Tag Archives: Philosophy and Religion

On Old Age (and Ezekiel Emanuel)

In a much-discussed Atlantic essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel — physician, public commentator, and prominent supporter of the Affordable Care Act — argues that we’d all be better off if we died at 75. That way, we would escape the debility and indignity that accompany old age and avoid being burdens to our children and other loved ones. And we would have the solace of not outliving our productivity. After all, he writes, “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Emanuel has no plan to commit suicide if he reaches 75, he says. But he plans to reject all medical treatments, even routine ones, that go beyond the palliative.

220px-Cicero_-_Musei_Capitolini

He Knew

Emanuel rightly mocks “American immortals” who seem to believe they should (and maybe will!) live forever. And, in a culture like ours, which values youth and professional achievement virtually above everything else, his argument has a kind of plausibility. I’ve had 25 year-old students tell me they already feel over the hill. Why linger on into your eighties or nineties, when your best days and accomplishments are far behind you? Plus, society would save lots of money if people stopped seeking medical care at 75.

Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity — these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.

Not everyone believes this, of course. But one needn’t be a Christian, or a religious believer of any kind, to appreciate that old age has some things to offer. “For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life,” said the pagan Cicero (above). And one needn’t be a religious believer to see that the elderly may still have much to contribute to us, even if they are weak, sick, and no longer able to write symphonies.

In a lovely response to Emanuel, my friend, John McGinnis, explains this, offering his own parents as an example. John does a much better job than I could, so I’ll just quote him:

But youth and good health do not measure humanity. Millions in diminished health enjoy life, being with their relatives, laughing at old movies, even just sitting in the breeze and sunshine. And their relatives and friends enjoy being with them. Indeed, they may find in the elderly’s struggle with aging an inspiration and a reaffirmation of life. In caring for the frail, weak and sometimes woebegone, they may also expand their own sympathies and express some small measure of gratitude for the debt of a good upbringing that can never be fully repaid.

That is certainly my experience watching my parents age well past 75. I have never admired my father more than when at the cusp of ninety he faces down his own infirmities and cares for my mother who has Parkinson’s disease. And although much is taken from my mother, much abides—her concern for others, her delight in reading new novels and rereading old ones. Emanuel argues that in seeing the decline of those we love, we may forget our happy memories of them in their years of vigor and achievement. But those memories do not need to summoned at particular times, because they infuse my being. In any event, the most valuable memories of all are not defined by physical wellbeing but by spirit and character. For so many people beyond 75 the forging of character continues and the power of their spirit at their end will instruct us by example at our own.

For one important thing, though, Emanuel is to be commended. Most of us do our best to ignore our mortality and the questions it raises about how we’re living our lives. As Pascal observed long ago, people will do pretty much anything to distract themselves and avoid thinking about it. That’s not wise; even a long life goes by so very fast. Every writer knows the benefits of deadlines: they force you to concentrate and get serious. Well, Emanuel says, he’s given himself a deadline.

Ellethy, “Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy”

This November, Routledge Publishing will release “Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy: Classical and Modern Interpretations” by Yasser Ellethy (VU University, Amsterdam).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islam, Context, Pluralism and Democracy aspires to clarify the tensions and congruences between the revelational and the rational, the text and the context, the limits and the horizons of contextualization in Islam, as these emanate from the Islamic interpretative tradition.

This book examines classical and modern Muslim interpretations with regard to the concepts of diachronic development, pluralism and democracy based on Arabic-Islamic sources and literature. Focusing on the parameters of semantic changes, methods of interpretation and cultural variables, it shows how this interpretative tradition offers a diversity of ideas and approaches that can be utilized in contemporary debates concerning the socio-political contextualization of Islamic genuine thought. However, within this diversity, Islam presents generic principles and core values as ‘moral paradigms’ that can deal with such modern challenges. Based on the analysis of core Islamic texts and key-terms related to the discussed issues, mainly from the Quran and the Sunnah, and the broader Arabic-Islamic literature, it explores the boundaries of the mutable and constant in the Islamic worldview.

Presenting classical Muslim interpretations and scholars as possible interlocutors in debates over the compatibility of Islam with challenges of modernity, this book is essential reading for researchers and postgraduates interested in Islamic Studies, Philosophy of Religion and Political Science.

