Even Australia’s fickle media agree, John Haldane is voice worth listening to

John Haldane at Warrane College. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
John Haldane at Warrane College. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

It will be like this from now until Judgment Day; an age devoid of widespread agreement, where sloganeered non-arguments such as ‘marriage equality’ – representing “the kind of intellectual outlook of a 14-year-old” – are likely to hold sway.

And Catholics, rent from their long-lost cultural supremacy and universalist dreams that all will be saved, will have to decide, ‘Do I really believe that I am called to lead others to God?’, and to live, pray and act accordingly.

Eased by unaffected charm and a lilting, Scottish burr, the distinguished philosopher John Haldane has had a lot to say in the past 2½ months, while teaching in Sydney as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Most astonishingly, perhaps, given Australia’s shrill and increasingly toxic media environment, people have actually been listening.

Throughout his time in Australia, in a range of public lectures and TV appearances, he has frequently come across as the grown up in the room; and often in some of the most unlikely places.

Last week, he was lauded in the Guardian for his recent appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program, its Melbourne editor, Gay Alcorn praising him as a sane and measured voice, even in spite of his being a Catholic.

(“He took complicated and charged questions and tried to make sense of them. In doing so, he spoke of something critical in a liberal democracy, something we are at risk of losing – the idea of ‘reasonable disagreement’ on controversial issues.”)

Earlier this year, he spoke at an official event of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, arguing against the proposition, ‘Society must recognise trans people’s identities’ to an audience who, before it had even begun, were 76 per cent in favour, and four per cent against. (After the debate: 65 per cent in favour; 24 against).

There, he won some acceptance for the commonsense notion that simply because someone claims to be one thing, does not – of itself – mean that they are that thing, pointing to the US example of Rachel Dolezal, a black rights’ advocate who was last year outed as white.

(His was perhaps the only voice that could hope to elicit agreement that night amid the other participants’ mutual deferment to self-ascribed – and conflicting – identities, between, for example, transgender-identifying persons and lesbian feminists.)

The father of four, who is in Australia with his wife Hilda, holds professorships at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and at Baylor University, USA, and visiting professorships at the University of Birmingham, England; the Royal Institute of Philosophy, London; and the University of Notre Dame, USA.

He is widely considered to be a key figure in the philosophical movement known as ‘Analytical Thomism’ – a term he coined – combining the philosophy of the 13th century Aristotelian philosopher Thomas Aquinas with insights from contemporary, Anglo-American philosophy.

And he was made a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture, by Pope Benedict XVI, a position from which he still gives advice to the current pontiff, Pope Francis.

On Thursday, 12 May, he will present the last of his public lectures in Sydney before returning, via Fremantle, to his academic work in the UK and the US.

The Challenge of Barbarianism – and how to deal with it will examine the renewed currency of ‘barbarianism’ following the rise of militant ideologies, and will suggest means of dealing with the phenomenon, whether external or internal.

But it would be a false expectation to imagine that Prof Haldane would tout “the collapse of civilisation” anytime soon.

“There is a general human tendency, at the level of society, groups and individuals, to over-emphasise their own perspective on things,” he says.

“Of course, we see the world from our perspective but we have to be aware that it is from our perspective, and be willing to correct it.”

What has collapsed, he says, is the once commonplace belief in an objective reality, held no less by the pagan, fourth century BC philosopher Aristotle than by the thirteenth century Doctor of the Church, theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

It has been the case for quite some time that academics and intellectuals no longer believe that they can discover the truth through the exercise of reason.

“Not only can you not go to the religious root, but it’s even harder to go the philosophical root,” Prof Haldane told The Catholic Weekly.

“Aquinas effectively said that whether you go the root of religion or whether you go the root of philosophy, it’s going to bring you to the same place, a traditional objectivist morality, where there really are questions about right and wrong.

“And if you want to know the answers to those questions you go to human nature. It’s what we are – objectively and determinedly – that is the ground of working out what we ought to do and what would be good for us.

“I think people have tried to substitute for that a picture that denies norms in nature – ‘It’s up to us to decide what we are. It would be mere biologism to look to nature. Our whole point is our autonomy,’ etc.

“Nature’s constraints are not moral but merely physical, and in fact, we are going to go beyond those again.”

