What We're Reading
Professor and writer John Gray publishes book debunking the Enlightenment faith in progress.
Political philosopher John Gray spoke—on Volume 40 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal—about his 1998 book False Dawn, which delivered a soberly realistic assessment of the state of international economics (in novelist John Banville's words). Gray's most recent work, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, debunks the Enlightenment faith in progress that has shaped the modern era. The book is a collection of essays Gray wrote between 1990 and 2003 for the New Statesman. In the collection he explains that faith in progress—the belief that human beings become better with the growth of knowledge—is misdirected faith; human knowledge grows, he writes, but the human animal stays much the same. John Banville's review of Heresies was published on-line in the September 4, 2004, issue of The Guardian.
Some of the concerns of Gray's Heresies are addressed in An illusion with a future, published in the Summer 2004 issue of Dædalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the article, Gray writes that the idea of progress is a recent creed that has developed, and come to be believed in, in the last two centuries. Before its development thinkers never imagined that improvement in any area of life would be sustainable throughout time; while Christianity and its promise of salvation for those who would believe inspired people to hope for improvement in the human condition, after Christianity's advent people still believed that what was gained in one generation would surely be lost in another, explains Gray. Once modern science was established and started to effect dramatic improvements in the material quality of life, people transferred their hopes for a better future from religion to science and faith in progress. This transfer was misguided, however, because faith in progress cannot account for human nature and its hopes as religion can: Like older faiths, progress and the Religion of Humanity are illusions. But whereas the illusions of older faiths embody enduring human realities, the faith in progress depends on suppressing them. It represses the conflicts of human needs and denies the unalterable moral ambiguity of human knowledge. Gray, who is clearly as skeptical about religion as he is about secular progressivism, states that it may be possible to temper the modern faith in progress, but that overcoming it any time soon is not possible.
Theologian and MARS HILL AUDIO guest Nigel Cameron co-edited a new anthology from InterVarsity Press that is concerned with Christian anthropology, technology, politics, and the global market.
Theologian Nigel Cameron was a guest on the very first issue of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal (then called the MARS HILL Tapes). He has since appeared (talking about current issues in bioethics) on volumes 51 and 66. In those conversations, and in his many writings, Dr. Cameron has argued that Christians addressing questions of bioethics need a fuller and richer account of human nature. A new anthology from InterVarsity Press combines the quest for a more developed Christian anthropology with a wise-as-serpents realism about the confluence of technology, politics, and the forces of a global market. The book, Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy, is edited by Cameron and Charles W. Colson. Colson contributes an introductory essay reflecting on C. S. Lewis's 1948 book, The Abolition of Man. Other contributors include Dr. C. Christopher Hook ("Techno Sapiens: Nanotechnology, Cybernetics, Transhumanism and the Remaking of Humankind"); Dr. David Stevens ("Promise and Peril: Clinical Implications of the New Genetics"); and Dr. Nathan A. Adams, IV ("An Unnatural Assault on Natural Law: Regulating Biotechnology Using a Just Research Theory"). Nigel Cameron's contribution to the book is entitled "Christian Vision for the Biotech Century: Toward a Strategy;" in it Cameron examines three distinct phases in bioethics as we have moved from issues of taking human life, to issues of making human life, to the possibility of faking human life: "the capacity of developments in the fields of nanotechnology and cybernetics to manipulate, enhance and finally perhaps supplant biological human nature." Excerpts from the book, along with its table of contents, are available through InterVarsity's web pages.
A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts supplies statistics that demonstrate that the number of readers in America is declining. The report is introduced in an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Literary Reading Is Declining Faster Than Before, Arts Endowment's New Report Says." As the article explains, the report portrays a steep decline in "literary reading" (described as the reading of any type of fiction, poetry, and plays) over the past two decades; it also describes some reactions to the report's findings.
"Reading at Risk: a Survey of Literary Reading in America" reports data gathered from 17,000 adults across major demographic groups categorized by age, gender, education, income, religion, race, and ethnicity. It addresses what and how much those sampled read, other civic activities in which they participate, factors and trends in literature participation, and includes a summary and conclusions. It comprises a preface and executive summary, five chapters, and appendices.
The report's role, says chairman of the NEA Dana Gioia, is not to offer suggestions for a solution to the problem, but to spark debate about how to perpetuate readers and the role of reading in a democracy. In his introduction to the report, Gioia (a guest on volumes 51 and 53 of the Journal) writes: "Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose."
While the concern of the NEA report is specific to literary reading and its decline, others quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article are concerned with a general decrease in reading in this electronically savvy age. In a 1995 interview with Ken Myers, Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, discussed the influence the printed word has on society. In his Volume 13 interview, Birkerts argued that when people read less and thus lose "habits of reading"—such as inwardness, empathy for the lives of others, and a sense of the significance of the past—they understand themselves and the world differently. Barry Sanders concurred with Birkerts in his Volume 17 interview about his book A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. Sanders argued that literacy is an historical invention and thus can dissipate in time just as it developed in time. As it becomes extinct, he said, people will begin to lose their conscience, memory, and sense-of-self and regret—all outgrowths of literacy—and thus will no longer be able to recognize others as human beings.
Another guest on the Journal, Robert Jenson, is concerned more specifically with the diminution of the attention given by the community to books in the University and the Church, and the consequential enervation of the vision for knowledge and wisdom at the core of both institutions. Descriptions of the Birkerts, Sanders, and Jenson interviews are available through the MARS HILL AUDIO web pages.
Professor Bernard Lewis has spent several decades studying the Middle East and Islam, and Oxford University Press has recently published several of his essays on these subjects in From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. The publication of the collection is the occasion for an interview with Lewis in the Atlantic Unbound (the April 29, 2004, edition) in which Lewis offers his thoughts on the region's future, particularly regarding how America is handling its involvement in Iraq: "I'm cautiously optimistic about what's happening in Iraq. What bothers me is what's happening here in the United States." The interview, conducted by Elizabeth Wasserman, is available on-line .
Lewis discussed one of his more well-known works What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response on Volume 59 of the Journal. MARS HILL AUDIO published a full-length version of the interview as Conversation 19, "The Crisis of Islam and the Crisis of the West." [Posted May2004, ALG]
In an effort to meet some of the questions coming from the increasing interest in education and encounters between Christians and Muslims, The Institute on Religion and Democracy has published "Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A Guide for Churches."
"Within the Church, Christian-Muslim relations have been largely the concern of a small group of specialists. All that changed on September 11, 2001." In an effort to meet some of the questions coming from the increasing interest in education and encounters between Christians and Muslims, The Institute on Religion and Democracy has published "Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A Guide for Churches." The brochure, the contents of which were originally printed in the summer 2003 issue of the Institute's Faith & Freedom magazine, divides its guidelines for dialogue into two categories: appropriate and necessary subjects and means of communication; and inappropriate and damaging subjects and means of communication. Suggestions in the former category include: "Make sure that the Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition." Suggestions in the latter category include: "Play political games inside the Muslim community, elevating leaders that we Christians favor and ignoring those that we dislike." To order "Christian-Muslim Dialogue" brochures from The Institute on Religion and Democracy, call (202) 969-8430 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Institute for Religion and Democracy describes itself as "a non-profit organization committed to reforming the Church's social and political witness and to building and strengthening democracy and religious liberty, at home and abroad." Diane L. Knippers, Alan F. H. Wisdom, and Steve R. Rempe are among those who run the Institute. For more information, visit the Institute's web pages. [Posted April 2004, ALG]