Bees and Spiders: Conserving the Permanent Things

Bees and Spiders: Conserving the Permanent Things

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2019

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“Modern scientists like modern thinkers in Swift’s Battle of the Books explain nature, humanity and non-human, without the idea of a soul, and not surprisingly they have produced a world where it is difficult to think what it is to be open to the whole. Ancient thinkers are compared to the bee which goes around collecting honey from the flowers; modern thinkers are compared to the spider which spins webs out of itself and then catches its food in that web. “

— George Grant


The publication, in 2007, of Charles Taylor`s tome, A Secular Age, did much to highlight, in many important ways, how modernity can be partially defined by a secularist ethos. Taylor, in the Introduction, suggested there were three ways we could understand the meaning of secularism: 1) public spaces being “emptied of God“, 2) `falling off of religious belief and practice“ and 3) “conditions of belief“. The point that cannot be missed in Taylor`s understanding of secularism is that a chasm has been created between the sacred and the secular and the sacred has, more or less, been banished to the margins. Such a reality was summed up, at a more popular level, in the Globe and Mail (October 10 2012) in a column by Jeffrey Simpson (`Faith finds a home in conservative politics`).

Simpson, a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail said `We in what is called the mainstream media tend to be secularists who either consider religion to be a private matter or have no religious faith at all. We tend therefore to minimize or miss the importance of religion and politics, especially Stephen Harper`s Conservative Party`. I was on a public panel (with Bill Blaikie—former NDP-MP and John Rowe–TWU) in Chilliwack (BC) in December 2012 that was meant to ponder how Christianity can lean in the Conservative, Green, Liberal or NDP directions. There was a contingent of secular humanist in the large crowd who went the extra mile to hijack the evening by arguing, in our secular age, religion should not be on the agenda. There can be no doubt that Taylor, Simpson and the Secular Humanists are putting their fingers on a significant aspect of modernity: the ideology of secularism is a dominant force that is, often, much closer to Eric Voegelin`s notion of `Gnosticism`. Is this the only story, though, of the Enlightenment project and are there other resources within the ideology of the Enlightenment that are not secular?

The Canadian Broadcasting System aired a seven part series in the autumn of 2012 called The Myth of the Secular. The myth (positive and negative) of secularism was probed from a variety of subtle angles, but the series did make it abundantly clear that secularism (defined in varied ways) need not be a-religious or anti-religious. There has been, sadly so, a reductionistic tendency in the west to assume and accept the scientistic and right wing of the Enlightenment as if the Enlightenment could only, purely and narrowly be defined by a certain notion of empirical rationalism. Needless to say, certain types of science accepted a limited way of knowing and became imperialistic in doing so. The notion that science, through a detached and empirical way of knowing, would deliver the objective goods was a tradition within the Enlightenment but did not define the more complex reality of the tradition of the Enlightenment.

There were those, of course, who doffed their caps to Francis Bacon’s attitude towards nature and what could be known through his “novum organon”, but many was the scientist, philosopher, theologian and political theorist who saw things differently. There was, therefore, what can be called the rational-empirical-logical-positivist approach that emanated from within the Enlightenment agenda—there was also the mythic-imaginative-literary-romantic tradition within the broader Enlightenment Tradition. The romantic tradition did have some secularist tendencies but many within the romantic wing of the Enlightenment were both deeply spiritual and equally religious. The centrist wing of the Enlightenment sought to integrate the best of the rationalist and romantic traditions within the Enlightenment while recognizing that both reason and imagination could and did reveal as much as they concealed. This meant the centrist tradition within the Enlightenment threaded together reason and imagination, concept and image, idea and metaphor, logos and mythos as ways of knowing. Such an approach was certainly not secular, it honoured the role of spirituality and religion and can be aptly called the humanist (not secular) centre of the Enlightenment. I mentioned Charles Taylor at the beginning of this essay. Taylor, in all senses, embodies the humanist centre of the Enlightenment project. 

If then, the ideology of the Enlightenment need not be secular (given the fact the romantic, humanist and even aspects of the rationalist are not anti-religious or a-religious), who are some of the canonical writers within the modern project who have tried to think through the faith issue in a way that honours and attempts to conserve  the permanent things? In short, if secularism is a narrow and reductionistic way of defining modernity, what is a more nuanced way of understanding the modern project?      

The recent publication of Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy (2011) by Ronald Beiner raises the level of the religion-politics dialogue to a higher level than a cruder notion of Enlightenment secularism. The obstinate fact that religion is not going to disappear or vanish means that a thoughtful dialogue is an imperative on the religion-politics tension—-Beiner has unpacked and unravelled the dialogue well in his tome. The point to note, though, is that the dialogue is thought through within, mostly, the canonical thinkers of the modern liberal ethos. In short, the canonical thinkers are pondered and pondered well. Each of them comes on stage, and in their different ways, articulates why, for the most part, religion should and must be subordinate to the state. The reigning patrons of modernity are ably and amply discussed by Beiner: Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Spinoza, Locke, Toland, Bayle, Montesquieu, Kant, Hume, Smith, Tocqueville, Mills and Rawls. There are, obviously, many more modern canonical political theorists on the religion-state issue, but Beiner has done a superb job in bringing together some of the best of them in Civil Religion. The problem is, as I mentioned above, each of these political philosophers embodies, in one form or another, the modern liberal agenda. It is essential to ask, in such an approach this simple question: who is included in the roll call and why and who is excluded in the roll call and why? The answer to such a question will take us into the centre of modern political ideology and the reasons for the reign of the liberalism.    

I have taught in the department of political science, philosophy, religious studies at our local university for almost twenty-five years, and I am often asked to review books for possible publication in these areas. I have found, over the years, a recurrent and predictable way, for example, of framing how historic ideologies should be taught. The classical liberal tradition tends to be defined, mostly, by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Bentham, Mill and the conservative tradition tends to focus on Burke, de Maistre and followers. Most books on political ideology either ignore religion altogether or merely portray religion in a negative way (some variation of fundamentalism or militant Islam). The deeper discussion of the relationship between religion and politics is often absent and when done, is done within the framework of the modernity. There is an older and more conservative tradition in the west that is neither part of the canonical liberal tradition nor merely a Burkean form of conservatism—this line and lineage, pedigree and position is routinely ignored and excluded from most textbooks written and published for university and academic life. It is this forgotten and excluded tradition that we must now discuss. This is the older Tory tradition that dares to raise questions about the dominance and imperial tradition of the canonical writers within the liberal modern ideology.        


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