Seeking Wisdom for a Modern World: A Conversation with Leon Kass

Interview with Leon Kass

November 29, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Like most of you I have a list of persons with whom I hope to have some day a conversation.  Now as I look at that list I realize that many of these people are now no longer with us.  Many of them lived in centuries past.  I know them through their books, their writings, and their influence on me.  But I’ll never have the opportunity in this life for a conversation with them.  There is a list of living persons and very close to the top of that list is the man with whom I’m having the conversation today.  That man is Leon Kass.  I’m looking forward to this conversation and to sharing it with you.

Most Americans know Leon Kass through his service as Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration.  He served as chairman of that very important body from 2001-2005.  He’s been one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals serving in a host of academic posts concluding in his service as the Attie Clark Harding Professor in the College and Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.  He now serves in that position as emeritus professor having retired but certainly not having retired as one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals.  Leon Kass welcome to Thinking in Public.

Kass: Nice to be with you Dr. Mohler.

Mohler: You know when I look back at the last twenty years or so, certainly in terms of bioethical thought, it’s hard to come to terms with how much has happened and how much has not happened.  You served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2001 to 2005, and I followed very intensely the work of the council then and now.  And I looked at some of the comments you made in terms of warning about such things as the fact that Americans seem to be against cloning but Congress still has not adopted any legislation against cloning.  I look at the status of the human embryo; I just have to ask you have we learned anything over the last two or three decades?

Kass: Well it’s very hard when you’re in the midst of all of this to really assess which way the wind is blowing.  In some respect partly thanks to our work but not only our work the public discourse in bioethics has come to be more serious.  And it has gathered more tension in the public eye than it use to when I first started in this field.  And I thought in some ways the public debate about ban on human cloning and the public debates surrounding embryo research and embryonic stem cell research wasn’t bad.  I mean there was a lot of hype and some dishonesty in the presentation of the issues.  But it was, you know you look back over our history, this was one of the few times when bioethical issues really got the public’s attention and for a long time and in a sustained way.  That’s not to say that where we’ve come out is all that wonderful.  As you point out we still don’t have a ban on human cloning of any sort.  And the embryonic stem cell issue pendulum has swung now in the direction of a more utilitarian and exploitative view, and I think that’s a source of some concern.  I suspect by the way that when the story of this period is told at least with respect to the stem cell research I think that we’re going to have a way of getting perfectly good stem cells for research without using embryos at all.  And we will have seen that if only people had put their effort into this with greater vigor and sooner we wouldn’t have had to go through this very painful period.  But that remains finally to be seen.

Mohler: I have to hope you’re right, and I certainly will be on the record as hoping you’re right.  But I look back at a statement you made now over two years ago, back in February of 2008.  You spoke about the United States appearing to be incapable of erecting any moral barriers to the march toward a brave new world.  And you mentioned the human embryonic stem cell issues.  President Obama’s changes in the policy are moving quite determinatively in the wrong direction.  Have we done anything, you think, have you seen any progress say over the last 24-36 months towards Americans really coming to terms with what this means for what it means to be human?