The shift to ‘voluntarism’ – that we create our own morality – helps to explain the phenomenon of “no platforming” in self-styled liberal and democratic countries, the often-successful attempts of activist groups to shut down events at which people whose views they find “hurtful” or “harmful” are speaking.

“Ethical voluntarism – ‘it’s right because I choose it’ – gets transposed into ‘we choose it’ because people worry about the possibility of disagreement,” Prof Haldane said.

“Once you’ve done that, it’s psychologically necessary to give all of that the force of reality.

“It’s not reality, it’s ‘us’. But the projection has to be vivid and seemingly real. So, I think all of this coercive discourse that doesn’t admit objection is a mixture of rejecting the past, and trying to fix an image as if it were reality.”

He has noticed in Australia what he has also observed in other former colonies, Canada and Ireland among them: a clamouring and desperate ‘presentism’, determined to cast off the “shackles” of the past.

“These cultures seem exceedingly anxious to demonstrate to the world that they are not backwaters,” he said. “I think that accounts in part for the kind of anxiety and sort-of revolutionary fervour in those countries; falling over themselves to try to get on board with what they would call a ‘progressive’ agenda, precisely because they have a slight anxiety about an inferiority complex.”

But neither Australia nor the other former colonies are alone in basking in the self-flattery of contemporary, Western culture; of being about ‘ideas’ and critical thinking.

“It’s not, in truth, interested in ideas at all,” Prof Haldane says, describing many of the people he encounters in public life, as “unbelievable conventionalists”.

“The kind of people we might see in the media now, intelligent media people and so on, they like to be sort of ‘radical and challenging’ but what they don’t like are things that are ‘radical and challenging’ (laughs).”

What accounts, then, for the sheer number of times he has been invited to appear on some of the most thoughtful programs around, on the BBC, ITV and, in the United States, PBS?

There’s a lot to be said for courtesy and trying to be as affable as one can, he intimates. And then there is his genuine and apparent curiosity.

“I find the whole idea of transgenderism to be quite mysterious in some ways,” he says, thinking back to the public debate.

“My attack was not on transgenderism, it was on the idea that society must recognise something because someone says they must recognise something. I think that idea is tyrannical and absurd.

“(But) maybe there is an interesting investigation of a kind – of science, psychology and philosophy – (to be had), one about the nature of sexual identities – but this isn’t even allowed.”

At Notre Dame’s QandA event, and in his public lecture, Sex and Society on 17 March, he made a clear distinction between arguments for same-sex marriage, which were thoughtful enough to warrant additional thinking, and “mere slogans” masquerading as thought.

He compared ‘marriage equality’ to the “too-easy proofs for the existence of God”, in pre-modern times, when everybody – at least officially – believed in God.

“What I find really rather disturbing is that the slogan ‘marriage equality’ represents the kind of intellectual outlook of a 14-year-old,” he said at the QndA event.

“It is as simple-minded and stupid as some of the arguments which were given for the existence of God, (which) were (often) just glib. ‘The world can’t have created itself, therefore God must exist’, or something of that sort.

“What I’ve come to realise is that these issues are deep and difficult. We live in a world of contested ideas. The popular waves of fashion … They evaporate … But I do think that we’ve entered into an age which I can’t see changing, in which, from now on in, everything is going to be open to contest. I just think we are going to be fighting all the way through now. I think we are beyond the age in which people think things can be demonstrated with clarity and certainty and are beyond dispute. I think it is just dispute from now on ‘til Judgment Day.”

Far from seriously contemplating what is sometimes called ‘the Benedict option’, withdrawing into the monasteries and deserts like the ancient Christians in order to preserve the light of learning and reason, Prof Haldane says it would contrary to the nature of Christianity as a beneficent religion. In any case, “there are no caves left”.

All that is left is to get among it; to be leaven in the world.

Events are more important than ideas when understanding history, he says.

There again, Prof Haldane’s observations are thought-provoking but unexpected, demonstrating more in common with his spiritual brethren of recent posterity than might usually be expected of someone who expounds the areligious nature of reason.

Reason, yes, but, moreover, pray, be of good will, and hope.

John Haldane talks:
‘Sex and Society’ at the University of Notre Dame, Broadway
QndA with John Haldane at the University of Notre Dame, Broadway