It was recently published by É Realizações The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to the Theater of the Absurd, by Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis, translated by Pedro Sette-Câmara. The reader of this journal is already familiar with one of the authors: Dalrymple is the pseudonym of Anthony Daniels, a retired English psychiatrist who worked in prison and in the SUS there (the NHS). He is an atheist dear to conservatives, enjoys a peculiar notoriety in Brazil, has the habit of reflecting on the dog world he saw in his professional practice and shows erudition in dealing with literature, history and other cultures. Kenneth Francis is a theologian and editor.
Each has a worldview – one atheist, the other theist –, both acknowledge the fact that Western man has lost the sense of transcendence and both agree that this it’s a bad thing. The world would be a great theater of the absurd, where everyone waits for Godot for the mere lack of meaning in their own lives.
The work has a very peculiar shape. It is composed of 23 texts, of which 22 are essays written either by Dalrymple or by Francis, with a veiled form of retort and rejoinder. First Dalrymple writes, then Francis responds, then Dalrymple retorts, and so on. Each essay is about a text endowed with literary value, starting with Ecclesiastes. Mutatis mutandis, it is as if it were a challenge of sudden artists: one picks up the thread left by the other and both challenge themselves by subjecting themselves to a rule of a literary order; in this case, make a short essay that uses a work of literary value as a hook. The rule is only broken once, on Francis’ initiative, when he objectively asks Dalrymple a question, who answers it objectively as well.
According to the presentation, this duel seems to have happened by and emails, as they both thank each other and inform that they have seen each other only once, in an Irish pub, but hope to see each other more often.
Dalrymple’s theory is that as man became more and more educated, he felt obliged to give reasons for moral and aesthetic judgments that ancient man made unthinkingly. However, our ability to base our judgments is far less than this demand. “If there are no such justifications,” he says, “if indeed there is no Cartesian point from which judgments can be leveraged, moral and aesthetic cacophony inevitably ensues.” After all, making moral and aesthetic judgments is essential to life. In other books, Dalrymple is often intrigued by a phrase that is very common in the mouths of the English: “I don’t judge”. It is impossible not to judge, since at all times, consciously or not, we judge good or bad, beautiful or ugly, and the very subject who boasts of not judging thinks that not having a judgment is a good thing.
Before avenging this Cartesian obligation to found all judgement, when man was much less literate, religion and customs gave people a sense of transcendence that was not questioned, nor much meditated. Life was ordered just because it was little thought out. People made their moral and aesthetic judgments in peace, without feeling obliged to base everything, or – worse still – to make no judgment at all, as if the absence of prejudices (that is, of previous judgments, harms ) was a moral obligation.
Dalrymple himself is an atheist, but he is not a nihilist. Like many people with an intellectual life, he sees meaning in his work, makes judgments and sees meaning in his own life. From the fact that he himself is a good-life atheist it does not follow that everyone can be a good-life atheist. Thus, he sees the current state of affairs as a drama: man has been left with the individual responsibility of giving meaning to his own life, and most are not capable of doing so.
The theory of Kenneth Francis
With Francis, in my view, there is a confusion between poor theology and an unnoticed social theory. Tout court, man needs Jesus to have a sense of transcendence, and if society as a whole ceases to believe in Jesus, the sense of transcendence goes to the sack and turns everyone nihilistic depraved. The world is turned upside down because people left Jesus.
At the time of breaking the rule, Francis makes it clear that he respects the authority of the analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who is to cry with so poor. After more than a millennium of theological debates over the various ways of proving the existence of God, Plantinga has settled the matter on the grounds that it is as certain as our perception of a member of the body. Saying “God exists” is as self-evident and needs as much proof as saying “I have a hand”. Hell, all the languages in the world should be able to express “I have a hand”; atheists also say they have hands. But atheists deny the existence of God, and if you consider that every language in the world has a word for “God”, your understanding will certainly vary from creed to creed. If a Tupi cannibal believes in God in the year of 1400, he is certainly a very different God from Plantinga. And if we believe in Plantinga, we don’t even understand why God would bother to make a Revelation, since his existence is so obvious.
“In rejecting Christ, we reject the logos: Logic, Reason and Truth”, says Kenneth Francis. “The whole objective moral order is based on this. But in 21st century higher education, postmodernism is evident.” So, his belief is that everyone, like good Protestants, interpreted the Bible correctly and objectively, and then derived the biblical moral order. Postmodernism came, then order collapsed. A serious defect of modern rationalism is that it ignores accumulated human experience and considers everything in an abstract light. It is evident that Christ is not identical with logic; if that were so, all those born before Christ and all peoples who did not receive the Good News would be irrational. Among those born before Christ are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The latter was of paramount importance to Catholicism; his teacher, however, is the teacher of every rationalist – above all when he considers divinity essential to the perception of the beautiful and the good. Furthermore, Jews rejected Christ. Are they irrational beings? This is a reading of the Bible that doesn’t smell very good.
Social theory is very bad. If the denial of Christ implied nihilism and anomie, all the non-Christian peoples of the world would be nihilistic and chaotic; in all historical periods, most Indians and Japanese would be unable to make sense of their lives and find transcendence.
Point to Dalrymple
Shortly after giving this exclusivist conception of rationality, he criticizes postmodern professors who call logic and mathematics white, Christian and European – so we can see that the postmodern is still the another face of this same Protestant exclusivism. See what a confusing construction: “Solzhenitsyn was all too familiar with the evil people do by rejecting Christ. This is not to say that all atheists are evil. Many atheists are morally good people, but it is difficult for them to objectively justify their morality.” Now his whole point is that society needs moral justification to be good. It remains to be seen whether he himself has an objective moral justification for reasoning with an atheist.
Despite his morally dangerous (see the Jewish question) and factually wrong (see the long history of the Logic) and of Reason before Christ), Francis proves to be a tolerant, cultured and insightful thinker. This shows that Dalrymple is right in considering that our objective grounds are unimportant to our conduct. Francis is a good writer, if we leave aside his “objective foundations”.
Like postmodern critics, we can say that Francis is an observer who makes the mistake of pretending to be universal, but its perception is acute if we restrict ourselves to western Europe, whose elite is now indistinguishable from the elites of the Americas. And even reasoning about the scope of how far Francis’ reasoning is worth more questions arise in my head. For example: in Europe there is a lot of atheism, but not in the Americas. So the English mother who lives on social security and exposes her children to violent rotating stepfathers is likely to open her mouth and say there is no God. But the very same type of woman exists in Brazil and the United States, and they are very unlikely to deny Jesus. On the contrary, they must assign social security to him. Hence I think it is possible to lose the sense of transcendence in such a way that even God managed to flatten it. Perhaps it is an immaterial manager of material benefits, as those car stickers that read “It was God who gave it to me” suggest.