More Frank Dialogue

Believer and unbeliever spar over terms, stewardship, and dignity

In recent posts I contested the “dignity deniers” Ruth Macklin and Steven Pinker. I noted also, with grave doubts, Alasdair MacIntyre’s annual Notre Dame lecture in which he suggests that everything dignity can do justice can do better. Those posts, gentle readers, offer a background to my ongoing dialogue with Karl Meyer. A radical mentor of my undergraduate years, Meyer now speaks his mind as an octogenarian.

Karl, at this point in our frank and candid exchange, is “pushing back.” For a start, he tells me that he objects to being termed a secular humanist, just as much as I would object to being called a “papist.” (In fact, I don’t object to this label.) My old friend also finds me epistemically deficient. While his beliefs “are reasoned and carefully thought out,” in contrast, he says, “You acknowledge that yours are based in unverified faith in the unseen and the unknown.” Ouch!

Nay, sir. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “fideist.” With St. Thomas, I hold that there are reasonable and even cogent grounds for believing that God exists. Now perhaps Karl is a positivist and thinks that empirical verification is the only admissible reason for belief. Of course, that thesis is itself not empirically verifiable. Ah, well.

How does Karl see himself? He writes, “I have described myself as a ‘beist,’ as I have reverence for the life aspirations of other beings.” He tells me that he does “not believe in the superiority or preeminence of humans over other species.”

Well, yes and no to his position. In the 1987 encyclical On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), St. John Paul II called for “a growing awareness of the fact that one cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate—animals, plants, the natural elements—simply as one wishes, according to one’s economic needs.” Rather, the pope continues, “One must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the ‘cosmos’” (no. 34, italics in original).

So, yes, all creation reflects the Creator. There is a right regard for sand and, say, snapdragons. But “reverence” is in a different key. Karl’s “life aspirations” also needs clarification. Plants, like all living entities, have aspirations in the sense of functioning to stay alive. But that hardly precludes our removing invasive species to safeguard a particular bio-system.

Who decides in this safeguarding of the environment? We humans, as stewards, rightly decide. We have an understanding, however partial, of the environment as a whole. So, we do have a preeminence over other species. By nature we are free and intelligent and thus responsible for the common good.

Where does Karl stand on the contested question of dignity? He’s forthright. “I believe in human dignity and human rights for every single person…and for dignity and respect for all of the other beings who share this living planet with us.” But why does he hold this belief? I would like to hear more on this, much more.

Karl does take the opportunity, though, to underscore the strength of his belief. He writes, “I think I believe in this more than your Old Testament/New Testament God, who allegedly designed the brutal biological system of Earth.”

Believing something, however strongly, doesn’t make it true. As an octogenarian, Karl, more than a mere septuagenarian like myself, knows that strong and contradictory beliefs spring up like weeds! And for all his vehemence, Karl knows that the Garden of Eden was not a “brutal biological system.” That is the system “east of Eden” where we continue our catastrophic ways. The most recent catastrophe-in-the-making is Ukraine, as it awaits a Russian invasion. I’ve sent Karl a recent reflection of Archbishop Borys Gudziak on Ukraine in peril. (Gudziak has contributed to the NOR.) I’m waiting to hear back.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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