In this episode of True North, Daniel Strand speaks with Gilbert Meilaender—a Christian ethicist whose books include Bioethics: A Primer for Christians and Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.
Among other topics, they cover what drew Meilaender to the profession of Christian ethics, what the field of Christian ethics was like in the 1960s and 1970s, and which of his books are his favorites (Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics and The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life). He also talks about the place of limits in a moral life and how Christians can live in today’s society when limits are harder to define. While he’s known for writing on bioethics, he wrote recently about the Ten Commandments, which he and Strand discuss.
Strand: Hello, welcome to another episode of True North, a webcast through Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, and we have a special treat here today. We’re going to talk with Gilbert Meilaender, who is a Christian ethicist, now retired, and prolific writer, and just overall interesting person to talk to and to learn from. So, I’m excited to talk to him and to learn what we can learn for and share with our audience here today. My name is Daniel Strand. I am one of the hosts. Marc LiVecche is now with us today for True North. And I’m a professor, Assistant Professor of Ethics at the Air War College and also a contributing editor here at Providence. So, Gil, nice to have you with us.
Meilaender: It’s good to be here.
Strand: Great, thank you for joining us. I wanted to start off with some—just some questions about your career and you personally. Could you give our listeners a little, a bio a short bio, biography about where you grew up and what drew you to a career as a Christian ethicist.
Meilaender: Well, I sort of fell into it in a way. I mean, I went through college and seminary, and the longer I went, the more I liked going to school. It’s not a bad life really. I think I would have, I would have become a parish pastor if I hadn’t gotten a good fellowship to go to graduate school. I mean I, by the time I ended seminary, I was married and I had one child. So, I wasn’t in a position just to be frivolous, but I got a fellowship to go to Princeton University, did my PhD in Religious Ethics there, went to the University of Virginia to teach, really just on a one-year deal at the time. So, interestingly, that was—those were the days when there were actually multiple job offers for fresh PhDs—the good old days. But I went to Virginia on a one-year deal, it got extended, and I had been there for three years—I just got another three-year renewal—but I got an offer from Oberlin College at that point, which I took. I went to Oberlin, taught for 18 years, but I always had this itch to teach at some school that was more church related. Yeah, so, I eventually went to Valparaiso University. How church related it actually is probably an open question. These days it’s more related to inclusion diversity and so forth, but I taught there for another 18 years before I retired. So, I figured that way I could decide which of the two hats I wanted to wear, like the guys who go into the hall of fame, you know, have to decide what team hat to wear. But I’ve been retired for a few years now and have continued to kind of try to pay attention to what’s going on and to do some writing as well. But I sort of do it on my own schedule now when I, when I feel like it, because I don’t have to. So, that’s the short story, I guess.
Strand: Yeah, what drew you to the profession itself, Christian ethics in particular, was there any, I don’t know, was it influence? Was it just something you sort of came to? Was there, can you think of sort of particular moment or particular moments or books that you read or events that kind of drew you to this?
Meilaender: You mean what drew me to go to grad school in that field in the first place or what drew me to?
Strand: Yeah, but both I mean, to the topic itself and into going to grad school yeah, I guess.
Meilaender: As long as I can remember kind of caring about things other than, you know, baseball and basketball, yeah. I was always interested in I don’t know what we call it, not just certainly, I didn’t have a sense of a discipline on ethics, but I was interested in those sorts of questions and larger questions about public and political life and so forth. Lutheranism—I’m a Lutheran and I was in seminary. Lutheranism does not actually pay a lot of attention, I mean Lutheran theology just for some complicated reasons not necessarily, right, not necessarily good at that, but I was interested in it. And so, I just, when I got the opportunity to go on to grad school I wanted to. I think if I hadn’t gotten a teaching job, I probably could have been content to sort of return to standard pastoral work. But I got it, I kept on at it, and at a certain point you determine your being—kind of you become a certain sort of person, and I think I was fortunate to have studied with Paul Ramsey. And he just, well he was helpful in a lot of ways but also, he got a real sense of what it meant to care about the field of Christian ethics, to which Ramsey was very, very devoted. Yeah and I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to be as devoted to it as he was actually, but he certainly nudged me in that direction. And once I’d done it for long enough it’d sort of be hard to do anything else.
