no discipline

I am writing to express my shock and disappointment at the profanity in the article “Freedom Within the Disciplines” (June/July). The word “bullshit” appears multiple times. I have encountered this word and its ilk in the New Yorker, Fast Company, and The Economist, but I didn’t expect to see you sink to such a community. I expect First Things to be a magazine of piety and civility, a publication I don’t mind our children and grandchildren leafing through. Now I find that I must read quickly through your issues to see if you are promoting language that is offensive to me and my family.

I can’t understand the attitude toward your readers this article conveys. I can only promise that if you send me another issue including a profanity-laced article, I will immediately cancel my subscription and terminate all financial support.

Doug Frechtling
bethesda, maryland

Francesca Murphy’s observations in “Freedom Within the Disciplines” are similar to my own, especially in the diagnosis of “literal-minded readers.” I have had the same experience as Murphy, with college students unable “to discern when an author is expressing his opinion and when the author is projecting a hypothesis.” I agree that students have been “trained to imagine their courses and textbooks as forms of indoctrination.” As someone writing about K–12 education and Common Core, I have observed that students rarely have a moment to themselves to read and think, but are asked to “collaborate” in groups with their peers on “projects” and develop “speaking and listening skills” as they do. They are asked to be “critical thinkers” before they have acquired the knowledge or achieved the maturity to do so.

Mary Grabar
alexander hamilton institute
clinton, new york

Francesca Aran Murphy draws a distinction that applies well beyond Notre Dame and indeed Catholic education. Colleges and universities today are powerfully drawn to the expeditious idea of “learning goals” such as “critical thinking” and “sustainability” at the expense of disciplinary requirements. The disciplines demand—what else?—discipline. That includes the discipline of acquiring substantial knowledge of a field, much of which inevitably fails to cohere until the student has advanced a fair distance into the subject. It also includes the discipline of acquiring intellectual skills that are distinctively apt for the ­subject at hand. The anthropologist and the historian not only ask different questions of the same material—they conceptualize it in different ways. So, too, the philosopher and the theologian, the chemist and the biologist.

Students are lured by the idea of the “interdisciplinary” as another way past the supposed artificiality of the disciplines. “Learning goals” are invariably interdisciplinary learning goals. They are meant to vault the student right into the middle of those fascinating discussions where the astronomer and the theologian find something in common. But those conversations can only happen when the participants are deeply grounded in the knowledge of their own disciplines. Students who arrive as tourists in this territory are destined to remain strangers to what is really happening. The price of entry is first to master a discipline.

Peter Wood
national association of ­scholars
new york, new york

Francesca Aran Murphy replies:

I am very sorry to have shocked Doug Frechtling’s sensibility. I believe, however, that he is taking my language too literally. The word “bullshit” is used both literally and metaphorically. It should be noted that in this article I am using the word metaphorically and not literally. Following Harry Frankfurt’s seminal monograph On Bullshit, I was using the word “bullshit” to refer to speech that is used without concern for truth. The metaphorical meaning draws from the literal meaning in that “shit” has no nutritional value. Metaphorical “shit,” as in, “Are you shitting me?” is empty speech.

It should be noted that neither the literal word “bullshit,” referring to the feces produced by a bull, nor the metaphorical term “bullshit” is a profanity. Profanity could only be said to occur when “shit” or “bullshit” is used as an expletive or expression of anger or anguish. “Bullshit” is not a profane term in and of itself. Its meaning varies depending on the context and the intention of the speaker. Only if used as an expletive, that is, used to express anguish or anger, could it be termed a profanity.

Even in such a context, it is still debatable whether “bullshit” is a profanity per se or rather a vulgarity. It is vulgar to refer to the feces of bulls. But is it profane? The profane is the opposite of the sacred: Profanity is irreverence. One utters profanities when one speaks of sacred things with lack of reverence, for instance by the inappropriate use of words designating the marital act. Such words have religious connotations, because the object they designate is sacred. It desecrates the marital act to abuse the words for it. On the other hand, the feces of bulls is not sacred, and for that reason the use of the word for it as an expletive strikes me as vulgar rather than profane. Bullshit is commonly an object of disgust, and thus, to use the term as an expletive is to utter an obscenity. Its use as an expletive does not “profane” or desecrate anything of value. I respect Frechtling’s judgment and I apologize unequivocally for offending him or any of his family members.

