Essay on Engelhardt’s View of Bioethics in a Secular Age

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“Reason has not been able to substitute for God (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” This is the thrust of Engelhardt’s view of bioethics (and ethics). Engelhardt documents the failed aspirations of the Enlightenment regarding a morality based on reason in which governments would be able to establish their authority through moral rationality, and all citizens would be part of a moral community. He termed this, the Western Philosophical Project, which was born in Greece. Engelhardt deemed this project as flawed because there were background assumptions of a pluralistic society that were necessary for what an individual or group seeks (s) to prove. He was adamant that there is no bioethics/ethics that can be established as canonical by philosophers. Post-modernism had unleashed pluralism where there can be no actual or hypothetical moral community. With no original moral/canonical position to work from, bioethical and secular pluralism is ultimately intractable, and, therefore, there will never be an impartial rational point of view. This led Engelhardt to ask, “How ought one rank such cardinal human goods as liberty, equality, prosperity, and security, and why (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017)?”

How much goods are ranked will determine a particular morality or bioethics. Through this intractable plurality of post-modernism and the lack of an anchor through God, moral choices are just lifestyle choices or death-style choices according to Engelhardt (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017). He goes on to state that after God, “everything, including God is without meaning. At stake is not just God as an object of religious devotion, but God as a point of final and ultimate, epistemic, and axiological reference (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).”

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Engelhardt highlights the fact that Christendom has broken and is a fallen concept. A secular orthodoxy has replaced it, “We have entered an age resolutely set after God (3).” In After God, the point is made that a God’s-eye perspective among humans has been lost. Sin and any recognition of God have been erased from the space of public appearance, and “without a recognition of sin, repentance is now impossible (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” Engelhardt makes the point that our society has a post-modern character and that our bioethics/ethics are no longer well-moored. Our bioethics/ethics come from a “perspective of sound rational argument plural nouns (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017)” with no evidence of the influence or perspective of God, and our current dominant secular culture provides no firm grounding for bioethics/ethics. Engelhardt does not deny that we have always lived in a world of agnostics and atheists, but he correctly points out that they were not always the dominant culture. Demoralization and deflation weigh hard on the meaning of morality, bioethics, and political legitimacy in a post-modern society (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017). What implications does the predominance of a secular culture do on our understanding of bioethics? With the advent of post-modernity, Western Christendom softened, and God became more of a philosophical idea than the “Person of the Father, Who begets the Son, and from Whom alone the Holy Spirit proceeds (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” In fact, Engelhardt instructs us that,

“God as the most personal of all was obscured through a theology with a robust philosophical overlay that rendered the theological approach to God primarily one of scholarship, not of prayerful ascetical struggle (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).”

Engelhardt believed that all this was not supposed to be an academic undertaking, but a process of theology that involves encounters with Him, not just an intellectual exercise. He did not believe for one moment that through philosophical reflection a human being could argue the correct path “to the right norms for life and the true goals of human existence (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).”

Engelhardt’s books, The Foundations of Bioethics and The Foundations of Christian Bioethics are discussed in After God (H Tristram Engelhardt, 1996; Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2000). These two works represent the two sides of one coin in regard to his works, which some scholars have found confusing or at odds with each other. However, they actually are not:

“The Foundations of Bioethics and The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, are essentially interconnected. The first demonstrates the severe limits and character of secular-philosophical reflection. It explains why the morality of the emerging secular, global culture, despite its aspirations for consensus, is marked by intractable plurality. The second point is the way out of the moral and metaphysical disorientation that characterizes this emerging global culture (Iltis & Cherry, 2014).”

Engelhardt goes into great detail in After God to explain the secular morality and bioethics of today cannot really be truly adequate because they are not created through a God’s-eye perspective. He leaves us with the question of “whether generally recognizable moral and political authority makes sense after acknowledgment of God’s existence is lost (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” Essentially the dominant secular culture of today has discounted a transcendent God and left us One of immanence; a God we could mix into our everyday lives, a watered-down version of a once transcendent truth. The problem from his view was that this traditional Christendom was born of a “European medieval synthesis (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017),” not the Christianity of the first 300-400 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. In other words, not the Eastern Orthodox Church, i.e., the original and all-enduring church. His writings indicate that he was sorely affected by the outcome of Vatican II (O'Malley, 2010). From his earliest questions about faith in the 1950s to his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1991 he was left with the conclusion that one cannot accept a plurality of views regarding the divine in which one can pick and choose their particular truth, “One needs a definitive, socially and historically unconditioned moral perspective, not just one among a multiplicity of webs of moral institutions (Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” He viewed ethics and bioethics outside of Western moral philosophy. In other words, he questioned the Western moral-philosophical project. He questioned the moral viewpoint espoused by the Roman church (post Vatican II) and was left with the conclusion that he must leave the Roman Catholic church. “I had come to encounter and to concede a highly politically incorrect truth: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is Orthodox Christianity(Hugo Tristram Engelhardt, 2017).” This is no small point in Engelhardt’s philosophy, he believed that true Christian belief only comes through the Eastern Orthodox Church or the original church. This is the underpinning of his view of bioethics.

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