Strand: Yeah, what was it like the field of Christian ethics in the late 60s-70s? I’ve heard kind of different takes on what it was like in the United States at the time. What was your, what was your impression?
Meilaender: It was more like a field that people shared. It’s even—back then people were beginning to complain that it was more fragmented—there was this longing for the days of, you know, Reinhold Niebuhr when Christian ethicists were actually paid attention to in the larger culture. Kind of there was already a sense that that was fading a little bit, but there was still much more of that. I mean, if you look at the kinds of things people wrote, they still wrote in ways that expected the larger society to care and pay attention, and the discipline was much more cohesive—it was smaller, of course. If you think of just an organization like the society of Christian ethics, it was still relatively small when I first joined it. It’s much bigger now. Yeah, and the field has fragmented much more. It’s gone in a lot of different directions. Questions that Christian ethics always deal with they’re, they’re just all sorts of theologies of one thing or another that people pay attention to. So, it’s much harder to feel that there’s piece is centered to the undertaking any longer I think than there was even. And I was thinking, I went to, I went to grad school in the fall of and I think there was still a sense of coherence to the discipline at that time that does not really exist any longer. Yeah, what all the reasons are that we’ve lost that? I don’t know, you’d have to be a better historian than I am probably to be able to say that and answer that. But yes, it has definitely fragmented a lot of the years I’ve been, I’ve been teaching and writing.
Strand: Yeah. When you look back at your own personal writing, your own, you know, just all the books that you’ve written—you’ve written a lot of books—and what are the books that you’re most proud of? I know there’s probably certain books that really stand out to you—what are those books and why are you, and why do those stand out in your mind?
Meilaender: I’m not sure pride is the word we want to use here, Daniel.
Strand: We are talking to a Lutheran, yeah.
Meilaender: There are some I like better than others okay, let’s use that word. I mean, I think of people who actually know my work, and we should never overestimate that number, you know, your mother and a few others. I think what they know is mainly two things, they know writing on bioethics and they know a number of essays over the years that I published in First Things years ago when I used to publish a lot in there, okay. But actually, my favorites—things I like best—well one, one thing is a book that was actually my second book, so it’s kind of a young man’s book I suppose. I wouldn’t write it in quite the same way any longer. Though whether I’d write it in a better way, you know, that’s an open question. There’s a little book called Friendship: A Study in Logical Ethics. It’s about what people might tend to think, you know, people think in a little book on friendship, I’ll be the last person to that kind of book I think. It’s really, I mean, the subtitle of studying theological ethics gets added. I was interested in, and still am interested in, the problem of preference, which is certainly a problem in the system of Christian ethics. Anyway, it may not be a work in every way of thinking if you’re supposed to, if God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and you’re supposed to love everybody who crosses your path, exactly what’s the justification for preference in our lives and friendship seemed sort of a perfect place to think about that problem. Because I mean, some of our other special relationships, say the parent-child one, well you fall into that and you have responsibilities and you have to act on with a certain preference. Nobody has to have friends, you know, you don’t have to develop a, whom you show specialists, who get much more of your time and energy and concern than other people, you don’t have to have that. So, what exactly is the, is the justification for it? So, that was the question that interested me—friendship was the way into it, and I still think it’s a good book. I mean, it stayed in print. It’s not, it’s not making me a wealthy man, but it gets readers even today. And I think actually looking back that I actually got into that subject just about at the time when there began to be interest and concern in the general question of preference and more people began to write it. There’s been more written on friendship since then, so I don’t, I was wrong not to focus on that even though I say the book is not quite the sort of book that a person might think. I over the years of teaching, I