Ask Mr. Autodidact:  Secular Catechism

I received this request from Giulio Parisi: 

Thank you for your excellent podcasts and articles. I just recently

discovered your work through a YouTube wormhole, where I found a

late-1980s PBS documentary about the 1960s. Your commentary in that

documentary was so sharp and illuminating, I sought out your website.

My question is about your thoughts on what Tim Keller has described as

the Catechism of Secularism. These beliefs have so completely

dominated our culture that they are like the air we breathe. These are

summarized as follows:

- You have to be true to yourself.

- In the end you have to do what makes you happy.

- Nobody has the right to tell anyone what is right for him or her.

- You should be free to live any way you want so long as you’re not

harming other people.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this concept.  Should

traditionalists be concerned with these values? How would you explain

the flaws (and possibly the benefits) of such values to children

growing up in this culture?

Let’s take up the questions on by one and then try to come to a general conclusion.

The first proposal is “You have to be true to yourself.”  We are inevitably reminded of Polonius’ sententious declaration in Hamlet, 

Neither a borrower nor a lender be; 

For loan oft loses both itself and friend, 

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. 

This above all- to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day

Thou canst not then be false to any man. 

Our first question should be, what do we mean by true? Certainly we don’t mean honest, that is, truth-telling, or scrupulously accurate, as in “I’m telling a true story,” but the more primitive sense of the word, namely, loyal or faithful.
Our second question should be: Was Polonius right—or, does Shakespeare expect us to think he’s right? I’m not entirely sure, but Polonius, who is the loyal supporter of a man who has murdered his brother, taken his wife in marriage, deprived the lawful heir of his rightful position and plans to kill him, is hardly what one would call a “true man.” If he has any honor, it is the honor attributed to thieves who are loyal to their gang.
On the more general question, whether or not being true to one’s self makes us true to others, simple human observation tells us that there are lots of men and women who are doggedly devoted to their own sense of who they are and what they deserve, even to a personal code, but they let everyone down who make the mistake of counting on them.
If all that is meant here, is “look out for number one,” that is the code of the wolverine, any anyone, I mean literally anyone, who dared to espouse such nasty selfishness, would have to be avoided like someone infected with COVID.
One might also ask those who espouse this platitude, what they mean by "self." Ancient poets and philosophers would join hands with modern social psychologists in understanding that much of the human self is a social construction.
We begin life totally dependent on mother, and as a few years pass we realized the significance of our other attachments, to father, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and fellow citizens, but who we are is also formed in part by religious traditions, poets, teachers, and priests. This is not some figment of the religious imagination. The atheist David Hume observed that man born of woman is compelled to maintain society.

To deny the puniness of our own contribution to our “self” would be an act of ignorance even more than of ingratitude. I have never heard of Timothy Keller, but if he is the fellow who wrote a highly praised book on marriage, then this catechism proves he is an almost complete idiot.  I say almost because no one is perfect.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Avatar Kellen Buckles says:

    “You should be free to live any way you want so long as you’re not harming other people” is the battle cry of the liberal, Left or Right. When a Leftist says it, he follows with “and don’t worry, if you screw up, we’ll take care of you.” When a Rightist (Libertarian) says it he follows with “and if you screw up, you’re on your own.” Neither position is tenable or really relevant because they are solutions to a false premise. Very little that is outside the bounds of social norms can be exercised without harming other people.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Let us not prevent, as we used to say in English, the future points.

  3. Avatar Khater M says:

    Dr. Fleming
    Tim Keller is a moderately conservative Calvinist preacher who leads a large church in NYC. I remember reading a book of his( The Reason for God) which wasn’t too bad. I think you may have misunderstood part of the question. Keller calls this the “secular catechism” It’s not his catechism. These are the values he sees propagated by modern young people

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the clarification if not quite correction. When the query came in, I did a brief search on Keller and found nothing that did not repell me. A “Neo-calvinist” pop preacher theologian who in company with Dobson, Robby George, Dick Neuhaus and all the rest of the crew signed the “Manhattan Declaration.” The only Manhattan declaration I want is the answer to the age old question, “How do you make a perfect Manhattan?” I did see a few things he’d said on marriage. He does not appear to have given the subject much thought.

    These Rotarian preachers have been an embarrassment to Christianity for over 100 years. It’s nice he doesn’t actually believe the “Secular Confession,” bur from what I’ve seen his type is one of the major reasons Christianity is disappearing from the United States. What a waste of time it has been even looking into the career of the new Dale Carnegie whose disciples think he is the new CS Lewis.

  5. Avatar Harry Colin says:

    A most welcome explanation. I suggest few quotations have been more misunderstood or misused than “To thine own self be true.”

    One question about Mr. Keller and his flock – would his minions even know who C.S. Lewis is?

  6. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    Dr Fleming, your comment reminds me of Dickie Taylor in the movie Barcelona, who tells Ted: “Sure, we all love Carnegie, but have you read Drucker?”

    Walker Percy, in his often-hilarious dystopian novel Love In The Ruins, gets a few good jabs in at the Rotarians, many of whom, I assume, who attend Mass at the American Catholic Church (whose Holy See is located in Cicero,Illinois), where the Star-Spangled Banner is played at the elevation.

    As for the Perfect Manhattan, that one will need to remain unanswered for a while.

  7. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Walker Percy was an extraordinary gentleman for his times and I always take notice when someone mentions another of his observations. He was redundant, although most American types would say original in his treatment of estrangement to another of my favorites, Hilaire Belloc. Thank you for mentioning him, Mr Rosenberg.

  8. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    My first literary hero, Judge. This is actually the third time I’ve referenced him in the comments, the last week or so. I like to think his surviving family gets a small royalty for each mention, from a thriving website such as this.

  9. Avatar James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    Could you say a little more about Dale Carnegie, Paul Harris, and Rotary International? I’ve always been skeptical and found the groups odd. If you seek fellowship, why not get involved in your church?

  10. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I have a weakness for Whit Stillman movies.