Paul K. Eckstein
Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus
For me, as a philosopher, the most extraordinary thing about the following transcript is the extent to which key philosophical issues are confronted head-on by a group of individuals whose varying “professional” roles and self-conceptions place them all within what has come to be known broadly as the helping professions. That this bridge between therapeutic intervention–whether via exit counselling, the various psychotherapies, or legal remedy–and philosophical concerns is built at all is largely due to the special gifts informing the perspective of Johannes Monrad Aagaard, Professor at the Institute of Missiology and Ecumenical Theology of the Faculty of Theology at Aarhus University, Denmark. This meeting was designed especially to enable those present to have a dialogue with Professor Aagaard produced, in my opinion, precisely the desired result: a forum that enabled all the participants to ask the broad questions that are sometimes lost in the busy pursuit of activities on paths already chosen but which continue to echo in those quiet moments always available for self-reflection.
As can be seen from the discussion, Professor Aagaard’s own interventions in this regard are decisive, not only because of the clarity of his vision but also because he has a way of making his language count for so much. This is easily seen in its aphoristic moments: “Fundamentalism is not orthodoxy. It is anti-liberalism with a bad conscience,” “Eschatology is not a pie [in-the-sky],” “Every important thought was thought in the medieval period, and since then nobody really has thought anything,” “You are not saved by knowledge, but by a divine act!” Whether one agrees with the specifics or not, one must admit that Professor Aagaard knows his own soul and is prepared for genuine dialogue with others who are interested in attaining a comparable level of self-awareness.
But, of course, as Professor Aagaard himself would have it, no soteriology without eschatology! It is precisely the cosmological dimension in this discussion which prevents us from getting caught in the various relativistic traps, whether psychological or cultural, frequently set by the modern world’s pretense of forgetfulness. For Professor Aagaard, languages themselves are fundamentally religious, and one’s dwelling within a language informs one’s very soul. It is for this reason, in my opinion, that Professor Aagaard makes such a virtue of consistency: For without it, one’s very soul is in jeopardy. It is, of course, to his credit that he realizes that consistency, which is the very bedrock of logic, is not a strictly Greco-Judeo-Christian value, but informs all the world’s great and genuine religions–both Eastern and Western. As he clearly believes, consistency, however, is not present in those ersatz religious movements known as cults, against which all those present in this dialogue spend some portion of their time in combat.
Thus, one of the first issues raised in the discussion–our ability to develop a criterion by which we might distinguish between genuine religions and cults masquerading as religious movements–revolves around this notion of consistency, for it is precisely consistency of language which allows one to live a genuine life from within a religion. The notion that one can demonstrate that cults are nonsense by examining their languages, by showing that in them, as Professor Aagaard maintains, “language has become a prostitute,” is to provide a sharp weapon with which to provoke a cult’s victims into returning from their hiding places and rejoicing in their newly rediscovered freedom. There is thus a normative notion of critical rationality at work here. Though, of course being a theologian, Professor Aagaard would insist that this critical rationality is a divine gift, so that the freedom to choose always shows itself as the ability to choose wisely.
This part of the discussion leads to a consideration of the issue of creed versus deed and the general issue of modern society’s commitment to pluralism, held by Dr. Langone to be at least in part a cover for not being willing to face up to the genuine ethical and political issues raised by totalitarian organizations. Professor Aagaard calls this our “First Amendment neurosis.” It is not a question of taking away anyone’s rights, but rather of recognizing the need to challenge the lack of content in the language of those who use the cover of pluralism as a means to manipulate.
I think that Dr. Langone is correct when he recognizes that genuine pluralism requires a commitment to critical rationality from those who wish to participate in the dialogue. As Professor Aagaard points out, why be surprised ex post facto at the horror of the Holocaust, when it was all there in Mein Kampf to begin with? It’s a wonderful thing, this operative notion of critical rationality, which precisely does not lead to the false universalism of the Enlightenment (read liberal!), but rather to pluralism and dialogue. Though this can be seen largely as the province of educators, we must remember that education is itself a helping profession, and that all helping professions educate.
This brings us to another thorny issue raised in the discussion: How do those in the helping professions distinguish between the clarification of values and the imposition of them? Here one must remember that the only genuine ethical issue involved is progress toward the creation of the conditions of freedom. But if Professor Aagaard is correct, and on this issue I think he is, the presence of the condition of freedom can only be judged on the basis of one’s ability to choose wisely. And a wise choice is clearly defined by one’s ability to choose a genuine language that enables one to participate in the dialogue. One cannot freely choose the irrational precisely because one cannot live one’s life without the ability to make distinctions. To abandon consistency is to give up precisely this ability, and no helping profession can stand idly by in the face of such awful madness without incurring shame.