“Politics of Religion/Religions of Politics” (Welchman ed.)

In November, Springer releases “Politics of Religion/Religions of Politics” edited by Alistair Welchman (University of Texas at San Antonio). The publisher’s description follows:

The liberal enlightenment as well as the more radical left have both traditionally opposed religion as a reactionary force in politics, a view culminating in an identification of the politics of religion as fundamentalist theocracy. But recently a number of thinkers—Agamben, Badiou, Tabues and in particular Simon Critchley—have begun to explore a more productive engagement of the religious and the political in which religion features as a possible or even necessary form of human emancipation. The papers in this collection, deriving from a workshop held on and with Simon Critchley at the University of Texas at San Antonio in February 2010, take up the ways in which religion’s encounter with politics transforms not only politics but also religion itself, molding it into various religions of politics, including not just heretical religious metaphysics, but also what Critchley describes as non-metaphysical religion, the faith of the faithless. Starting from Critchley’s own genealogy of Pauline faith, the articles in this collection explore and defend some of the religions of politics and their implications. Costica Bradatan teases out the implications of Critchley’s substitution of humor for tragedy as the vehicle for the minimal self-distancing required for any politics. Jill Stauffer compares Critchley’s non-metaphysical religiosity with Charles Taylor’s account of Christianity. Alistair Welchman unpacks the political theology of the border in terms of god’s timeless act of creation. Anne O’Byrne explores the subtle dialectic between mores and morality in Rousseau’s political ethics.  Roland Champagne sees a kind non-metaphysical religion in Arendt’s category of the political pariah. Davide Panagia presents Critchley’s ethics of exposure as the basis for a non-metaphysical political bond. Philip Quadrio wonders about the political ramifications of Critchley’s own ‘mystical anarchism’ and Tina Chanter re-reads the primal site in the Western tradition at which the political and the religious intersect, the Antigone story, side-stepping philosophical interpretations of the story (dominated by Hegel’s reading) by means of a series of post-colonial re-imaginings of the play. The collection concludes with an interview with Simon Critchley taking up the themes of the workshop in the light of more recent political events: the Arab Spring and the rise and fall of the Occupy movement.

“Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel” (Berlinerblau et al., eds.)

In August, Palgrave Macmillan released “Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel” edited by Jacques Berlinerblau (Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University), Sarah Fainberg (Tel Aviv University), and Aurora Nou (graduate student at American University). The publisher’s description follows:

What is secularism, and why does it matter? In an era marked by global religious revival, how do countries navigate the presence of faith in the public square? In this dynamic collection of essays, leading scholars from around the world, including Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua and French female rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, examine the condition of church-state relations in three pivotal countries: the United States, France, and Israel. Their analyses are rooted in a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from ethnography and demography to political science, gender studies, theology, and law.

Prominent among the points addressed are the crippling nomenclatural confusions that have so hampered not only secularism as a political ideology, but secularism as an academic construct. This reader-friendly volume also offers a critical and nuanced look at how women are impacted by secular governance. Though secularism is often equated with modernity and progress, including with regard to gender equality, our contributors find that the truth is infinitely more complicated.

David, “Jurisprudence and Theology in Late Ancient and Medieval Jewish Thought”

This month, Springer releases “Jurisprudence and Theology in Late Ancient and Medieval Jewish Thought” by Joseph E. David (University of Oxford). The publisher’s description follows:

The book provides in depth studies of two epistemological aspects of Jewish  Law (Halakhah) as the ‘Word of God’ – the question of legal reasoning and the problem of knowing and remembering.

-   How different are the epistemological concerns of religious-law in comparison to other legal systems?
–   In what ways are jurisprudential attitudes prescribed and dependent on theological presumptions?
–  What specifies legal reasoning and legal knowledge in a religious framework?

The author outlines the rabbinic jurisprudential thought rooted in Talmudic literature which underwent systemization and enhancement by the Babylonian Geonim and the Andalusian Rabbis up until the twelfth century. The book develops a synoptic view on the growth of rabbinic legal thought against the background of Christian theological motifs on the one hand, and Karaite and Islamic systemized jurisprudence on the other hand. It advances a perspective of legal-theology that combines analysis of jurisprudential reflections and theological views within a broad historical and intellectual framework.

