Guests on Volume 87: John Witte, Jr., on law and religion in the Western tradition; Steven Keillor, on God’s judgments and history; Philip Bess, on New Urbanism and natural law; Scott Cairns, on words and poetry’s work; and Anthony Esolen, on literary critics and Christian belief.
“It’s now fatuous to say that law and morality are separate. Law, even in its secularized Enlightenment form, is dripping with moral prescriptions and presuppositions.”
—John Witte, Jr.
The historical relationship between law and religion has not always been peaceful, but there was an assumed similarity between the two. John Witte, Jr. points out the dualistic tendencies in the teaching and practice of law in our society: students learn to practice law with very little deep reflection on its meaning. Witte hopes to encourage a universal understanding of law as it relates to other disciplines, and to rediscover the relationship and guidance religion offers to fundamental moral questions.
“God is an active investigator as well as a judge, so that he is testing and probing . . . the judge simply receives evidence brought by others, whereas the Hebrew concept was of an active God.”
Keillor discusses how and why Christianity is an interpreter of history as a whole, not simply of individual human actions. He argues that the Old Testament judgment of nations can be carried forward into the New Testament, dismissing the idea that Christianity only has to do with the individual rather than an entire nation. Within this broader framework, he sees Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as an example of what is now an unthinkable approach to understanding the suffering of a nation. Keillor says that humility is a necessity when asserting that any event is due to divine action, but maintains that such assertion is natural to any historically based interpretation of events.
“New Urbanism . . . has an implicit natural law structure.”
Philip Bess sees our modern-day confusion and moral illiteracy worked out visibly in the cities and buildings our architects create. From this standpoint, he discusses the secular roots and pragmatic tendencies of some New Urbanists. He also talks about how Christians used to assume that cities were places to live out the good life, whereas today, we have mostly abandoned them for the suburbs, leaving cities emptied of true community and no more than economically-driven entertainment zones. Bess points out a common contradiction in thinking among architects, who on the one hand wish for community and meaning, and on the other insist on artistic freedom at the expense of human flourishing.
“Words are not just names for things . . . they have power, they have energy, they have agency.”
Poet Scott Cairns reflects on the beauty of language and the power of words. He says languages can “haunt” one another, and describes the manner in which one word can lead to another. Poetry is not so much about saying something definite as about discovering the artistic potential of the word as a medium. Cairns describes the relationship the poet has with his work as a means of that discovery. As proof of the stand-alone power of words, he argues that the meaning of the poem can transcend the original scope of its author.
“The universe is a deep and rich place for someone who believes in God the creator, God a personal creator, who enters into the lives of the human beings that he made in his own image and likeness. . . . Without that, the universe is rather flat.”
Anthony Esolen describes the shallow manner in which modern literary critics approach the writings of Christians in past centuries. The richness of Shakespeare’s worldview, for instance, cannot fully be grasped unless these critics are willing to set aside their own presuppositions and consider the ideas as they were put forward: with sincerity.
“If your view of love does not involve the entire human race past, present, and future, and the entire cosmos we live in, and all the angels and saints, and the three-personed God almighty . . . then your view of love, if you are a Christian, is too cramped. . . . And if you are reducing God to a pleasant feeling, then you do not understand God.”
Anthony Esolen here discusses three elements of Christian belief that are badly misconstrued by Western literary critics. Time, power, and love are central topics to any philosophical discussion, and Esolen shows how flat these discussions become without Christianity’s richness and complexity. In fact, Christianity turns their assumptions upside-down: where modern critics talk about empowerment, the gospel claims instead that God chooses the foolish and weak things of the world to overcome the strong.
“In Practical Deism . . . there’s a heavy compartmentalization of knowledge altogether in which holistic theology of the pre-eighteenth-century variety becomes a victim.”
—John Witte, Jr.
In this bonus segment John Witte, Jr. explains four different configurations of church and state during western history. The oldest of these is “Church versus State” which pits the kingdom of light against the kingdom of darkness, expressed by monasticism and Anabaptism. Second, the Imperialist model claims the State is superior to the church, as seen in the Anglican synthesis of Henry VIII and the concept of the Divine right of Kings. Lutheran thought on the other hand Witte describes as the Two Powers theory, which places equal powers side by side with their own calling and jurisdiction. Finally, the fourth model stems from the twelfth century Papalist model, in which the Church is above the State — thus Canon law superior to Civil law. Witte goes on to discuss the Enlightenment and the theory of church/state relation ultimately influential on the American experiment.