If you work in bioethics, are of a certain age, and have a degree from the University of Virginia, colleagues are likely to assume you studied with James Childress, the legendary teacher who co-authored Principles of Biomedical Ethics, a foundational text in the field.
I did not work with Childress; my time at Virginia coincided with the years he spent at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute. Yet my bad timing also proved to be my great fortune, because Childress was replaced at Virginia by Gilbert Meilaender. By all accounts, Meilaender is one of the most important Christian ethicists of his generation. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he grew up in northwestern Indiana (where he still resides) and prepared for ministry in the Concordia seminary system, receiving his BA from Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne and his MDiv from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He then went on to pursue a PhD at Princeton with Paul Ramsey, arguably the most important Protestant ethicist of the latter half of the last century. Meilaender describes his teacher as “an intellectual street fighter.” Like mentor, like student: if Ramsey was bioethics’ Joe Frazier, Meilaender is its Muhammad Ali.
Meilaender likes a good argument and can sting like a bee. Consider his 2003 exchange with the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who testified before President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics (on which Meilaender served). In the course of asserting that the collapse of religious views of human nature in the face of contemporary science requires us to rethink our notions of justice and responsibility, Pinker assured committee members they need not worry about a Nietzschean collapse of all values, since holding people accountable for their actions would still have a deterrent value. In effect, he was reducing justice to utilitarian calculations, and Meilaender would have none of it. Quickly he cut to the core of Pinker’s position: if “the most effective way of stopping certain behavior would be periodically to frame certain people for having done it and punish them publicly,” he asked, “would that be the right thing to do?” Pinker temporized, then stumbled, and by the end of the exchange was reduced to arguing that we track down aging Nazis in Paraguay because doing so prevents future atrocities, not because our sense of justice demands they be held accountable for their actions. Meilaender’s skillful cross-examination probed the consequences of rejecting a religious conception of human nature, laying bare utilitarianism’s inability to account for our “implacable desire for justice.” It was a deft performance; and having once been on the receiving end of such counterpunches as a grad student, I had some idea of how Pinker must have felt.
My old teacher and I have stayed in touch over the years—he has been a helpful intellectual conversation partner in my career—and I was glad to be able to spend a day recently with him discussing his work, both at his home and at his office at Valparaiso University. At sixty-three, Meilaender looks every bit the sagacious professor. His expression is gentle and typically pensive; one eyebrow seems arched in an attitude of permanent skepticism. He speaks with great affection about his wife of forty-one years, Judy, and their children and grandchildren. He’s a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, which may help explain his Augustinian sense of the brokenness of human life. Meilaender has published thirteen books, the most recent of them Neither Beast nor God (Encounter), an inquiry into human dignity. The book grew from his service on President Bush’s bioethics council and is emblematic of his work as a whole. It illustrates how his Lutheranism has been shaped by constant conversation with the Catholic tradition. In making a central distinction between human dignity and personal dignity, Meilaender compares what John Paul II says about the death penalty with Aquinas’s view of murder. According to Aquinas, a murderer deviates from the natural order and thus “loses his human dignity.” For John Paul II, by contrast, dignity is not something humans can lose. We may lose our characteristic human capacities, but we never lose our personal dignity, no matter what we do.
In developing the contrast between human dignity, which may be compromised, and personal dignity, which cannot be, Meilaender issues a fundamental challenge to secular ethicists. By his lights, Christianity offers an account of personal dignity unavailable to the Peter Singers of the world. Singer, an influential Princeton utilitarian philosopher and ethicist, is perhaps most famous for arguing that some newborns do not have a right to life. Singer grounds equality in certain human capacities—the ability to experience pain and pleasure, the power to anticipate and desire a future. But what about individuals who lose those capacities, asks Meilaender, or who may not yet have developed them? Persons in a persistent vegetative state, for instance—or human embryos—deserve our respect, but secular philosophers have no way to justify granting it to them. “In modernity’s assertion of human autonomy and Christianity’s assertion that a universal longing for happiness can be fulfilled only by looking to God,” he writes, “we have contrasting and opposing patterns of thought and speech, which are rivals for our assent and commitment.”