taught a course called “Friendship and the Problem of Preferential Love.” I didn’t teach it every year; I teach it maybe every other year. I really like it. It’s actually one of my favorite courses that I ever taught. The first thing I would always say to students at the start of the semester when we walk in for the first day and I’d be introducing the syllabus and so forth, I’d say, “People come to a course on friendship for all sorts of different reasons. I don’t know what your reasons are, the only thing I can guarantee you that whatever your reasons are in this course will not be about them.” But I mean, they didn’t know what they were getting into, you know, we were going to read Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which is sort of a slashing attack on preference. But I, I’ve just always been interested in it, I still think it’s pretty. The other book that I like especially, though it’s never gotten many readers, for whatever reason it just it didn’t work. I mean, I, many more readers on my bioethics stuff, but a little book that’s called, maybe to make the title was bad—I like these titles, but the title is The Way That Leads There, which is a mime from August. I just think it’s a, it’s a good book. I like it. It’s good to deal with somebody like Augustine but I’m not, it’s not just a book about Augustine—it’s a book that kind of uses Augustine and tries to think along with him about what I would call some central issues in Christian ethics. And I like that book a lot, too. I mean, there are other things I’ve written that I like. There are a few things I’ve written that I don’t like that much. I won’t tell you them. The little Bioethics: A Primer for Christians is probably the thing that’s gotten the most readers.
Strand: Yeah, what addition is that in right now?
Meilaender: Fourth. The fourth edition has just come out. I mean, so for whatever reason that has, has worked in some ways. But my favorites are probably Friendship and The Way That Leads There.
Strand: You also wrote a book on virtue which is very interesting for a Lutheran to write on, since virtue seems to stand at odds with many aspects of, you know, traditional Lutheran theology.
Meilaender: That’s right. No, it’s a theory and practice of virtue. When I was starting to teach, when I was out of graduate school, that’s when there was this sort of little boom of interest in virtue, you know, the influence of Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre and so forth. It seems a little too inward looking and concerned with oneself for Lutheran theology. I mean, Lutherans get worried about that sort of thing, and it seems to focus a little too much on trying to make progress in the moral life, you know, as opposed to just understanding one’s failings and the need for forgiveness and so forth, which is more the kind of standard illusion. Sort of talk, the fifth chapter of that book The Theory and Practice of Virtue is a chapter specifically about Luther, in which I try to show, I think I succeed actually in showing. And I think other people have made similar cases more recently that Luther is a little more complicated on this than he’s sometimes been thought—that there’s several different things going on in Luther, some of which are more amenable to a focus on virtue and an attention to it. I had when I was a seminary student, I had gotten one of my professors to agree to do a private reading course with me in which we simply read Luther’s 1535 Galatians commentary. It’s his great Galatians commentary. As I simply read, it’s two volumes in the English, Luther’s work civilians as always with Luther. It ranges over sort of all, sorts of things, you know, in between attacking the pope, he talks about other things, and I had worked through that. And I puzzled over it and I actually had continued to think about that not right, but just think about it when I got out of seminary. When I was in grad school, I actually puzzled over some of the stuff in that commentary for a decade, and the fifth chapter of The Theory and Practice of Virtue was my working it out of my system—making place for, trying to make place for consideration of virtue and, you know, Lutheran ethic, which I’m satisfied that I did not, everybody else is probably persuaded but that’s sort of the way it goes.
Strand: Yeah, we were kind of talking about this already, but what are the, what were the major—so, we talked about bioethics and, you know, other areas that you’ve been interested in—but what were the major issues, if you would say, that grasped or peaked your thinking? What are the, what are the kind of the, some of the big issues that you could even say that go across a lot of your works that you feel like were important enough for you to spend your time writing about?
