Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine March-April 2009
"The culture wars and the political battles by which they are fought are a day-by-day thing, the stuff of sound bites and news cycles. Attention must be paid to, but even greater attention is due to, the longer-term changes in the way we talk and think, as we know that the way we think is powerfully influenced by the way we talk. Toward that end, William Brennan, a social scientist at St. Louis University, has a new book from Sapientia Press, Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death. It is a close study of the thought and language of John Paul II, who taught the Church and the world to understand the contest of the culture of life versus the culture of death. Rhetoric is never mere rhetoric, and the past election witnessed novel efforts by some Catholics to capture John Paul's language and employ it to opposite effect. With apparently some significant success, evangelical and Catholic supporters of Senator Obama attempted to hijack the language of the culture of life, claiming that they are the authentic pro-life proponents because, by reducing poverty and expanding comprehensive sex education, Obama will decrease the number of abortions. This despite his adamant support for the unlimited abortion license, his support for government funding of abortion, and his backing of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would establish abortion as a "fundamental right" and eliminate all regulation of abortion, including state measures such as waiting periods, informed consent, and parental notification, which, along with abstinence ("It works every time!"), have the proven effect of reducing the number of abortions. Such Orwellian distortions are bizarre, but, as William Brennan reminds us, they are also the longstanding modus operandi of the pro-choice cause. And, of course, he is right in seeing John Paul the Great as a master of infiltrating truth into what, against all evidence to the contrary, 'we persist in calling public discourse.
SOWING SEEDS OF CHAOS
You may remember Mark C. Taylor. He's chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, who a while back announced in the New York Times that his ambition is to make sure that students are more confused and troubled at the end of his course than they were at the beginning. Now that's a sense of calling and a real challenge: to confuse and trouble young people. Taylor has committed yet another book, After God. It is reviewed by Anthony Kenny in the Times Literary Supplement. Taylor writes: "God is not the ground of being that forms the foundation of all things but the figure constructed to hide the originary abyss from which everything emerges and to which all returns. While this abyss is no thing, it is not nothing - neither being nor nonbeing, it is the anticipatory wake of the unfigurable that disfigures every figure as if from within." Kenny comments: "Religion, Taylor tells us, is perfectly possible without God - and given his elastic definition of religion, this is surely true. Given Taylor's definition of God, his absence seems no great loss." Kenny is right about that, but perhaps he fails to appreciate sufficiently Prof. Taylor's declared vocation, namely, the intellectual abuse of minors.
DEMISE OF TRADITIONAL ETHICS
Despite devastating critiques of his positions, Peter Singer goes on and on. Holding a Princeton professorship doesn't hurt. But there's something about the man himself, call it self-confidence, insouciance, hubris, or something else. He wrote the long article on ethics for the Encyclopedia Britannica. After many pages surveying the history of ethics, his conclusion is that the future of ethics as a serious discipline presupposes the collapse of traditional ethics. As it happens, he had written a book subtitled The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. History is Peter Singer. Now he reviews a new book on ethics and writes, "[The author] agrees with what now seems to be a near-consensus among philosophers that 'speciesism' - the view that we are entitled to take the interests of animals less seriously than we take human interests, simply because humans are members of our species - is not a morally defensible position." Speciesism is a Singer neologism and it seems he really believes what he says about there being a near-consensus on it. Surely the world cannot be that far behind Peter Singer! I doubt if anyone has a statistical breakdown on the matter, but I expect that only a small minority of philosophers, perhaps a very small minority, agrees with Singer that, for instance, between a year-old pig and a newborn baby, the pig has rights superior to those of the baby because of its greater self-consciousness. In all the possible reasons for the exalted self-confidence that keeps Peter Singer going, do not underestimate the power of sheer delusion.
Through much of the commentary on the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn last August, there was the repeated intimation - and sometimes vulgar assertion - that, after his return to Russia in 1994, he descended into crotchety old age and irrelevance. This is not new. The same complaints were loudly heard more than thirty years ago when he gave that "controversial" commencement address at Harvard. There he said, among other things: "Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?" Such reflections were met by both embarrassed silence and cries of outrage. Who is he to presume to preach to us about the spiritual wreckage of our culture?! And to do so at Harvard, the shining campus on a hill that glows with the achievements of the brightest and best the world has ever produced. The answer is that he was one of the relatively few giants of the last hundred years, a man whose moral courage, literary genius and uncompromising devotion to his calling alerted millions to the higher possibilities in being human. Through his years in the earthly hell of the Soviet prison system, to the publication of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, and, later, the multivolume Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn challenged the world to look unblinkingly at the good and, with relentless specificity, the evil of which we are capable. In this he offended the good taste by which we protect our pitiable conceits and dirty secrets. In the September 2008 issue of the New Criterion, Roger Kimball lifts up another factor that made Solzhenitsyn so very unacceptable to most of our intellectual class. He showed that communism and Nazism were but two sides of the same evil coin. "The myth of communist 'idealism' was, and perhaps still is, a hardy perennial. George Steiner, reviewing Gulag Archipelago in the New Yorker in 1974, typified the attitude of the left-wing Western intellectual: 'To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism,' Steiner lectured, 'is not
only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency.'" At least communism meant well; the pity is that it employed such brutal means, and the greater pity is that it failed. The left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked by an interviewer whether his position doesn't come down to "saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified." To which Hobsbawm unhesitatingly answered "Yes." Kimball worries whether America, now in the grips of "crowd politics" rallying to Utopian promises, might be headed in the direction of what Friedrich Hayek, following Tocqueville, called "the road to serfdom". I hope, as he no doubt hopes, that he is wrong about that. One way to ward off that dreadful prospect is to have indelibly imprinted upon our minds the life and literary legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying
(titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther - when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favoured beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, "When I am weak, then I am strong"? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendours of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is "Your will be done" - not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.
See our tribute to Father Neuhaus