There are many questions that can be raised regarding Obama’s speech if we look beyond what sounds pleasant to us, beyond what we - too often perhaps - have become accustomed to when participating in contemporary culture. Pleas for dialogue, cooperation, for “finding common ground” etc., so often iterated by political and religious leaders, are, when separated from the truth and the good, only in appearance a blessing. In reality, they disguise and drown out the voice of truth. And what is the ultimate strategy for disguising the voice of truth in a culture, failing to question itself and longing to hear only pleasant words? Subtle accusations that the truth “demonizes”, that it is insensitive to “heart-wrenching” decisions, that it operates on “parochial principles”, that it is a matter of “passions”, ultimately of “self-righteousness”. And who, living in a democracy, under the rule of emotions, would want to be guilty of these accusations?
So what does Obama actually want? In order to find out what someone wants, one must presuppose that he’s working on the basis of an intelligible logic; and this is precisely what Obama fails to do. On the one hand he rightly criticizes a materialistic and utilitarian worldview where “the strong too often dominate the weak”, but at the same time he fails to see who is the weakest of them all. One the one hand he talks about changing people’s lives and he describes touching their hearts and minds as our “highest calling”, but at the same time fails to hear the call of the unborn to live, fails to see how abortion is not about change or about reaching out to others but about destruction. We must remember that, as Pope Benedict has said, “to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether” (Deus caritas est, n. 16).
How is it possible, one might ask, that such apparent contradictions can be put forward? Under the superficial –but apparently effective - disguise of rhetoric and pleasant words lies a more fundamental reason. “The ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt”. Under the lure of carefully crafted sentences and comfortable words lies nothing more than another instance of postmodern relativism. As Aquinas reminds us, in the case of doubt it is always possible that the opposite is also true. When much is said but in the opposite is done – as in Obama’s policies – the voice of faith is merely another opinion, an opportunity “to continue the moral and spiritual debate”. But, if the question of truth is put aside, if even the believer in the eyes of Obama doesn’t “know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us”, if the ‘God’ of Obama is an undecipherable X planning and asking in front of a deaf-mute crowd, then what is the purpose of this seemingly lofty idea of continuous moral and spiritual debate? What is the purpose of having “confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated”, of holding “firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey”, when one must embrace these values and faith as nothing but a mere opinion? The list of criminals and racists that held on to the values in which they had been raised, supported by what they thought was their faith, is endless; indeed Obama’s presidency is dependent upon the falseness of his own appeal.
But then again –and here Obama is logical- faced with such a ‘God’, our “highest calling” can only be a horizontal humanism of social justice. Even then, however, what does Obama propose as a rule? The rule of reason, based on universal principles and not on parochial principles (believers’ principles): “the Golden Rule: the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.” Who wishes to be treated as a burden, an inconvenience, disposable matter? Isn’t the most crucial difference the one between life and death? Isn’t service to the weakest, to those who cry out for love, the ultimate response?
Indeed in a Catholic university and a society which honors such ambiguous, relativistic views, “all things are possible”.
Jörgen Vijgen teaches philosophy at the seminaries of the dioceses of Haarlem-Amsterdam, Roermond and 's-Hertogenbosch (Netherlands).