Reading recommendations from The Witherspoon Institute’s staff.
Author: R.J. Snell (R.J. Snell)
Again we keep Thanksgiving Day; again we have the chance to become grateful, and not just for this single day. Again we are able to hold those we love, to feast in body and soul, and to become attuned to the freshness deep down in all things.
Given the overreach of government, and perhaps especially given the failure of so many elected officials to remember that they do not rule us, it’s all too easy to slip into libertarianism by default. But government is not alien or unnatural to our condition and needs. It emerges from the community’s associations, affections, bonds, and mutual sense of self-responsibility.
All this week Public Discourse will be republishing select essays from "Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism," a project of the Witherspoon Institute that was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its "We the People" initiative. At a time when we have called our traditions and history into question, we provide a primer into the history of our people and our ways of properly understanding freedom and the liberal order.
Every human lives out the drama of existence in his or her way, and with great risk: they gain or lose heaven, embrace or reject love, bring a child into being or not, form friendships and romances or sink into loneliness, become sages or fools. If we forget or forgo the primacy of the person, choosing instead the story of power and chaos, it seems likely we’ll lose the cosmos of our own souls.
Who would deny that liberalism is falling apart, that the center is not holding, or that a vindictive and evangelistic progressivism is afoot? If so, the natural law cannot but feel like feeble comfort. Still, some of us are unwilling to reject public reason or the hopefulness of John Courtney Murray, for we never assumed his optimism was naivete.
Easter reflections are supposed to be lighthearted and joyful. But I’m gravely concerned by the unkindness in the name of kindness so evident in our cultural moment. Our society appears determined to return to the mastery and enslavement of Egypt. We have become forgetful of human limits, do not stand in awe of God’s acts, and so we have become cruel. Jewish and Christian holy days remind us of the need for mercy if society is to overcome its hatreds.
Humans are frail creatures, depending on much beyond our control. Those who do not recognize this have never seen their father watch the clouds, or had livestock die, or waited as the ultrasound searches for a heartbeat that will never be heard. God is good, and he loves what he has created, but we are dust, and he allows the winds to blow.
According to Carl Trueman, focusing myopically on problems with sexual morality often results in misguided responses to the sexual revolution. Instead, we must grapple with “a much deeper and wider revolution in the understanding of what it means to be a self.”
In the current moment, we critique and demand, but from a negation; we know—or some think they know—what they don’t want, but it is quite unclear if they know what they do want. And since they have rejected moral norms it is impossible for them to give a rational justification for their wants and dislikes. Theirs is an exercise of will, for they have exorcised the logos, and mere will—willfulness—remains.
The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof addresses the debate over abortion from an external point of view, for he has not attempted to understand or imagine the pro-life position from the standpoint of someone who holds that view. If he’d like to try seeing it from within, Mr. Kristof is most welcome to join us for dinner and conversation at the Witherspoon Institute.
Our culture’s deep ingratitude is the long, nihilistic outworking of the logic of modern thought itself. When human experience is reduced to only will and power struggle, there no room for gratefulness. Those of us who have not renounced cosmic order and the providence that brings that order to fulfillment, by contrast, know that all things willed or permitted by God work for good. Thus we should be grateful—profoundly grateful—for everything.
Many students today lack a real formation in moral order and agency. Few adults have taught them what a worthwhile life looks like and what they could do to achieve it. University educators must give students access to authoritative moral claims, even as they allow them to judge and decide for themselves.
Social conservatives are not just moralizing when they reject so much of what passes for liberation in our time. It’s not that we’re against self-determination, but rather that we are for the flourishing and well-being of persons, and thus we insist on fostering the institutions that are essential to this task.
While medical experts’ job is to save lives from the coronavirus, it is the responsibility of citizens to ask and decide what makes a worthwhile life. There is more to life than mere living; our own self-respect as responsible agents, who govern ourselves under the law (human and moral), ought not be so easily jettisoned.
A crisis like a pandemic forces citizens to confront what they hold in common. But the coronavirus has revealed that many, whether boomer or millennial, do not even see themselves as citizens—as participating in and being partially responsible for the common good.
Despair is the unforgivable sin, for the despairing conclude that God will not or cannot act, that the universe is fundamentally unfriendly and inhospitable to the true, good, and beautiful, and that humanity has lost the imago Dei. To judge in this way is to deny the goodness of the world and its Creator and sustainer, and that is the sin of all sins.
Unless they acknowledge a divine transcendence, our universities, like our culture at large, are sentenced to pointless “debate,” full of sound and fury, no matter how free our speech is. The marketplace of ideas alone cannot save education.
A consistent life ethic (CLE) should consider the totality of an act: not simply the consequences, but also the intention, the object chosen, and the circumstances of the act. Charles Camosy deserves our respect for boldly declaring the case for CLE, but the devil remains in the details. Without agreement on those details, the consistent life ethic remains as unpredictable and random as Calvinball.
We stewards of the western tradition have good answers for what makes life worth living. If only we could be imaginative enough to give new voice to those ancient truths and avoid the stultifying fate of pampered souls.
If questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are shuttled to the side, as they are in so many of our schools and colleges, the various disciplines and domains of knowledge can never attain a unifying vision.
Given our splintered, irresolute wills, Alan Jacobs’s concept of thinking that “we can do better,” even if “we ought to,” is not enough. It’s going to take more than hope and a checklist.
If there is one thing that the prophets of egalitarian ideology cannot abide, it is the true and sincere believer in normativity—the person who judges that we are, each and every one of us, beholden to exercise our freedom in keeping with a higher law.
Joseph Pieper knows what Rob Riemen has forgotten: the existential poverty of the West cannot be evaded or solved through humanism, for no ersatz god gives meaning to our poetry, song, dance, and drama. Absent God, it is all vapor, lacking the goodness to which we respond in wonder, delight, joy, and feasting.
When it comes to the Catholic Church, there’s a quiet sense that the Vatican thinks in centuries, that a thirty-year crisis will hardly matter in time. Perhaps this time is different. But we don’t know, and Ross Douthat is honest enough to leave us hanging, waiting for the next installment of the Church’s story to be told.