Only a brief thought for today. Actually, it’s more like a question. How self-referential are we? I know we have a natural tendency to interpret the world around us in terms of how it immediately affects us. I’m not especially concerned about that kind of self-reference – the simple act of growing up normally destroys much of that self-absorption.
The type of self-reference that has piqued my curiosity is more of a structural variety, the type challenged by the liberal arts tradition of trying to discover how the world works and what our place in it might be. One of the first lessons in this tradition is that the world is not all about us – not as an individual, nor even as a collection of individuals. We are not, so to speak, the center of gravity. As it turns out, there are things that exist apart from, and without regard for, our wishes about what they are and how we might want them to behave.
I have always thought we broadly agreed that religion was one of those things. Religion is, if nothing else, a claim to truth that is independent of its adherents. And although there are many conflicting belief systems, the idea behind each is that you conform to the religion’s tenets, they don’t conform to you. That is to say, whatever truth the religion professes comes not from you, but from some source beyond your authority to gainsay. It stands apart. If it was anything less, it would be nothing more than a self-governing community club.
I bring this up because of a peculiar popular reaction in the commentariat to the Pope’s recently announced retirement. Much of the commentary has centered on whether his successor will moderate certain of the church’s teachings, or “bring it back to the center.” As if the church was a political party whose beliefs arise from the consensus of its members.
That’s the reaction of a culture that just isn’t serious, isn’t it? It’s what self-absorbed people say as they look in the mirror to confirm the truth of what they believe. For them there is no independent, fixed point of reference. Truth, and its significance, is derived from its relation to them and what they think of it.
This poses a bit of an awkward problem. A renewed moral consensus – the goal of what we are doing around these parts – is pretty much dependent on popular recognition that there is truth that exists apart from us, and that we can and ought to discover what it is. Days like today make me wonder whether there are enough people who don’t subscribe to the infinite malleability of principle and objective reality to make the project work.
Is there some measure of how many people are sufficiently serious that they understand they have a place in the universe, not that the universe has a place in them? It would be nice to know that there are enough people with whom we can talk to make a difference.