Jerry Coyne’s exactly the sort of academic David Bentley Hart finds exasperating. So do I. The undoubtedly well-trained evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Chicago can’t distinguish empirical arguments from metaphysical ones. On his Why Evolution Is True website, he writes, “Although David Bentley Hart claims, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, that he isn’t adducing evidence for God, that’s in fact what he spends most of his time doing.” For example, Hart makes the cosmological argument: why there is something rather than nothing. This requires the premise that there is in fact something, which by Coyne’s way of thinking is an appeal to “evidence.” Thus, Hart contradicts himself.
Coyne focuses on another one of Hart’s arguments, though, this one more transcendental than metaphysical. It goes roughly like this: In our intellectual work we always seek the most comprehensive explanation. The most comprehensive explanation is transcendent intelligence, which is what is meant by “God.” Therefore, insofar as we assume that what we seek in our intellectual work actually exists (something necessary if we’re not to conclude it’s futile) we tacitly assume God exists.
Coyne thinks his readers will see the obvious lack of reason in this argument, which he dismisses as “palaver” dressed up with “show-offy foreign phrases and arcane references to other faiths.” (Apparently, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness to actually know thingslike foreign languages or other cultures.) But he never bothers to tell us which premise is false or why the logic is unsound. Instead, he relies on an implicit syllogism of his own: Only stupid, self-deceived people think and make arguments about God. Hart thinks and makes arguments about God. Therefore, Hart is stupid and self-deceived.
Let me gently suggest to Jerry Coyne that the major premise is a secularist dogma not well supported by the evidence.
In the event you have not been following important moral developments in New York, our progressive mayor has taken a decisive step to ensure, well, progress. He has endorsed an ordinance banning horse-drawn carriages from Central Park. Some of us see this as an exemplary instance of the supercilious moral vanity of today’s secular liberalism. Not so Amy Rose, who wrote to the Wall Street Journal: “Slavery, public executions, child labor and segregation were all at one point in history deep-rooted traditions and might still be reality if not for the progressive thinkers of the time who were motivated by an empathy that was stronger than the inertia of deep-rooted tradition and long-held public opinion. Clearly there are ways for tourists and New Yorkers to enjoy the rich tradition and history of our city that doesn’t involve the suffering of other living beings.
“Because none of us will ever know for certain what the horses would actually say if asked about their ‘jobs,’ we should err on the side of benevolence and compassion and release them from servitude.”
Why is it that when it comes to babies in the womb “the progressive thinkers” of our time don’t “err on the side of benevolence and compassion”?
On Monday of Holy Week, the White House hosted the Annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. With a room full of pastors and religious leaders, President Obama opened his remarks with a quip about the need “to resist the temptation to preach to preachers.” But he didn’t resist. “This Easter Week, of course, we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God. We’re reminded how He loves us so deeply that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.” He recalled Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, “all so that we might be forgiven our sins and granted everlasting life,” and then went on to quote from Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world.”
Do these remarks reflect Obama’s deepest convictions? I have no reason to think they don’t. But in any event, as Mark Tooley points out on the American Spectator’s website, “a good politician doesn’t espouse a detailed theological assertion unless confident it resonates.” Which says a lot about America. We’re a nation where politicians can, thankfully, do a bit of preaching.
Though perhaps only liberal politicians. There tends to be an uproar when conservative politicians speak in pious tones. The chattering class warns of “theocracy” and makes pained observations about the need to be sensitive to the religious diversity of our nation.
In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made pointed use of a crucial Nazi term: Lebensraum, space for living, a term Hitler used to evoke the German need for a more expansive territory and thus justify his invasions. Bonhoeffer turned the concept around and used it to resist the totalitarian claims of Nazism. “The Body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth.” It can’t be absorbed and subsumed by the modern state.
Our times are very different. Modern liberalism doesn’t want to remake society in order to secure racial purity, as did Nazism. Instead, its primary goal is to secure the rights of individuals. But this goal can become absolute and aggressive as well, seeking to conquer all public space on behalf of an ever-greater regime of rights. In the process the Church’s living space can shrink. That’s the issue at stake in the legal battle over the HHS mandate. Can the Church take up space in education and health care on her own termsor are the conditions for existence in public space dictated by the state alone? The same can be said about Hobby Lobby and the religious liberty of for-profit employers: Can faith have Lebensraum in the marketplace?
Asked to choose between totalitarianism and the liberal regime of individual rights, I’ll opt for the latter every time, and gladly so. But its relative benevolence should not deceive us. Unless tempered by substantive loyaltiesreligious faith, commitments to mediating institutions, and patriotismit seeks to occupy and control all public spaces. Which is why these days we should be rereading Bonhoeffer (and Erik Peterson, Bonhoeffer’s theological contemporary who came to similar conclusions about faith’s proper claims to dominion).
