tenderer than thou

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 17, 2006

Another excellent post by Anthony Esolen at the Touchstone blog. In the course of a lecture he gave at the U of Minnesota, Esolen had said "God is the source of our wonder, and the guarantor of its truth." He was then confronted by an atheist scientist who said "I'm a biologist and I do not believe in God, yet when I look at the beauty of nature I think I can feel that wonder you are talking about. So, obviously, belief in God is neither here nor there." Esolen continues:

I responded by noting that at all costs I wished to affirm that what I was talking about was not a mere sentiment, but a reverence for nobility or grandeur that an object actually does possess. My fear, I said, is that the unbeliever who begins with that reverence will end, by the force of his logic, by consigning it over to irrelevance.

Readers of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man will recognize in Esolen's remarks -- particularly in his claim that wonder can be true -- the discussion of how our feelings are connected to "the way things really are":

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it -- believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more 'just' or 'ordinate' or 'appropriate' to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.

The biologist who insisted on his capacity for wonder is far from alone. Many hard-core materialists indulge in elaborate sentimentalisms concerning the beauty of nature. Yet in many of these same sentimentalists the sight (or thought) of a defective child or unwanted old person moves them to atrocities. Flannery O'Connor's observation on the subject is well known:

If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

We might add, "and in the reproductive health clinic as well." Ears attuned to the mewing of baby seals are, all too often, deaf to the sound of suction curettage applied to babies in the womb. I'd go further. For many atheists, there is an element of self-congratulation in their professed love of nature that, in their own eyes, justifies their cruelty toward weak human beings (much as, in depraved forms of Calvinism, consciousness of one's own election brought with it a complacent indifference to the fate of those predestined to damnation). Beneath it all, perhaps, is a hatred of the possibility (and of those who remind them of the possibility) that nature may include a Natural Law, that there is an accountability for choices.

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2006 4:08 PM ET USA

    My favorite down to earth theologian, Mother Angelica, says we suffer from misplaced compassion. Not wanting to call a sin a sin; We deny Truth. Making an exception for abortion, tolerating the misinformation about the Catholic Church, even saying "I wouldn't want to live like Terry Schiavo". Failing to have Trust in God, Truth incarnate. We don't want to hurt feelings by witnessing to the Truth=misplaced compassion.

  • Posted by: CJ - Oct. 17, 2006 10:47 AM ET USA

    There's a lot of wisdom in this piece - thank you, Diogenes!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2006 10:12 AM ET USA

    Schleirmacher, Schleirmacher wherefore art thou Schleirmacher?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2006 10:07 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: DrJazz - Oct. 17, 2006 10:02 AM ET USA

    How vitally important it is that Catholics and other Christians read and understand C. S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man," as well as writings of G. K. Chesterton and Flannery O'Connor on the topic of Man's future. The flaws in reasoning that these writers pointed out have affected every aspect of western culture: Morality, medicine, education, government, religion, art, commerce, formation of conscience. Catholics must be willing to do the work that it takes to reclaim the culture!