The view that liberal individualism and Christianity are ultimately irreconcilable shapes Meilaender’s understanding of the function of bioethics committees. Having served on President Bush’s council for the entire seven years of its existence, he disdains those critics who complained about the council’s penchant for theoretical reflection over concrete policy (see “End of Discussion,” Commonweal, August 14, 2009). Indeed, for Meilaender, theological reflection is essential to bioethics, and he argues that a preoccupation with public policy has had a corrupting influence on the field—a point he made emphatically in his 1995 book Body, Soul, and Bioethics. He argues that in turning away from the most fundamental issues of human existence, bioethics has lost its soul. In seeking broad agreement on public policy issues, it has smoothed out sharp contrasts between a secular bioethics and a Christian one. For Meilaender, the benefits of consensus are overrated. As he sees it, bioethics committees would be better off simply taking a vote. “To lose a vote is simply that and nothing more. It does not require that we pretend to think the majority decision wise.”
Meilaender certainly does not feign agreement with the direction our society has taken on life issues. From abortion to stem-cell research, from reproductive technology at the beginning of life to physician-assisted suicide at its end, he has consistently advocated for the inviolable dignity of the person—an advocacy that helped win him the 2009 Paul Ramsey Award from the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Meilaender is deeply troubled by what he sees as our society’s failure to respect the dignity of the human person, and regards contemporary ethicists as complicit in this failure. He considers the current direction of American society on end-of-life issues particularly misguided. On the difficult question of stopping treatment, he argues that since humans are embodied souls, to remove a feeding tube from a patient in a persistent vegetative state is to neglect our embodied nature and fall into a kind of dualism. The spirit of the person may be permanently gone, but the body remains and has its own trajectory. Not to respect that trajectory, he believes, is to elevate the value of autonomy to a status it should not have.
In my view, this argument is intriguing but flawed. I agree with Meilaender’s resistance to what the Jesuit moral theologian Richard McCormick called the absolutization of autonomy; but while rightly insisting on the importance of our embodied life, Meilaender fails to insist on the necessary integration of body and spirit, as if an essentially spiritless body has ultimate value. The problem of assigning ultimate value to mere bodily existence was a concern McCormick himself expressed before he died. Imagine, McCormick said, a Catholic hospital with room upon room of PVS patients hooked up to feeding tubes, some for decades. An observer of such a facility might be forgiven for wondering if those who ran the facility actually believed in eternal life.
Despite his passionate commitment to life issues, Meilaender maintains a striking equanimity about what he sees as our society’s failure to respect life. He takes his own advice: you lose a vote and you move on. Such an approach may seem cavalier, but in fact it is rooted in a profound vision of the political in human life. Meilaender calls for a chastened politics, and central to this call is the Augustine of the Confessions, who understood that the deepest and most restless longings of the human heart will not be fulfilled in the political order. Politics is neither redemptive nor salvific, Meilaender argues, and thus “our attempts to accomplish the good must have their limit and must be constrained by moral duty.” Combining this reading of the Confessions with a reading of City of God that emphasizes that “history cannot serve as the primary medium of salvation,” Meilaender arrives at a view of politics that is neither utopian nor cynical. “[T]he first thing Christians must say,” he advises, “is no to political pretension.” This does not mean that religion has no place in the political order. It merely means that Christians, while continuing to work for the common good through the political system, should steel themselves against “surprise or outrage when politics turns out to be more complicated and less amenable to our ideals than we had imagined.”
And yet a sense of outrage is precisely what many religious leaders project about abortion. I asked Meilaender about Catholic bishops who threaten to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians, or who flirt with endorsing particular political candidates. While clearly sympathetic to the impulse behind such actions, in the end he resists them. “Some things should be preached, and others taught,” he remarked. He does not himself make political statements in sermons, but he insists that a priest’s or pastor’s responsibility to teach includes speaking to how Christians should respond to political issues. The problem, for both Lutherans and Catholics, is finding the proper occasion. “The church,” he said, “needs to find ways to shape members apart from sermons.”
