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The Problem of Subjecting Logos to Ethos
Religion is the antidote to ideology
Over the past several years, we have seen a multitude of public intellectuals address what is being referred to as “The Meaning Crisis.”
In the wake of the New Atheist movement, figures such as Jordan Peterson, Bishop Barron, et al have started a new social discourse around the topic of religion and what ultimately gives our existence meaning. Responding to their predecessors/contemporaries Christophers Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Sam Harris, these new “Horseman of Meaning” have sparked a movement that is getting others to think about religion in a way that most people have never encountered.
As religion declined in the West, many have noted that ideologies rose to fill the religion-shaped hole that exists in all human beings. The spread of Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Feminism and other brands of Identity-Politics (all philosophically Marxist ) has a correlation to the mass exodus of religion in the West and the adoption of agnostic/atheistic worldviews. As people disassociated from traditional religious beliefs, many replaced them with pseudo-religious ideologies that give their lives a sense of purpose through social/economic activism.
I’m not naive enough to suggest that atheism is the cause of ideological possession, after all, there are many atheists who are staunchly opposed to these movements. But this pattern we see emerging does raise some interesting questions about the nature of religion and how it differs or relates to ideology. It would appear that human beings cannot help but be religious, even if these ideologies are only a cheap knockoff of what religion is actually about. What I am saying here is nothing new, the individuals I mentioned above (most notably, Peterson) have been discussing this phenomenon for several years now and I’m not trying to simply reiterate what they have already said on the matter.
What I am trying to get at is what is happening at a philosophical level that is problematic with these ideologies and why religion (properly understood) is the solution. It all starts with understanding the driving force behind these phenomena — Logos and Ethos.
Logos & Ethos
Logos and Ethos are concepts out of classical Greek philosophy that have adopted a variety of meanings over the millennia. The Ancient Greek philosophers used the terms in different ways. Aristotle for example used logos and ethos to describe different modes of argumentation in the field of rhetoric whereas the Stoics and later Neoplatonists discussed these concepts more as philosophical principles of order, knowledge, and belief.
For the sake of clarity, it’s important to define what I mean by these terms for the current context.
Ethos (ήθος) is the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. Ethos is not identical to ethics, but they are related. Ethos is the principles that have the power to influence behaviors, emotions, or even morals, so in a sense, ethics are a component of ethos.
Logos (λόγος) is the generative principle of order in the universe — the summit of all meaning. It is related to reason and rationality but only insofar as reason and rationality are rooted in the order of reality that is the Logos. Just as Ethos is related to ethics, Logos is related to logic insofar as logic is grounded in Logos. Logos also includes the reason (not reason as in rationality, but as in purpose or source) for everything. It is the why of all things. Logos not only reveals the order and structure of the world (the logic), but it also reveals its purpose — the reason why it exists. Logos is the origin.
Religion vs. Ideology
As a Roman Catholic, it’s obvious that I find a very real difference between religion and ideology — a difference that is perhaps not so apparent to some. This distinction is important because in order to understand ideology one has to first understand the religious impulse that exists within each person and what role it plays in human psychology.
I wrote this article which is a decent primer on my thoughts on religiosity that I will expand on here.
In my experience, there is something that very few people seem to realize, but it is the key to actually understanding religion.
Most people look at religion and see a set of moral claims, but this is a low-resolution understanding.
Religion is NOT about ethics or morality.
Religion is a way of looking at the world and structuring reality through meaning. Religion is about Logos. It is about finding the highest value, the summum bonum, and turning all of our attention towards it by placing it at the top of the hierarchy and using it as a lens through which to view and understand the world.
It’s true that most, if not all, religions have some kind of moral structure, but that is very far downstream from what religion is really about, which is meaning. Without a highest value — a source of meaning — a Logos, morality is arbitrary.
Religion does not start with morality and then build out a map of meaning from its ethical principles. That is what ideologies do. Religion starts with a map of meaning and creates moral principles by observing reality through the lens of the Logos and placing all things in their proper order in the hierarchy.
This is the key to understanding that the difference between these two images is a matter of orientation. Although the actions look the same, they are fundamentally different. Religion is a response to reality, not the creation of it. Ideology is the imposition of beliefs onto reality. Religion takes the world and builds a mountain vertically up toward the divine with the Logos as the summit. Ideology takes an ethos and forces it upon the world horizontally.
This is why Ideology is inherently materialist. It always strives to enact some kind of social or economic change and uses that to interpret the world. Ever notice how people who are ideologically possessed seem to see their ideology in every facet of society? Someone who views the world through the lens of CRT sees racism and oppression everywhere. Someone who is a feminist sees acts of sexism and inequality in the most innocuous actions. This is because their ethos has become their logos and their ethic has become their logic.
Religion is a response to something outside of itself, whereas ideologies are closed-off, self-contained systems.
Where religion is open to being molded by reality, ideology tries to fit reality into its preconceived set of values. Ideology subjects Logos to Ethos. It creates meaning out of a presupposed ethic instead of an ethic out of an established source of meaning.
Some may draw a similarity between religion and ideology because they perceive both to be inherently dogmatic. While most religions tend to make dogmatic assertions, the difference is that they are oriented toward the pursuit of truth, whereas ideologies try to shape the truth around pre-established dogma.
