Matrix of Liberalism

Matrix of liberalism

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2019.

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“Liberalism was, in origin, criticism of the old established order. Today, it is the voice of the establishment.”

George Grant

“The end is in the beginning.”

Plato

“I have found from many observations that sometimes our liberal is incapable of granting anyone else his own convictions and immediately answers his opponent with abuse or something worse.”

Dostoyevsky

“The saint needed by each culture is the one who contradicts it the most.”

G.K. Chesterton


I. The Matrix of Liberalism


All of us, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, think from a core of philosophic principles. It is from these seed thoughts, principles or ideas, that the fruit of various and varied ethical positions are taken. We live in a period of time in which many ethical positions are embraced, contested and questioned in our culture wars. Many is the hot button issue that, when articulated and argued in the public places, creates many a reaction. Ethical tribes and clans (and chieftains aplenty) have emerged to beat the drums for ethical positions on the political right, sensible centre and political left.

If we are ever going to come to a serious and substantive dialogue about both the roots and fruits of ethical positions, we do need to nudge the discussion to a much deeper level. It does little good to argue the case pro-contra of abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, traditional family values, militarism, market economy, globalization, environmental concerns, gay rights, drugs, stronger state-lighter state, religious pluralism and many other issues if we do not understand the principles that animate and predefine the positions taken before they are taken.

We do need to turn, therefore, to the question of principles, prejudices, presuppositions, and ideas before we venture into the controversial hot button ethical issues. Just as an acorn becomes an oak tree, a sunflower seed becomes a sunflower plant, a colt a horse, a calf a cow, a baby a teen and adult, so, in seed form, it is principles that bud, blossom and bear fruit in the area of ethical issues.

We all know that taking a lawnmower over a field of dandelions does not get rid of the dandelions. The mower will cut off the yellow head of the dandelions, but, a few weeks later, the roots will produce yet another yellow field of dandelions. It is from the roots that the flower is produced, and if we are not pleased with the flower (be it weed or flower), we must take the time to dig up the roots. The same analogy could be applied to fruit on a tree. A tree might produce good, bad or mediocre fruit. It is rather pointless, though, to think that by throwing away bad fruit on a tree (or blaming the fruit that is produced) that the tree will then produce a harvest of fine fruit. If the fruit is bad, then it is important to check out the soil, the inner life of the tree, the sap and deeper roots.

There is no doubt we live in an age dominated by liberalism. The principles, prejudices and premises of liberalism are the creed and dogma of the time. It is virtually impossible in our age and time to think outside of the matrix of liberal ideas. The hot button issues in the culture wars often favour those who are apologists of the liberal way and sway. If we, for the most part, are born and bred in the liberal matrix, what is the nature of this matrix, and how does it shape, socialize and predefine how we should think on a variety of ethical and metaphysical questions? And, more importantly, is it possible to think outside of this intellectual matrix? If not, have we not set ourselves up for a benign form of totalitarianism or soft despotism? It is ironic that many liberals hold a high view of reason and critical thinking, but they seem incapable of being critical of the principles of liberalism.

We are very much in the matrix of liberalism at the present time, and we do need, if we are ever going to be minimally thoughtful and critical, to ask ourselves this rather simple and elementary question: what is the appeal and limitation of liberalism? If we are only boosters or knockers of the liberal project, we become reactionaries and ideologues. If and when we ponder the sic et non (yes and no) of the liberal agenda, we can open our minds to examine a fuller way of thinking and living.

II. The Principles of Liberalism


The matrix if liberalism, as I mentioned above, is founded and grounded on certain principles, ideas, worldviews, prejudices, and presuppositions. These principles are not new, but they do dominate, define and enframe most of the modern dialogue on ethical issues. What are these principles, what are the historic roots of such principles, and what is both the strength (appeal) and limitation (dark sides) of such ideas? Richard Weaver had a book published a few years ago called Ideas Have Consequences (1948). Whether we agree with all of Weaver’s arguments is not the point here, but Weaver is right when he argues that ideas do have consequences. Ideas (or principles) do lead to decisions, and decisions have consequences in both a personal and public way. Therefore, it is to the level to ideas (principles) we must turn to make sense of how the oak tree of ethical issues is but the consequence of the small acorn of certain philosophical principles.

What, then, are the principles from which the liberal project emerges? There is little doubt that liberalism tends to accept and embrace the principles of liberty (freedom), individualism, equality, fraternity (solidarity), conscience, historicism and the quest for meaning, happiness or authenticity. These principles, of course, can be priorized in different ways, and as they are priorized in a different way, different forms and types of liberalism will emerge. Those who priorize liberty will be suspicious of any form of state or community interference with individual longings and desires in either the social or economic sphere. Those who priorize fraternity (solidarity) will attempt to curtail some individual rights so that all may have their liberty enhanced. The Liberal project, as a way of knowing, can elevate reason and critical thinking over and against intuition and imagination or imagination in opposition to reason. It is this debate that has defined and shaped the rationalist-romantic dialogue within the liberal clan and family.

