Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

Joseph Bottum, the editor of First Things, on the loss of Father Neuhaus:
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.

My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted.

I weep, rather for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.
For those of us who did not know him, but who shared his Christian faith and political and social convictions, his writing will be much missed. I am particularly grateful for the magazine he began and served as editor-in-chief, First Things. I will miss his written contributions - both the longer essays and the shorter comments in the back of the book. I learned from him.

This morning I re-read "The Idea of Moral Progress" from 1999. This portion is found at the end of the essay:
.... Within the civilizational circle, there is moral progress (and regress!) in how we live, but there is no progress in the sense of moving beyond the moral truths that constitute the circle itself. We can develop the further implications of those truths, or we can step outside the circle by denying that there is such a thing as moral truth. It has become the mark of hyper-sophistication in our time to echo the question of Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate, an urbane Roman ever so much more sophisticated by worldly standards than the prisoner who stood before him, was a forerunner of the barbarians now in power.

Those permanent truths are sometimes called natural law. In the Declaration of Independence they are called the laws of nature and nature’s God. Or they are called the first principles of ethics. First principles are, by definition, always first. Moral analysis cannot go beyond or behind them any more than human consciousness can go beyond or behind human consciousness. Fifty years ago, C.S. Lewis, borrowing from Confucianism, called these first principles the Tao. In The Abolition of Man, he anticipated with great prescience today’s debates in biomedical ethics about reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, and eugenic progress. The Tao, Lewis said, draws support from all religious and moral traditions in inculcating certain rules such as: general beneficence toward others, special beneficence toward one’s own community, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, the laws of justice, honesty, mercy, and magnanimity. Whether drawn from the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, Chinese Analects, Cicero, or the Bhagavad Gita, these are the truths that constitute the civilizational circle.

Like all tradition, the Tao is vulnerable. Those who want to violate it ask, "Why not?", and it is not always possible to give a rationally convincing answer, or an answer that is convincing to everybody. In response to the assertion of rules that set limits, the avant garde offers the challenge, "Sez who?", and the invoking of authority, even of the most venerable authority, carries little weight in our time. Most corrosive is what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion, in which every rule or law or custom is perceived to have behind it some hidden purpose, some power protecting its own interests. Thus the Tao is debunked, we "see through" its supposed authority, and the force of its commands and limits is "explained away." The result is what Peter Singer approvingly calls the collapse of traditional ethics. Lewis had a keen appreciation of what was happening in our intellectual culture. Recall again that remarkable passage from The Abolition of Man:
But you cannot go on "explaining away" forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through" first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.
To which many of our contemporaries say, "Precisely. To see through the first principles of ethics is to see nothing, which means to see that there is nothing except what we will to do; and, if there is nothing, all things are permitted." So speak the barbarians among us. .... Whether they will rule us in the future depends upon our ability to argue-and to give public effect to the argument - that there is such a thing as moral knowledge. It is in the nature of knowledge that we can argue endlessly about what we know and how we know it. Or at least we can argue until, in the happy phrase of 1 Corinthians 13, we finally know even as we are known. Lewis’ Tao provides one minimal foundation for such argument. My suspicion is that, while it is useful, it is too minimal; that a firmer and publicly effective understanding of natural law and first principles requires the specific acknowledgment of the God of Israel and the achievement of the Greeks, as these find expression in what is rightly called the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. That particularist tradition provides the most solid foundation for a truly universal ethic. But that is a discussion for another time.

The answer to the question of whether the barbarians will rule us in the future depends upon parents, religious leaders, educators, scientists, politicians, artists, and writers who are not embarrassed to give public expression to what they know about right and wrong, good and evil. The first proponents of the idea of progress, including moral progress, were right to believe that knowledge and progress are inseparable. There can be no progress beyond but only within the civilizational circle of the moral truths into which we were born, by which we are tested, and to which we are duty bound, in the hope of sustaining the circle for those who come after us. The alternative is the willed ignorance of nihilism.
Richard John Neuhaus was "not embarrassed to give public expression to what" he knew "about right and wrong" and he was a very effective advocate for the good and the true. He will be missed.

FIRST THINGS: Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009, FIRST THINGS: The Idea of Moral Progress

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