the Josephism of the Austrian Kaiser and Holy Roman Emperor Josef II (ruled 1765–1790), who closed nearly 700 religious houses in the Austro-Hungarian empire. As significant was the secularization that followed the extraordinary Reichsdeputation, assembled on August 24, 1802, so that German sovereigns who had lost territory west of the Rhine to the French could receive land taken from the church as compensation.

The Reichsdeputationshauptschluss further transformed the social and moral character of central Europe. It not only dissolved the remaining episcopal principalities and initiated a Bildersturz or iconoclasm of monasteries, libraries, and ecclesiastical art. Most significantly, it also destroyed a web of Roman Catholic charitable and educational institutions, which had sustained Christian welfare and education since the Middle Ages. Christianity was no longer central to the care of the poor, which task became increasingly a function of the State. To this secularizing social transformation must be added the many other secular, legal, and social restructurings achieved through the force of Napoleon’s total war against the feudal Christian past on behalf of liberation and universal human rights. The drama on December 2, 1804, of Napoleon crowning himself in the presence of Pius VII (1800–1823) underscored the cultural watershed in Western European history marked by the French Revolution and Napoleonic policies: The public forum became post-feudal, post-Christian, and robustly secular. Almost unnoticed but of no less importance was the passing of the millennial Western Christian empire on August 6, 1806.

A new secular understanding of culture, which would sustain the culture of death, was ascendant. There was a shift from a next-worldly understanding of life to a this-worldly experience of human existence. Western civilization moved its focus from the transcendent to the immanent. Its once officially religious character was fundamentally deconstructed or at least reconstructed. During the latter part of the twentieth century, this secularization led to various legal changes, which would put other religions on a par with the previously established Christian religions and secularize the public forum so as to obscure its previously Christian character. One might think in particular of how the United States, which had a de facto and indeed often de jure establishment of Protestant Christianity until the first half of the twentieth century, saw its law and public policy take on a robustly secular character beginning in the 1950s. A century and three-quarters after its founding, America began to exorcise Christian prayers from public schools and Christian symbols from public places.

Piety Muted, Hearts Numbed

The disestablishment of Christianity was accompanied by a change in the established piety of Christians and the lifestyles sustained by the particular Christian faiths. As Christendom dissolved, the taken-for-granted lifestyles of Christians also fell into desuetude. There was a desanctification of ordinary life, which had until then been located within explicit Christian cultural practices that aimed at instructing all to look beyond the immanent to the transcendent. The robust rhythms of fasts and festivals that once governed diets as well as the times for marriages and sexual congress were dramatically attenuated. Patterns of eating, sexuality, and almsgiving, which had once been orchestrated by the fasts and festivals of a self-confidently Christian worldview, were relocated within the expectations of the secular world.16 Christian charity was overshadowed by the role of the welfare state. Those who approached the issue of moral deportment did so ever less embedded within an all-encompassing traditional Christian life.

It is not simply that many of the established institutions of Christendom were set aside by force of law. Nor is it just that Christianity was disestablished and Christendom replaced by a secular polity. Nor is it only that Christian culture was marginalized by the hegemony of secular culture. Most significantly, Western Christian culture muted, dampened, and transformed itself. Western Christianity made itself less intrusive into the lives of both Christians and non-Christians.

The response of Christendom to its disestablishment and secularization has not been that of Nineveh to the reproach of Jonah, namely, to enter into a great and severe fast so as to change its heart and receive God’s mercy. One might think of the mid-nineteenth-century lament of the Benedictines in Vienna, in which they seem to acknowledge that, as the world became less Christian, Christians were striving less ascetically to live the life of Christians. “Through dispensations that have been granted liberally, the severity of the ancient fasts has been so mitigated in our day that little remains of the love-inspired violence done to the body.”17 Christianity’s response to Christianity’s greater irrelevance in the ordinary conduct of life and in the increasingly secular polities of the West has not been to call Christians to a more intense traditional Christian life. In fact, the response has generally been quite the opposite.

Rather than return to the ancient fasts, or sanctify time and social behavior by prayer and vigils to gain spiritual strength, or require more almsgiving so as to strengthen brotherly love, better philosophical arguments have been sought to reeducate a culture gone wrong morally and metaphysically. The challenge to faith and culture has appeared to be more one of moral and metaphysical education than one of spiritual development. From the time of the Syllabus of Errors (1864) to Vatican II (1962–1965), as the persuasive influence of the surrounding secular society grew remarkably, the reaction has not been to invigorate Christian culture by recalling it to a renewed and vigorous asceticism. The prime focus has not been on the pursuit of holiness. Instead, the focus has been on the substance of intellectual and moral reorientation, rather than on spiritually nurturing the knower. There has been little appreciation of the moral epistemological truth that to know well morally one must pray well and rightly. In shifting the ground of concern from maintaining a holy culture to securing a just culture, Christianity relocated itself within an intellectual playing field defined by the Enlightenment and by the increasingly secular culture, which came to sustain the culture of death.