Kass: No.  I think in some ways we’ve lost ground over this last period.  I mean President Bush did heroic service in doing what he did.  But even during his presidency one couldn’t get cloning legislation through and his policy initially I thought a prudent in principle policy was turned out to be under attack almost from the day that it was established.  Look the truth of the matter is that American bioethics in public, that is to say legislative and public policy bioethics, for better and for worse has been identified solely with the life question.  That is to say with the killing question whether it’s the end of life in issues like Terri Schiavo or the beginning of life and questions of abortion or the use of embryos.  And there are a lot of other issues in bioethics for which there is almost no organized public concern.  And the division in the country over the life question in a certain way bedevils our ability to do anything in the bioethical arena.  The council at one point, and we were a divided council deliberately divided by appointment to be divided over these issues I suggest lets set aside our disagreements on the status of the embryo and let’s see if we can nail down certain kinds of things that all of us, whatever our view about the embryo should be, eager to prevent.  No placement of human embryos in the bodies of an animal.  No mixing of human egg and animal sperm or vice versa.  No buying and selling of human organisms at whatever stage of development.  No child shall be conceived say by the union of egg and sperm each taken from an adult.  Now these were really elementary sorts of things, and I got the entire council to agree unanimously that these would be desirable things to enact legislatively and when this came out we were attacked from both the left and the right.  And the White House was I think quite eager to have this go forward legislatively but some of our friends thought this was insufficiently helpful to the war against embryo research and we lost our backing.  So part of the reason we don’t have progress is because of this really cultural impasse, or political cultural impasse on the status of…I think culturally speaking there’s probably been some progress in terms of more and more people I think declare themselves pro-life.  I think it becomes harder and harder to treat.human life as nothing once we have sonograms and all these wonderful pictures that show the continuity of life from the very beginning.  But that hasn’t yet translated into anything in the way of sound public policy and in enduring support of human dignity whether in the beginning of life or in the fullness of life.

Mohler: I have tried to come to an understanding from afar of your ethical theory. And when I read you I realize you began as a physician and as a biologist and found your way as a humanist into bioethics.  You know I think the most interesting aspect of your thought to me and from the first moment I heard it is your ethical understanding of the wisdom of repugnance.  Could you just kind of lay that out for us how that works?

Kass: Well I mean there’s something paradoxical to in speaking about the wisdom of repugnance when repugnance is a kind of feeling that comes upon us when we encounter things that are matters of revulsion, disgust, repellents, in fact repugnant.  And it was a phrase that was the title of an essay I wrote on human cloning and concluding with why I think we should outlaw it.  But it was a suggestion that some of the deepest moral matters that and foundation moral matters that human beings have to deal with and about which they had guided themselves for centuries are not conveyed by rational arguments of the sort that professors of philosophy enjoy raising with their students and their colleagues.  But are sometimes conveyed by deep feelings and in the negative sense we have positive feelings too that guide us compassion toward the needy and the helpless.  But also this sense of repugnance is not a full proof guide but it’s at least a warning that you are treading upon something humanly profound, the violation of which you will pay for in cost of your humanity.  And I suggested in this article that rational arguments can’t really explain the taboos against incest or eating human flesh, or even why murder and adultery are abominations.  I mean we react to these things viscerally and it’s a good thing too that we don’t have to depend upon some moral philosopher’s perfectly persuasive argument to keep us from staying our hand in all of these things.  This is just a piece of, this is not saying that you know immorality we just listen to the things that we find to which we say ugh.  One can give arguments as to what’s wrong with cloning.  But most people are even before they think hard about it say that something really repellant about this notion that the child should be a genetic copy of somebody who’s gone before.  That he should be manufactured rather than begotten, etc, etc.

Mohler: I have enormous appreciation for the category and for the shorthand you offer.  For people who might not be able to carry around the wisdom of repugnance, the yuck factor certainly does communicate. There are certain issues, the morality of which, by intuition, called for the response of yuck, of abhorrence, of indeed repugnance.  I just want to say….excuse me

Kass: I just want to say half a sentence; people will characterize this as irrational whereas part of the suggestion is when you use the wonderful word institution there is a moral intuition which is carried by this emotion.  It’s not just a gut feeling.  It’s a kind of insight that there’s something here that really is repellant and should be said no to.

Mohler: And in the Christian tradition we can draw a line from Augustine to Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards with an understanding to human beings as composite creatures.  In terms of moral response often our first response is often at the response of intuition.  And often times we actually have to operate as moral actors out of an intuition we hope is rightly shaped.  You know I say I hope is rightly shaped by scripture.  The Catholics would enter and say rightly shaped by natural law and the Jewish tradition would just say is shaped by wisdom.  And so the wisdom of repugnance I see as very important there and a key insight.  But Professor Kass, if I could press you just a little on this.  What concerns me about that is it’s kind of like what some historians say the chase in history in the 20th century.  It appears to me that in fairly short order human beings have demonstrated themselves to be capable of getting over yuck.

