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Living in the Iron Cage of Secularist Modernity
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
July 3rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
We moderns, the German sociologist Max Weber said, have voluntarily placed ourselves in an "iron cage" of secularism, a life where most of our public life is lived, and civil and political discourse is conducted, in purely secular terms. Civilly and publicly we live life as if God does not exist, a life of practical atheism. So-called "public reason"--which is the only reason allowed in the "iron cage"--does not allow God-talk, disdains Christianity, and positively despises Catholicism.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In a phrase made famous by the cleric Richard Neuhaus, Americans live in a "naked public square." What Neuhaus meant by this phrase is that through a long sort of perverse development our civil and political lives have become entirely secularized: God and Faith are removed from public civil and political discourse, including academia, public schools, health care, science and technology, the media, politics and law.
According to this modern way of thinking, God and Faith belong only within the confines of the four walls of the Church. In the open, ample field that covers everything else, God and Faith (what the liberal political philosopher John Rawls--in secular terms--referred to as a "comprehensive doctrine") is expected to be bracketed, cabined, or perhaps more applicably "churched."
This, so the story goes, is done to make us more "free," more "equal," and to prevent some people from forcing others to do things against their will. We may not have a good life, but at least we have the goods life, and freedom is maximized and oppression minimized.
There is some value in seeing the ostracizing of God and Faith from public life as something that results in citizens being "disrobed" or "naked." Priests wear vestments in the Church, but not outside of it. Priests do not wear chasubles to political rallies. And so secularists think that what is required by good liturgy is required by good politics.
There is an ominous aspect to the insistence of a "naked public square." Obviously, disrobed or naked citizens are much easier to control and manipulate and get to accept the wiles of the devil as good (namely, the entire gamut of the liberal credo, including such moral enormities such as divorce and remarriage, contraception, abortion, and homosexual "marriage"). Citizens who are clothed with the whole armor of God, which includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, the sandals of the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, are not so malleable. (Eph. 6:10-17)
There is, however, an image other than the "naked public square" that might profitably be used to look at the efforts of secularists to control believers. We might say that the secularists would like to see us all forced to live in an "iron cage." I borrow that image from Steven D. Smith's book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, who himself borrows it from the famous German sociologist and political economist Max Weber. Max Weber referred to modernity and its secularist assumptions as something that puts us in a stahlhartes Gehäuse, an "iron cage" or "hardened steel-like shell."
We moderns, Weber said, have voluntarily placed ourselves in an "iron cage" of secularism, a life where most of our public life is lived, and civil and political discourse is conducted, in purely secular terms. Civilly and publicly we live life as if God does not exist, a life of practical atheism. So-called "public reason"--which is the only reason allowed in the "iron cage"--does not allow God-talk, disdains Christianity, and positively despises Catholicism.
The "iron cage" mentality explains why the Obama administration, acting through the Department of Health and Human Services in issuing the recent mandate, was totally deaf to the argument of the Church. The Church's teaching on contraception, sterilization, and abortion--even though it is not based upon confessional truths, but based upon reasonable truths (i.e., the natural moral law)--is by an act of secular will not part of the "public reason" recognized by secularist liberals. The Obama administration wants the Church to remain within the "iron cage." It insists in a "naked public square." Catholic truths, even if based upon reason, are to be "churched."
Within the "iron cage" of secular discourse, God and the Faith can be mentioned in completely vague and innocuous ways, but when it comes to implementing them or encouraging their practice in public displays (e.g., the Ten Commandments, Christmas crèches), or public ways (e.g., public school prayer), or in a publically-enforceable manner (e.g., in policy or law), the cry is quite clear and insistent: fuhgeddaboudit.
Some human activities work well when done in what Charles Taylor calls the "immanent frame" of the Weberian "iron cage." When one enters into the "iron cage," one looks at everything in an empirical way, and it follows that those things that require empiricism as part of their essential thought work well within the iron cage's bars: so science as science, applied science (technology) as applied science, economics as economics, work well in an "iron cage."
As the German philosopher Josef Pieper explained in his book on leisure, medieval philosophers called the kind of thinking that occurs within the "iron cage" ratio, discursive reason, which leads to scientia. This kind of thinking was distinguished from the kind of thinking known as intellectus, or contemplation, which leads to the higher form of knowledge called wisdom, or sapientia.
It is a paradigm mistake to think that because some activities--namely, those that involve ratio--work well in the "iron cage" all activities work well in the "iron cage."
