Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Covenantal Ethics (Part I)

Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan seems to take an interest in the I.D./Evolution debate and has come out against the Iraq War; but, it was his piece on the French riots that recently got him onto my radar.

Here is a sampling of Mr.Buchanan's wisdom. According to him American integration "succeeded" because . . .

While, as late as the 1950s, black Americans were not integrated fully into our economy or society, they had been assimilated into American culture. They worshipped the same God, spoke the same language,

and France "will fail". because ... European nation has ever assimilated a large body of immigrant peoples, let alone people of color. [...]These newcomers worship a different God and practice a faith historically hostile to Christianity, a traditionalist faith that is rising again and recoils violently from a secular culture saturated in sex

Of course, while Islam is a "traditionalist faith...recoiling from a culture saturated in sex" Roman Catholicism (which is what Mr. Buchanan professes) would be an "untraditional faith" which embraces a society "saturated in sex", right ?

Got the logic ? Blacks were "succesfully" integrated into American society because they worship the same God but Muslims will not be integrated into Europe because they worship a different God.

Nor should Americans take comfort in France's distress. By 2050, there will be 100 million Hispanics in the United States – half of them of Mexican ancestry – heavily concentrated in a Southwest most Mexicans still believe by right belongs to them.

Ah! So the Hispanics are going to be a problem in America in 2050 like the Muslims are a problem in France today. But how is that possible ? I thought the Hispanics being Roman Catholics like Mr.Buchanan "worship the same God" and so can be "successfully" integrated like the Blacks. So what is the problem ?

I bring him up as an example of the dichotomy between declared adherence to truth or to some standard of morality versus that which is a personal engagement with truth which is self-consciously in the service of community in a covenantal way .

Oh, it's a very real distinction alright! In fact, it's the fault line which led to the controversy between Alain Finkielkraut and the Islamic community over the French riots. His comments follow a similar vein to that of Buchanan's but just might be more philosophical and rigorous than Buchanan's. "So who is Alain Finkielkraut?" you might very well ask.

Well to understand Finkielkraut you have to understand a bit about Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was a Jewish philosopher who looked to the reasons for the commandments to buttress his own tradition, and to contribute to the larger conversation about ethics and political philosophy from a Jewish context. Alain Finkielkraut is also a philosopher and a disciple of Levinas.

You can see when you read his interview with Haaretz that this very approach was informing Finkielkraut's comments on the lack of personal responsibility as displayed by the rioters. The comments were entirely 'reasonable' and might not have got him into trouble had he not made a specific point of further identifying the rioters as being Arab and Islamic. This many of the neo-cons did as did Pat Buchanan. The only difference is that Finkielkraut nearly had a court case on incitement to racial hatred against him which was dropped only when Finkielkraut issued an apology.

What is needed is not just some form of "Enlightenment" or "Universalist" or even a "Utilitarian" ethics in a corrective swing away from the socially corrosive wave of 20th century ethical relativism. Even Tariq Ramadan has been advocating a European Islam on the basis of "universal ethics" but he and Finkielkraut seem to be talking past each other. What is really needed is something more like "Covenantal Ethics".

David Novak in his book entitled "Covenantal Rights" notes that he "differs from Levinas by insisting with the Jewish tradition that God, not humans, is the One who makes the primary claim on our response in the world". So for Novak, ethical and moral dialogue must take place through a medium that stems from a religious tradition and binds the individual to the community - and to God.

But instead all that is happening or perceived to be happening here is a cultural and relativistic finger pointing exercise which alienates communities and countries instead of building trust between them very much along the lines of a so-called 'Clash of Civilisations' .

I don't see any communutarian or inter-communitarian initiatives in any country which is advocating a commonly shared recognition of rights and responsibilities under God.

As this initiative should be coming from Christians,I have my doubts as to how Post-Christian Europe will or can deliver. Even when a communitarian effort is attempted, it tends to be some polluted form of racial supremacism rallying around prejudice which has been the characteristic of much 'right-wing' political reactions in Europe. In fact, both Huntington and Buchanan are advocates of the same noxious motivation.

Because Western society has become so thoroughly individualistic even in its religious tradition I'm afraid I don't see the way out of this impasse unless the Christian communities in the West can themselves change (or be forced to change)becoming self-consciously counter-cultural in living out community and covenant and and further change the cultural climate.

It's all a very tall order.

(to be continued in Part 2 )

No comments: