About a couple of weeks ago, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow expressed himself as against the concept of human rights. Needless to say, the backlash against such comments was substantial insofar that the patriarch felt the need to respond. He made his position all the more precise insofar that he argued that human rights do not constitute the entirety of morality. This part of his position I can fully agree with, because natural rights are based upon a certain conception of natural law. Nevertheless, natural law is not fully encompassing of all of God’s desires. The patriarch then went on to say that natural rights do not allow an individual to choose to sin. I completely disagree, and this is where the patriarch is unequivocally wrong. God quite clearly has allowed us to make our choices and has reserved punishment for himself on almost every matter. This position is clearly shown in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30. If one seeks to root out evil in its entirety by criminalizing people exercising their rights in an evil way, such as pornography or some other matter, then they will eventually wind up uprooting society in a more harmful way than if they were to leave the matter alone. We are in a fallen world and are fallen ourselves. There are limits to what we can do.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Western bishops are any better on this matter. Take for example Pope Francis’ reaction to the the Charlie Hebdo massacre, where he not only explicitly rejected the Enlightenment and the idea of freedom of speech, but elevated all religions above criticism. Francis’ position is remarkably similar to Kirill’s in that they both agree that human rights should not allow people to do things that some might perceive as sinful or evil. According to Francis, Kirill, and many other Christians, it is better to protect their own feelings and sensibilities regarding their own faith even if it is at the expense of criticizing other faiths. Not only does such a position run contrary to the evangelical spirit of Paul the Apostle who endured withering criticism in his ministry, such a position is antithetical to reason, and like the good Christian Galileo Galilei said in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God, who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, has intended for us to forgo their use.” Much of this, as is most clearly shown in the speech given by Pope Francis, has to do with many Christians’ rejection of the principles of the Enlightenment. I think this is a serious error on our part and betrays a serious misunderstanding of the Enlightenment.
At one of its most fundamental level with respect to humans themselves, the Enlightenment concerned itself with the subject of human nature. The idea was and still is that if human nature can be pinpointed, then so can natural law which is to be applied equally across all of society and the world. Orthodox scholar Stanley S. Harakas has examined the scope of natural law:
At its heart the natural moral law speaks to basic social relationships. The natural moral law is perceived by the Fathers as an expression of the basic conditions permitting and protecting the existence of human society. Thus, St. John Chyrsostom, in his Sermons on the Statues characterizes the natural moral commandments as “necessities which hold together our lives.” … The patristic position then points to the content of the natural moral law as quite basic, fundamental and universally applicable to human social (societal) life. The content of the natural moral law is to be identified with the basic rules of conduct which insure the continued existence of any social group. In the mind of the Fathers, these requirements can be specified and particularized.
– Stanley S. Harakas, “Eastern Orthodox Perspectives on Natural Law,” Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting (American Society of Christian Ethics), Eighteenth Annual Meeting (1977): 44.
This is eerily similar to what Edmund Burke wrote concerning human nature and thus implications regarding natural law:
Most of the ideas which are capable of making a powerful impression on the mind, whether simply of Pain or Pleasure, or of the modifications of those, may be reduced very nearly to these two heads, self-preservation and society; to the ends of one or the other of which all our passions are calculated to answer.
– Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I: Chapter 6
By no means does this mean that all figures of the Enlightenment thought that the source of all morality is ultimately in some form of natural law theory. In fact, very few did, whom were generally the French materialists, such as Julien Jean Offray de La Mettrie. Many Enlightenment thinkers in fact rejected the notion that natural law encompassed all morality, Edmund Burke being one of them. Arguably, in times past even many Christians have tried to boil down all aspects of morality to natural law, although they had a very different understanding of natural law. However, patristically speaking, this all-encompassing natural law cannot be. Not all moral imperatives can be reduced to natural law. Harakas explains why:
Natural moral law is useful to Christian ethics as it seeks to speak to some moral issues in a pluralistic society. The Christian could note that since the natural moral law, the written law of the Old Testament and the evangelical ethic all have this common core, there is no need for Christians to concern themselves with the natural law, since they have a higher, more complete ethic in the Gospel. This would perhaps be a practical truth in a homogeneous Orthodox Christian society. It obviously is not a practical affirmation in a pluralistic society and world. The “low level morality” of the natural moral law is a very important means for Orthodox Christian ethics to relate to such a society as citizens in participatory democracies. Thus, it is not acceptable to argue against a public policy of abortion on demand with the argument that abortion on demand violates Orthodox Christian ethic of the value of person-hood, which is based on the Orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This would be perceived as a sectarian approach to a public issue and, therefore, unacceptable. But, by approaching the issue of abortion on demand as a question based on the natural moral law and as a case of “you shall do no murder,” Orthodox Christians can participate in the public debate in an acceptable manner.
– Stanley S. Harakas, “Eastern Orthodox Perspectives on Natural Law,” Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting (American Society of Christian Ethics), Eighteenth Annual Meeting (1977): 49-50.
This same principle can be applied to the Christian moral mandate to forgive others and countless others. There is no basis in natural moral law for engaging these topics, no matter how much some Christians would like it to be so. Therefore, in a pluralistic and secular society, it is wrong for a Christian to use the force of law against those who would rather not forgive or who wish to dip pictures of Christ into jars of piss.