I thank Mary Grabar for her accurate observations. One of the great problems of modern education is the demand laid on young people to run before they can walk. Educators need to learn the humility to teach youngsters the basics of each discipline.

And I agree wholeheartedly with Peter Wood that, without deep immersion in a particular field, students will only play around with topics, without ever acquiring substantial understanding of the underlying structures and principles of the disciplines. A great flaw in turning study into play is that it deprives students of the ability to derive the great enjoyment that follows from substantial knowledge of and affinity with one discipline. I hope that Our Lady’s University will come to lead the academic world away from the disparagement of disciplines, and to be a beacon of true scholarship, like the Catholic universities of the European Middle Ages.

transhumanism

It was a bit of a shock to read the transhumanist Peter Thiel in First Things. But then, transhumanism is a quasi-religion in which faith in technology substantially or wholly replaces faith in God, so perhaps it is appropriate.

Thiel writes in “Against Edenism” (June/July) with a glib optimism that masks the true danger of this arrogant and at the same time nihilistic movement:

Science and technology are natural allies to this Judeo-Western optimism, especially if we remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth—in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achieved in the present. Given a choice, it makes more sense to ally with atheistic optimism than with atheistic pessimism—and we should remain open to the idea that even Faust’s land-reclamation project is a part of God’s larger plan.

God with us? Please.

And how can such an alliance be framed? Christians, as I understand the faith, have no illusions about a “New Jerusalem” in the here and now, or our capacity or wisdom to construct one. That is God’s work. Indeed, if anything, techno-­utopianism of the kind promoted by technology geniuses like Thiel and Google’s Ray ­Kurzweil, as well as ­futurist ­academics, is a Tower of Babel enterprise doomed to the same catastrophic failure, disappointment, and dire consequences.

I certainly understand and agree that technology is essential to modern life. But we also need to understand that while we can—and indeed, have an obligation to—mitigate suffering and work to increase human well-being, we cannot make heaven on earth, not even partially. Nor should Christians ally with a movement that generally redefines and rejects the transcendent as it seeks to recreate the creature in its own image.

Wesley J. Smith
castro valley, california

Peter Thiel replies:

To say with Wesley Smith that technology is “essential to modern life” revealingly understates the case. Is technology something to be taken for granted? Or is material progress urgent for the well-being of billions? Smith asks, “How can such an alliance [between Christianity and technology] be framed?” The best way to frame it is by asking concrete questions: Is it Christian to cure Alzheimer’s? To build communications tools that help people stay in touch? To develop crops that feed hungry people? I think the answer is yes. This alliance is not a replacement for faith; it is a complement.

moral markets

Toward the end of Michael Novak’s impassioned defense of democratic capitalism in “The Future of Democratic Capitalism” (June/July), he turns his attention to those who, despite sharing his metaphysical premises, disagree with his conclusions. He refers, with more than a little disdain, to those of us who “still think that mildly socialist ideas such as anti-individualism, collectivist projects, income equality, and a vision of full state welfare benefits” best fulfill Christian morality. So did the first generation of American settlers, he warns us, “until nearly all of them starved to death by the end of the first winter.”

Within the picture Novak has painted, there appear to be two possible economic systems: democratic capitalism and socialism. My opposition to this dichotomy is twofold: I believe that he has failed to account for the elements of our economy that should be particularly troubling to his fellow Christians, and that his model of the virtues necessary to maintain liberty neglects those with which we might combat these abuses.

This summer, Americans were shocked to learn that Planned Parenthood had been engaged in activities that, whether you call it “selling” or “donating and being reimbursed for the costs of transport,” whether you call the sources “unborn children” or “fetuses,” undeniably involved exchanging organs and money. ­Meanwhile, the global pornography industry is estimated at about $97 billion, $10 billion to $12 billion of which come from the United States alone. Horror stories of artificial reproduction, like that of the surrogate mother who in 2013 was offered $10,000 to abort her disabled child, are increasing in frequency.

