Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person, by Gilbert Meilaender.
Some of the most contentious social issues of our time, many of which regularly invade our politics, have as their centerpiece the notion of and appeals to human dignity. What does this dignity mean? Well, it means different things to different people and groups and Meilaender, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, helps us through the maze. In this short book, he elaborates the philosophical, social, theological, and political implications of the question of dignity, and suggests a path to understanding the concept in a way that we will need as we proceed through the pitfalls and threats of policy that are looming in this century.
The Naked Public Square, by Richard John Neuhaus
On the occasion of the author’s death in 2009, I remarked on this 1984 masterpiece, which probably did more than any other work to restore the debate on the notion of the vitality of religious faith in informing the deliberation of public policy in America. In this and other pursuits, notably including his ecumenical work involving Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, he was totally dedicated to the proposition that religious faith and practice and their intersection with philosophical reason were critical to the sustenance of the American strain of the Enlightenment and, in fact, American exceptionalism.
The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite, by Lee Harris.
A couple of months ago, I referenced the author’s essay from a recent edition of Policy Review entitled “The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals” and he wrote offering a copy of his new book, which I accepted to my considerable reward. It is in many ways an expansion of his theme in the essay, which is plenty provocative, but it is also a broadening of the description of the conflict and the history of American thought that brought us to this point. I have a few quibbles on certain points, but on the whole I concur with his analysis of the cultural warpath on which we find ourselves. One exception, however: Where do people like me fit into his characterization of the two sides in this battle? I get the impression that he is congregating the cultural divide into the intellectual elite and anti-intellectual camps, as though there aren’t a large number of politically conservative, populist, and traditionalist intellectuals who are entirely sympathetic with the Tea Party movement. It strikes me that the cultural divide is more philosophically and intellectually grounded than he describes, but he provides a good addition to the debate.
Progress & Religion: An Historical Inquiry, by Christopher Dawson
As described by The New Criterion, Dawson’s work “lingers on the edges of two critical contemporary debates that have consumed the public life of America and Europe for the last two decades, and especially since the attacks of September 11”. These two debates involve the rise of political liberalism and the importance of religion in human culture. Dawson wrote this book in 1929 and it is his most famous work among fifteen books. Coming in the period between the two great wars of the 20th century, he argued that Western Civilization was at a turning point and confronted with two real choices—reappropriate a vital Christian culture or move increasingly toward more dangerous and alienated expressions of consumerism and totalitarianism. I read it feeling that these choices resonate at least as critically eighty years later.
God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, by Walter Russell Mead
This is a masterful account of the contemporary global economic and political system, the essence of which Mead calls “the Anglo-American maritime order”, actually initiated by the Dutch Republic in the 16th century and sustained since the early 18th century by the British and the Americans, that has created the modern world. Mead believes that the key to the establishment and maintenance of this order lies in the individualistic ideology inherent in the Anglo-American religion. Although severely threatened over the centuries, it has prevailed. He further outlines his belief that the current conflicts in the Middle East threaten to change that record unless we foster a deeper understanding of the conflicts between the liberal world system and its foes. While I agree with this point, I take issue with his notion of this understanding, in particular his apparent assignment of moral equivalence to the Puritan and Wahhabi worldviews, his failure to reference the reason/faith split in Islam or the “pure will” of Allah well noted by Pope Benedict XVI and others, and his neglecting to note that, while Christianity has had its Reformation, Islam is still long overdue. Despite these differences, a good read.
The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla
For those so inclined, this is a real philosophical treat, a survey of the thinking of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel for purposes of analyzing what Lilla calls “The Great Separation” which, of course, implies the beginning of the alienation of religion from public life. For Lilla, to no surprise, this separation begins with Hobbes’s Leviathan in 1651, at the time “the most devastating attack on Christian political theology ever undertaken”. There are important lessons here and it’s a fun read for philosophy nerds like me, although Lilla clearly admires Hobbes and he often presents the “separation” theme in too much of an “either/or” context—either the politics of intolerance demanded by revelation or the politics of tolerance of the secular human order. To his credit, he does acknowledge that Islam, in its adherence to sharia law which prescribes the totality of private and public life, is not subject to any such separation, a point that we continue to ignore at our peril.
The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth, and Power, by Melanie Phillips
This one was really fun. In it, a long list of current myths and irrationalities that have achieved widespread credibility and popular assumption are provocatively challenged and disrobed one by one as flights from reality. These cover a range of issues, from war in Iraq, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, global warming, Darwinism, cults and conspiracies from Diana to Obama, the neoconservative movement, and scientific triumphalism, among others, in addition to analyses of why the Jews and Western Civilization bear the brunt of most of the world’s hatred and how the Enlightenment “unraveled”. Behind it all, Phillips offers insight into the links and correspondences between left-wing progressives and Islamists, environmentalists and fascists, militant atheists and fanatical religious believers. She notes that the correspondences between Western progressives and Islamists are really quite remarkable in that both have in their own way ended up suppressing freedom and imposing a tyranny of the mind and, in the end, she wonders whether or not the West really wants to truly defend reason and modernity any longer. Good question.