The actual content of what is known and ethical positions taken in the liberal project are quite secondary to the principles that are accepted by faith and are the dominant creed and dogma of liberalism. Liberal principles are like a sacred and time tried vase and container that will be protected at all costs. The actual liquid that is poured into the vase is not of primary importance. It is more important that liberty, individuality and equality are protected than defining how liberty, equality and individuality are to be defined. Each and all, within the liberal ideal, should and can use such principles as they see fit to serve and suit their own journey for meaning and happiness, and, of course, these terms, are open to be defined by the individual.

If liberal principles can be seen, in some sense, as the trunk that steadies and does much to produce the fruit of liberal ethical issues, the deeper and more demanding roots of the liberal way take us to the liberal notion of human nature. Human nature, within the liberal tradition, tends to be open and weak on boundaries and limitations. Human nature is a project in which we make ourselves. Just a painter creates a work of art on a blank canvass, a poet creates a poem on an empty piece of paper, the liberal notion of human nature tends to see the human journey as open ended. There is no doubt we have desires, longings, hopes and dreams, passions and hungers, but the way we direct, form, shape and heed such longings is as open as there are possibilities to experiment with. We are products of time and history (historicism), and who is to say what is the best way to live?

It is this liberal notion of human nature coupled with the liberal notion of historicism that is the deeper roots of the liberal tradition and creed. The matrix of liberalism, when probed at the level of human nature and historicism, takes us to the heart, core and centre of the liberal project. Where did such ideas come from that so dominate our age and ethos, and can they be questioned? In fact, dare they be questioned? More worrisome, though, what happens when we dare not question such principles and ideas? But, let us turn to the historic roots of the liberal way. Ideas often take centuries to fully work and play themselves out, and this is just as true of liberalism as any other ideological and intellectual system.

III. The Historic Drama of Liberalism: A Seven-Act Play


    Many has been the debate about the historic beginnings of liberalism. There are those who are keen on taking the dialogue about the origins of liberalism back to the Classical era. Plato and Aristotle are pitted against one another, and Plato is seen as the conservative and Aristotle is viewed as the liberal. There were, obviously, differences between Plato and Aristotle, but both men did participate within the Classical understanding of what it means to be human. Both men viewed contemplation as higher than action, and both men were grounded in the notion of natural law, and the idea that all things have a proper purpose and end (telos), and to the degree all things moved towards such an end, the good life would be realized and actualized. The virtues-vices played an important role in giving shape and form to such an end, and a person was only free to the degree they lived within such a form and structure. There is no doubt that Plato had a greater interest in metaphysics and dialogue as a way of knowing, but he was also most concerned about politics and economics. Aristotle lingered longer on questions of logic, science and the inductive way (which Plato saw as a lower way of knowing and being), but both men accepted the fact there was an order in the cosmos, and to the degree each and all knew such an order and attuned and aligned themselves with it, they would be free. It is only in a suggestive sense that we can argue that the origins of liberalism can be found in Aristotle, but many is the American and European republican that will attempt to track and trace the liberal republican way back to Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero.

The painting by Raphael, The School of Athens, depicts Plato and Aristotle entering a large room, and Plato pointing to the heights and Aristotle to the firm earth below distorts the insights of both men. Plato and Aristotle sought to integrate both eternity and time, metaphysics and ethics in their way of thinking. The Medieval era tended to be more indebted to Plato than Aristotle, but by the High Middle Ages, Aristotle began to make a return. The beginning of liberalism, I think, can be tracked to the latter half of the Middle Ages.

The shift in philosophy from an interest in universals to particulars signaled this beginning. This is Act One in the west of liberalism. With the rise of nominalism, we begin to see more emphasis on the individual, on the particular. This was but a seed tossed into the soil of thought, but seeds, in time, do break through their constrictive skins and produce trees and orchards of thought. William of Occam and Duns Scotus were key thinkers in this early phase of liberalism. Occam and Scotus had a great respect for the senses (and what could be known through them), and they had a certain cynicism about what the mind could know. The nominalist tradition did put forward the importance of individual things and the uniqueness of the particular. It was this philosophic tradition (good in its time as an important corrective to the collective and transcendent) that opens up the drama of liberalism. It is important to note, at his point, that the Anglican movement (Radical Orthodoxy) holds firmly to this axial point. John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory and Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy argue that the roots of modernity and the liberal ethos can be found in the Late Medieval world. The Radical Orthodox movement, interestingly enough, has some affinities with the perspective of C.S. Lewis. Lewis thought that with the coming of the Reformation (that was heralded by certain Late Medieval intellectuals), western thought had a decisive and significant turn on the human journey.