Meilaender: Well, one of them, and the one that connects most closely to bioethics, I think it has to do with what I would just call the place of limits in the moral of life. Especially in bioethics, there has been an enormous emphasize, I mean for some historically understandable reasons. I mean, the medical profession was a little more paternal to be proud to go. And the growth of bioethics, one of the things involved in the growth of bioethics stations, or at least enter into the decision-making, and once you begin to go down that road the question becomes what are the limits to that freedom. Are there any limits to it? Are there aspects of our identity that we shouldn’t consider ourselves just free to reshape indefinitely? And that connects to the question sort of what’s the place of the body? Does the fact that we are embodied creatures, does the fact that we are creatures put it in a theological perspective, and is this place any limits on our, on our freedom to proceed in various ways? And this course is central in all sorts of bioethical questions. If I think I’ve lived long enough and have suffered enough, can I just say the game’s not worth the candle any longer and be done with it? Can I produce children in whatever way seems to work and will get me the ones I want or think I’m entitled to? I mean, the beginning and end-of-life questions certainly raise all sorts of questions about limits—the place of the body and so forth—so, that I think is, I think if I were to bother to try to trace it through all the things I’ve written, I think we’d see that in one way or another I have kept coming back to questions about the legitimacy of such limits and how we make the case for them. So, that’s certainly one issue, and one specifically connected with bioethics that I’ve talked about. I already mentioned before, I’ve never let go of the issue of preference. That one comes up in different ways, and I’ve continued to care about that. It’s actually still an important issue in some different ways that I don’t actually know quite what to do with. I mean, we have tremendous concern today about race relations and enormous problems, and colleges and universities are falling all over themselves to try to deal with this. Always, not always, I don’t have a lot of confidence in most university administrators. To be honest, after 40 years of teaching one gets a little jaded on that question. But so, do we want what are essentially segregated housing or dining options, for instance, safe spaces—safe spaces. Yes, in some ways it just seems contrary to our entire political tradition, in other ways you can say it’s people always try to find those with whom they have things in common. That’s what you do when you form friendships. So, that, you know, when I don’t know quite how to work that out—the whole multiculturalism issue raises it again. We do seek out like-minded people in various ways. How do we make very good, and it’s pretty damaging, so the preference issue that I came at in I guess what you’d call a more traditional way with the friendship topic, preference issue has continued to be of interest to me. And of course, I’m, I still am a Lutheran. Certain ways I’m interested in how one works out what in the very old language was the relation between justification and sanctification. I’ve tended to use different kind of language, but if the grace of God on the one hand pardons us, which means just wherever you are or however bad you’ve been pardoned, and on the other hand is empowering, which means that you’re not supposed to stay where you are—how do we work out that? That problem, I’ve just written an article that basically kind of returned me to those questions that will appear in a feature for somebody which I can’t name right now. But I found myself going back to that question. So, those, I think the question of kind of limits to freedom, what it means, well, what it means that we’re finite, and what the moral importance of our finite condition is—that’s just, that just pops up in various kinds of places. Certainly in the bioethics stuff, but elsewhere the preference issue and that basic fundamental question about kind of what, how we think about the structure of the moral life within specifically Christian theological terms. Those are probably the, I don’t know, the questions that keep popping up in in my work.
Strand: We seem to be living in a time and this, you know maybe every age says this, and you probably felt the same way maybe back when you were beginning your career, but I mean maybe this is just a sort of a longer narrative, but the place of limits seems to be a really hard question since we don’t, we seem to be speaking less and less in a sort of common perceived accepted viewpoint of a set of assumptions in our culture. But you talked about the fragmentation that seems, that seems to be a sort of bigger problem. As the years go, on there’s less and less of a common national culture or a perceived set of assumptions. So, how do you think we, I mean, thinking specifically from a Christian vantage point, how do you think Christians today can speak and talk and persuade hopefully in a culture where it seems like limits are harder to define and for people to accept?
