Guests on Volume 79: Carson Holloway on why sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are inadequate bases for sustaining political ideals; Peter Augustine Lawler on why we are more than “individuals” narrowly defined; Hadley Arkes on the difference, in law, between evidence from social scientific data and moral truths; Ben Witherington, III on why The Da Vinci Code’s implausible account of history seems credible to many people; Christopher Shannon on Ivan Illich (Medical Nemesis) and the loss of belief in the possibility that suffering can be meaningful; Roger Lundin on how nature and experience replaced revelation as a source of authority (and why they fail to serve as such), and on the necessity of humility in writing biographies.
Professor Carson Holloway discusses his book The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy and Darwinian conservatism. He compares the views of those who ascribe to Darwinian conservatism with those of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) on human flourishing and democracy. The former group sees democracy as the political environment in which people will best thrive. Tocqueville, however, was concerned that it would inhibit the development of human nobility. For people to blossom spiritually, their attention needs to be directed beyond their material existence; democracy, however, tends to distract people “from looking heavenward.” Holloway explains why he is more sympathetic to Tocqueville than to Darwinian conservatism.
Professor Peter Augustine Lawler describes the way modern people think about God and themselves, and how the principles of abstract individualism are the rule against which America's governing bodies measure their policies. In his book Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future, he studies various misrepresentations of human nature, defining three dominant accounts and their influence on the public square. Lawler explains that many Americans think of themselves not as members of a larger whole but as individuals free to pursue freedom, comfort, and security as they see fit. Virtue is not something these people would cultivate for its own sake, although they may employ it as a means to another end. This mentality has come to the fore of American public consciousness in relatively recent times, he says, ever since the history of America has been defined as the emancipation of the individual.
Political philosopher Hadley Arkes discusses the subject of his essay “The Family and the Laws,” which is published in the anthology edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain titled The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals. He summarizes how the laws about marriage become confused when they separate the notion of what wedlock is from sex and procreation. In Massachusetts, for example, consummation is not a decisive test for marriage. Yet the courts there would not permit just any two people with the desire to be wedded to marry. One question that arises from confusion such as this, says Arkes, is how will political bodies support their claim that matrimony cannot accommodate all possible relationships while allowing for same-sex unions and while denying that procreation is central to the institution?
Professor Ben Witherington, III, discusses why it is not surprising that The Da Vinci Code caused many Christians to question the historical details of the faith. Witherington writes about The Da Vinci Code in his book The Gospel Code: Novel Claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci. Therein he studies not only the matters mentioned in the subtitle, but also how the canon of the New Testament was chosen. Witherington says that part of the reason Dan Brown’s novel swayed people so is because they are historically illiterate when it comes to the tradition of the faith. The book also exploited people’s deep suspicions about major institutions and their proclivity for conspiracy theories, and the dissatisfaction with traditional Christianity that is wide-spread among believers today.
Historian Christopher Shannon discusses Ivan Illich (1926-2002) and his writings about suffering. Shannon’s essay on the subject, “The Politics of Suffering,” is published in the anthology Wilfred McClay edited, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past. Shannon notes that Illich studied how traditional cultures understand suffering and its meaning in his 1976 work, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health. Traditional cultures illuminate the meaning of pain, suffering, and healing by situating them in a larger story. Modern cultures, on the other hand, see suffering not as part of a larger whole, but as meaningless sensation, merely something to control and alleviate.
Professor Roger Lundin describes how Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays illuminate the contemporary disregard for nearly any source of authority other than the self. He studies what they reveal in his book From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority, the idea for which took shape as he recognized that the development in Emerson's writings mirrored a development in American life in the nineteenth century. Emerson (1803-1882), Lundin explains, was the first major writer in the American tradition who worked to discard all ties to historic Christian belief and practice. As he did so, he sought a source for moral authority first in nature and later in the individual’s experience of life. Emerson’s pilgrimage was similar to that of a handful of others during his time (many of whom were Protestants) who tried to maintain personal morality without sustaining the theological authority upon which it is built.