If William of Occam, Duns Scotus and nominalism can be seen as a Act One in the liberal drama, then the Reformation takes us to Act Two. The ideas and notions that were in the air in the Late Medieval era took a more formal and material form in the Reformation period. There is little doubt that many important theologians and activists in the 16th century appealed to liberty, equality and individual conscience for their authority in contrast to the church, institutions and tradition. It was this appeal to these principles (even though the Bible was used as an external form of authority) that truly sets the liberal tradition in motion. Those like Luther, Calvin and the Anabaptists turned against the historic Roman Catholic Church, and even though they justified their actions in reference to the Bible, the deeper principles that animated their decisions were conscience, liberty and individualism. If it was simply a matter of returning to the Bible as the source and fount of authority to solve the problems of the Roman Catholic Church, then the Reformers should have agreed on things. But the fact that the Reformers soon disagreed on how to interpret the Bible meant that some other authority was at work. And this new authority was the primacy of the individual, in conscience, choosing what he/she thought was the best interpretation of scripture. As each and all applied such implicit and liberal principles to the religious life, it was just a matter of time, of course, before the church would splinter and fragment in many different directions. It is in this sense that the Reformation embodies Act Two of the liberal drama. The fragmentation of the church in the 16th and 17th centuries is the beginning of pluralism and multiculturalism, and the politics of identity that underwrite both pluralism and multiculturalism are the liberal principles of equality, liberty, conscience and individuality.

It was just a matter of time before the Bible and the Church waned as matters of primary interest in Western thought and civilization, but the principles initiated by the Reformers came to dominate the landscape of the time. Act Three in the liberal drama emerged in the latter half of the 17th century. The English civil war and the Thirty Years War in Europe raised two important issues. Those who often claimed to have absolute knowledge differed on who had it, and each and all who claimed to have such knowledge could be quite vicious and violent with those who differed with them. Many thinkers at the time came to the conclusion that knowledge was just a matter of perspective (both knowledge in the area of science and knowledge about human nature), so it was much saner and wiser to accept this fact and avoid absolute claims. Human nature was now seen as a blank piece of paper waiting to be written on or a wet and sticky piece of wax awaiting an imprint and seal. The Bible and the Church might fulfill some private and subjective needs, but the real authority was the individual and their right to life, liberty and estates. The human journey was an open-ended project, and there were little or no boundaries or precedents to tell a person how to live such a journey or what trail and path to hike. The principles, though, of individuality, liberty, equality and conscience had become the new dogma and creed. The content of such principles could be decided as each individual saw fit. This hands off approach in the area of religion, economics and the arts moved the liberal drama to yet its new scene and Act.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century yet further consolidated the liberal way and franchise. Act Four was well under way, the crowds were riveted in their seats, and most applauded the drift and direction of things. Those who had argued for liberalism in the 16th and 17the centuries were mostly of the emerging middle class. It was this class that longed to exert their liberty and individuality over and against the upper classes, the monarchy and the lower classes. The rise of Christian denominations in the 16th and 17th centuries appealed to liberty, conscience, equality and individualism to oppose and distance themselves from the historic forms of Christianity such as the Roman Catholic and Church of England traditions. The Puritans on the Continent, in England and in the USA all turned to the liberal principles of conscience, liberty and the rights of the individual in good conscience to chose and live the good and holy life. This is why it is important to see Puritanism as the parents of liberalism. Many think that Puritanism and liberalism are at odds and enemies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very principles that Puritans appealed to are the founding principles of liberalism. The Enlightenment of the 18th century used the principles that were claimed by many of the Reformers and the Puritans to undermine the religious zeal and commitment of the Reformers and Puritans. The Enlightenment in England, France and the USA (and other places for that matter) argued that each and all should have the freedom to question both Christianity and the middle class. If the Reformers and Puritans used the principles of liberty, conscience, equality and individuality to deconstruct and undermine the historic church, then the Enlightenment used the same principles to undermine the Reformers, the Puritans and Christianity. Why should not each and all have the freedom to chose the faith of their choice? What made Christianity any better than any other religious tradition? Truth is just a matter of perspective and relative (is this not what the Reformers and Puritans had essentially created with their fragmented church and different interpretations of the Bible?). The Enlightenment further argued that freedom should also be for the working and lower classes, the peasants and the people. Freedom should be for one and all both in a religious and political sense, and no one should have the right to oppose or resist such a noble and ennobling idea. The roots of liberalism were going deep, and the tree was growing a strong cultural trunk and spread out many a tenacious branch. It now had become, for most, the only perspective to adopt and bow before. Who could possibly stand against this mighty force? Surely only reactionaries and those nostalgic for an idealized past could say No to such a progressive and forward way of looking at life.