Meilaender: Well, very good question, Daniel. I wish I had a good answer to it. I think that we find ourselves today at a point when we may have to kind of not worry too much about whether we’re persuading or not, because it’s pretty hard to know what does and does not persuade. Finally, it’s very hard to know how these things work out in our, in our cultural setting. We’re living in a period where we’re sort of at the tail end of a period perhaps when Christians and churches more generally, I think have been in a little danger of sort of being, becoming affiliated with a political party—being, becoming a wing of a political party, yeah. It’s understandable for certain reasons, I think. And I’m not, so I’m not just, I don’t want to just bash somebody for that, but if that happens too much then the force of the church’s message depends entirely on how successful the political parties—party or parties—are. I mean, I think this happens in all segments of our society, both on the right and the left and whatever else there is besides the right and left, and the persuasive power of what the church has to say then really depends on sort of the success of the parties to which we align ourselves. I don’t know if in the long run, as I say I think that’s understandable, I don’t exactly criticize anybody for it, but I could think of a few people I’d criticize. But it’s understandable, but I just think in the long run we need to simply try to ask ourselves what, because Christians, do we really want to think or say about things? And I just think, I think it’s astonishing how much the thought of the people sitting next to you in the pew on a Sunday, how much their thought has been influenced by things that have nothing to do with Christianity in any way. A good pious people, they keep coming back to church, so something good must be happening there I trust. But if you listen to what they have to say or talk to them about various questions, their view doesn’t, their view has been shaped much more by things that have nothing specifically to do with a Christian message. I guess that’s a failure of the church. Though how, you know, I say that without having a prescription for doing better, and I’m not sure that I can, but I just don’t think that our views are shaped very much any longer often by the church. And that’s got partly to do with the fragmentation of our culture. I suppose it seeps into the church, which is fragmented in all sorts of ways, too. I think until we just try to the, I, the preface that I wrote to that little the book I mentioned before, a little Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, in which I take up all sorts of questions. Which I claim to present the Christian viewpoint, you know, even though, even while being aware that all sorts of people who call themselves Christians might disagree on one or another thing connected with abortion or assisted reproduction or whatever. I have, I can’t quote it exactly, but I have a nice little quote from Karl Barth which I think is from the preface to one of his volumes of Church Dogmatics, I’d have to look again, in which he says that anybody who wants to speak for the church will just have to try to be the church as best he can in his own time and place. And I think that’s the task really, and I think that we haven’t been very good at that. Now that, I’m kind of rambling on here, but the counter response will be that well people won’t understand what you have to say. Christian language is not accessible any longer in the public sphere and so forth. I’ve thought about that word—accessible—a lot of times in that context. What does it mean to say that Christian language is not accessible in the public sphere? Are we saying that people won’t even understand it? I don’t think that’s true. If we’re saying they won’t be persuaded by it, well, that’s probably true in many cases. But whoever thought they would be? I think we’ve allowed ourselves to stop talking Christian language on the grounds that it won’t be accessible, and it’s really the only language we’ve got that might accomplish anything.
Strand: Yeah, you sound very Stanley Hauerwas like in your, in your prescription there.
Meilaender: I’ve, I’m not a Hauerwasian. I mean I’ve known Stan for a long time, of course, and he’s an enormously influential figure. He has a tendency to overstate some points occasionally, but he’s not wrong to say that if the church doesn’t recapture its own language and be prepared to use its own language, we won’t accomplish much. I mean and even just forget it as in terms of the work of the church in particular, just think of ourselves as citizens of a country. I’d say you owe your fellow citizens the best explanation you can give of the real reasons for your views, you know, that they need to know. That’s true that we live in a world right now where you may be silenced if you do that. I think that’s what we owe our fellow citizens, and Stan has been right about that.
Strand: Yeah, I agree. I think Hauerwas has been, has been perhaps overstated, but I think that point—he’s definitely driven home to great effect.
Meilaender: A little hostile toward America on occasion.
Strand: Yeah, well this whole project. Yeah, so, in closing, I wanted to ask you finally about your most recent book, which I think a lot of our listeners will be, would be very interested in. You tend, like you’re known most for writing on ethical issues and bioethics in particular, but you’ve just written a book on the ten commandments, which it has to do with ethics but it’s not a topic that is, it’s not terribly fashionable let’s say right now to be writing on the ten commandments. And I’m just interested to hear your thinking, and why now?