Although he is a career academic, Meilaender has served several Lutheran congregations on a part-time basis, and a collection of his sermons, Love Taking Shape, supports his claim that he would have been no less happy as a pastor than as a professor. His interest in preaching may help account for his ability to write about topics well removed from daily existence—like stem-cell research or torture—while remaining grounded in the everyday. Two essays illustrate how fruitfully he has mined everyday life for theological and moral insight. The first, “Goodbye, Sally, Goodbye” (published in The Limits of Love), reflects on his family’s experience as foster family for a newborn baby, who came into the Meilaender home when she was four days old and left eight months later. Just four pages long, the essay captures beautifully the complexity of the command to love. In desiring the welfare of those we love, Meilaender asserts, we desire not only what is good for them, but the good that we can give. “Yet,” he writes, drawing on the experience of parenting Sally, “it would be wrong to want the good we can give more than the good she truly needs. Wrong because it would stunt her and would not permit the good to flourish fully in her life. And so a gracious God goes to work on us to broaden and deepen our love—to help us love more than the limited good that we alone bestow. And it hurts. Which means, contrary to what we often say, that grace hurts.” Meilaender says that Sally taught him more about the importance of eschatology (or the sense of an ending) in Christian life than many theological texts; her temporary presence and the wrenching experience of letting her go “made it clear that all our days and hours are equidistant from eternity.”
The second essay, “Creatures of Time and Place” (published in Things That Count), draws on his 1996 move from Oberlin College to Valparaiso. The move, which followed eighteen years at Oberlin, provided Meilaender with “a powerful reminder of more ultimate truths,” specifically the truth that human life is finite and embodied, and that we are always “on the way.” If one ever needed proof of the idea that we are not simply Descartes’s cogito—a mind located in no particular place—then the experience of moving provides it. Indeed, we are always strangers in a strange land, whether we move or not; a deep tension resides in the fact of our being not only creatures of time and place but also spirits made to rest in God. As Meilaender puts it, “God ties our hearts to particular times, places, and people—and then the same God tears us away from them so that we may learn to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.” Moving is thus a reminder “that we dare not rest the whole weight of the heart’s longing in any finite good.”
The essay delineates a sense of vulnerability and longing in exploring a Christian vision of human life, and reveals both Meilaender’s sense of vocation and his growing apprehension of the difficulty of following that vocation within the constraints of secular academic life. How does one engage a truly liberal education in an academic culture that leaves little room for religious identity? How can a college education open the mind and heart to what counts most in life when one is not able to speak freely of God? Meilaender’s move from a first-tier secular institution to a second-tier Lutheran school discloses his answer. He credits the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of the journal First Things, with persuading him that an institutional commitment to a way of life open to God is necessary for anyone who wishes to transmit that way of life to the young.
It would be hard to overestimate the influence on Meilaender of Neuhaus, who brought Meilaender into a group of scholars in the Institute on Religion and Public Life to discuss religion and politics. The colloquium’s impressive list of attendees included Hadley Arkes, Robert P. George, Russell Hittinger, Robert Jenson, and Robert Wilken, to name a few. Meilaender acknowledges his intellectual debt to these thinkers. His obituary for Neuhaus, published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics, provides a touching tribute to both the man and his work. At least one aspect of Meilaender’s association with Neuhaus, however, sparked a difficult episode in his life. In 1994, the Neuhaus group issued a statement condemning homosexuality as harmful to the individual and society. The statement, signed by Meilaender and twenty other scholars and religious leaders, was published in First Things, and excerpted in the Wall Street Journal.
Even today, Meilaender expresses surprise at the reaction the statement elicited, including a sizable backlash among Oberlin students and a rebuke from some members of the Society of Christian Ethics, who drafted a statement condemning him and opposing his candidacy for the vice-presidency of the society. Meilaender was stung by these experiences, and by the failure of many who privately agreed with him to defend him publicly. Yet while he admits to regrets about the statement, he says he would probably sign it again. And indeed, though some of the statement’s language is clearly regrettable—talk of a “gay and lesbian insurgency,” for instance, or of “predatory behavior” in relation to young people—its substantive case against homosexuality draws on core arguments that are central to much of Meilaender’s work.