The Victorian era opened up Act Five in the Western drama. The idea of progress and evolution were very much the air breathed by many at the time. The past was the dark ages, and the new was the best and better. This notion of history as progress and the idea of historicism dwelt in a symbiotic relationship. If the past was a backward time, and we were all products of our time, and the only real way to live in time was to exercise our liberty in the best way possible, then there were little or no restraints to define how we were to use such freedom. The Victorian era lingers for some as the last vestiges of the dying Puritan ethos, but, in fact, the Victorian era in England, and the Romantic movement on the continent drove forward the language of liberty and individuality to new heights and with a greater passion. The Bible, the Church and the Middle Class (who had initiated the liberal way) were being bypassed. A new generation of liberals were emerging that were, in a religious sense, open to all faiths (and no faiths) and, in a political sense, urging and arguing for liberty of the lower classes. Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. The content of liberty, equality and fraternity was changing, and those appropriating it changing, but the principles set forth by William of Occam, the Reformers, the Puritans and the Middle Class remained the same. Ideas do have consequences, and it often takes centuries to fully play such ideas out, but the fully-grown plant is in the seed. The end is in the beginning. The drama does move ever forward and onward. The actors and actresses are more sure of their parts as one scene opens and unfolds into another scene.

The twentieth century ushered us into Act Six in this drama. The principles of liberty and equality, individualism and conscience still shaped how the play was to be directed and the actors and actresses were to act their predictable parts. Women used such liberal notions to fight for the vote, and many urged the state to get involved so one and all would have, at least, equality of condition and opportunity. The more sensitive artists probed the nature of conscious, unconscious and subconscious life, and human nature was seen as a mysterious and questionable project. Impressionism in painting and a literary stream of consciousness came to dominate the day. Each and all were expected to dive deep and probe the mysteries of the inner depths. The turn to the inner life was part of the search for the authentic, real and genuine self as opposed to the fictions and conventional ego that many were content to live with and from. Just as the Puritans of old had used the language of conscience and liberty to interpret the Bible and live a life of holiness, the modern 20th century liberal used the language of conscience and liberty to interpret the text of the soul and live a life of authenticity. The principles remained the same even though the texts used were different and the content of things found went in different directions. And, just as the Reformers and Puritans differed on how to interpret the Bible, and created different churches and traditions to reflect this reality, so the modern liberal differed on how to interpret the needs and longings of the soul, and different tribes, clans and the media worked together to create holy sites for such seekers to turn to in their search for meaning and purpose.

The latter half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century have been called the postmodern era, a period that has brought to an end the meta-narratives, foundational and structural thinking. This, in many ways, brings us into Act Seven in the liberal drama. This is a period of time in which human nature and human identity is defined in a variety of ways. Many argue that we should have the right to make ourselves into anything we wish, just as we should have the right to pick any food from the shopping mall or wear any clothes we wish. We can change our image of ourselves and our identity as we change clothes, and who is to say which garment is the best to wear. All is a matter of opinion and perspective, is it not? The culture wars that take place between many liberals and conservatives these days is often not so much about the underlying principles that have defined and shaped these traditions. It is more about how and where these principles are applied and the new water poured into such vessels. Even though the language of post modernism is really just an extension and variant of liberalism, conservatives and liberals do clash on what form liberalism should take and why. We do need to remember that Occam, Scotus and nominalism, the Reformers and the Puritans, the Middle Class revolution and the Marxism were about extending the franchise of freedom in new areas. The Reformers and the Puritans wanted the freedom to think and worship as they pleased in opposition to the historic church, and they were for a market economy in opposition to mercantilism. But the principles appealed to were liberty and conscience. The church was fragmented, a hands-off approach to the economy was held high. Holiness and the godly life were at the core of this position. Our postmodern liberals appeal to the same principles, and rather than holiness, happiness and authenticity are their ends and goals. Liberty is now extended to such areas as gay rights, abortion, feminism, alternate family values, spirituality and the right to create identity as each and all see fit. Ideas do have consequences, a seed does, in time, produce a fully-grown plant, and the ideas and principles of Occam, nominalism, the Reformers, the Puritans, Locke, Smith, Paine, Mill and many others have come home to roost. Act Seven in the liberal drama is playing itself out in a predictable way and manner, and the language of rights, diversity, process, tolerance, pluralism and openness is very much the sacred speech, script and shibboleths of the liberal drama.

We do need to ask ourselves, though, this simple question. What is the good in liberalism and what are its limitations? If we cannot question the liberal drama and play, what sort of literary critics are we? If we do not know how to raise critical questions, have we not been taken in by the matrix of liberalism? Liberals often lament the way propaganda works to seduce and numb the mind and imagination, but how many liberals are aware of how liberal propaganda might do the same thing? Is it possible to think outside of the matrix, and, if so, how is this to be done? There are those like Francis Fukuyama who have argued that we have come to the end of history, and it is the liberal principles that have brought us thus far. It is these principles, Fukuyama argued, that now shape what is good, true and acceptable in our global village. All must conform to these principles if they ever hope to get a hearing in the courts, public places and universities. The task, now that we live at the end of history (in terms of an intellectual journey) is just to apply these sacred principles in the world of history. The text has now been settled on. We just need to apply it to the practical sphere of life. But, are we at the end of history, and, is possible to challenge the creed and dogma of liberalism? 