Kass: Yes.

Mohler: Of re-negotiating repugnance and whether it’s the killing fields of Cambodia or if it’s the atrocities and unspeakable crimes of the Third Reich conducted by people who are raised in the cradle of the Christian civilization or you just go after atrocity after atrocity and even in the United States right now just gauged by public opinion surveys, how much moralship there has been on the issue say of same sex relations.  It appears that human beings are capable of renegotiating their intuitions in fairly short order.

Kass: I think that’s right.  And I was hoping you would give me a chance to say that wisdom of repugnance is the title of one of my essays.  And is only a tiny piece of my own approach to moral questions and in part for the very reason that you offer.  Repugnance is change some of the repugnance that we feel are in fact ignorant repugnances and the more you think about things you get over those things.  But human beings can get use to all kinds of atrocities…says man gets use to everything, a beast, and then we’re able to rationalize all kind of things that are in fact abominable.  So morality doesn’t begin with this and it doesn’t end with this.  One needs both fairly clear moral instruction often in the form of maxims and laws and bible both Jewish and Christian filled with this sort of moral instruction.  There are also the ethics of character and the habituation of people toward conduct which is both noble and just.  The virtues of moderation and generosity and gentleness, and courage, and the practice of moral responsibility, owning up to taking responsibility for our actions.  These go well beyond any kind of native sentiments that we might have and that which is alterable.  So I don’t have a worked out moral theory or…from a single point of view.  Some of my insights are I think sort of philosophical and anthropological.  I’ve studied and learned a lot from Aristotle and the Nichomachean Ethics and I’ve especially in the latter part of my life drawn heavily on and learned a great deal from my own Jewish religion tradition.  Not, I can’t sort of point to this or that thing that I’ve done in bioethics and say ah this comes from there but look I’m looking for as all of us should be looking for the best possible support we can find for upholding the very fragile social arrangement which does honor to the human being made in the image of God.

Mohler: As I anticipated my conversation with Dr. Leon Kass, I knew that I wanted to talk about the issues of bioethics.  And I wanted to zero in on that issue of the wisdom of repugnance.  Not because you can reduce Dr. Kass’ ethical theory to that one statement but because it encapsulates so much of what is really at stake in the big biomedical controversies of our day.  I find it fascinating that DR. Leon Kass set out to be a physician, was trained as a biologist, but ended up dealing with so much of his life with issues that are really raised by the human sciences and especially in the field of bioethics.  An expanding and indeed even exploding field that Dr. Kass has contributed to in a way that is virtually unprecedented.  But as I knew I was going to be talking with Dr. Leon Kass I knew that there were other issues I wanted to consider as well.  Something of a different side and an unknown dimension to many Americans of his academic and intellectual work.  And it’s to those issues that we now turn.

Mohler: Throughout his career Dr. Leon Kass has offered intellectual leadership in dealing with any number of questions that are fundamental to humanity to the humanities as academic disciplines and to the meaning of really who we are as humans and what it means as he just said to be made in the image of God.  One of his most recent books is entitled The Beginning of Wisdom:  Reading Genesis.  Professor Kass, I just want to turn to you and say, at this stage in your life what does it mean to return to Genesis as a source of wisdom?