Novak tells us, “a society can barely survive under a hostile economic system driven by cupidity, envy, and smothering control by the state.” I worry that he and those who share his economic beliefs have, in fear of the last, exposed us to the first two dangers. To avoid what he so beautifully calls “a hostile polity contemptuous of truth, justice, law, and beauty,” Christians need to do more than draw empty distinctions to libertarianism. We must be willing to assert the increasingly radical claim that there are some things too sacred to be bought and sold, that there are spheres of human life into which markets cannot be permitted to enter. We need not call upon the government to draw lines around the market, but we must nonetheless ensure that they are drawn.

When Novak speaks of the virtues necessary to uphold a free society, he reminds us that “personal responsibility matters.” He cannot fail, as he has in this article, to mention the times when personal responsibility is at odds with the profit motive—as it is, for example, when college students turn to sex work to finance their educations, or when Novak’s laudable mission of raising the developing world out of poverty is used to justify inhumane, exploitative labor practices. Novak writes, “True liberty must be derived from self-control.” Self-control must also mean refusing to succumb to a ­culture that tells us our worth can be measured by our economic output, a culture I cannot help wanting to call “capitalism.”

Courtney Hodrick
new haven, connecticut

Michael Novak replies:

Courtney Hodrick raises so many good points that I will have to be brief. I want to reinforce her very sound points and reply to the urgent questions that she puts to me.

There are many more actual economic systems (not to mention possible ones) than democratic capitalism and socialism. For example, social democratic societies (like many in Western Europe), traditional economies (like most in the third world), and Muslim economies that have been influenced by Western economies (but remain different from them on key Islamic principles).

But Hodrick’s opposition to my article is twofold: that in our economy, there are elements that are “particularly troubling” to Christians. Besides, she fears that my model of the virtues necessary for a free and virtuous political economy leaves out some important ones.

Among the huge abuses that cry out for rectification, Hodrick rightly emphasizes, are those of Planned Parenthood selling body parts, global pornography, and the horrors involved in artificial reproduction and surrogacy. She is quite right about this list. In fact, I have been urging our two major political parties to make these abuses major targets of their public policy proposals. I also agree with Hodrick that still other lines must be drawn around the market, and that even when government does not draw these lines, convictions and virtues drawn from other sources ought to insist upon them. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “there are many things which in America the law permits, but which their religion does not allow Americans to do.”

The last two good issues that ­Hodrick brings up are the profit motive and evil, “inhumane, exploitative labor practices.” Whether in the past or present, it is always right to condemn inhumane and exploitative practices, both under governments and under business corporations. It is also right to keepscreening out more and more evil practices, and keep promoting good ones.

Any “culture that tells us our worth can be measured by our economic output” is narrow, stupid, and empty (if not “nasty, brutish, and short”). If that is what Hodrick means by capitalism, we have a very different understanding of economic creativity; human capital; and the longing of the human soul for love, truth, justice, creativity, contemplation, prayer, and all other higher aspirations of our humanity.

The main point of all my writing on this subject has been to raise our sights above what Pope John Paul II called “economism”—a view of economies driven solely by a materialist, economic understanding of self-interest, the profit motive, cupidity, and greed, and a denial of all the nobler human aspirations.

darwinism

In “The Church of Darwin” (June/July), John G. West correctly takes issue with “new atheist” writers such as David Barash and E. O. Wilson, who wish to deny any role for God in evolutionary processes. Many of these writers will go a step further and claim that in our modern world, with our Darwinian understanding of biology, there is, in fact, no need for religious belief at all.

Although Darwin did not see any evidence for design in nature, we should keep in mind that any doubts Darwin may have had about religion were due to his reactions to the prevailing theology of providential design that dominated the culture of nineteenth-century Victorian England. It is precisely this outdated theology of natural or “intelligent” design that is the target of the simplistic attacks on religion by new atheist writers.