IV. The End of Liberalism and the End of History: Philosophical Probes


    Charles Taylor is very much a leading apologist of the Liberal Enlightenment project. Taylor has walked the extra mile, to define and defend liberalism, against its postmodern aberrations on the one hand, and, in opposition to the Classical tradition, on the other hand. Taylor, at his sensitive, insightful and incisive best, does offer the reader the most nuanced and most attractive versions of liberalism. It is then to Taylor we will turn to send out some philosophical probes about the problems and weak chinks in the liberal agenda.

Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), and his smaller and more popular missive on the same subject, The Malaise of Modernity (1991), do much to articulate both the most attractive and compelling arguments for the liberal way, and some of the frets and worries of a thoughtful liberal. Sources of the Self is a rich read in the historic western journey, and the way those within this journey have attempted to understand and define the self. Taylor does, regrettably so, distort and caricature the Classical tradition somewhat, but this is a predictable tendency of most liberals. They do need to justify their principles, prejudices and ideas in opposition to what went before them, so they often do so by doing a questionable read of such a tradition. Gadamer, MacIntyre or Jaeger are much better and more dependable guides into the Classical ethos. Sources of the Self is divided into five sections: 1) Identity and the Good, 2) Inwardness, 3) The Affirmation of Ordinary Life, 4) The Voice of Nature, and 5) Subtler Languages. In each of these chapters, Taylor probes and inches ever nearer and closer to the core of the liberal tradition. It is important to note, both by way of conclusion in Sources of the Self and throughout The Malaise of Modernity, that Taylor does have concerns about the way liberalism can be used, abused and misused. He comes as a critic of those who abuse and misuse the liberal agenda, but he also, in a limited sort or way, comes as a probing critic of those who are uncritical fans and boosters of liberalism.

There are many knockers of liberalism at the present time. Taylor is not one of them. There are many uncritical defenders of liberalism. Taylor is not merely one of them. Taylor, in fact, concludes Sources of the Self with ‘the conflicts of modernity’. The liberal tradition both within itself and in the contest between conservatism and liberalism does have its problems, and these must be faced. What, then, are some of the conflicts within the modern liberal agenda? There are six we will briefly touch on.

First, liberalism emerged in history in response to and as a reaction to a certain read and interpretation of conservatism. Liberals often know what they want to be free from, but when it comes to defining what they want to be free for, the content of such choices tends to be a rather open ended project. It is true, of course, that liberalism did put forward as its leading principles such notions as liberty, choice, equality, reason/imagination, the rights of the individual and the quest for meaning and happiness as guiding ideas. But, such principles when disconnected from the Good can come to be defined in a variety of ways. This, then, is the first dilemma of liberalism, and it is this dilemma that sets it apart from the Classical way. Liberalism tends to be quite shy and hesitant about suggesting that there is a Good (in both a metaphysical and ethical sense) that one and all can know. When notions such as the Good, the True and the Beautiful are both privatized and relativized, then they can be defined as each and all see fit. It is this liberal fear and suspicion of saying much about the Ultimate (or reducing it to a mystery that each and all perceive and define in their own way) that makes liberalism a chameleon like agenda that can become whatever an age wants or wishes it to be.

    Second, the liberal notion of the self, identity or nature tends to lack boundaries that could give focus and direction to the self. Liberals have tended to argue that the self is a project in the making, that we begin as a blank pieces of paper, and what is written on us and what we write on the page of our emerging journey is the self. This is why the language of process, pilgrimage, dialogue, diversity and many other terms are the lingua franca of this tradition. The strength of liberalism is its openness, but its limitation is its lack of boundaries. The Classical notion of order, rooted and grounded in the Good, comes as an affront to the Liberal emphasis on liberty and freedom. Liberalism has a difficult time in understanding boundaries for the self for the simple reason, for most liberals, the very notion of boundaries and limitations are the problem. Liberty often stands in stark contrast to the repressive nature of boundaries and limitations. Liberty is seen as the good (regardless of the content of liberty), and order is seen as the enemy of liberty. It is this overemphasis on liberty, and this tendency to see order as the problem that is a problem in liberalism as it seeks to interpret the self and articulate some sort of ethical position.

Third, the liberal principles of liberty, choice, equality, individualism, fraternity (solidarity) and the role of reason/intuition as a means of knowing do raise some troubling questions. The collision, for example, between the rights of the individual in their longing for liberty and the rights of the community and the common good often collide. There are the principles of liberalism; then there is the prioritizing of such principles. There have been, since the birth of liberalism, these tensions, conflicts and collisions within the liberal family. The leftist tradition will tend to prioritize the communal and fraternal side of liberalism, and the rightist tradition will play up and prioritize the liberty aspects of liberalism. The problem for liberalism is this. Given the principles that define liberalism, what criteria does the liberal use to prioritize such principles and why? This deeper criteria goes to the very unresolved heart and core of the liberal way. Liberalism itself cannot and does not have the resources to resolve such a dilemma, and this is why liberalism (in its right, left and centrist traditions) lives in such unresolved conflict.