These arguments are not primarily about homosexuality per se, but about sexuality and the nature of human embodiment generally. The statement’s critique addresses any understanding of sexuality “that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire.” At its heart is the rejection of a dualistic understanding of human nature that reduces the body to a mere instrument. In a passage deeply consonant with Catholic thought—and one that I believe both conservatives and liberals could embrace—the document affirms that “our bodies have their own dignity, bear their own truths, and are participant in our personhood in a fundamental way.” Were Meilaender to repudiate the statement entirely, he would have to reject many of his core commitments; his views about the body, sexuality, marriage, community, autonomy, and abortion are all implicated in the reasoning that leads to his position on homosexuality.
Can one accept many of these views and reach a different conclusion about homosexuality? I believe so. For example, it seems to me perfectly appropriate to speak of homosexual acts as expressions of love and intimacy in a committed, loving relationship without reducing sexuality to the pursuit of personal desire. Indeed, a nondualistic view of the body and a noninstrumentalist view of sexuality may require us to recognize homosexual love as a morally appropriate manifestation of human sexuality. Amy Laura Hall, an associate professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, also disagrees with Meilaender on homosexuality—as Hall sees it, gay and lesbian couples may witness to the blessings of fidelity and hospitality—yet when she teaches Christian sexuality to her students, she assigns both Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body, which echoes her own position, and Meilaender’s negative review of Rogers’s book. As Hall notes, Meilaender’s opposition to homosexuality is not that of a culture warrior, but is rooted in a particular theological vision of the created order. It is not a vision that all theologians share. One may disagree with Meilaender while acknowledging that the substance, if not the rhetoric, of the colloquium statement he signed reflects a coherent theological vision of human life and morality.
Would the reaction to his signing the colloquium statement have been less harsh if Meilaender himself did not seem to enjoy rhetorical sparring so much? There’s no doubt that Meilaender can deliver a blow with his pen. Take, for instance, the letter he wrote to First Things in February 2003, objecting to an essay in the magazine, “Fatherhood, 2002,” by Damon Linker, at that time the magazine’s associate editor. The essay, Linker explained to me in an e-mail, “was about the experience of becoming a father, and offered what I thought was a modest defense of the modern, egalitarian family in which mothers and fathers shared the trials and rewards of caring for young children.” Some First Things readers responded with dismay, writing letters accusing Linker of undermining traditional gender roles in the family.
Given that Linker’s piece was a reflection on parenthood inspired by a new father’s experience of caring for an infant, the tone of the responses was surprisingly harsh. Among the more caustic letters was one from Meilaender. In a comment that might generously be described as lacking collegiality, Meilaender remarked that he “detected a slight whiff of regret at [Linker’s] own inability to lactate, a sad biological fact that should concern those gnostic enough to think simply in terms of ‘parenting.’’’
Linker was stung by the response of First Things readers, and especially by the tone of Meilaender’s letter, but was not persuaded that Meilaender’s views about the “moral significance of our embodied creation as male and female” necessarily dictated any particular division of labor regarding childrearing. Linker went on to become editor of First Things, but subsequently left the magazine and wrote a scathing critique of the journal’s political agenda (The Theocons: Secular America under Siege). He is now a prominent blogger for the New Republic. About his eventual disaffection from the worldview of First Things, Linker concedes that “the most I can say about Gilbert Meilaender is that at one point in my past he understood me better than I understood myself.”
Clearly, Meilaender is not a theologian given to insincere politeness. What you see is what you get, and this aspect of his personality strikes me as rooted in a commitment to the truth. At one point in our conversation, he related a story of visiting the dying Paul Ramsey. Knowing that Ramsey would not want him to travel halfway across the country solely to visit him, Meilaender told Ramsey he was attending an East Coast conference and would incorporate the visit as a side trip. In the end, Meilaender got to say goodbye to his friend and mentor. But he had to deceive him to do it, and the deception apparently still troubles him. “I lied,” he told me bluntly. So scrupulous is he about the truth that even a “white lie” told to a dying man bothers him.