Good for Bill de Blasio. He made the right decision about churches using school property. In the 1990s, the school board in New York withdrew permission for church groups to use school buildings for worship on Sundays. One of the groups, Bronx Household of Faith, filed suit, arguing that the policy singled out religion for discrimination. (Secular community organizations can use school property on weekends.) In hearings and appeals they lost in court, then won, then lost, which meant that over the last decade or two, the no-churches policy has been up to the discretion of city officials, and under Michael Bloomberg there was no desire to accommodate religious organizations. No longer. De Blasio announced a change in policy: Churches can rent school property.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed her disappointment with the new faith-friendly school-use policy, continuing the ACLU’s long hostility toward all things religious.
Last month while penning commentary on the future of gay rights, I spoke of states “banning same-sex marriage.” Frank Beckwith wrote to point out that this formulation is misleading: “That is technically not true. What is true of Utah law, as well as the law in Texas and other states, is that same-sex marriage is not legally recognized. By referring to these laws as ‘gay marriage bans,’ you employ the rhetoric of the other side, and imply a claim that is simply not true. No one is forbidden from being ‘gay married.’ If, for example, two people of the same sex, in Utah, want their minister to ‘marry’ them, and if they want to sign a private contract to distribute their property, etc., there is no law against such an arrangement. It is not banned. Of course, the state does not recognize such arrangements, but neither does it recognize a variety of other friendships and liaisons that are perfectly legal to engage in.” Thanks for the correction, Frank. You’re absolutely right. I let myself be taken captive by the rhetoric of the other side.
We need metaphysics. So argues Edward Feser in the St. Vincent de Paul Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College (a congenial venue for exhortations to metaphysical renewal). “Any defender of the Catholic faith is already engaged in a public dispute about fundamental metaphysics, whether he realizes it or not.” And if we’re to defend the faith with verve, says Feser, we need “a defense of classical metaphysics,” which means the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition as refined by medieval (and later) scholasticism. Until we restore that tradition, we’re too intellectually flabby to meet the challenges of secular, postmodern academic culture. Telling people that nihilism is nihilistic doesn’t get us very far. We need an intellectually sophisticated alternative.
It’s a lecture with Ed’s usual clarityand forcefulness. Available on the Thomas Aquinas College website: thomasaquinas.edu/news/lecture-dr-edward-feser-what-we-owe-new-atheists.
If a defender of the Catholic faith is always already engaged in metaphysical debates, do all our public debates need to be metaphysical? I don’t think so, at least not explicitly. Many debates have to do with practical matters that draw primarily on our prudential judgmentsfor example, economic or foreign policy. People with different views about human nature will naturally tilt in different directions. If you think that man is a utility-maximizing machine, then you’re likely to be focused on the ways in which the modern welfare state can deliver benefits. Conversely, if you believe human beings are meant for responsibility and self-command, the focus will tend to fall on fears that welfare policies will encourage dependency. But that differencevery significant and well worth debatingdoesn’t stand in the way of practical agreements about tax policy, welfare laws, and much more. Moreover and more important, most of us aren’t theoretical purists who think man is only a utility-maximizing machineor that he never is. To a great extent, most people tailor their metaphysical beliefs to be consistent with their practical judgments, rather than the other way around.
NH Hotels, a global chain, is planning to open a luxury hotel in Turin. It will be in the refurbished former home of the influential Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. Its name? Hotel Gramsci. The leftist intellectuals in Italy are outraged and have written the usual letter of protest to Turin’s mayor, Piero Fassino, decrying the “trivialization” of Gramsci’s memory. A spokesman for NH Hotels defends the decision: “We are trying to find a name that fits from a commercial point of view and that embraces the history of the building.”
Antonio Gramsci has become the darling of the academic left, mainly because he theorized that culture is more important than economic interests in the class struggles he imagined central to modern history. This is attractive to professors for two reasons. First, it makes what they docultural analysisof supreme importance, which is a very nice feeling, thank you. Second, it provides an explanation for why Marxism gains so little traction in today’s politics: Most people’s views are formed by a hegemonic culture that presumes the necessity of capitalism, etc. Thus, we need “organic intellectuals” who will shape a counter-culture capable of challenging the status quo, a role many tenured radicals like to imagine themselves playing.
A high-priced Gramsci hotel catering to a global elite may betray his memory, but it’s a brilliant marketing move. Cost-free political and moral atonement is a highly prized luxury good today (even among the professors who champion Gramsci). I have no doubt there are many winners in the global economy who would be delighted to express a symbolic solidarity with Gramsci’s revolutionary vision while sipping fine wine and enjoying excellent service. And then there’s our love of winking irony. I anticipate that Stephen Colbert will book a room at the Hotel Gramsci to celebrate May Day in style.
Suggestions for NH Hotels: the Che Guevara Hotel in Havana, the Malcolm X in Harlem, the Michel Foucault in San Francisco, the Joseph Stalin in Moscow.