Kass: Well, Dr. Mohler, I was not raised on scripture.  I was raised in a Yiddish speaking, I’m a first generation American, my parents were immigrants, it was a progressive, even socialist home.  And on the other hand a very strongly moral home and it only dawned on me much later when I was married and had children that the moral teaching of my home which were quite strict were in fact parasitic on the Jewish tradition which my parent’s generation leaving Europe had broken away from.  And quite by accident, I meant that was part of the discovery, and joined at a synagogue when my children were born and tried to get them something of an education, get an education myself that I didn’t have as a boy.  But also simply teaching a course on what it means to be a good human being and a good citizen, a freshman at the University of Chicago in which the bible was by our choice reading both New Testament and Old I just got hooked on these stories.  I couldn’t get them out of my mind and it seemed to me that they were accessible to even non-believers that they were a source of deep wisdom about what it means to be a human being in all its moral ambiguity.  And that these stories rightly read could be a mirror in which we could see deeply into the human soul..of the elements of the human social and psychic life.  And that of the bible could hold its own, this is not news to you, but it was news to me at this stage of my life.  The bible could more than hold its own in conversation and controversy with the best things that the western philosophical tradition had to offer.  I eventually got up enough nerve to teach a course on Genesis when I finally figured look I’m not going to do the kids any harm if we just read this book for what it meant and what it might offer us.  And as a result of teaching it some dozen times to undergraduates and graduate students in Chicago I sort of put together this book which is an attempt to help other people find their way into the text bracketing it in a certain way the question of faith at the beginning.  Read this as if it just might be telling you the most important things you need to know about yourself, your life, and the world.  And you’d be a fool to leave it out of your serious tension if you only knew what was in it.

Mohler: I couldn’t help but think of that when I read your Jefferson lecture and heard it from last year in which you said that it was the subject of humanity that led you to find something missing.  I’m quoting you here, you said, “the science was indeed powerful but as self understanding left much to be desired.  I knew the human parts, it knew the human parts in ever final detail but it concerned itself little with the human whole.  Medicine then and now has no concept of the human being of the peculiar and remarkable concretion of psyche and soma that makes us that most strange and wonderful among the creatures.”  So you know you were trained as a physician and as a biologist but you came to understand that there was a wisdom there that was lacking.

Kass: Yes and I mean truth to tell it was not my first place to look.  I mean I spent probably fifteen-twenty years with the Greeks trying to recover something like the view of the human being that’s found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle and which writings they are.  A lot of what I’ve learned and that was in a way the beginning of a search for what was missing from modern science to go back before modern science to see what ancient wisdom looked like.  But it took me awhile really to get from the Greek philosophers to the bible.  And while I still love the Greeks it still seems to me that on certain kinds of really, really profound matters, most profound matters, the bible goes beyond the Greek in important ways.  Partly by in terms of man’s longing for the divine and for relationship with God.  Partly for its recognition of the, really the radical equality of every human being regardless of station, regardless of capacity.  I came really to see that it is in fact the biblical notions which are at the foundation of a truly humanistic politics of the sort that we enjoy a politics of freedom and equality where human beings are respected from regardless of their class or nation of origin.  And that, it’s been exhilarating for me as an old man, or an older man, to recover this kind of this avenue of the search for wisdom which in my own case still continues.

Mohler: I want to draw a line from that to another one of your research and your writing subjects.  And one that’s of particular interest to me and in so doing I also want to mention that as I can track your biography, you and your wife Amy, Mrs. Kass, will be celebrating your fiftieth wedding anniversary next year.

Kass: You’re right about that.  We’re very blessed in that way.

Mohler: Well, you have written about that and you’ve written about that together.  And you’ve spoken about the end of courtship and of great loss to us all.  I want to read to you again another statement that you’ve made.  You said, “today there are no socially prescribed forms of conduct that help guide young men and women in the direction of matrimony.  People still get married but later, less frequently, more hesitantly, and by and large less successfully.  For the great majority, the way to the altar is unchartered territory.”  Now many of us have noted much the same.  How do you think we lost this in the midst of the numerous and perhaps unchartered losses of the modern age?