Unfortunately, religious believers frequently still adhere to these older theologies today, thus encouraging the new atheist polemics. It is true that evolutionary science does not find any evidence for deliberate design in the natural world. If anything, there are many examples of what might be called “bad design” that arise through the contingencies of the evolutionary process. But science is simply not an appro­priate avenue for determining meaning or purpose in nature, just as a static older belief system is not an appropriate ground for criticizing modern Darwinian biology. John Paul II, writing specifically on the topic of evolution, famously stated “truth cannot contradict truth.” In other words, ideas change. We must continually look again at our presuppositions and intellectual commitments as new scientific findings or theological insights emerge—not to reject one side or the other, but to gain a better understanding and appreciation of creation and the role of humanity in it.

West fails to point out that there are many contemporary theologians, beginning with Pierre ­Teilhard de Chardin but more recently John Haught, Ilia Delio, and Elizabeth Johnson, to name a few, who fully embrace Darwinian ideas in a ­theology of continuous creation. In this view, we are invited by God to participate, for better or worse, in the ongoing ­creative evolutionary process. This emergent new cosmology is both richer and more hopeful than anything that can be found in either the “Church of ­Darwin” or “design theology.”

Glenn Sauer
fairfield university
fairfield, connecticut

John G. West replies:

I am grateful to Glenn Sauer for raising what I think is the central point for traditional theists grappling with the theological implications of ­Darwin’s theory. I agree with him that Darwin’s version of evolution (unlike Wallace’s or Chambers’s view) was framed as a rejection of “providential design.” And while Darwin’s rejection of providential design took him all the way to agnosticism (and beyond), it is certainly true that many theists have tried to syncretize Darwin’s version of evolution with their faith. These theistic Darwinists continue to believe in God, but they seek to make him compatible with the Darwinian idea of unguided ­evolution.

Whether the traditional belief in providential design is truly “outdated,” as Sauer believes, is another matter. I see no reason, certainly no scientific reason, why this must be the case. Even if one were to accept the Darwinian version of evolution as completely true, it only rules out purposeful design once life itself has begun. It leaves untouched the growing evidence for design that can be found in physics, cosmology, and in the chemical origins of life.

In the realm of biology, it is Darwinism’s attempt to reduce everything to blind material causes—not intelligent design’s effort to discern purpose in nature—that seems to me to be increasingly outdated. In an age when genetics has revealed the universe within that is replete with codes, instructions, and information processing systems, Darwinism’s insistence on reducing everything in living things to blind matter in motion seems quaint, to say the least. How were all of those biological instructions produced? In our uniform and repeated experience (the basis of ­modern scientific reasoning), instructions are a hallmark of intelligent activity, not blind material causes. At the same time, experiments at the biochemical level are showing just how impotent Darwinian mechanisms are in producing genuinely novel features in proteins and bacteria.

Sauer also raises the specter of “bad design” as a defeater for intelligent design in nature. But I think this is a bit of a red herring. First, many claims of “bad design” are not in fact supported by the evidence. Second, bad design is not equivalent to no design. The fact that my Toyota Corolla has been the subject of multiple recalls does not mean that it was originally produced by an unguided process. Finally, the fact that some things in nature may not have been designed does not disprove the massive amount of evidence that other things were.

Sauer indicates that he finds the teachings of theistic Darwinism “hopeful.” Others might disagree, finding Darwin’s uninvolved God a rather bleak substitute for a providential God who knows the future, who actively cares for people every moment of their lives, and whose artistry and craftsmanship are clearly on display throughout the universe.

Darwinism is no more beneficial for the scientific enterprise than it is for theology, encouraging biologists to blind themselves to the exquisite functionality of living things anytime it doesn’t fit their preconceptions. During our own lifetime, many Darwinian biologists wrote off more than 90 percent of the genome as “junk DNA” because it did not code for proteins, and thus had no value for Darwinian evolution, which depends on random mutations in DNA. It was mathematician William Dembski who predicted on the basis of intelligent design that so-called junk DNA may not be junk at all. In his words, “If . . . organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function.” As documented by Jonathan Wells’s short book The Myth of Junk DNA, it was Dembski’s prediction, not the Darwinian conventional wisdom, that provided a more accurate view of biological reality.

