Orthodoxy and philosophical reflection - 12/07/10

On December 7-9 St. Herman Seminary hosted a series of lectures by internationally renowned philosopher and bioethicist Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt.

Dr. Engelhardt holds doctorates in philosophy and medicine and currently is professor of philosophy at Rice University and professor emeritus of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He formerly held the Rosemary Kennedy chair of the philosophy of medicine at the Kennedy Institute Center for Bioethics at Georgetown University.

In addition, he is senior editor of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Christian Bioethics, the Philosophy and Medicine book series, and the Philosophical Studies in Contemporary Culture book series. Among the books he has written are The Foundations of Bioethics, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, Global Bioethics, and Bioethics and Secular Humanism: The Search for a Common Morality. Last year Ana Smith Iltis and Mark J. Cherry edited At the Roots of Christian Bioethics, a collection of essays on the thought of Dr. Engelhardt.

Dr. Engelhardt also is  a tonsured Reader, member of the Medical/Ethics Commission of the Orthodox Church in America, and adjunct professor of bioethics and philosophy at St. Herman Seminary.

His lecture series (click on "Dr. Engelhardt lectures" in the sidebar to view outlines of the lectures) began with "The Death of God and the Death of Man: Living in a Culture without Roots," which explored the consequences of living in a culture that acts as if God did not exist. Dr. Engelhardt gave an overview of the radical paradigm shift in talking about God in the West, from Augustine to post-modernity, including a discussion of Scholasticism, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, Kant, Hegel, and the contemporary "culture wars." Orthodoxy's views of reality and morality are seen as being at odds with the dominant culture, which has lost the "God's-eye perspective," evidenced in issues of abortion and stem cell research. 

The general topic continued with "Merry Christmas: A Guide to Political Incorrectness," which focused on the importance of remaining Christian in the public forum and not marginalizing one's Christianity because of a secular culture in which the greeting "Merry Christmas" is radically offensive. Orthodox Christians are seen as strangers in our culture. We are politically incorrect when we are faithful to our faith. The culture will see us as "fundamentalists" when we do not reduce our faith to simply a set of morals and are serious about it (e.g., against both Kant and Hegel). Christian morality is based on obedience; it is concerned not with universalistic human dignity but in loving God and our neighbor in a particular setting. The "culture wars" have been declared by our secular culture's demand that religious faith needs to be private and relativistic. LIke the early martyrs, our response needs to be to declare that "Jesus is Lord" and standing firm in declaring our faith. In a time of "Happy holidays," we need to declare with conviction: "Merry Christmas! Christ is born!"

The lecture "The Deflation of Theological Truth" investigated how even in Christian circles the idea of Christian truth and the significance of Christian dogma has been deflated. Our contemporary culture is very much like the ancient Roman Empire the Apostles faced: polytheistic, multicultural, skeptical, decadent, falsely tolerant, and pagan. The medieval world of the West was monotheistic, monocultural, and steeped in faith in reason (rationalism). The Protestant Reformation and the European religious wars were partly responsible for the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the secularism of philosophers like Kant and Hegel. Contemporary culture, in addition to being like the Roman Empire, views Christianity as intolerant, homophobic, and patriarchal. Orthodoxy is seen as "fundamentalist" (seen as a negative title by our culture) because we declare our faith as "the Truth." As such the Church finds itself in the midst of a "culture war," where society demands that any faith needs to be private and relative. Our response is to boldly preach the Gospel and baptize our culture. It is time to re-evangelize the "new" Roman Empire of the 21st century!

This thought-provoking lecture series concluded with "Family: Marriage, Children, and Commitment in the 21st Century," given at Holy Resurrection Cathedral after the Akathist to St. Herman. In it, Dr. Engelhardt reflected on the dramatic deflation of the significance of marriage and the family over the past 50 years, including the issues of abortion, children born out of wedlock, and the feminist myth of equality. A Christian family is first and foremost companionship in the pursuit of the kingdom of heaven; it is the small church, an icon of Adam and Eve. It is to give birth to and raise the next generation of Christians, leading them in an ascetic struggle to worship God rightly. The radical shift is seen in the statistic of children born out of wedlock: in 1960, only 5 percent; by 2007 that number had risen to 40 percent. In 2009 only 67 percent of children live in a household where both parents are married. The idea of a 1-man and 1-woman marriage is an unique feature of Christianity and increasingly is seen as irrelevant. Current "culture wars" in the area of marriage come from a variant vision of the definition of marriage and family. The feminist claim of there being no difference between the sexes was denounced as being one without scientific basis, tends to exploit women, and results in de facto concubinage. On the other hand, marriage protects women and strengthens society. The divergent perspectives on abortion were presented as reflecting the opposing visions of "marriage" and "family" of Orthodoxy and the secular culture in which we live.

Each lecture was followed by enthusiastic question-and-answer sessions. It is a great privilege to hear about these issues from Dr. Engelhardt, and we look forward to his next visit to Kodiak.

Fr. John introduces Dr. Engelhardt
Dr. Engelhardt begins his presentation
A point of emphasis
Pounding the point home
Seminarians, staff, and guests listen intently
A young philosopher in the making?
Dr. Engelhardt at the board
A moment of discussion with the group
Expounding thoughts on Orthodoxy and culture
Dr. Engelhardt in a reflective moment
After four sessions, Dr. Engelhardt's listeners want more