Kass: Oh, Dr. Mohler the causes of how we got, the reasons why we’ve gotten to this point are I think over determined from the obvious role of the sexual revolution and the decline of sexual self restraint and the disappearance of female modesty and gentlemanly conduct to a certain, in some communities, and I’m fairly sure not in those closer to you, but in the larger community a certain decline in the belief of the importance of marriage and its goodness, a certain emphasis in the elite, the relative importance of career and in general, a certain kind of access of kind of liberal ideal individualistic ideal of autonomy, lack of attachment to being free, making something of yourself.  And I think young people still, and this has been our experience and we did a couple of courses on courtship which for the…out.  On the tip of their tongue they have all kinds of cynical notions about marriage and they say things like the idea of being married to the same women for twenty-five years is preposterous, or we’re not suppose to get married until we’re 28 so all of our relationships with boys are suppose to be….these are actual remarks from the first day of class.  And Mrs. Kass and I decided,  I didn’t want to go back  the second day to tell you the truth, she says never mind, wait until they do the readings you’ll see that they have deeper feelings.  And it’s true.  They have, young people have a deep desire to be taken seriously and to be esteemed.  They have a desire for some kind of lasting friendship but they’re afraid.  They’re afraid to give their heart because they’re afraid they’ll be rejected or that they will be disappointed.  The bad examples of many of their parents, the sad examples of many of their parents have made them very, very cautious and it’s a very sad thing to see a younger generation that can certainly fall into lust without an provocation.  But they fall in love very little and the culture has led them astray in sexualizing everything and blurring the distinction between sexuality and eros which has in it the longing for eternity, the promise of forever, the desire for immortality.  They don’t have such feelings.  They think well if she doesn’t like me there will be another one.  And to an old romantic like myself it’s very sad to see.  The other thing is romance by itself is not a sufficient guide to lasting marriage.  That was the whole purpose of courtship was to take the erotic beginnings and discipline them in the direction of marriage so that there had to be a period of time where people got to know one another and got to know one another and their families and began to see that what this spark had originated in both of them pointed to was in fact something that transcended themselves and issued in the next generation and in their own replacement and things of that sort.  And that that’s part of what the religious traditions have taught to sort of lift up what was erotic and discipline it under a promise and put it in the context of a religious community with witnesses, and those who raised you, and those who see where you life is going even before you see it yourself.  Those things outside the seriously religious communities have weakened very, very badly.  So you see a generation of young people who don’t have the spark.  And if they have the spark they don’t have the cultural forms to discipline it in this direction.  And I understand that there has been something of a turn back especially amongst the wealthier and college educated people toward marriage then divorce rates seem to be coming down some.  But look the cohabitation rates living together outside of marriage are going up.  And these people think this is practice in marriage.  Whereas it’s practice in the very opposite of marriage.

Mohler: And, we could have a fascinating conversation at that point at rational choice theory and why it is that those who have more to lose tend to at least husband or to conserve their investment in marriage whereas others may have less investment.  But coming full circle and taking all that we’ve talked about here I want to throw you a question that seems to me to arise directly out of our conversation and that is this-can we expect the development of healthy moral intuitions at the same time we’re tearing down the institutions that structure morality.  That’s what seems to me to be very much at stake in the contemporary argument over marriage.  It’s not just a matter of who can marry whom and as a matter of rights that’s the way it gets thrown over into what Mary England calls rights talk.  It’s to me the question as to how in the world we’re going to get the right moral intuitions while we destroy the moral institutions.

Kass: I think this is dead right.  I mean the really the nursery of humanity is or ought to be the family.  I mean of course it’s aided by church and synagogue and aided by the larger community in all kinds of subtle ways.  But it is the household where young children require, have their first encounter with beneficent authority which is interested in their good which treats them better than they deserve just because they are here and are needy.  That, in a certain way the parents stand as agents of God’s providence in giving life, nurturing life, educating life, to take its proper place in the community and in fact to replace the parents who have invested in them.  And that to not understand marriage as primarily the nursery of the next generation and to see that this is not about personal self fulfillment or enjoying our rights to live with and to enjoy sexually whomever we please, this failure of the understanding of the deeper meaning of the institution of marriage both culturally and politically is I think very, very worrisome.  The problem is not just about gay marriage.  The problem is also about heterosexual marriage, and we’ve seen it in the culture for decades.  And where people think that marriage is simply about self fulfillment or companionship and it’s about those things to be sure but not to understand that the way we pay back for all of the gifts of life and rearing, and education, and the transmission of a certain moral understanding, and more than moral understanding of the meaning of our being, not to understand that that’s really what’s at issue in marriage and what marriage is the foundation for is to have I think to pulled the rug underneath the entire culture.  And I don’t know how you get it back.  I don’t know how you get it, it’s very easy to tear down, and it’s being torn, I mean there are pockets in the community which are really doing very, very well.  The Orthodox Jewish community is doing extremely well.  The evangelical Protestant community is doing quite well.  There are other groups that are, understand this problem are insulating their own and educating their own in ways that can keep the culture alive.  A predominant popular culture, the so called elite culture, is not all that elite in my opinion, they have by their practices and by their lack of understanding has really weakened the intellectual support for this institution and goodness knows the passions that have to be restrained in order for these institutions to work well are very powerful indeed.  You let them loose and lots of mischief is done.

