Politics & Policy

North Atlantic Community, Part Iii

Part III: The values we have in common.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last part of a speech delivered on July 3, 2003 for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia. Part I appeared Wednesday (here) and Part II on Thursday (here).

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — When we look out through the next hundred years, no other potential alliance in the world rivals the European and North Atlantic civilization, not in cultural power, nor in economic power, nor in military power. The only thing that can defeat us is our own disunity. What drive us together in the first place are our own interests and, even more deeply, our ‘common values.’ Statesmen are fond of stressing these ‘common values’ at the end of their speeches. But over the years our ability to state these values has grown weaker and weaker. The reason for this vagueness is that our civilization is distinctive primarily because of its Jewish and Christian roots. But both in America and in Europe, especially in Europe, our elites no longer feel comfortable expressing reality in religious language. Thus, on many important points — noticeably so, under threat from Muslim antagonists — they fall silent, or try too obviously to change the subject.

Specifically, we in the North Atlantic civilization draw four thought-categories, or frameworks, or paradigms, from our Jewish and Christian roots. These four are the rights endowed in all humans by their Creator; liberty of conscience; a regulative idea of truth; and historical consciousness. These are horizon-shaping concepts, which frame the way we look at reality. Each of these boundary concepts may be articulated in secular terms. It is not necessary to be a believing Jew or Christian in order to hold them in mind or, more exactly, to be held in their grip.

As a wise and experienced rabbi once explained to me, it is important in establishing a new synagogue to pay special attention to ‘flying buttresses,’ that is, to those people who support the synagogue from outside, without ever going through the door. In the same way, it is important to find words to express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues. It is necessary to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, no orthodox believer himself, wrote that one of the truths we hold is that “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Even those who do not hold that there is a Creator of all things may understand by this locution that each human being, by the very fact of being human, shares in certain inalienable natural rights. Such persons may grasp the essential point, moreover, that these rights are not given to us by the State, nor may they be taken away by States. They are rooted in our own innate capacity to reflect and to choose. They are rooted in our capacity to be self-governing agents, such that each of us is responsible, alone, for choosing our individual destiny.

Again, our commitment to religious liberty, or liberty of conscience, also has a specifically Jewish and Christian historical origin. But it, too, is also understandable in secular terms. After immense suffering from religious warfare, in which human beings seemed to be discrediting religion by the very act of killing one another to vindicate it, certain thinkers began to notice accusatory characteristics of “the Divine Author of our religion” (as Jefferson put it). For instance, the God of Israel wanted to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth,” not solely by external motions, and not on false pretences, but with honesty of heart and singleness of mind. In addition, He addressed his word to each individual in solitude (as well as to all together, as a community), in such fashion that each is obliged to reply to him in a way that neither mother nor father nor sister not brother can do in his stead. In that sense, personal responsibility is inalienable. That responsibility belongs to the self alone. And no one can legitimately interfere in the arena in which the soul stands alone and inalienably before God. In brief, States must respect the religious liberty of each person.

Obviously, it is not necessary to be a Christian or Jewish believer to grasp the secular point of that religious discovery. Conscience is inviolable. It is beyond the reach of States. God Himself may have commissioned some few to speak in his name, but in the end even their words may be rejected, or on the contrary accepted, as the conscience of each among the people directs. In religious terms, the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus wants only the worship of free women and free men, not of slaves. In secular terms, every human person is bound to follow his or her own conscience, and to do so conscientiously. This is not to say that all consciences are equal, or that there is no such thing as truth. But it is to insist that in the search for truth, due attention should be paid to evidence. Thus, civilized peoples argue about serious matters in the light of evidence. They respect each other as reasonable creatures, and they hold each other to conducting themselves reasonably. Thus the discovery of the principle of religious liberty leads to discoveries about the nature of truth.

For, in this same spirit, reasonable people recognize the importance to civilized living of a regulative principle of truth. By truth, they mean that which may be affirmed and held in the light of evidence. Without a rule of looking to evidence that may be able to sway reasonable persons, a people would have no rational method for resolving differences. The alternative is a brute appeal to superior power. Indeed, the acceptance or non-acceptance of the regulative idea of truth separates civilized peoples from barbarians. Civilized people argue with one another in the light of evidence. Barbarians club one another.

Finally, one of the great gifts that Judaism conveyed to Christianity, and thence to the civilization of Europe and the North Atlantic, is the sense that, because there is a Creator and a Messiah, history is not a cycle of continuous and eternal return to its starting point, in as it were a circle. Rather, history is an uneven line whose course is determined by human freedom, a line which has a beginning, a middle, and an end — a narrative line, so to speak, whose axial point, whose bright red interpretive thread, is liberty. History is the story of the slow appropriation by the human race of the full meaning of human liberty — that is, the liberty that is constituted by deliberate self-government. It is, therefore, the story of countless personal appropriations of liberty. It is also the story of large human social experiments in building up institutions compatible with and supportive of human liberty. Liberty is the main interpretive thread of human history.

One implication of this sense of history is that one needs a theory of the development of doctrine, a way to measure what is true progress in understanding fundamental ideas and categories, and what is a distortion. Today’s Muslims are urgently searching for some such systematic method for determining what is permanently valid from the Koran, and what belongs properly to one period but perhaps not to later periods. Not only Jews and Christians, but all serious secular philosophers have also had to wrestle with a theory of how to discern authentic progress from distortion and betrayal.

These four categories of thought, in a word, are a few of the ‘common values’ of Europe and America. All in fact had a religious origin. Yet they are each susceptible of quite rational secular articulation. One does not have to be Christian or Jewish to cherish them, or to make them one’s own.

Common convictions about natural rights, religious liberty, a regulative idea of truth, and historical consciousness — these are four of the distinguishing marks of the civilization of Europe and North America, which set it off from every other civilization in history, whether religious or secular.

These are the marks that most deeply unify Europe and America.

When one looks ahead for the next 50 years, or even for a century, there seems no other alliance so deeply or so well grounded, so capable both of authentic progress on the path of liberty, and of authentic re-appropriations of forgotten truths from our own past. It would be unforgivable if America and Europe, because of current pettiness and manufactured rivalries, did not go forward together, for the good of the human race as a whole, and for the good both of Europe and America. Despite their particular origin, furthermore, our common values have important meaning for all cultures universally, as many in other cultures have long been testifying. Others may not accept these common values wholesale, or in the same way that we do, but nothing in these common values belongs solely to us. Like all things human, they both have a particular historical origin, and also they are part of the common heritage of humankind.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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