Much of what I am saying is generally dismissed by many of my coreligionists as evil modernist atheistic nonsense. Therefore, I think it is also important to note that the Enlightenment was composed of a wide variety of people: deists, atheists, and Christians. The Christians of the Enlightenment included the likes of René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, George Berkeley, John Locke, and many others. At the same time, the Enlightenment yielded many thinkers who were highly critical of Christianity. These criticisms of faith put-off my coreligionists to the point where they dismiss the Enlightenment in its entirety. Their immediate impetus is to silence them, in which case I must simply point to Matthew 18:15-17 where Christ directs us to exhort those in error to correct themselves but never to use force. If all else fails in our efforts, then we are to leave them to their own devices. Saint Paul also writes similarly in Galations 6:1, emphasizing that any correction is to be in a spirit of gentleness. Threatening anyone’s ability to speak their mind in any form or fashion is not in the spirit of gentleness. Saint John Chrysostom echoes this sentiment:
“For Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force…it is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.”
St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Book II
As one can see by the teachings of Jesus Christ and St. John Chrysostom is that Christianity was from the very beginning intended to accommodate a pluralistic world, whether it be pagan, secular, Islamic, etc. insofar that it never demanded through the force of law or by the sword the submission of one’s neighbor to our beliefs. Christianity is supposed to be a faith of peaceful and genuine conversion and gentle correction. Implicit too in these scriptures and this Patristic quote is the fact that thought and freedom of conscience is a fundamental component of human nature. It is the guide to the exercise of our free will and hence our actions. These are the things that we are judged upon. God gave us a will for a reason. It was that we would exercise it and not be coerced, by force or law, as St. John Chrysostom said. This falls under what Burke would consider the aspect of self-interest or self-preservation in human nature. This is not to say that this means that there shall be no laws. Indeed, laws against murder, thievery, adultery, etc. are all necessary to maintain a functioning society, because as Harakas showed quite clearly in his brief article (which I encourage the reader to read in full), mutual trust is a fundamental component to society. Without trust, there can be no society. And as Burke pointed out, human nature is fundamentally social or at least inclined to be. By design God wants us to be social, but he also wants us to make our own decisions.
In short, freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right and our actions that result from such flow therefrom. Many of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment echoed these sentiments, perhaps more clearly than any of the Fathers who do have a mixed record. Descartes recognized this when he formulated his cogito argument, cogito ergo sum:
Non posse a nobis dubitari, quin existamus dum dubitamus; atque hoc esse primum, quod ordine philosophando cognoscimus. … Repugnat enim, ut putemus id quod cogitat, eo ipso tempore quo cogitat, non existere. … Ego cogito, ergo sum. Est omnium prima et certissima, quae cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat.
[There is] stuff that is not able to be doubted by us, while we doubt that we exist; and that this is the prime [thing], that we think of for philosophizing in order. … In fact, one rejects that we might believe that whatever thinks does not exist while at the same time it itself thinks. And therefore [I know] this knowledge: I think therefore, I am. It is the first and most certain of everything, which occurs in proper philosophizing.
– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.007
Quid sit cogitatio.
Cogitationis nomine, intelligo illa omnia, quae nobis consciis in nobis fiunt, quatenus eorum in nobis conscientia est. Atque ita non modo intelligere, velle, imaginari, sed etiam sentire, idem est hic quod cogitare.
What is thought?
By the notion of thought, I understand everything that is within us that we are conscious of. And thus not only including the ability to understand, to wish, to imagine, but also to feel, which is synonymous with thinking.
– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.009
Quomodo, quamuis nolimus falli, fallamur tamen per nostram uoluntatem.
However as much as we may wish not to have failed, we have failed due to our will.
– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.042
Blaise Pascal also recognized this in his Pensées, and tied it directly to morality more clearly than Descartes:
I can certainly imagine a man without hands, feet, or head, for it is only experience that teaches us that the head is more necessary than the feet. But I cannot imagine a man without thought; he would be a stone or an animal.
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Fragment 111 Louise Lafuma edition
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.
Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Fragment 200 Louise Lafuma edition
As Christians, we know that God will judge us by not merely our actions but also by our thoughts from which they flow. However, if we attempt to force people not to think certain thoughts or step beyond the bounds of authority that Christ had given us, then we step into the very dangerous territory of not acting in justice, but rather acting in power. Pascal cautioned us about such temptations saying:
Justice is open to dispute, might is easily recognized and beyond dispute. Therefore justice could not be made mighty because might challenged justice, calling it unjust and itself claiming to be just.
Being thus unable to make justice into might, we have made might into justice.
– Blaise Pascal, Penées, Fragment 103 Louise Lafuma edition
As Pascal makes clear, to understand justice is to have critical thought. If we force our beliefs on others rather than convince others of their merit, there can be no critical thought. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are wrong. We do have freedom to sin, and laws restricting our ability to sin should be few. Instead of forcing people to adhere to the supreme morality of the Christian faith through force or by law, we should be persuading them to adhere to it. To attempt otherwise runs contrary to the example of Christ.