Fourth, and this is a telling point, liberals long on the one hand to be open to one and all, seek to be understanding and honour perspectives and different ways of being. This approach, of course, often takes a person to the place in which listening, hearing and respect for the other is held high, but such a position makes it difficult to state and argue that there are rights and wrongs, goods we should desire and things we should avoid. The more we argue that there are standards one and all should heed, hear and abide by, the more we take a position that there are limits to hearing, listening and dialogue. This dilemma has been worked out, in an interesting way, in Taylor’s life and thought. Taylor was most active in the 1950s and 1960s as a guiding light of the New Left in both England and Canada. In fact, Taylor was the president of the NDP in the 1960s. Taylor’s The Pattern of Politics (1970) was a blistering attack and assault on Trudeau and Trudeau’s brand of liberalism. Taylor was, in short, committed to the New Left liberal standards of fraternity (solidarity) as a guiding principle and light from which liberty would emerge. All must be free so that each may be free. Taylor, at this point in his life and journey, did not suggest that all philosophical and political perspectives (and the parties that embodied them) were just a matter of where a person stood, how they saw things. Taylor thought and acted as if certain things were better than others, and, as such, it was important to act and live from such realities. As the 1970s and 1980s took their toll on Taylor, he moved, increasingly so, into the area of hermeneutical suspicion. This means that much is just a matter of how we see, and how we see and perceive things is conditioned by where we stand. This new stance by Taylor means that he does not have quite the same passion he once had for firmer political positions. His new position is one of suspicion about those who take positions of firmness and clarity. This dilemma for Taylor is well articulated by Ronald Beiner in Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit: Essays on Contemporary Theory (1997). Beiner did his Ph. D. with Taylor, and in a chapter in the book, ‘Hermeneutical Generosity and Social Criticism’, Beiner probes this dilemma in Taylor. Taylor, the social critic in the 1950s-1960s has become Taylor political fence sitter in the 1970s-1980s-1990s as he has moved in the area of hermeneutical generosity.

    The more all is seen as a matter of perspective, the more difficult it is to be committed about much other than perspectives. The more a person is committed to what is perceived as the better or the good, the less inclined they are to reduce most things to an equal level of perspectives. Liberalism does dwell in this intellectual dilemma. The agnosticism built into its very fibre does, when day is done, make it difficult to take anything, other than diversity and pluralism, agnosticism and perspectives with much seriousness. It is this dilemma that often confounds the liberal. There is the human desire to know and believe some things are better than another, but the liberal undercuts and undermines taking such commitments with too much seriousness. This then leads to a sort of sitting on the fence and a paralysis when it comes to committed action. We purchase tolerance at the price of relativizing all things. When this occurs, much is dumbed down to the trivial and silly. Taylor would have his questions about this, but, at a higher level, most liberals are very much trapped in Taylor’s dilemma.

Fifth, liberals hold high certain principles that I have mentioned above, but what is most interesting (given the commitment to critical thinking) is that many liberals simply do not question the principles themselves. If asked about the limitations of liberty, equality, choice, individualism, identity as task in the making, most liberals go mute and silent. Many liberals are quick and hasty when it comes to exposing the limitation of conservatism, but they tend to be slow off the mark in unmasking the principles of liberalism. This is called the mote and beam syndrome. It is one thing to see the beam in the eye of the other. It is much more difficult to see the beam in one’s eye. The fact that liberals often can and do not do this should raise some questions in the mind of the thoughtful. A good question that each and all should, in a regular way, pose to liberals is this: what are the weakness and limitations of the liberal way (both at the level of principle and practice)? If this question cannot be adequately raised or answered, then liberalism is no different than the conservatism or fundamentalism it often differs with. It is often this inability of liberals to critique themselves that is most illiberal.

Sixth. Liberalism is often weak and wanting when it comes to offering any sort of content to the principles of liberalism. It is this silence on questions of content (or this openness to any sort of content poured into such vessels) that does need to be raised. If, at the level of liberal principles, questioned need to be raised, it is equally important to ask the liberal what criteria is used to decide the content to be poured into principles of liberty, choice and equality? It is these criteria, again, that do raise some troubling questions for the thoughtful liberal.

In sum, if we dare to send some philosophic probes the liberal way at the end of history, we do need to question the dogmatic commitment to certain principles, the problems of how such principles should be prioritized and why, questions about the sources of the self, the tension of thinking there is a good yet being agnostic about the good and the need to articulate some positive content and grounding for the use of freedom.