Mohler: Now, that was a conversation worth having.  Listening closely to what Dr. Kass said we come to understand that courtship for example falls within a far larger moral context than even those who were participating in it at the time of courtship really understood.  The loss of rituals, the loss of institutional structures like courtship, points to the loss of far greater good and that is the moral universe in which such things make sense and are seen as necessary.

Looking back I’m fairly certain that I first came to know Leon Kass through his writings, and journal articles, and books.  It was through the medium of his written expression that I came to understand him long before he became the kind of public figure that we knew him to be in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Now as we read, we come to understand certain kinds of authors.  Certain thinkers who have the kind of interest that we find overlapping our own.  We also find through them ways of thinking differently that we would think if we were just in conversation with ourselves.  The classic example of my engagement with Leon Kass is how I found my own thought being prodded, instigated, somewhat changed, and through the catalyzing affect of engagement with another mind sharpened by Leon Kass.  It shows something of the power of the written word because I had never met Leon Kass.  I never had the privilege of a personal conversation with him until the conversation we are sharing together today.  That shows you something of the power of books and of written expression.  And an author never knows exactly where his words and his thoughts are going to go.  But as I had the conversation with Leon Kass today I wanted to think about how we engage another mind on these ethical issues and come to terms with how they make a distinctive contribution at a very particular time.  In an intellectual context that is formative and very important for our understanding.  You’ll recall that I read back to Dr. Kass something that he said in the year 2008 as he was looking back at his tenure as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  He said that the United States appeared incapable of erecting any barrier toward the onward march of a brave new world.  Now I think that sense of urgency is very, very important.  I was sitting in a chair in a studio wired for an interview back in 2001.  As President George W. Bush was getting ready to announce his policy on embryonic stem cell research.  Now the context of this was intense controversy.  I was sitting in a television studio for a national broadcast because the host of that program wanted to have a conversation about the meaning of the president’s policy when as yet we did not know what that policy was.  I was impressed in that moment with George W. Bush as a teacher.   Back there in 2001 as he announced this policy he took the time to take it apart to speak about why the human embryo is morally important.  Why his administration saw an imperative to speak on behalf of the human embryo and to point towards medical research that would take advantage of the incredible power of the stem cell without destroying human embryos.  I knew that something was in the background of this.  Some mind and some contributor was in the background to this kind of policy.  And it came quickly to light that this President’s Council on Bioethics that was headed eventually by Dr. Kass had a very determinative impact on influencing an American president as he made a very important policy decision.

Now Dr. Kass spoke of his time as chairman of that body and of the frustrations he spoke of it in the political reality being attacked from both the left and the right.  But there is no doubt that President George W. Bush’s council on bioethics had a very important impact on setting the stage for many of the most important debates we’re having today.  But when you look back at the context of the first decade of the 21st century we come to understand that there were so many issues on the table.  Embryonic stem cell research was just one of them and now there are many more.  And others are likely to follow.

