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From the Nov/Dec, 2011 issue of Touchstone


Divine Morals by Joseph Huneycutt

Divine Morals

At the Roots of Christian Bioethics: Critical Essays on the Thought of H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.
edited by Ana Smith Iltis and Mark J. Cherry
Scrivener Publishing, 2009
(336 pages, $44.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Joseph Huneycutt

In one sense this book is a Festschrift by fifteen colleagues, friends, and former students of Tristram Engelhardt, who at 70 is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rice University and Professor Emeritus in the Baylor College of Medicine. Yet some contributors—Christopher Tollefsen, Gerald McKenny, and others—write in respectful disagreement.

Engelhardt’s The Foundations of Bioethics was first published in 1986 and revised in 1996. But since then, as is made clear in his Foundations of Christian Bioethics (2000), he has significantly revised his approach to bioethics since his conversion to the Orthodox Church in 1991. Albert Jonsen summed him up in 1998, “Engelhardt has been the enfant terrible of bioethics: irrepressible, irreverent, unpredictable, but ever insightful and brilliant.”

In the Foreword, Engelhardt’s longtime friend Thomas Bole says of him: “He came to realize that fallen man could not reason to a common morality” (p. ix). Gerald McKenny notes: “Engelhardt’s foundation in Orthodox Christian theology is at core a call to personal religious conversion—a call to return to the ancient Christian religion embodied in the Orthodox Christian Church, a call to experience God rather than to reason about God.”

A Matter of Transcendence

While other Christians in the field of bioethics often look to Natural Law for answers, for Engelhardt, “Ethics is a process of healing and restoring the capacity to experience the transcendent God rather than conforming to a natural order characterized in terms of law” (p. 126). His is an exclusive community, yet all communities, naturally, are exclusive. As Kevin Wm. Wildes, S.J., notes:

One needs to be a member of a community. Moral reason only works within the context of a community and its presuppositions. Moral reason is part of a way of life. But, [Engelhardt] also believes in the call for active conversion. It will be a conversion of faith, not of reason, that leads to a moral agreement. Only when people work within the same framework can we reach agreement on moral issues in medicine and healthcare.

However, when all are not bound by the precepts of the conversion enjoyed by Engelhardt, what develops is the permission principle: “The fabric of cooperation among moral strangers . . . is at best held together by practices that rely not on a common view of the good or of human flourishing, but merely on a consent to collaborate, as, for example, occurs in the market” (p. x). Essentially, “Authority for actions involving others in a secular pluralist society is derived from their permission” (p. 74).

At the Roots of Christian Bioethics is, of necessity, full of references to post-modernity, pluralism, Western philosophy, culture wars, justice, reason, and the secular. Yet, according to Engelhardt, asceticism, love, holiness, and transcendence are the essential things. For Engelhardt, notes Corinna Delkeskamp-Hayes:

There is no third thing between man and God. There is no morality, moral philosophy, or theology apart from the relationship between God and man. So, in this very important sense, the Fathers do not point to morality, moral philosophy, or theology as something one could know outside of being in a rightly ordered relationship to God. (p. 51)

Elsewhere, more pointedly, Delkeskamp-Hayes posits: “Real unity among humans, just as real truth, is available only through Christ” (p. 53). Here, she is echoing Engelhardt’s thought from The Foundations of Christian Bioethics: “Christian bioethics is not a set of rules. It is integral to a liturgical life leading to union with a fully transcendent God” (p. 236).

A Sure Conviction

Disagreement, in detail and in toto, is offered throughout by the contributors. The final chapter makes all the previous pages worthwhile. (They are not light reading.) For, in conclusion, Engelhardt addresses each concern expressed by the contributors, and he writes with a sure conviction about ultimate things, as expressed in 2000:

If one wants more than secular reason can disclose—and one should want more—then one should join a religion and be careful to choose the right one. . . . I indeed affirm the canonical, concrete moral narrative, but realize it cannot be given by reason, only by grace. . . . My moral perspective does not lack content. I am of the firm conviction that, save for God’s mercy, those who willfully engage in much that a peaceable, fully secular state will permit (e.g., euthanasia and direct abortion on demand) stand in danger of hell’s eternal fires.

To paraphrase a popular pro-life mantra: “Bioethics is not a political issue; it is a moral issue that has been politicized.” Members of the Church do not vote on morality; rather, we believe that morality is revealed to us by a man-loving God. As Engelhardt says, “The truth is a Who.” •

“Divine Morals” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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