The strategy of foregoing the rigors of traditional asceticism, cloaking Christian particularities, and desanctifying time so as to shed Christian idiosyncrasies and to focus on morality and social justice as this could be articulated within the secular public forum has a strong claim on plausibility, given the Enlightenment view that the truth of religion is to be found in doing the good, not in pursuing holiness. After all, this side of the Enlightenment, the nature of the good and the claims of social justice should be rationally demonstrable and therefore expressible in the language of secular philosophy. Moreover, after the Enlightenment there is no recognition that a life of rightly ordered worship transforms the knower. Therefore, the acceptable role for religion must be appreciated in terms of its support of social justice.

Yet, if recognizing the evil of abortion and physician-assisted suicide requires a heart opened to God’s law by right worship, then the culture of death will appear as if it were the culture of life and liberation. In the shadow of the Enlightenment, a properly philosophical Christianity, as the protector of social justice and morality, can enter into the secular public forum almost without notice and defend its message in discursive, rational terms, even if religious claims are excluded from these precincts. But the price for this entrance is disassociation from the moral epistemic standpoint within which the culture of death can be recognized as such.

Secularized Morality & Discourse

Christianity as primarily directed to achieving social justice and realizing political liberation finds its roots in the momentous changes wrought by the Enlightenment, which desanctified time, replaced charity with welfare, and further forged the tie between morality and discursive rationality. From its aspiration to universalism and its reaction against sectarianism, the Enlightenment sought to understand the moral life outside of the particularities of religious commitment. It effected a secular displacement of the theological and a thoroughgoing immanentization of the transcendent. Religious concerns were rendered moral concerns, and the energies of transcendent commitments were relocated in terms of the pursuit of a better and more just world. The truth of religion was to be found in the moral life that religion can encourage. The life of faith was no longer recognized as freeing the knower to see morality truly. Instead, religion when freed from superstition was regarded as providing a special impetus to the moral life.

Once religion is defined in terms of the good, and reason presumed able to define the good, then religious discussions in the public forum can be conducted within the confines of secular discourse by being transformed into moral discussions. In the process, religion is moralized in the sense of finding its truth or meaning in the pursuit of morality and justice. Religion is then considered to be an instrument for the maintenance of good public morals, order, and safety. Religion in this way comes to have a secular function in sustaining civic order. Within the context of secular culture, this transformation of religion is supported out of the commitment to locate all public discourse within the bounds of immanence and over against the ecclesially defined culture of the past. As a consequence, the invocation of divisive sectarian commitments can only be understood as counter-cultural.

Immanuel Kant provides a paradigm example of this Enlightenment commitment to the secular transformation of culture, the moralization of religion and its liberation from ecclesiastical structures. He anchors religion in the moral life it inspires, not in the pursuit of the transcendent. Moreover, for Kant the truth of religion is not to be understood in terms of a historical account of a Savior or in a particular ecclesiastical structure.

[T]he sacred narrative, which is employed solely on behalf of ecclesiastical faith, can have and, taken by itself, ought to have absolutely no influence upon the adoption of moral maxims, and since it is given to ecclesiastical faith only for the vivid presentation of its true object (virtue striving toward holiness), it follows that this narrative must at all times be taught and expounded in the interest of morality. . . .18

Biblical Christianity is to be subjected to a moral reconstruction so that religious faith can be construed in terms of the morality that faith endorses. Kant affirms a moral recasting of religious concerns away from the otherworldly in favor of the ethical. He effects a further reformation of his Reformation faith, placing it fully within the aspirations of the Enlightenment.

Without God & Autonomous

Religion as the pursuit of holiness understood as a state beyond perfect and unhindered conformity to the moral law is rejected, especially if religion is understood as the pursuit of communion with God. Kant repudiates this latter view of religion in no uncertain terms. “[S]triving for what is supposed to be communion with God is religious fanaticism. . . . The fanatical religious illusion . . . is the moral death of reason; for without reason, after all, no religion is possible, since, like all morality in general, it must be established upon basic principles.”19

In full accord with the Enlightenment and in anticipation of Napoleon’s secularization, Kant is a self-conscious critic of the traditional pieties of Christianity. He speaks with revulsion concerning how “the mystical fanaticism in the lives of hermits and monks, and the glorification of the holiness of celibacy, rendered great masses of people useless to the world.”20 Kant gives grounds for the now widely accepted maxim that it does not matter what religion one believes or practices, as long as one lives a good moral life. Morality as the pursuit of the good and of social justice comes to be the cash value of the religious life.

