Francis Schaeffer. Tom Wolfe. Peter Singer.
I spent the morning with the Capitol Fellows thinking about these three men, and their ideas. The first one I studied and studied with many years ago, when I was the age of the Fellows– dropping out of college, living in communes in California and Europe, asking questions that college couldn’t answer.
The other two I began reading years later. Wolfe is a novelist, a storyteller who is captured by the soul of America, and decade by decade he writes one more time about who we are, and how we live—from “The Right Stuff” to “Bonfire of the Vanities” to “A Man in Full” to “I Am Charlotte Simmons” to “Back to Blood.” But he is also an essayist, and the piece for today was “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” first published in Forbes, in which he takes up the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, arguing against his materialist determinism and his reductionist view of human beings, viz. “The fix is in—we’re wired and that’s it.”
And Singer is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, best known for his utilitarian ethics. In the one of the most ironic and tragic moments in the history of higher education, he was chosen to lead Princeton’s Center for Humane Values. The New Yorker article we drew on was titled, “The Dangerous Philosopher,” as Singer has widely written that those unable to contribute to society should be “let go,” euphemistically speaking. As a film of an earlier generation put it, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Except of course, when it’s your mother—and then you choose otherwise. You will need to read it yourself.
I had asked the Fellows to read them together, but especially Wolfe and Singer in light of Schaeffer. While most of us don’t think about “presuppositions” in our daily discourse, their reality is the stuff of life for everyone everywhere. We do see the world in distinctive ways. We do make choices about what matters and doesn’t matter because we believe some things do matter, and some things don’t matter. Schaeffer called those beliefs, presuppositions; Dooyeweerd called them “prê-theoretical commitments.” Either way, we all think by them, choose by them, and live by them.
I showed a film short by a friend, Brian Godawa, “Cruel Logic,” to begin class. Part of a longer film, it is a brilliant story about the way that beliefs shape behavior. In the most simple terms, Godawa allows us to ponder presuppositions, taking us into a sordid story of a psychopath who forces a University of California professor known for his utilitarian ethics– undergirded by his pre-theoretical commitment to materialistic determinism –to “own” his beliefs. Hold onto your chair as you watch this.
The Fellows did well, taking the insights and commitments of each one seriously, asking hard questions where they should, and pushing themselves to answers when possible.
When all is said and done, I want them to learn to read well, both the meaning of their own beliefs about life and death, meaning and responsibility, God and the world, but also the culture that is theirs, full as it is of hope and horror, of longings that make or break the possibility of human flourishing. When our three hours was done, I smiled, knowing that we were further up and further in to the task of learning to read with the eyes of our hearts—which is what the truest leaning always is, because it is what presuppositional learning always is, seeing and hearing from our hearts as we do.