Despite our potential disagreements, I heartily join Sauer in urging that we continually reexamine “our presuppositions and intellectual commitments as new scientific findings or theological insights emerge.” I only ask that this counsel apply just as much to contemporary advocates of Darwinian theory as it does to proponents of intelligent design.

animal afterlife

The recent dispute between Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart on the question of “puppies in paradise” (“Romans 8:19–22,” June/July) appears to betray a misunderstanding on Feser’s part about Hart’s position. Feser argues that there can be no animals in the afterlife because there is nothing non-corporeal from an animal that could survive death (poor Fido), but Hart’s point does not explicitly deal with particular animals (though on this, see below). Rather, Hart argues what is biblically clear: At the revelation of the children of God, all of creation, which must include animal life, will be released from the futility with which it has been burdened by human sin (Rom. 8), and so animals, in some way we know not how, will co-inherit with us the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21).

This question might seem especially arcane to the non-theologian, but this disagreement on animal futures impacts our very theological understanding of creation, as Hart demonstrated with his discussion of the necessity of creation for humans to be able to “see” God. Is, in Feser’s view, all of evolutionary history only a build-up for the main event—the appearance and salvation of embodied spiritual creatures, after which vegetative and animal life will disappear, its purpose served? Questions of eschatology in Christian theology quickly become questions of protology, and so we must ask how this picture of a beatific vision absent nonhuman life affects how we are to think of creation in the first place.

Connected to this question is a moral one: How do these differing views of the future life of animals determine our ethical treatment of animals here and now? In his sermon “The Hope of the Universe,” the great nineteenth-century preacher George MacDonald concluded his sweeping exegesis of Romans 8 with a plea to end animal torture for the sake of medical research. An odd twist for some, perhaps, but Paul’s logic demands it: If these creatures await God’s coming freedom, then they are—in their own way—recipients of the same eschatological hope as humans, and that eschatological hope grants them a certain dignity we must respect.

If MacDonald were preaching today, he would surely condemn the cruelty integral to our current animal factory farming system in America, a prime instance of creation being subject to futility due to human sin. I say all this not because Feser’s position entails the mistreatment of animals (it doesn’t), but only to ask which eschatological vision offered by our two authors does more to inspire the Christian conscience to care for animal life. If, as we know, it is a central feature of all Christian ­theological ethics that God’s future reaches backwards into the present and determines the shape of our moral lives, then what God restores at the end of days we are called in our time to care for and preserve.

It matters, therefore, whether there are puppies in paradise, and we need more from Feser on why we ought to believe there won’t be, especially in light of the biblical witness. From Hart, we ask whether he does mean by his arguments that ­particular animals will return to life, perhaps insofar as they are integrally connected to the identity of particular humans. This may go some way toward answering Aquinas’s objections to the idea of the resurrection of particular animals in the Summa Theologica. There may be hope for Fido yet.

Roberto De La Noval
south bend, indiana

David Bentley Hart replies:

My thanks to Roberto De La Noval for his letter, to which I have little to add. He is, of course, quite correct that the biblical vision of redemption is one of cosmic restoration, not merely one of individual ­salvation, or of the rescue of souls; it is an unfortunate fact of history that by the Christian High Middle Ages this had been forgotten by almost every significant Western Christian theologian. Moreover, in invoking George MacDonald—whom I regard as the greatest Christian thinker ever to have written in English, as well as one of three theologians with whom any disagreement is morally indefensible—De La Noval has entirely disarmed me.

I would add only that, in addition to protology and eschatology, this issue also touches upon the question of the Christian understanding of the soul, and of the soul’s relation to the whole of creation. Not being particularly Aristotelian in my ­understanding of the soul, I feel no great need (or desire) to guard the metaphysical and moral partition between sensitive and rational natures, or between animal and spiritual souls. I tend to think in terms of an unbroken continuum, at once an ontological hierarchy and an evolutionary history, and of the uniquely mediatorial role of the human presence in creation. And I suspect that the best way of approaching these matters is by way of a creative reworking of the metaphysics of ­Maximus the Confessor.

Oh, and yes, of course I mean that individual animals—as beings with distinct personal natures—belong to that restored cosmos, no less than individual humans. Not simply for our sakes, moreover, but for theirs.