V. The End of Liberalism: Contemplative Probes


The liberal notion of the self, as I mentioned above, tends to lack a certain depth and inner structure. The self, within such a tradition, can and has been seen as a blend of the rational and conscious life, a deeper sub an unconscious mythic life. Needless to say, the life of the body and its many needs and wants are part and parcel of this bundle of needs, longings, wants and hungers for meaning and purpose. Liberals tend to shy away from positing anything foundational, structural and of knowable meta-truth. This, it is often argued, limits freedom and leads to repression. The will to be free, and to define freedom in whatever way is in the interests of he/she who longs for such freedom is the code of the liberal way.

The contemplative traditions in most of the major and minor religions of the world do differ with the liberal project in this regards, and this is why many who have come to the end of the liberal way often turn to the contemplative traditions in either the west or east in search of greater depths. The Orient posits the notion that there is a moral law in the cosmos, and to the degree this law is heeded and attuned to the good life can be known and lived. The Indian Tradition calls this dharma and the Chinese Tradition calls this the Tao. The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis, walks the extra mile to highlight how many of the Major Religions of the share a common ethical core. The Western Tradition holds high the idea of natural law, the Decalogue and the Beatitudes. Each of these Traditions point to a deeper moral, metaphysical and ontological order in the universe, and they, as one, warn one and all that those to fail to heed and respond to such an order will do hurt and harm to all and one. What is this order, and how does it relate to an understanding of the self?

The Western Tradition, from its origins and beginnings, has argued that humans live in a divided self. Plato compared this to the dark and white horse that the chariot rider must keep under control. Augustine distinguished between caritas (the good within which is love and leads towards unity) and cupiditas (the dark and shadow side within the leads towards fragmentation and disunity). The Fathers of the Church made a distinction between the image of God within each person (that could not be eradicated and was good) and the likeness of God within each person (that had been tarnished and distorted what humans were meant to be). The Greek philosophers made the distinction between eros (that force within that moved all things to the fullness of Being) and thanatos (that death instinct and power within all things which sought to thwart and negate the longings of eros, and drove those who heeded the dark side to non-being). Rousseau made the distinction between healthy self love (amour de soi) and unhealthy self love (amour propre). Thomas Merton summed up these differences quite well when he said,

Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really ‘not I’, and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself. Our external, superficial ego is not spiritual. Far from it, the ego is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent.

This distinction between the ego that is forever restless, forever hungry, forever consuming a variety of things to fill and fulfill its nagging emptiness and restlessness has no substance. Unfortunately, for many liberals, the ego is the alpha and omega of identity. The flux and stream of consciousness of the ego, the random and many thoughts and images that jump to and fro within each person, like so many monkeys on a tree is often the material liberals work with to forge and form the self. But, the contemplative tradition argues that if human identity is sought at this level, restlessness and inner turmoil and suffering will be the result.

The Indian and Chinese Traditions take this issue to the same level. What are dharma and the Tao? Such ideas are surely more than a sweet moral code of nice and pleasant behaviour that boy scouts and girl guides might doff their dutiful caps to. Both of these traditions argue and insist, and demonstrate through a variety of practical spiritual disciplines, that the ego is empty, and until we see it as such, we doom ourselves to a frantic search for meaning. It is by seeing the emptiness of the ego, it is by seeing all as maya and sunyata that a new fullness emerges. But, and this is the key, the ego must die, must be let go off, must disappear, must be detached from for the deeper reality to be known and experienced. The liberal tradition tends to have a weak and limited understanding of anything deeper than the ego, and this is its weakness and limitation. Liberalism was formed and forged on the anvil of the ego, and it has tried, century after century, to set free the ego, through the principles of liberty, equality, choice and individualism. But, the very means used works against the deeper ends that the liberal seeks to attain. Dharma and the Tao will not accept those who come with the pack of their ego full. All must be let go of if and when insight and wisdom is to be found. John of the Cross insisted that until the nothingness (nada) of the ego was seen for what it is, the fullness (todo) of real life would never be known. There is an instructive Zen parable that nicely sums up this issue.

Nan-in, a Zen Master, had a university professor visit him. Nan-in served the professor tea, and he kept filling the cup until the tea spilled over the rim. The startled professor watched until he could no longer contain himself. ‘Can’t you see that the tea is spilling all over me?’ he cried out. Nan-in stopped pouring, then he said, ‘You are like this cup. You are so full of your knowledge, opinions, speculations. How can I show you real Zen and your true self unless you first empty the cup of the stale water of your ego?’

It is at the point when liberalism has come to the end of its tether on the question of ego, the self and identity, it could despair or continue to run round and round on the treadmill but go nowhere. There came a point for many liberals in which the liberal quest for the self had to go to deeper levels. It was in this frustration with the limited understanding of the liberal notion of the self that there emerged, in its most recent phase, the turn to the East. The 1950s signaled a significant season in the most recent turn by many liberals to the East for a deeper spiritual source. What makes this such a liberal turn is that most of the major liberal themes are at work, but the themes appear at a deeper level. The deeper level, as I mentioned above, tends to focus on the self beyond the ego. Much must die, much must be left behind, many an addiction and attachment must be bid adieu to. But, at the far end of the ego, what sort of self do we find? Are all religions saying much the same thing at this juncture? This is where the liberal Enlightenment project kicks back in yet again.

