Friday, March 16, 2007

Religion on One’s Sleeve

Iannone: This may be more than a little personal but the subject of your spiritual beliefs came up in short piece Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote in First Things. What it seems to boil down to is, do you believe in the transcendent, something higher than man to which man is responsive? Would you care to comment further?

With this set of questions you have presented me with a copy of a comment on my book From Dawn to Decadence, in which Neuhaus complains that, although it satisfies many of his expectations, it gives no clue to what I believe. That remark is a shocking sign of the times. Everyone, it seems, must be tagged, must belong to some gang. And the personal note must be struck to command attention: subject matter is not enough. It used to be that only the famous put forward their ego; now not an article or a review fails to start with “I.” What follows may have nothing to do with the owner of the pronoun. “I was under my car greasing the differential, when it struck me that Article V of the Constitution . . . .” It is an even worse misconception to expect that a work of history shall give a clue to the writer’s belief. It is to require partisanship in his treatment, it is to ask that he violate the historian’s obligation to treat all figures and parties with an even hand. I take it as a compliment that I failed in that duty. But I venture to offer the opinion that the writing of history, by its very nature, rules out one type of belief, materialism. The materialist refers event, action, and character back to some physical element in man or the external world. It’s a faith, not a testable theory. According to it, human beings have no will of their own, only the illusion of it. Now, when such a believer undertakes to write history, he faces a stern necessity: he is bound to relate to their supposed material cause all the picturesque things that he presents, for example the range and wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of greatness, the failures of unquestioned talent. But he cannot point to the pattern of matter that underlies these appearances and determines them and that fools the human agents into thinking that they are carrying out purposes of their own. Some will answer: Wait! Science, wonderful science, is making great progress in locating functions in the brain, and when complete will explain it all. This is an old fallacy. The jump from brain to mind is not bridged by such discoveries. No matter what portion of it is agitated by — let’s say — solving a crossword puzzle, that motion of molecules does not account for the creation of the pastime. It was not locked up in that group of neurons and one day released to the New York Times. In short, mind exists as a part in the material universe, in it but not of it.

— Carol Iannone, “A Conversation with Jacques Barzun,” Academic Questions, Volume 19, Number 4 / Fall 2006, Pages 19 - 27

See also History the opposite of reductionism.


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