You know when I came to know the ethical theory of Leon Kass and started looking at his writings, I was immediately struck by that phrase that we’ve already talked about and that is the wisdom of repugnance.  I think there’s something to it.  Now as I think about this I’m aware that there are different traditions of moral reasoning.  And three of them that are worth our mentioning them here are the evangelical or Protestant method of revealed ethics.  That is an ethic that is basically grounded in divine revelation and in the exposition and application of principles drawn by revealed wisdom.  And then there is the Catholic theory of natural law.  That means of moral argumentation is also rooted in scripture but actually finds the structure of its argument from the application of the law that is revealed in nature.  The Jewish ethical reasoning tradition is more about accumulated wisdom and the kind of wisdom that for instance is referenced by Dr. Kass in his work on Genesis.  But  the  wisdom of repugnance well that’s a very, very interesting term.  It’s one that reaches out to us because we know it’s true.  There are certain issues, certain events, certain realities, certain moral acts that simply call out revulsion.  And there is a wisdom in that.  The question is where does that revulsion come from?  Well, the Catholic moral theorists would say it comes from our moral nature.  There again is a natural law and along would come the evangelical to say yes, and that is a law that is written on the heart.  It is a revealed law.  It is a law that cries out to the human conscience as the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans chapter one even if the individual is never actually heard or read the scriptures.  And along would come Leon Kass to add the word that there is a basic human wisdom.  There is a sociological aspect to this as well.  But as the three of our imaginary interlocutors might have a conversation I think all three would have to admit that even though the wisdom of repugnance is a very real wisdom as I pressed Dr. Kass and as he acknowledged very clearly in his conversation there’s a limit to that.  Somehow human beings appear to have an incredible ability to renegotiate repugnance.  Things that were once considered to be absolutely abhorrent are now considered to be moral goods or at least not of great moral consequence.  And the reverse is also true.  We can look at this in terms of the history of humanity and see that some of this renegotiation of wisdom was for our good.  But much of it, especially in recent decades, has been at the cost of the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage, and human dignity itself.

I really enjoyed the second part of the conversation with Dr. Kass because it gets to so many of the issues that many people do not really put in the kind of moral context that he so clearly does. I really appreciated the conversation with him about courtship and marriage.  And I especially appreciated the way we were able to talk about the fact that what Americans seem to want including many who would consider themselves moral conservatives, are moral values without the institutions that anchor those values and those moral judgments.  Long term that’s just impossible.  As we tear down a courtship culture, as we tear down sexual responsibility, as we tear down respect for differences between the genders and sexes.  As we go through and just tear down, and tear down, and tear down, eventually there is nothing upon which to build the kind of moral structure.  In which a moral life makes sense.  Now, I especially enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Leon Kass because of my interest in his work, his influence on my thinking, and because I think it’s a rare opportunity for an evangelical Christian and a Jewish philosopher to have the kind of conversation we had here today.  Each of us would want to take the conversation in different directions and that’s a part of what happens in the meeting of minds.  And that’s why evangelical Christians need to have this kind of conversation and quite honestly to enjoy it.  And to understand that a conversation like this is a down payment on the kind of intellectual engagement to which we are called in the 21st century.

It was a great honor to talk to Leon Kass.  To think about these issues together and as was the case to my reading of his books and this conversation with him, I am led to think new thoughts and to want to go and rethink others as well.  To think further along the lines of what it means to demand moral values without the institutions that would sustain them.  To think about where we find the source of the kind of wisdom that we alone know will actually prevail in terms of establishing any kind of adequate moral consensus.    When we look at the chaos and controversies of our day, we recognize that the issues are not fewer, they are more numerous and is likely to be that way from the entirety of our lifetimes.  We are indeed in something of that brave new world that many of us have feared.  And yet by God’s providence here we are.  We’re going to have to negotiate this and think clearly.  And as I speak to Christians, we’re going to have to be thinking very, very clearly in ways that are consistent with that very revealed morality that we are absolutely confident is given to us in the inspired word of God.  But it is given to us in ways that require us to think.  And as we think we want not only to think well we want to think biblically, in order to think faithfully, in order to think rightly, we’re going to have to think together.

Thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public.  For more information go to my website at  You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.comalbertmohler.  For more information about the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to and for information about Boyce College go to  Don’t forget my daily podcast The Briefing Monday through Friday every week.  It’s a Christian analysis of news and events.  You’ll find it at i-tunes and at the website  Until next time, keep thinking.