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Kralt: Unity in diversity

Whether you’re an English major reading the works of Shakespeare, a chemistry major experimenting with acid based reactions, a sociology major investigating Emile Durkheim’s idea of the collective consciousness, or a math major working out Joseph Liouville’s theorem, you will encounter a fascinating world of facts, theories, and ideas in your undergraduate years. Facts and ideas which will help you to attain a greater understanding of the world around you, and how and why past intellectuals believe humans behave the way they do.

But as we study these issues we can find ourselves falling into the situation aptly summarized by the old joke that experts learn more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. As the joke suggests, this rampant specialization can actually inhibit our understanding of the world, unless we are able to gain an understanding of how each specialized field fits into the overall puzzle known as life. What is needed here is some sort of metaphorical thread that is able to connect our studies with other disciplines, other ideas, and help us to better understand where we fit into the world.

Can such a thread be found?

Emil Brunner, a Swiss academic theologian, once presented the idea that those who live in the West are living at a unique moment in time; never before he said, has a major civilization attempted to build itself deliberately and self-consciously without a religious foundation. Evidence of this idea can be provided by pointing to the fact that the geo-political region described as the West used to go by the name Christendom, nearly all of the presidents of American Ivy league universities were Christian pastors, and a “Lord’s Day law” was enforced in Canada.

Whether it was monotheistic (the belief in one god), as is the case in Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Christianity; polytheistic (the belief in many gods), as was the case in ancient Egypt, Rome, and many of the ancient Greek city states; pantheistic (the view that the universe and God are identical), or something else, every civilization has had a religious foundation informing the way it views life and the world. While each religion differs tremendously in how it describes the world, they all provide a system of thinking that prioritizes the community—the whole—over the individual. This notion that values and meaning come from a source beyond the individual and his or her preferences and desires is, in my mind, the foundation upon which all culture developed.

What does this mean for the West? It would be absurd to suggest that our region is slowly becoming totally devoid of all culture as religion is declining. Basic community life appears as healthy as ever—from sports leagues, to community centres, to rotary club, there’s no shortage of communal activities for those who choose to partake in them. Yet, beneath all of this there is no religious foundation, and thus no unifying theme connecting all of life into a single and coherent whole. Instead, each individual is left to his or her own reason and autonomy (a word that means “one who gives oneself their own law) to infuse meaning into their life and subsequently invent the moral code necessary to achieve this.

The much-adored 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant summarized this idea of autonomy wonderfully when he coined the slogan for the enlightenment: “dare to use your reason.” One effect of this is that proper morality is universal in nature and thus does not require revelation (i.e., it removes the need of a religion to create culture).

He himself was raised in a deeply religious home, and as is usually the case when this happens, became a large advocate of a moral law. Yet, it’s apparent to any undergraduate who takes the idea of morality seriously, that many intellectuals who have “dared to use their reason” and chosen to rely solely on a personal autonomy, have come to very different conclusions than Mr. Kant—that a universal moral law does not exist (see: postmodernism).