Volume 98 (CD Edition)
Guests on Volume 98: Stanley Hauerwas, on the public witness of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and on why Neuhaus abandoned his 1960s radicalism to become a leading “theoconservative”; Clarke Forsythe, on why prudence is a lost political virtue and on why and how the pro-life movement needs to broaden its educational efforts; Gilbert Meilaender, on the necessity of a concept of human dignity and on why Americans no longer seem able to defend it; Jeanne Murray Walker, on how her students learn to understand poetry and on how metaphors are at the heart of poetic expression; Roger Lundin, on how the disenchantment of the world led to new forms of doubt and self-expression; and David Bentley Hart, on the feeble and confused arguments of the recent crop of outspoken atheists and on how a misunderstanding of the nature of freedom is at the heart of their revulsion at religion.
“People forget that Richard was very prominent in the protests against [the] Vietnam [War]… and he assumed that when the Supreme Court decision about abortion was delivered, that the allies that he had had in the civil rights campaign and the anti-Vietnam campaign… would be allies against abortion. And he was stunned to discover that they thought the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling was just fine, and that they supported it. And I think that’s when Richard began to decisively shift his politics. That changed. He was no longer on the left. He was clearly on the right. And he was on the right for the same reasons he had been on the left, namely that's where he found the coalitions necessary to be in support of the dignity of life.”
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas discusses the late Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away on January 8, 2009. Despite their, at times, deep disagreements, they shared a desire to keep the Church from succumbing to forms of cultural accommodation. Hauerwas comments on Neuhaus’s extraordinary faith that gave him hope for the country in which he lived, hope that energized his labors of love in the public sphere. He reminds us that Neuhaus was an anti-war and pro-civil rights activist in the 1960s and 70s, and only came to be known as a conservative when abortion became legalized in 1973. It was a shock to Neuhaus that his allies in the anti-war movement and civil rights movement took the pro-choice side. Hauerwas observes that despite Neuhaus's more visible work in politics, Neuhaus had a fundamentally pastoral heart that showed in his personal relationships, his reflections on Scripture, and his pastoral writings.
“Back in 1973, the Supreme Court assumed that abortion was safer than childbirth. . . . Today . . . we now know of the five best medically documented risks: heightened risk of pre-term birth, heightened risk of placenta previa, heightened incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, heightened incidence of suicide and psychiatric admission, and fifth, the loss of the protective effect of a first full-term pregnancy against breast cancer.”
Clarke Forsythe explains the ways the pro-life movement in the United States can more wisely navigate politics in pursuit of its ends. He takes note of the fears and misgivings many people have concerning politics and the possibility of achieving good things without being morally compromising. The idea of compromise, Forsythe believes, is often misunderstood as moral failure in and of itself rather than a mutual concession to reach agreement on a limited good. Prudence, for Forsythe, is key. It requires an understanding of what is good but also the ability to act on that knowledge. He believes that educational efforts concerning pro-life issues should be targeted to the broad swath of “middle America” which is neither consistently pro-life nor pro-choice, but lean towards pro-life beliefs. As with slavery in the days of William Wilberforce, many Americans consider abortion to be a sort of “necessary evil”; Forsythe believes this sense of an evil's necessity is a key obstacle to reform, but that this obstacle can be overcome by bringing new knowledge into the public debate concerning the health problems and risks associated with abortion that medical science has learned over the past few decades.
“We remain committed to the equal dignity of persons . . . though it’s not clear that we have a rationale any longer for that commitment to the equal personal dignity; historically, I think, the rationale was a religious one. And in public we try to get along without that these days, and I'm not altogether sure we can.”
Moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender examines the question of human dignity and its place within political discourse. Because what we believe about human dignity influences what we believe should be done to and for people in society, Meilaender believes people need to be discussing what human dignity is in politics. Meilaender suggests that those in politics who wish to bracket that discussion because it seems to be concerning a religious or metaphysical question are fundamentally mistaken in their desire, not least because, regardless of whether or not they wish to recognize it, the religious or metaphysical question does influence their decision. This is something he saw repeatedly over the course of his membership on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Meilaender goes on to describe two distinct ideas concerning human dignity which he believes are at work whenever people use the term; he then describes some of the reasons for confusion in American society concerning the dignity of the human person, including some developments in biotechnology.
“If every age allows poems, goes back to the poems, they find new things in them. I think that we just have to face the fact that there is such a thing as mystery. It’s joyful, it's playful, it’s full of excitement and you have to rest in that and trust in that rather than trusting in some paraphrase.”
—Jeanne Murray Walker
Poet Jeanne Murray Walker talks about learning to read poetry. Walker discusses some of the ways she helps students approach and appreciate poetry as the mysteriously meaningful literature it is, rather than as a linguistic cage containing static meaning to be abstracted from the words of the poem. The meaning is rooted in the metaphors in the poetry, which resonate in the imagination and eventually resolve as truth. The segment ends with a reading of selected poems from Walker’s new book.
“It pits a woman with a vast, expansive inner life, filled with desire and a sense of possibility and self-discovery, but she lives in a natural world . . . that doesn’t care one whit about her hopes, her dreams. Indeed, the doctor tells her that any hope, any dream, any sense of possibility that she has is simply an illusion.”
What makes Christian belief so implausible to non-believers? In this segment, Roger Lundin discusses his book Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age. Distinctively modern unbelief is defined as a socially accepted and intellectually viable shift that saw faith in God as optional. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the romanticization of the human imagination resulted from the steady disenchantment of the world as rendered by the physical sciences and later the biological sciences. Lundin explains that this world seems increasingly indifferent to or even hostile to the world that human beings imagine, the world that they dream of and desire to live in. As an example of this in literature, he discusses the understanding of inner life and outward realities present in literature such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Lundin praises the imaginative possibilities in poetry and literature, but warns against the assumption that we all possess deep imaginations that are more powerful and meaningful than anything we could find in the natural world.
“The sort of atheism you get from the current group is so complacent and so lacking in any deep thought that it’s sort of the People magazine approach to atheism, and so it has a certain marketability.”
—David Bentley Hart
David Bentley Hart discusses his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Hart describes these delusions as a sense that the human race has been emancipated by agents of reason and tolerance. This is popularized atheism’s founding myth, he says, and it’s captivating and easy to follow. Hart’s book exposes the falseness of this revisionist and self-serving modern myth in vivid detail. He lists these atheists’ three basic arguments: 1) Empirical science is better able to explain existence than theology and metaphysics; 2) There are no rational grounds for belief and therefore it is of its nature contrary to reason; and 3) The history of Christianity is shown to be oppressive and cruel. Hart sees the first two arguments as basic category mistakes, and the third as nothing less than bad historical research. He concludes that the irrational moralism of these atheists has no basis in truth and is fundamentally incoherent.