Mikey Weinstein, director of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, isn’t one for subtlety. He recently commented on a scandal at the Air Force Academy: A cadet had written a Bible verse (Galatians 2:20) on his whiteboard! (The whiteboard is the erasable surface on the outside of dorm room doors that’s used for leaving messages and so forth.) After receiving complaints, Weinstein’s organization swung into action, contacting the Academy. Dutiful officials, eager to protect the tender sensibilities of those who wish to remain innocent of Scripture, scrubbed the offending biblical verse.
Which Weinstein insisted was absolutely the right thing to do. “It clearly elevated one religious faith over all others at an already virulently hyper-fundamentalist Christian institution. It massively poured fundamentalist Christian gasoline on an already raging out-of-control conflagration of fundamentalist Christian tyranny, exceptionalism, and supremacy at USAFA.” My, my. I have the distinct impression that Mr. Weinstein is one of those anti-fundamentalist fundamentalists, a uniquely American inquisitorial mentality.
And shame on the officers who run the Air Force Academy. Since when is it a violation of military discipline to say, as does Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”? If there’s a “raging out-of-control conflagration,” it’s being fueled by an extremist view that freedom of religion means freedom from religion, which means religious people aren’t allowed any public space.
Ross Douthat is indispensable. In a recent New York Times column, he drew attention to the Brendan Eich and Ayaan Hirsi Ali affairs. The first involved the resignation of the Mozilla CEO who wouldn’t apologize for supporting traditional marriage. The second refers to the decision by Brandeis University to reverse its plan to give an honorary degree to Hirsi Ali because of her strong criticisms of Muslim culture. The official statements by Mozilla and Brandeis “fell back . . . on pieties about diversity.”
As Douthat observes, “What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.” It’s not that our elite culture is highly dogmatic and very punitive of dissent, as anyone who hangs around universities knows. To a certain degree all cultures need dogmas; all cultures police boundaries of acceptable speech. Instead, according to Douthat, the self-deception of today’s panjandrums is far more damaging. Their inquisitorial dogmatism gets redescribed as a commitment to being “inclusive.” A sectarian progressive agenda is hailed as impartiality and fairness. As Douthat says, “It’s the lying that gets toxic.”
“Who do you say that I am?” In Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization, Fr. Robert Imbelli, longtime Boston College professor of theology, reflects on this fundamental and life-defining question. Framed as an argument for a Christocentric reading of the central documents of the Second Vatican Council, this charming book is in fact much more than that.
Ranging from Flannery O’Connor and Dante to Rublev and Caravaggio, with a lot of Ratzinger, Balthasar, and Congar in between, Imbelli expounds the fundamental truths of the faith, all of which circle around the truth of Christ. If we’re to enter into the renewal envisioned by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, we need to enter into the difference he makes. As a particular passage from Henri de Lubac quoted by Imbelli put it: “Humanism is not itself Christian. Christian humanism must be a converted humanism. There is no smooth transition from a natural to supernatural love.”
Jennifer Lahl runs the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. A couple of years ago, she wrote, directed, and produced Eggsploitation, a documentary film about the harvesting of eggs from young women to supply the reproductive industry. First Things hosted a screening last December. Surrogacy is another part of that growing industry, and Jennifer has a new film, Breeders: A Subclass of Women? It will be shown in New York on June 18 at ?7 p.m. at the BowTie Chelsea Cinema (260 West 23rd Street). Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/598323.
St. John’s University law professor Mark Movsesian was our guest at a special seminar held on March 18 at our New York office. Invited legal scholars, lawyers, journalists, and fellow travelers discussed his paper, “Defining Religion in American Law: Psychic Sophie and the Rise of the Nones,” which raises the question of whether our interpretation of the Constitution will change to reflect the increasing portion of the population that’s non-religious, or perhaps more accurately, “spiritual but not religious.” There was no consensus answer, but the group generally agreed that the changing nature and role of religion in American society augur changes in our legal culture.
Calling all First Things readers in Philadelphia. Fr. Brewster Hastings of Saint Anne’s Church in Abington, Pennsylvania, would like to host a ROFTERS group. He lives about fifteen miles north of Center City and a forty-five-minute drive from Princeton. If you’re interested in being part of this new group to discuss the latest issue of First Things (and doubtless other matters of significance), please get in touch with him. KBHastings@verizon.net.
while we’re at it sources: Coyne on Hart: whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com. Horse & carriage: Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2014. Preaching to preachers: whitehouse.gov, April 14, 2014. Tooley’s reply: American Spectator, April 18, 2014. New York schools: Bloomberg News, April 3, 2014. Metaphysics lecture: thomasaquinas.edu. Gramsci hotel: The Guardian, April 10, 2014. Air Force verse: Christian Post, March 13, 2014. Douthat: New York Times, April 12, 2014. A subclass of women: breeders.cbc-network.org.