Those such as Huston Smith, Ram Dass, Robert Aitkin, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Alan Ginsberg and many other dissatisfied liberals that turned East in the 1950s, and remain teachers to many today are pluralists. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and in a lesser and lighter way, Bishop Michael Ingham’s, Mansions of the Spirit, are gurus for many, and their appearances and books are best sellers. Why is this? They very much play into the western liberal commitment to religious pluralism. This has become the new shrine that many bow at, and not to bow at such an altar is to be banished from the liberal Sanhedrin. The argument is fairly simple, and it goes like this. True and authentic religion is about spirituality, contemplation and mysticism. Mystics are all of one accord, so this argument goes, that we must all die to live. The ego and shadow side must be faced and not allowed to dominate the inner life. What, though, is on the far side of the ego? Do all mystics and contemplatives agree about the nature and substance of the new being, and do they all agree that mystics agree about this? The establishment liberal mystics all tend to see each and all religion as being different and diverse on an exoteric level, but on the inner, esoteric and mystical level, each and all sit side by side and agree. But, do all mystics agree about what the self is like beyond the ego, and what the nature of union with God (if there even is a God to be united with) is like? A serious study of the mystics both within each tradition and between traditions indicates this is not the case. Such an statement comes as an affront to those who argue, whether through the Parliament of World Religions such as Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart: Discovering A Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (1999) or Phil Cousineau’s edited conversations with Huston Smith, The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life (2003) that this is the case. Liberals are back in the game again. Just when we think they have left, they return with Enlightenment mystical pluralism and syncretism well in hand. We only need to read Lessing’s Nathan the Wise to get a sense of déjà vu.

Many a thoughtful and engaged Christian has attempted to heed and hear the best from the contemplative and mystical East. The dialogue between Thich Nhat Hanh/ Daniel Berrigan in The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness, the Thomas Merton/D.T. Suzuki dialogue in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way (edited by Susan Walker) and the more recent dialogue between Robert Aitken/David Steindl-Rast, The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian tend to point the way to points of concord, convergence and commonality within and between these contemplative traditions. Bede Griffiths remains a guru to many Christians, also, for the way he has done much the same thing for Christian-Hindu contemplative dialogue. Books such as The Marriage of East and West and Return to the Centre do tell their own compelling tale. This approach, of course, works very well within the liberal agenda. But, we might want to ask this rather simple question: do these traditions (and the mystics and contemplatives that live from within them), at the deepest level, agree on what lies on the far side of the ego? Is there a self after the letting go of the ego? What are the contours and horizons of this self? Is there even a self to speak of, or is this not yet another illusion we need to rid ourselves from?

Griffiths, Berrigan, Merton and Steindl-Rast have walked a generous and gracious distance to find the points of commonality with contemplatives and mystics in other religious traditions. The approach used is popular for the simple reason it is the child of the Enlightenment pluralist creed of the time. Dare liberals, though, question such a dogma, and what is the fate of those who do? Do all mystics agree that at the centre and core all is one and the same? This is just not the case. We do not need to read too far or deeply into the writings of mystics both within and between traditions to discover that their notions of the self beyond the ego are quite different. A cursory read of Geoffrey Parrinder’s Mysticism in the World’s Religions, R.C. Zaehner’s Concordant Discord: The Interdependence of Faiths or Frederick Copleston’s, Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West to discover this elementary truth. Parrinder, Zaehner and Copleston had the contemplative sensitivity of Berrigan, Merton and Steindl-Rast, but they, also, were quite willing to ask questions about points of discord and divergence between the major religions at a deeper contemplative level. Needless to say, Parrinder, Zaehner and Copleston are not popular within the liberal pluralist ethos in the same way the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Huston Smith, Robert Aitken, D.T. Suzuki, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Wayne Teasdale or David Novak are. The latter group speaks to the pluralist spirit of the age, and the former group dares to challenge such a perspective. It seems to me prophets and saints do not exist to baptize and bless the status quo. They come to questions and critique such dominant ideologies.

Liberalism (in either its crude or more sophisticated mystical form) is very much the establishment creed of the age. Establishment thought can be equated with Constantinianism. Those who uncritically bow before the pluralist shrine of liberalism are like those, in the early church, who sought to see the interests of the state and the church as one and the same. It was the Christian mystics and prophets who challenged such a union and synthesis. Dare they do less today?

Let us wrap up this rather lengthy paper. It is almost impossible to avoid the matrix of liberalism these days. It shapes and defines, it enframes and conditions virtually all ethical, political, religious, educational, cultural and social thought. If we have not learned to think outside this matrix, we probably have not yet learned to truly think. It is considered quite unspeakable to question liberals about the weaknesses of liberalism, but it is such raids on such unspeakable things we must do if we are ever going to be minimally alert and alive.

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