Meilaender: I don’t know if I can answer the why now part of it because I’d say it’s a, sort of a couple things. I’m not sure who will care. So, it’s not as if I sense this enormous surge of interest in the topic to which I thought I somehow needed to respond. Yeah, no, I don’t know quite what I’ll think of it a few years from now. See, I know what I think of the friendship book, for instance. That’s a long time ago. We’ll see what I think about this book down the road. Though at the moment I like it, but what if, you say why. There are a couple reasons. One is that, to go back to something we’ve talked before, Lutheran’s contemporary, Lutheran’s 20th century, 21st century, since the Lutheranism in which I was instructed, I’ve never known quite what to make of it. I mean, ten commandments—the decal has been very important to Lutheran catechetical instruction. Luther’s catechisms, you know, deal with the decalogue and so forth. Lutheran theology with its suspicions of law, and worried about that sometimes sort of sophisticated theology haven’t quite known what to make of it, and so in part it was my continued attempt to say that Lutheran theology has something positive to say about moral law that sort of lies in the background there. But beyond that, I’ve been thinking about some kind of book on the decalogue for quite a long time. I mean, I’m not even sure how many years, but we’re talking years just kind of rumbling around back there in my head. I actually had a little manila folder in which I occasionally tossed something, you know, a reference that I saw or even an idea that I had. You know, his stuff was just sitting there. And then I don’t know how to see. So, it would be about, it’s four to five years ago that probably, that I thought maybe would really try to do this, even though I didn’t, I still didn’t quite have the structure of the project clear in my mind. And I think it’s when I found a certain structure that the thing came together for me. I basically treat the commandments apart from the first commandment—which is everybody basically treats the commandments as dealing with ways in which human lives are bound together. So, there’s a marriage bond, a family bond, a bond of life with, life with possessions bond, and what I call a speech bond. Those do not correlate simply with one commandment always, but sometimes with several. But I think that’s what the commandments are about—ways in which human lives, in which the creator binds human lives together. So, I got that and then I found a kind of three-fold structure for the chapters on each of those bonds, which is by no means original with me. I actually took it from my reading of Barth, but you could get it in other ways also. In which, so you’ve got the marriage bond, the created marriage bond. You’ve got the marriage bond in need of healing, and you’ve got the marriage bond redeemed. Finally, or eschatologically, and once I got those two aspects of the structure it sort of came together. And I simply tried to say what I said, once again excuse me, what I think Christians should try to say about the point of these bonds in human life. Once again, there are some things in there that I’m sure not every Christian will agree with. I’m sorry, I wish they would. But I don’t think it’s likely. But it was an attempt to sort of set out the structure of the Christian life—understanding it as a history, as a history that moves through history. More generally, through each person’s life. Each person’s life is taken up into the history of redemption from creation to the end of times, and try to think about these bonds of life from Egypt. We’ll see if it gets readers and we’ll see what I think of it five years from now, you know, if I’m around to think about it five years from now. But that was the idea—to really kind of return to the decalogue which so many Christian thinkers have used as a way of talking about the moral life, and do it again. It wasn’t to do anything particularly innovative. I think it’s probably more interesting than something innovative that I would have done on it indeed.
Strand: Well Gil, thank you so much. This has been helpful, interesting, and I know many of our listeners will find great value in just hearing a Christian ethicist who has spent a lifetime reflecting on these sorts of questions. And hearing about your sources and just hearing the way that you talk I think helps. Like you said, I think in a culture right now where we’re formed by so many other sources, I think one of the reasons at least that we wanted to talk to you was for this very reason—is to have someone who has really absorbed and sat with the tradition for, you know, his career. And so, we thank you for taking your time to share a little bit with us and for our listeners. And this will conclude our episode today. For True North, I’m Daniel Strand and we will see you next time. Thank you.