The book advocates two approaches to the study of the legal history of the Halakhah: comparative jurisprudence and legal-theology, based on the understanding that jurisprudence and theology are indispensable and inseparable pillars of legal praxis.

Smith, “Weird John Brown”

This November, Stanford University Press will release “Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics” by Ted A. Smith (Emory University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Weird John BrownConventional wisdom holds that attempts to combine religion and politics will produce unlimited violence. Concepts such as jihad, crusade, and sacrifice need to be rooted out, the story goes, for the sake of more bounded and secular understandings of violence. Ted Smith upends this dominant view, drawing on Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and others to trace the ways that seemingly secular politics produce their own forms of violence without limit. He brings this argument to life—and digs deep into the American political imagination—through a string of surprising reflections on John Brown, the nineteenth-century abolitionist who took up arms against the state in the name of a higher law. Smith argues that the key to limiting violence is not its separation from religion, but its connection to richer and more critical modes of religious reflection. Weird John Brown develops a negative political theology that challenges both the ways we remember American history and the ways we think about the nature, meaning, and exercise of violence.

Harding, “Charity Law and the Liberal State”

This October, Cambridge University Press will release “Charity Law and the Liberal State” by Matthew Harding (University of Melbourne).  The publisher’s description follows:

Charity Law and the Liberal StateCharity Law and the Liberal State considers questions relating to state action and public discourse that are raised by the law of charity. Informed by liberal philosophical commitments and of interest to both charity lawyers and political philosophers, it addresses themes and topics such as: the justifiability of the state’s non-neutral promotion of charitable purposes; the role of altruism in charity law; charity law, the tax system and the demands of distributive justice; the proper treatment of religious and political purposes in charity law; and the appropriate response of the liberal state to discrimination in the pursuit of charitable purposes.

Decosimo, “Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue”

In July, Stanford University Press released Ethics as a Work of Charity: Thomas Aquinas and Pagan Virtue” by David Decosimo (Loyola University Maryland). The publisher’s description follows:

Most of us wonder how to make sense of the apparent moral excellences or virtues of those who have different visions of the good life or different religious commitments than our own. Rather than flattening or ignoring the deep difference between various visions of the good life, as is so often done, this book turns to the medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas to find a better way. Thomas, it argues, shows us how to welcome the outsider and her virtue as an expression rather than a betrayal of one’s own distinctive vision. It shows how Thomas, driven by a Christian commitment to charity and especially informed by Augustine, synthesized Augustinian and Aristotelian elements to construct an ethics that does justice—in love—to insiders and outsiders alike. Decosimo offers the first analysis of Thomas on pagan virtue and a reinterpretation of Thomas’s ethics while providing a model for our own efforts to articulate a truthful hospitality and do ethics in our pluralist, globalized world.

Rose, “Jewish Philosophical Politics in Germany, 1789-1848″

In August, Brandeis University Press will release “Jewish Philosophical Politics in Germany, 1789-1848″ by Sven-Erik Rose (University of California, Davis). The Publisher’s description follows:

A provocative look at how Jewish intellectuals thought about Jewish religion and existence within a German philosophical tradition 

In this book Rose illuminates the extraordinary creativity of Jewish intellectuals as they reevaluated Judaism with the tools of a German philosophical tradition fast emerging as central to modern intellectual life. While previous work emphasizes the “subversive” dimensions of German-Jewish thought or the “inner antisemitism” of the German philosophical tradition, Rose shows convincingly the tremendous resources German philosophy offered contemporary Jews for thinking about the place of Jews in the wider polity. Offering a fundamental reevaluation of seminal figures and key texts, Rose emphasizes the productive encounter between Jewish intellectuals and German philosophy. He brings to light both the complexity and the ambivalence of reflecting on Jewish identity and politics from within a German tradition that invested tremendous faith in the political efficacy of philosophical thought itself.

McGinn, “Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae”

This month, Princeton University Press publishes Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae; A Biography, by Bernard McGinn (University of Chicago). the publisher’s description follows:

This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, theSumma was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words–and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar’s life and career, examining Aquinas’s reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book’s enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn’s wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas’s own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.