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placeholder November 9, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers
Religion, secular thought, and health and happiness

Rev. Ron Rolheiser

There is no such thing as pure objectivity, a view that is free of all bias.
Yet that's the claim often made by non-religious, secular thinkers in debates about values and public policy. They argue that their views, unlike those who admit that their views are grounded in religious principles, are objective and free from bias.

Their underlying assumption is that a purely rational argument, a view in effect from nowhere, is objective in a way that religious arguments, based upon someone's faith and religious perspective, can never be, as if there was such a thing as a purely objective starting point. There isn't.

We all have a bias. The late Langdon Gilkey used to put this in a gentle, more-palatable way. We don't have a bias, he says, but rather a "pre-ontology," a subjective stance from which we look at reality. And that stance includes both the place where we stand, outside, when we look into any reality, as well as the software through which we perceive and reason as we look at anything. He's right. There's no view from nowhere, no view that's unbiased and no view that's purely objective. Everyone has a bias. The religious person and the secular person simply stand at different subjective places and process things through different subjective, mental software.

Hugo of St. Victor teaching in his convent school in Paris; a representation from one of his manuscripts now in the University Library Oxford, England.

Does this mean then that all views are equally subjective and that everything is relative? Can we not then distinguish between science and superstition? No. There are clearly degrees of objectivity, even if no one can claim absolute objectivity.

To admit that even the strictest empirical scientific research will always contain a degree of subjectivity is not to put science on the same level as superstition or even of faith. Empirical science and rational thought must be given their due.

It is medical doctors, not faith-healers, who cure physical diseases. Likewise, the scientific theory of evolution and the fundamentalist religious belief that our world was made in seven days are not to be given an equal claim. Much as religious thinkers are sometimes irritated by the absolutist claims of some secularists, science and critical rational thinking must be given their due.

But religious thinking must also be given its due, especially in our debates about values and politics. Religious opinion also needs to be respected, not least with the more explicit acknowledgement that secular reasoning too operates out of a certain faith, as well as by the acknowledgement that, like its scientific and philosophical counterparts, religious thinking also brings invaluable and needed perspectives to any debate.

A lot of the world's knowledge is contained within science and philosophy, but most of the world's wisdom is contained in its religious and faith perspectives. Just as we cannot live on religion alone, we too cannot live on science and philosophy alone. Wisdom needs knowledge and knowledge needs wisdom. Science and religion need to more deeply befriend each other.

More important however than having a proper apologetic about the place of faith and religion inside of public policy is an understanding of this for our own health and happiness. We need to understand how subjectivity colors everything, not so much so that we might eventually convince secularists that religious perspectives are important in any discussion, but so that we can more deliberately choose the right pre-ontology so as to see the world through better eyes and make better judgments on the world.

The 12th-century mystic Hugo of St. Victor gives us, I believe, the right pre-ontology out of which to operate: "Love is the eye"! For Hugo, we see most accurately when our eyesight works through the lens of love and altruism, just as we see most inaccurately when our eyesight is colored by suspicion and self-interest. And this isn't an abstract idea. Experience tells us this. When we look at someone in love, beyond of course those periods when love is overly obsessed with romantic attraction, we see straight. We then see the other as he or she really is, with full recognition of his or her virtues and faults. That's as accurate as we will ever see. Conversely, when we see someone through the eyes of suspicion or self-interest our vision is clouded and there's not as fair a perception.

Jesus says as much with the first words that comes out of his mouth in the Synoptic Gospels. In his very first remarks, he invites us, in one word, to see the world as it really is. His first word? Metanoia. This is a Greek word that is generally translated in English Bibles, as "repent," but it literally means "to enter a different, higher mind." And that connotation is highlighted when we contrast it to another Greek word which we already know, namely, Paranoia. Metanoia is the opposite of paranoia.

When we look at the world through the eyes of paranoia, we are not seeing straight. Conversely, when we look at the world through eyes of metanoia, we are seeing straight, religiously and scientifically. Love, indeed, is the eye.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.)


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