Religions can certainly become ideological, but properly understood and practiced, religion is not ideological because it is open to questioning. What I just said may have caused some to think I’m biased or hopelessly delusional. After all, aren’t religions defined by their sets of dogmatic unquestionable beliefs? Don’t they have doctrines you absolutely have to believe or be labeled a heretic?
Let me explain.
There is a difference between questioning in the sense of doubting and questioning in the sense of inquiring. No one would call me a dogmatist for asserting that the sky is blue, and I would be right to label anyone a “heretic” who denied it. Being open to questions is good, but we must not be so open-minded that we never come to any concrete conclusions.
As G.K. Chesterton said:
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Any true religious tradition welcomes inquiry into its teachings. The Catholic Church for example has a long intellectual tradition of saints and scholars who have devoted their lives to rigorous theological study. The purpose of this is for the Church to provide philosophically sound and convincing answers to those who question the legitimacy of her doctrines. The Church certainly proclaims absolute truths, but it does not suppress questions when doing so. On the contrary, it has spilled a great deal of ink in order to provide the inquiring mind with answers.
To cite Chesterton again:
"There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.”
The difference between religious dogma and ideological dogma is that any truly religious belief system ought to welcome questions and provide answers. Religion becomes an ideology when it rebukes those who dare to challenge its assertions instead of providing answers (and there are certainly many religious people who do this).
One of the distinctive features of woke ideology is the inability to question its beliefs without being labeled a heretic. If you push back against feminist claims you will be labeled a sexist. If you suggest CRT is based on a false premise you will be labeled a racist. Dissent is met with rebuke and shaming rather than answers.
Ideologies look very distinctly religious because they are grasping at something religion has that ideology can only simulate. Ideology is, essentially, trying to fit religion into an ethics-shaped hole by subjecting the Logos to Ethos or by turning an Ethos INTO the Logos.
Awake, Not Woke
There are many who claim that Christianity is just a precursor for most modern ideological movements and that the Christian worldview carved a path for wokeism.
There is a sense in which I don’t blame non-Christians for coming to this conclusion given the way Christianity is practiced in most places in America, but it’s a conclusion that is based on a misunderstanding of the religion.
Wokeism is not the sequel to Christianity, it is a perversion of it. It is the consequence of removing the Logos from Christianity. When someone has a superficial understanding of the doctrine, it’s easy to think egalitarianism is built into the Christian worldview, but Christianity is inherently hierarchical, and the Biblical texts warn against what happens when things are not all in their proper place.
1 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of perfumed oil made of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.) 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfumed oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box he used to take what was put into it.) 7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She has kept it for the day of my burial. 8 For you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me” (John 12:1-7).
Most people would probably read this passage and assume the only thing the text is communicating is that Judas is a thief and that this is foreshadowing his betrayal of Christ. There is a sense in which that is true, but the actual meaning of Judas’ betrayal of Christ can only be fully understood when the full meaning of this passage is clear. The passage is about hierarchy.
The beginning of John’s gospel starts: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). In the original Greek, the “Word” is “λόγος” or “Logos”. John is identifying Christ as the incarnate Logos which is a significant piece of information needed to interpret the above passage (and the rest of the biblical texts). The text is not just giving us insight into Judas’ character but something far more profound. Christ rebukes Judas for placing his ethos above the Logos (Himself).
Mary is rightfully taking something of value and offering it to the highest possible thing, Christ, the Logos and in contrast, Judas wants her to offer what is valuable to the lower things. Mary is performing an act of sacrifice — an act of worship — to her God, to Christ, to the Logos. She is placing everything in its proper place in the hierarchy. Judas’ hierarchy is inverted and he subjected the Logos to Ethos by worshipping his own will instead of Christ. Judas is the egalitarian who wants to take what rightfully belongs to others and give it to himself.
We see this same pattern manifest itself again when Judas betrays Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by kissing Him on the cheek. Another false act of compassion aimed at furthering the interests of Judas.
Wokeism is the “Christianity” of Judas Iscariot. It is taking an inordinate amount of value and attention to the lower things by elevating them above God. As Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said in regards to those who care for humanity but ignore the truths of God and propagate false compassion:
“Judas Iscariot would be the patron saint of social justice.”
Some Christians get confused by this idea of compassion and will often attempt to weaponize the Christian idea of loving your neighbor in order to further some kind of ideological aim. This is why social justice types are always trying to pin Christ as some kind of rebellious anti-state socialist. People who aren’t even Christian will try to use Christ to justify their own ideological worldview by pulling doctrines out of their proper place and using them to subvert Christianity. A sure sign of a false prophet…
Loving your neighbor is certainly a good thing in Christianity, but it is not the highest good. Christ is at the top of the hierarchy, and any attempt to place something above the Logos will inevitably subvert and distort the true meaning of the religious structure because the entire structure’s meaning is revealed by the Logos.
This radical inclusivity (caring about everything equally) that woke ideology tries to propagate is an assault on our ability to discriminate between that which is higher and that which is lower, which is a faculty that is fundamentally human — to order creation, and to put everything in its proper place is the cosmic role of mankind. Without hierarchy, without Logos, everything is the same, and nothing has any value.
Religion is not the cause of ideology. It is the antidote to it.