Bernard G. Prusak
Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
By this author
This book, the eminent political theorist Michael Walzer writes in its acknowledgments, “has been many years in the making.” He dates its beginnings to a seminar in 1990, but gives the reader reason to think that the book has deeper roots in his life. The opening line of the acknowledgments tells us that he “first studied the Hebrew Bible with Rabbi Hoyim Goren, a superb teacher, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s”—that is, when Walzer (born in 1935) was twelve or thirteen, presumably preparing for his bar mitzvah.
For a decade now, I have spent two days every fall discussing the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 with students in a great-books seminar. We spend about an hour and a half picking through the text in Robert Alter’s wonderful translation. I ask my students what the language suggests each character is thinking and feeling in a given moment.
With this book, James Keenan takes his place alongside several of his Jesuit brothers who have cast light on the development of Catholic moral theology in the past century: Josef Fuchs (Keenan’s teacher in Rome), Richard McCormick (the author for many years of the “Notes on Moral Theology” in Theological Studies), and John Mahoney (author of the magnificent The Making of Moral Theology).
“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old,” the prophet Isaiah proclaims (43:18–19). “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Three years ago, in response to an article on vegetarianism that I published in this magazine (“All We Can Eat?” July 13, 2007), Andrew Linzey sent me an e-mail with the subject “Disappointment” and the valediction “Yours sorrowfully.” In between, he took me to task for making “the mistake of almost all Catholic moralists” who write on this topic—namely, “of focusing almost entirely [on] the modern secular, philosophical literature for animals…without engaging...the now extensive modern theological discussions
In a New York Times article titled “Making College ‘Relevant’” (December 29, 2009), Kate Zernike reported on the various responses of academic institutions to increasing pressure, from both parents and students, to show that the expense of a liberal-arts education is worth it.
Sometimes, pace the Lord, a prophet is honored only in his native land. So suggests the case of Hans Jonas, a philosopher whose prophetic warnings in the 1970s about dangers to the environment earned him fame in his native Germany and even played a part in inspiring a political movement there, the German Green Party. By contrast, Jonas is hardly a household name in the United States, where he lived from 1952 until his death in 1993, and even many professional philosophers here hardly know his work.
When I was a student at Williams College in the 1990s, Professor Mark C. Taylor was the big man on campus, the intellectual figure to reckon with. If a book had been written with the title God and Man at Williams, the man would have been Taylor, according to whom God was dead. Taylor loomed especially large for students like me who came to Williams with faith in God as well as aspirations, or pretensions, to be intellectually sophisticated. For faith in God, at least according to Taylor and his protégées, was intellectually disreputable.
After living in England for a year, and eating one too many dishes of poorly cooked, unidentified meat, I came home to the United States a vegetarian. Over Thanksgiving dinner, my uncle jokingly proclaimed that I had become an Episcopalian. Admittedly, what makes the joke funny is obscure. But there is a hint in it that becoming a vegetarian is not, well, altogether kosher—that it is something like giving up old-world Catholicism for new-age Episcopalianism.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’s claim to be wiser than anyone else in Athens rests on a paradoxical assertion-that he, at least, knows he is ignorant. If institutions spoke as forthrightly, some Catholic colleges and universities today might make a similar claim. More than other colleges and universities in the United States, they know that they do not know, or at least are questioning what the mission of a college or university should now be.