The culture of worship is thus transformed into a culture of morality and social justice. Kant, following Hume, rejects the “superstitious belief of divine worship”21 and in the process, holiness ceases to be union with the transcendent and comes instead to mean effortless conformity to the moral law.22 The bequest to our contemporary culture is the understanding of the religious life, now couched in moral terms able to be articulated without difficulty in the context of a modern secular society. Religion is reconstructed beyond the particularities of religious faith. Its fullness is found instead in the universal demands of morality and justice. In the light of these universal commitments to morality and social justice, ecumenism can be embraced as an expression of a human community more fundamental than religious differences supposedly grounded in the particularities of history, cult, and superstition.

Here, however, one confronts the crucial and foundational challenge to secular morality. One must choose a content for the universal morality and justice one wishes to affirm. The question then becomes which content to choose. A particular moral understanding requires commitment to particular initial understandings of the moral life, and this cannot be justified without begging foundational questions at the root of any particular moral account.23 From nowhere, from no particular moral perspective, it is impossible to justify a particular moral content. All principled choices of content require a particular moral account.24 From the perspective of a moral viewpoint seeking universality, the content chosen within a particular somewhere will be contingent, it will be one among the possible other choices that could have been made.25

Given the difficulty of justifying public policy when one agrees neither regarding the wishes of God nor the content of secular moral rationality, permission becomes central to secular moral reflections. In a secular pluralist society, the default source of moral authority is found in the agreement of its individual members, thus giving centrality to the market and limited democracy. This circumstance will invite valuing autonomous choice itself in order to acquire content for the moral life. Out of the hunger for moral content, freedom is often transformed from a side constraint into a cardinal value.26 The permission of persons becomes not merely a source of moral authority, but a source of meaning.

In the pursuit of a universal morality, one comes to embrace a liberal cosmopolitan morality of liberation: liberation from constraint, especially the dead hand of the past, and an affirmation of individual narratives of autonomy. The moralizing of religion in order to make religion acceptable as morality and justice leads to a loss of access to the moral content that could have made plain the evil of the culture of death and the true nature of a culture of life. One cannot in general secular terms establish a content-full canonical morality, as the history of ethics shows. By default, one is left with permission as the source of secular moral authority and eventually autonomy as a central cultural value.

Orientation to the Cross & Resurrection

In light of these considerations, how should we then understand the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death? As with all serious questions, matters are more complicated than may at first blush appear. On the one hand, the culture of death will understand itself as in truth the culture of liberation and life, as the culture of freedom from the surd constraints of biology, from the oppressive patriarchal social structures that these biological constraints sustain, and from the dead hand of a superstitious past. On the one hand, the culture of life must itself focus on death, seeing all true life in the death and resurrection of Christ. This affirmation involves dying to the world, at least as the secular cosmopolitan world understands the world.

This death to the world, which is at the heart of Christian asceticism and its appreciation of true life, is the sustaining context for any philosophical reflection that will not lead to the equivalent of Plato’s politeia, of which St. John Chrysostom is so critical.27 One will find the culture of life where the culture of death to the world flourishes. A Christianity without a vibrant asceticism and a vigorous sanctification of time will be lost in the passions of the liberal cosmopolitan world, which sustains the culture of death. A philosophy of life that does not live in the spirit of monks such as St. Basil the Great (329–379), St. John Chrysostom (334–407), and St. Isaac of Syria (613–?) will have lost its authentic Christian voice and will have become integrated within the culture of death.

It is not simply that a Christian culture disarticulated from a culture of worship cannot rightly understand a culture of life through lacking a crucial point of orientation or a needed source of moral discipline. More fundamentally, its members will lack the moral capacity adequately to see and experience what is crucially at stake in living the good human life and in pursuing true liberation, namely, right worship of God and freedom from one’s passions. It is not just that the sensibilities, morality, and culture of our age are not defined by Christianity or by a canonical account of modernity, leaving us to the temptations of a culture of death.

More fundamentally, outside of a culture of right worship, we will fail to regain a crucial human capacity. Knowing rightly morally depends on rightly believing and worshiping. Without believing and worship rights, we will lack the freedom of the intellect of which St. Symeon Metaphrastes (tenth century) writes in his paraphrase of the homilies of St. Macarius of Egypt (300–390). We will be restrained by that veil across our intellect drawn by the Fall and which only grace can set aside.28  


1. See, for example, St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), especially Homilies 52 and 53, pp. 253–265.