In fact, some human activities--those that involve what one may call the "Life Questions"--cannot be performed in the "immanent frame" of the "iron cage." What is man? What are we made for? What is truth? What is good? What is evil? How are we to live with others? Does God exist? Is God mindful of man?
To answer these questions, we must leave the "immanent frame" of the "iron cage," and enter into a "transcendent frame." This requires a different way of thinking, the exercise of a deeper reason: intellectus as distinguished from ratio. The intellectus is open to questions of God as ultimate reality. Intellectus leads to the threshold of faith--fides--and through faith to divine wisdom, sapientia divina.
The "Life Questions" are the most fundamental questions we confront as humans. To require--as the secularists do--that we try to answer these questions in the "iron cage" of secular liberalism is a fool's quest. Science cannot answer, nor will it ever be able to, answer the "Life Questions." They have to be answered, if they are going to be answered at all, outside the "iron cage."
A large part of Westerners, including Americans, have bought the notion of life in an "iron cage." We are in large part like dogs at animal shelters. Dogs seem happy enough to live out of the cold and in their warm kennels which are nothing less than "iron cages." Like dogs, we have been trained voluntarily to go into and stay in our "iron cages." Most of us seem happy enough docilely to live in "iron cages" as long as we are let out on a periodic basis to frolic about so that we can eat, drink, do drugs, watch pornography, have sex with whomever we wish whenever we wish without responsibility, and thereby, so the old saw goes, be merry. He who dies with the most orgasms and the most toys wins, presumably.
In his allegory on the Christian life entitled Pilgrim's Progress, the Puritan author John Bunyan has a guide named Interpreter take the protagonist named Christian into a very dark room where he sees a man in an iron cage. The man in the iron cage is an allegorical figure representing an apostate. We might adopt this apostate--the man in an iron cage--as a symbol of secular liberalism, a secular liberalism which represents the last whiffs of a dismantled Christendom which long ago rejected Christ, and now reviles Christ.
The man, Bunyan tells us, "seemed very sad; he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground . . . and he sighed as if he would break his heart."
Christian asks the man in the iron cage, suggesting he is something less than a man, an animal or even a thing: "What art thou?" To which question the man answered enigmatically, "I am what I was not once." Christian's interest is piqued by this strange reply, and so the following dialogue ensues:
CHRISTIAN: What wast thou once?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: The man said, I was once a fair and flourishing professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others: I once was, as I thought, fair for the celestial city, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get thither.
CHRISTIAN: Well, but what art thou now?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: I am now a man of despair, and am shut up in it, as in this iron cage. I cannot get out; Oh now I cannot!
CHRISTIAN: But how camest thou into this condition?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: I left off to watch and be sober: I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the word, and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and he is gone; I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me: I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent.
The scene and the dialogue obviously rattle Christian, and he turns to Interpreter his guide and asks whether there is any hope for the man in the iron cage. The Interpreter encourages Christian to ask the man in the iron cage just that question. So the dialogue re-ensues:
CHRISTIAN: Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the iron cage of despair?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: No, none at all.
CHRISTIAN: Why, the Son of the Blessed is very pitiful.
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: I have crucified him to myself afresh, I have despised his person, I have despised his righteousness; I have counted his blood an unholy thing; I have done despite to the spirit of grace, therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises and there now remains to me nothing but threatenings, dreadful threatenings, faithful threatenings of certain judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour me as an adversary.
CHRISTIAN: For what did you bring yourself into this condition?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: For the lusts, pleasures, and profits of this world; in the enjoyment of which I did then promise myself much delight: but now every one of those things also bite me, and gnaw me like a burning worm.
For the Puritan Bunyan, the man in the iron cage could no longer repent and turn. The Calvinistic God of steely double predestination, a juggernaut of a doctrine, would not allow it.
CHRISTIAN: But canst thou not now repent and turn?
THE MAN IN THE IRON CAGE: God hath denied me repentance. His word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage: nor can all the men in the world let me out. Oh eternity! eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity?
But the answer of Bunyan's dour Calvinism is not the answer a Catholic Christian would give. Is there a way out for the man in the "iron cage"? According to Pope Benedict XVI, there is. In our next article, we shall look at what Pope Benedict XVI believes is the door out of the "iron cage" of modern secularism, and where the man in the iron cage may find the key.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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