I want to draw your attention to a currently free but presumably soon (as in 2011) to be not free section at NYTimes.com, “Opinionator.” For every writing class I teach I always choose an interesting article, usually an op-ed piece, magazine essay or blog post as a means of getting the students minds engaged and ready to tackle the other tasks of the day. This is particularly important this semester as my classes are either at nine in the morning, or seven at night. When I don’t already have a piece in mind for discussion, I almost always turn to “Opinionator.” There, several Times writers get to sound-off in an online-only column about, it seems, whatever they want.

In the last few days, two entries in particular have caught my attention and, I’m sure, will be any of interest to any readers for whom the intersection between faith and culture/public life is a concern. That is, presumably, all of you.

On February 22, Stanley Fish wrote a piece entitled “Are There Secular Reasons?” in which he used University of San Diego law professor Steven Smith’s book “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” as a tool for analyzing the oft spoke about and inherently blurred role of religion in public life. Fish explores the various attitudes and opinions on either side of the debate, from the belief that religion should be reserved to a private realm which never comes into contact with one’s politics to the understanding that religious tenets are alright as long as they have some counterpart in secular reason.

He goes on to mention that there are many who suggest that secular reason does not see the whole picture and for that reason some deference to religious ideas must be observed. This is where many of us might identify ourselves, in defense of matters of faith on the grounds of a more holistic approach. Steven Smith, however, takes this a step further, and in so doing helped me recognize that I hadn’t gone far enough.

In his book, Smith suggests not only that secular reason alone does not see the whole picture, he insists that it actually cannot. The argument he makes, as synthesized for me by Fish is quite convincing, and both Smith and Fish acknowledge is also not meant to be understood as entirely original. Secular reason is valuable, he says, in as far as it gives the empirical data with which to begin to form an opinion, but when it comes to actually creating a judgment, reason alone falls short. To get to that next place of understanding something as right or wrong, good or bad, an appeal must be made to something outside of reason, or, as I read it, God.

Also interesting is the observation that Smith makes (again, through Fish…don’t worry, I’ve already added Smith’s book to my Amazon Wishlist) that there is an furtive acknowledgment of this shortcoming of reason as seen in the way appeals are made, or as Smith says, smuggled in, to concepts outside of reason such as freedom and equality.

This discussion, of course, fits in neatly with the line of thinking that I’ve been doing, and writing about, and referencing my own writing about in other writing, about the nature of morality in the 21st Century. The Age of Reason produced a culture that dismissed morality because, when limited to the constraints of rational thought, it was too difficult to ascertain which morality. Smith’s book, and Fish’s decision to write about it in “Opionator,” both signal a shift back to, or a renewed interest in, morality.

In the beginning of this thing I mentioned that there was a second essay that I intended to bring your attention to, that is “The Missionary Impulse,” by Timothy Egan. In his piece, Egan uses the arrest of the Idaho missionary-kidnappers, and particularly their leader Laura Silsby, as an occasion for discussing what he refers to as “a lingering personality disorder of Western culture,” that is the missionary impulse.

I acknowledge that this is the more controversial of the two articles and my students and I had a wonderful discussion about it this morning while the rain/snow began to fall in Manhattan. Unfortunately, as so often is the case in my classes, I’ve run out of time and will have to leave the reading of that piece to you, think of it as your assignment.

Cartoon by Chris Madden via www.chrismadden.co.uk


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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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