2. St. Symeon stresses that we come to understand theology rightly only through striving in the spirit of God to keep the commandments. “Likewise even he who, as we have said, has learned all the divine Scriptures by heart will never be able to know and perceive the mystical and divine glory and power hidden in them without going through all God’s commandments and taking the Paraclete with him.” Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, trans. C. J. deCatanzaro (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 264–265.

3. St. Gregory Palamas, for example, stresses that “we say (with the brother of the Lord) that Greek wisdom is ‘demonic,’ on the grounds that it arouses quarrels and contains almost every kind of false teaching, and is alienated from its proper end, that is, the knowledge of God. . . .” Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ed. John Meyendorff, trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 27.

4. H. T. Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Christian Bioethics (Lisse, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger, 2000).

5. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

6. H. T. Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Bioethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), especially chaps. 4, 6, and 7.

7. Engelhardt, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, op. cit., pp. 138–144.

8. In 1793, the French Republic’s Cult of Reason became the new regime’s religion. Rituals of this cult were performed throughout France. One of the most notable was the Feast of Reason held in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on November 9, 1793. See Albert Mathiez, Les Origines des cultes révolutionnaires (Geneva: Slatkine, 1977; 1st ed. 1904). This religious cult included veneration of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin.

9. Agnes Heller, Can Modernity Survive? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

10. H. T. Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Bioethics, op. cit.

11. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995), §11, p. 21.

12. Between 36 and 55 million unborn children are killed yearly through medical abortions. This attack on human life is accepted as an appropriate contribution to women’s health. See, for example, Wendy R. Ewart and Beverly Winikoff, “Toward Safe and Effective Medical Abortion,” Science 281 (July 24, 1998), 520–521.

13. Seneca argues that one should pursue a life of quality, not quantity: “Living is not the good, but living well. The wise man therefore lives as long as he should, not as long as he can. . . . He will always think of life in terms of quality, not quantity. . . . [When] one death involves torture and the other is simple and easy, why not reach for the easier way? . . . Must I want for the pangs of disease . . . when I can stride through the midst of torment and shake my adversaries off?” Seneca, Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, trans. Moses Hadas (New York: Norton, 1958), pp. 202, 204–205.

14. In the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and of St. John Chrysostom, once after the Great Entrance and once before the Our Father, there is the petition, “A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful; and a good defence before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ, let us beseech of the Lord.” Isabel Hapgood (trans.), Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church (Englewood, New Jersey: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, 1996), p. 99.

15. Maurus Wolter, The Principles of Monasticism, trans. Bernard A. Sause (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1962), p. 5.

16. Traditionally, Christians do not marry during Advent, not to mention Great Lent, thus solemnly marking off the preparation for these great feasts.

17. Provincial Council of Vienna, 1858, as cited in Wolter, The Principles of Monasticism, §1154, p. 357.

18. Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 123, AK VI, 132f.

19. Ibid., p. 162, 163, AK VI, 174, 175.

20. Ibid., p. 121, AK VI, 130.

21. Ibid., p. 118, AK VI, 109.

22. Kant, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft, AK VI, 66ff.

23. For a development of the argument that the attempt to establish a content-full, canonical, secular morality either begs the question, argues in a circle, or engages an infinite regress, see H. T. Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Bioethics, op. cit., chaps. 1–3.

24. For an account of the perspectival character of morality, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

25. The recognition of the contingency of all moral content was a major focus of Hegel’s criticism of Kant. See G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, §§ 134, 135, and 150.

26. H. T. Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, op. cit., chap. 3.

27. St. John Chrysostom cautions that secular philosophy, that is, secular discursive reasoning, which is not set within the understanding provided by faith, leads away from God, not to God. Consider St. John Chrysostom’s criticism of Plato’s politeia or republic.

[F]or example, they make their women common to all, and stripping virgins naked in the Palaestra, bring them into the gaze of men; and when they establish secret marriages, mingling all things together and confounding them, and overturning the limits of nature, what else is there to say? . . . wherefore besides their uncleanness, their obscurity is great, and the labor they require greater. For what could be more ridiculous than that “republic,” in which, besides what I have mentioned, the philosopher, when he hath spent lines without number, that he may be able to shew what justice is, hath over and above this prolixity filled his discourse with much indistinctness? (St. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew I.10,11, NPNF1, vol. 10, p. 5)

As St. John Chrysostom also warns, “Therefore they who inquire by reasonings, it is they who perish” (Homily IV on 1 Corinthians 1:18–20, IV.2, NPNF1, vol. 12, p. 16).

28. St. Symeon Metaphrastis, “Paraphrase of the Homilies of St. Macarius of Egypt: VI. The Freedom of the Intellect,” §137, in The Philokalia, trans. G. E. H. Palmer et al. (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 347–348.

H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rice University and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. This essay was developed from a presentation made at the conference A Culture of Death, held at the Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, October 13, 2000.

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