Among the Episcopalians in Arizona

Phillip Jackson, Class of 1985 at Amherst, went on to law school at Yale. He entered the practice of law in Hawaii – and then, drawn irresistibly to church, he was encouraged after a short while to enter the seminary. He has become now a “gatherer of souls,” as the Rector of Christ Church of the Ascension in Paradise Valley, Arizona. But he has also taken over in a time of turmoil within the Episcopalian Church. His congregation is educated and conservative, but troubled by the current divisions. Some parishioners had begun to drift away, but Phil has brought many back as he has sought to preserve and strengthen orthodoxy on the matters of marriage, sexuality, and the protection of life.

He was in touch with me to launch a new lecture series for the congregation. The purpose was to teach now from different angles, with writers from the outside, and touching at times the issues of the day. I chose to put my own accent on that central question of “the human person,” as John Paul II had it. I drew upon Lincoln and his contrast with one Barack Obama; but in making my connections elsewhere, I recalled the late Cardinal Lustiger coming into New York years ago to do a lecture for Fr. Neuhaus and our Institute on Religion and Public Life.

The Cardinal recalled that signature line of liberalism: that my freedom finds its limits at the point where I cause injuries to others. The Cardinal raised the question: Do we mean “all others”? Do we assume that everyone out there matters? Might we rephrase the principle to say: “My freedom ends at the point at which I cause injuries – wink, wink – to those who count.” What the Cardinal was pointing out was that liberals had to back into the premise that “all men are created equal.” But that “proposition,” as Lincoln said, marked “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.”

If there is anything that unsettles liberals in our own time it is the notion of what they call “Moral Truths,” in capital letters, much less truths holding across different cultures and historical ages. And it is precisely that unwillingness to recognize that truth about “the human person” that has made Barack Obama and his friends so unwilling to recognize the human standing of those small beings routinely killed in abortions. In the drive for national health care, the “health” or safety of those 1.2 million humans killed every year apparently doesn’t “count.”

But in connecting with this Protestant audience, I drew on that splendid book by Frederick Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason, dealing with arguments over faith and reason among English writers and theologians from the sixteenth through the beginning of the eighteenth century. An especially charming – and telling – part dealt with the group called the Great Tew Circle, meeting on the Oxford Estate of Viscount Falkland in the 1630s. The group sought to reject Popery and the central authority of Catholicism. But they also wanted to insist on authority in a national church, in the Church of England. Their rallying cry was for reason – reason that would tell us, after all, what things in the Bible were serious enough to count as important religious teaching, or just which things offered in the name of revelation were plausible or implausible as revelation.

Still, they were a bit skittish about notions of “truth.” For if there were settled truths, those truths could be proclaimed by a central authority even when most parishioners did not exactly see them. And when these writers began to point to the justification for a central authority in matters religious, they began to point to. . .you-know-who. To Rome. To avert that trap they found themselves arguing that there were no fully settled truths, and they affirmed then that it was the right of all earnest Protestants to inquire seriously, read the Bible, and reach their own judgments. And yet, to the extent that they were being more and more skeptical about truth, they were talking themselves out of the conviction they brought to their Christianity, for they were talking themselves out of the truth of Christianity.

But what I’d point up is the part that even those estimable writers seemed not to notice. They were falling back on the right of individuals to make up their own minds. But why would any particular person have the standing to claim such a right? Not everyone brings the same powers of reflection to the problem, and yet in their judgment each person had a certain dignity, or a certain claim to have his most earnest efforts here taken seriously. But again, on what basis did they impute those rights – or that dignity – to any particular person? These accomplished writers were agonizing over the truth of their doctrines, and yet they had, right before their eyes, something they regarded as true per se nota, true in itself – and that was the dignity and moral capacity of the human person. If they could have grasped that anchoring point in their own argument, they might have shaken off their diffidence and looked out at the world with a fresh sight: They might have seen then more fully the truths of the Creation all about them, including that central truth of the “human person.”

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.