Giles Fraser: Faith offers a tragic wisdom

13 April 2011

I HAVE only just discovered the formidable historian Tony Judt, who died last year. His superb Ill Fares the Land (Penguin), out last week in paperback, is a formidable cri de coeur for the renewal of social demo­cracy — a renewal premised on a deep suspicion of the ways in which both Left and Right have relied on the dangerous master-nar­ratives — socialism, neo-liberalism — that are clung on to even in the face of mounting evidence that such nar­ratives have so obviously failed us.

The problem, he insists, is when we think that our political world-view is so built into the nature of things that, to use the words of the philosopher Bernard Williams, we believe our politics “are being cheered on by the universe”.

In contrast, Professor Judt calls for modest change in the renewal of our common life: “If we have learnt nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. In­cremental improvements upon un­satisfactory circumstances are the best we can hope for and probably all we should seek.”

I am spending today preparing for a debate with the atheist philosopher Sam Harris, whose new book, The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values (Bantam Press), seeks to do what its title proclaims: to use science as the basis for a comprehensive moral world-view.

It is not so much science but scientism: the belief that science is so valuable that it holds the key to all our problems. Once again, here is someone who feels he is being “cheered on by the universe”.

But don’t Christians feel exactly the same? We, too, so understand the nature of things that our world-view is simply an extension of how things are. In one way, yes; but the difference surely has to do with the extent to which we acknowledge that human understanding is clouded by our limited perspective, and indeed by sin itself. So we are obliged to be more hesitant about the extent to which the universe plays along with our deepest convictions.

Despite faith, we also acknowledge that there are a great many things about which we may be wrong. Those who refuse this modesty fail to recognise the extent to which the human imagination is compromised by the limitations of self.

Given the ways in which religion generally has failed to recognise this limitation — thus committing all sorts of horrendous moral crimes in the name of God — it may be that we are in no position to preach to science. But it is precisely our history of moral failure that gives us this terrible tragic wisdom. Those who preach science as a religion have more than they think to learn from the history of faith.

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