Guests on Volume 118
• GILBERT MEILAENDER on the ethical questions raised by anti-aging research, especially its most extreme forms in the "transhumanist" movement
• RON HIGHFIELD on why the modern assumptions about personal identity, freedom, and human dignity create prejudices against the Gospel's account of God and the self
• MARK MITCHELL on why gratitude and stewardship should be seen as fundamental political postures
• DANIEL M. BELL, JR., on how capitalism nurtures the assumption of the autonomous self
• HELEN RHEE on the centrality of almsgiving to Christian identity in the early Church
• PETER BROWN on how the early Church's wrestling with the questions of wealth and poverty steered a course between radical asceticism and careless indulgence
“Christians . . . have always been drawn back away from that sense of the person as entirely separate from the body—drawn back by some of the most fundamental Christian affirmations: Incarnation and Resurrection. Those are basic beliefs that finally require us to find ways to think about the connection of body and person and not to separate them.”
Ethicist Gilbert Meilaender explains why anti-aging research cannot be a metaphysically neutral topic, and argues against the utopianism of escaping the body. The interview includes an audio clip of Ray Kurzweil discussing the body’s disposability, and Meilaender points out why this futuristic hope is both unlikely and unwise. The desire to leave the body has its roots in the modern liberal tradition, and has to do with possessing versus being a body. Meilaender argues that this idea of remaking ourselves without any limit is an example of inappropriate desire for control, while recognizing the complexities inherent in these “ethical ambiguities.”
“We have to understand the culture better than it understands itself, so that we can then address the underlying values, the underlying way of thinking and assumptions about the self, and make those explicit so people can see them.”
Ron Highfield discusses how his book addresses those who doubt Christianity’s goodness, especially as regards modern assumptions about identity, freedom, and dignity. He argues that there must be a fundamental altering of worldview presuppositions, and describes Zeus mythology’s caricature of God as an unjust and unpredictable tyrant--a being of pure will. Modern assumptions long established in other areas have greatly influenced our understanding of identity and submission to authority. Highfield explains how the Protestant affirmation of ordinary, everyday life can degenerate to sensualism and a denial of the need to rise to moral heights such as those set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. The goodness of creation means that it can be used for good; but not if it’s taken out of order. Highfield concludes that true community cannot be established apart from a conviction of harmony and God’s Divine ordering. Freedom and dignity, therefore, must be rooted in love.
“I want to speak in terms of stewardship of the natural world, to be sure, but [also] of culture, of institutions, of places, that are specifically human. And so gratitude itself gives a launching pad for this discussion of stewardship that I think is so essential.”
Mark Mitchell’s book The Politics of Gratitude puts forward four concepts that are sadly missing from most political debates today: creatureliness, gratitude, human scale, and place. In this conversation, Mitchell explores the consequences of these four concepts throughout our lives. He urges that the conservatives of today to read conservatives of generations past in order to understand the philosophical foundations for true conservatism. He argues that responsibility ties directly into politics, and that shouldering the responsibility to steward our inheritance is a test of our gratitude for what we have received. He claims that the greatest errors of today are rooted in an emphasis on human autonomy and a hatred of the notion of limits on that autonomy. Mitchell concludes that withstanding consumerism is one way to potentially recover a countercultural sense of gratitude for the “un-bought graces of life.”
“The natural ends should be rightly ordered toward the supernatural end. The use of material goods — the natural order of things — is a means of grace that’s meant to help guide us toward our supernatural ends, which is communion with God.”
—Daniel M. Bell, Jr.
Is capitalism antithetical to the Christian life? Daniel M. Bell, Jr. explores the extent of this claim. Capitalism is about freedom of the individual to choose their own ends or purposes, which is antithetical to the Christian understanding of freedom. In fact, the root of the term “heresy” is “choice.” Bell argues that it is misguided to think the supernatural can be divorced from the natural end. He discusses how human desire is shaped by capitalist assumptions and manipulative marketing, which has been made possibly by a limiting of faith to the intellectual realm. Bell reminds us that our hearts and loves should also be directed toward God, and concludes with advice to clergy about how to encourage their parishioners toward a deep understanding of their economic lives and a healthy relation to God and neighbor.
“Because God cares about the poor, almsgiving is the most important work as Christians, as followers of a God who cares about the poor . . . It is the solution to greed and avarice, which is an idolatry.”
Church historian Helen Rhee discusses Jewish thought regarding wealth and poverty as the background to the New Testament understanding of such. She also mentions a few instances of pagan almsgiving, though they were not prominent. In Jewish prophetic literature, certain Psalms of lament identify the psalmist as the poor and needy. Rhee concludes that the Christians thought of almsgiving as a solution to idolatry, explaining that it is not just theological or spiritual, but also social and moral in its implications.
“I think on a subject like wealth and poverty, which are very charged topics . . . our danger is always to forget that they are complex topics. And I think that what a historian can do is, by basically nosing about in the ancient past, meet people who are engaged with the complexity, who are actually caught up in the complexity. And I think the danger is, perhaps, we over-dramatize the history of the Church.”
Historian Peter Brown explains that in spite of having had access for centuries to the church fathers’ numerous writings, only recently have we come to understand the social and material context within which they lived. The debate about wealth and poverty which was once considered primarily theological can now be seen as worked out among the less educated lay people. Brown describes how the remnants of small churches from ancient times were mostly lost next to the splendor of the gothic cathedrals. Because of their rediscovery through excavation, we are able now to study the life of the average Christian: what the Church was doing for the poor, and the consequences in the lives of the rich. Brown discusses Augustine’s teachings regarding the integration of the wealthy into the church, and seeks to correct the mistaken assumption that spectacular renunciations were seen by the church fathers as the only way to gain God’s grace. Brown instead argues that the greatest and steadiest almsgiving was often done by wealthy who didn’t give up everything, yet took seriously the responsibility of almsgiving. He reminds us of Augustine’s teaching that “you give to the poor because you recognize that you yourself are poor” and that rich and poor alike are mutually dependent on God’s mercy.