J. Budziszewski is professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, where he specializes in researching natural law. His books include Resurrection of Nature: Political Theory and the Human Character (Cornell, 1986), The Nearest Coast of Darkness: A Vindication of the Politics of Virtues (Cornell, 1988), True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment (Transaction, 1992), Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (InterVarsity, 1997), The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence, 1999), and How to Stay Christian in College (NavPress, 1999). Dick Staub recently talked with him about his latest book, What We Can't Not Know (Spence, 2003).
You start your book by saying explicitly that every writer has a point of view, and that yours is Christian. How was it that you came to embrace a Christian worldview?
Well, I haven't always held one. I was raised in a Christian home. I walked the aisle and was baptized at age 10. I knew what I was doing and I believed it. But when I was in my early 20s, when I went off to college, I lost my faith completely.
And did a lot more than losing it, as a matter of fact.
Where did you attend?
For the first two years I was at the University of Chicago. I dropped out then for a couple of years. I was a socialist in those days, waiting for the revolution, and decided that I didn't need to be at a rich kid's school. I should be out with the proletariat. So I went out and learned a trade.
Wow. So what trade did you practice?
Welding. I ended up working at the Tampa shipyards for not a terribly long time, but I did work there.
So you are a rare man whose philosophical outlook actually led him into the blue-collar life for awhile.
Yes, and one of the things I discovered is that the workers weren't interested in revolution.
What was it that attracted you to socialism in the first place?
I wanted to save the world. What led me into socialism was very similar to what led me out of Christianity, because at that time I had my own ideas about how to save the world—and they didn't have very much to do with Jesus Christ. I think really deep down, I didn't want God to be God, I wanted J. Budziszewski to be God.
So what began as a drift from the faith, ended up a complete retreat. I'm one of these guys who tends to take premises to their conclusions, so when I abandoned belief in God I also abandoned belief in God's moral law. I thought that there was no real objective right or wrong, no objective good or evil, and that we just made up these things for ourselves.
I didn't go out and rob convenience stores, sleep with everybody I could find, and do a lot of drugs. My sins, I guess, were mostly of the mind.
I committed treason against obvious truth.
So how is it that you moved from being committed to socialism to following Jesus?
Well, there's a step missing there. I threw out socialism and became an atheist and a nihilist. But when I came back, I didn't know it at the time, but it's what John's gospel calls the conviction of sin. I didn't recognize it, but I had an intuition. It came to me. It was overwhelmingly strong. I couldn't really resist it that my own condition was objectively evil. This from a guy who doesn't believe that there's an objective difference between good and evil. But I could no longer tell myself there was no such thing as evil because it was right behind my eyes. It was like a fellow walking out of the door one morning who had been telling himself that the sky is red, suddenly looking up and realizing not only that the sky is blue, but that it had been blue all along.
So there was no real rational explanation for what happened. It was more of a mystical thing.
Well, I don't know if mystical is the right word for it or not, but I certainly couldn't explain it.
But it was so overpowering I had to accept that this was just Truth. This was not a feeling. This was not a preference. It certainly wasn't what I wanted to believe, but I had to believe. I had to conclude that this was Truth.
Now, if there's such a thing as evil, then there has to be such a thing as good, because the only way to get an evil thing is to take a good thing and ruin it. So that meant that there was both good and evil, and that meant that I'd been so wrong that almost anything could be true, including the faith that I'd given up.
So how did you revisit your faith? You probably identified some misconceptions of the faith as it had been delivered to you as a kid.
I can't claim the excuse that misconceptions of the faith were delivered to me. I abandoned it. I did the wrong thing with my eyes open.
But when I came back, I came back with my eyes open, too. I think I pretty well damaged my mind by that time.
You know, you can't tell yourself that obvious things—like the difference between right and wrong—are really not true without really playing some tricks on your mind. So when I came back, it took a couple of years for God to put me back together. And one of the preoccupations of my research ever since then has been How is it possible for people to tell themselves that they don't know what they really do know?
Clearly, you're not the only one who has turned his eyes away from natural law and moral consequences. One wonders whether such people can be reasoned back into it when they have done this damage to their mind by bending it into unnatural ways.
I was surprised to find that a lot more people were in conditions something like mine. There's a difference between an honest mistake, or an honest ignorance, and a smokescreen. There's a difference between not knowing something and telling yourself that you don't know it even though you do.
Most of our moral confusion, I think, is that second kind. It isn't that we don't really know what's right and wrong. We like to tell ourselves that. We say, we're stumbling around in the dark and that everything is shades of gray, when in fact, the sun is shining and things are pretty clear.
Still, you have to find a way of talking to someone in denial that causes him to recognize it for himself. You have to be able to burst his bubble so that his own evasion is exposed to him.
So tell us what you mean by "the lost world of common truths."
Well, the lost world is simply all of those things that we all really know about right and wrong and that we used to all admit that we really knew. People the world over still by and large will recognize that it's wrong to deliberately take innocent human life, it's wrong to steal for yourself what belongs to your neighbor, it's wrong to sleep with your neighbor's wife or husband. These are not just mysterious secrets of only our own moral tradition. Yet we insist in the United States, in our time, in saying that all these things are very difficult, that we all really disagree, and that there is no common ground that we can stand on.
In fact, as you point out, people get angry when we assert that there is moral law.
In most areas of life, if you tell somebody, "You're really ignorant. You don't know anything," he's going to be insulted. But when it comes to the moral law, people want to tell you they don't really know anything. Nobody knows anything. This is all so difficult. We're all groping in the fog. And if you tell them that's not true, they'll become offended with you and say, "What are you? Judgmental? Intolerant?"
What do those of us who agree that there is a moral law need to know?
We've got to stop being so gentle in our language. I don't mean that we should be harsh, but we should be honest. The abortion movement is not about choice; it's about death. The radical feminist movement is not for mothers; it's against them. The homosexual movement isn't "gay;" it's whistling in the graveyard. This is a deadly way of life. The brave new world of cloning and fetal tissue research isn't about healing; it's about playing God and changing the design of human beings, changing human nature. There's no virtue in giving offense. But there's a difference between avoidable and unavoidable offense; we need to just tell the truth.
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