On the wall of Meilaender’s office hangs a lengthy and rather intricate quotation from Kierkegaard’s journals, one that speaks to Meilaender’s ongoing engagement with Catholicism. In the passage, Kierkegaard describes Luther’s theological activism as “a corrective,” then goes on to assert that
a corrective made into the normative, into the sum total, is eo ipso confusing in another generation (where that for which it was a corrective does not exist). And with every generation that goes by in this way, it must become worse, until the end result is that this corrective, which has independently established itself, produces characteristics exactly opposite of the original. And this has been the case. Luther’s corrective, when it independently is supposed to be the sum total of Christianity, produces the most refined kind of secularism and paganism.
Meilaender certainly would not say that contemporary Lutheranism has declined to the point of paganism. Yet one surmises he may have wondered over the years whether, like Neuhaus, he shouldn’t become the Catholic he in some sense has always been. In any event, this sense of Lutheranism as a corrective explains his careful attention to Catholic tradition. It may also help explain his interest in the tension between individual freedom and community authority. One of his best essays, “Conscience and Authority,” takes on precisely this issue. Meilaender begins it by drawing upon the Jewish theologian and religious philosopher Michael Wyschogrod’s formulation of the problem as it appears in Jewish thought. Wyschogrod asks whether a Jew must give up his individuality in embracing the covenant, which is more national than individual. Approvingly Meilaender quotes Wyschogrod’s answer: “Perhaps conscience is the Isaac in each one of us, which, though we love, we must be prepared to offer on the altar of divine sacrifice.”
Traditionalists might not imagine themselves troubled by such a sacrifice. But Meilaender makes clear that they should be. He is not interested—to borrow another Kierkegaardian formulation—in selling a cheap edition of conscience and authority. On the one hand, he writes, “the church’s shared life requires that obedience be asked even of those who still feel themselves unable to make sense of the church’s teaching.” And yet “because the church is not mystically fused with Christ, any particular claim to ecclesiastical authority may be mistaken or inauthentic.” Neither a too-easy reliance on individual conscience nor blind obedience to authority is the answer; neither can sustain the weight of a momentous choice. One notes here a delicate pas de deux. A Christian must recognize that he is formed in a church community, and that the community may ask him to obey community standards, even if he does not agree with those standards. At the same time, the church must take challenges to its teaching seriously and even gratefully, because “the church not only speaks God’s word, but also hears that word, is addressed by it, and is compelled to reflect on it.” A precarious balance must be struck between conscience and authority.
Such themes resonate through centuries of Christian writing, and whether it is Augustine or any of a host of other luminaries, one of the pleasures of reading Meilaender is finding yourself taken back to those other figures in the history of Christian thought. At one point, Meilaender recommends adopting an “ecumenism of time,” by which he means that we should attend to the voices “of the great teachers of the church in centuries past, from whom we still seek to learn.” It is both a felicitous phrase and a method Meilaender uses to good effect. In a passage from the Confessions that he cites in a number of his works—and from which he takes the title of one of his books—Augustine writes that it is “one thing to see from a mountaintop in the forests the land of peace in the distance...[but] another thing to hold on to the way that leads there.”
In recommending an ecumenism of time, Meilaender notes that the great thinkers of the Christian past can help us see the way that leads from a wooded summit to the homeland of peace. I count Meilaender himself as an excellent contemporary guide to that way. He is “beautifully Lutheran in being able to see with sobriety human beings at their worst,” Amy Laura Hall remarks, “yet he is able to provide us with a more hopeful vision of where we might live in freedom rather than bondage.” In his recent essay “C. S. Lewis and a Theology of the Everyday,” Meilaender praises Lewis for exploring “a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt.” Such a Christian universe, Meilaender observes, “illumines the everyday, so that we may find in it shafts of the divine glory that point to God,” and helps us “sense the eternal significance of ordinary life.” Thought and feeling; the hopeful vision; the eternal and its immanence in our daily lives: “That,” writes Meilaender, “is the universe I want to explore.”
This article was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Read more: Letters, June 18, 2010