Faith and Enlightenment

Garry Wills

     ... scholar, historian, classicist and author. Professor Wills’ many bestselling books include What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant. His Lincoln at Gettysburg won the Pulitzer Prize, his two dozen other books are also widely read and admired. As one of nation’s leading public intellectuals, he appears often in leading periodicals. Professor Wills took his doctorate in the classics after studying for the priesthood, a tradition with which he continues to identify and to critique. Many years a teacher of ancient and New Testament Greek at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Wills is now professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University

America has been strongest when faith and reason can come together, says Garry Wills. He’s a distinguished American historian, commentator, classicist, dissenting Roman Catholic and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His bestsellers range as widely as his scholarship from What Jesus Meant to Why I Am a Catholic to Lincoln at Gettysburg.

“The best people in America have been people who knew about the laws of nature and the nature of God, and also knew that a religion of the heart is something that goes beyond reason. Lincoln was that way in the second inaugural. Caesar Chavez was that way. The Quakers who were abolitionist in the eighteenth century. Dorothy Day. The Berrigan Brothers. A.J. Muste. A lot of great prophets were very open towards science, towards progress, toward Enlightenment.

“We're the first country founded without an official god, or an official call to that god. It’s the only thing original about our Constitution. Fortunately, (the Deists) were in control when the country was founded. In American history especially, we've had enlightened religion.

“But we’ve had three outbreaks of evangelical opposition to science and reason and Enlightenment.  The one at the beginning of the 19th century was not bad. It came about because government had given free play to religion. It introduced egalitarian elements into our culture, depended not at all on government and lasted 30 years.

“The second was the beginning of the 20th century.  The fundamentalists depended on government much more. They said, ‘Let's get the government to impose morality. Let's say you can't drink alcohol, you can't teach the evolutional theories, you can't deliver the mail on Sunday.’ It lasted about 20 years.”

The third outbreak -- at the beginning of the 21st century, lasting 10 years – was deeply intertwined with government, in defiance of Constitutional prohibitions.

“The mechanics of this last surge of religiosity -- home schooling, Christian colleges -- have been interesting. The Bush Administration plugged into this. They were very shrewd. They appointed people out of these Christian colleges to the regulatory agencies, to congressional staffs. Even the civilian people who were sent over to Iraq to set up banks -- the test was ‘Are you a Republican religious person? Opposed to abortion?’ Put the right people in Health and Human Services, they get abstinence-only, no condoms in AIDS help; put their people in the National Park Service and now at the Grand Canyon, you read it was formed by Noah's Flood.”

And the long-term affects of Bush’s appointments to the federal judiciary? Dr. Wills worries less about “Rowe v. Wade” being reversed -- two-thirds of the American oppose that -- than wiley politicians solidifying anti-democratic trends.

“Vice-President Cheney wasn't interested in abortion (when he vetted the last two nominees for the Supreme Court.) He was interested in executive privilege. He wanted to nail down all the usurpations they've put in. Total unaccountability, total secrecy. (These two nominees, now Supreme Court Judges) were willing to do that and Cheney supported them. Our only hope is getting a Democratic President who doesn't want to exert those rights. That's the whole issue of the next election.”

Dr. Wills applies his wide-ranging expertise when writing about Jesus, Paul, The Gospels, and the early church much as he does to the present day.

“What's important about Jesus is that he was the culmination of the Jewish history. We forget that there was no New Testament at the time when the New Testament was written. They didn't feel they needed it. They felt that they had all the writings they wanted or needed -- the sacred writings of the Jews. So Paul, our first writer, in the 40's and 50's, argued entirely from the Jewish scripture. He would have been horrified at the thought that the letters he wrote to five communities that were having trouble would be put off and put into a new testament, a new Bible to be pitted against or contrasted with the one that he believed in.

“Paul said that the test of the followers of Jesus is that he had to pass on what was passed on to him, that Jesus died for our sins in accord with the sacred writing and rose on the third day in accordance with the sacred writings. Those are the texts.”

Dr. Wills and St. Augustine both oppose the trap of reading any of these texts literally.

“This is a symbolic language. They are saying, ‘If Jesus is the Messiah, how does he connect in the symbols that tell us about the divinity and the humanity of the Messiah?’ Read that way they're much more interesting. They take us into the communities that had lived with these traditions and were undergoing tremendous pressures -- persecutions, interdivisions, etcetera -- and they're saying, ‘What does Jesus, who's alive in us because we're his members, say to us now, in this situation?’ They want to reconnect with their origins.”

[This Program was recorded February 25, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:32 Conversation 1 RealAudio9:36 Conversation 1 RealAudio11:52 Conversation 1 RealAudio10:59 Conversation 1 RealAudio11:00 Conversation 1 RealAudio5:05


Dr. Wills’ wide-ranging embrace of honest scholarship and critical thinking are a bracing reminder of the very best of academic pursuits, whether or not one agrees with his conclusions.

Special thanks for an expanded view of ways in which Abraham Lincoln was exemplary, both in the context of America’s history and as a man for all ages.

Related Links:

What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant are published by Members of the Penguin Group. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America is a Simon and Schuster book.

In The Religious Case Against Belief, James Carse argues that "belief systems" are incompatible with religion.

Thomas Cahill joins Garry Wills in his principled concern about the current leadership of the Catholic church.

From their perspectives as Christian ministers, Robin Meyers and Jim Wallis have written and spoken extensively about the role of Christianity in America.

Kevin Phillips is particularly concerned about the damage religious fundamentalism has done to American politics. Former President Jimmy Carter extends that concern to the entire world, as does Sandra Mackey.

John Dean points to the mixture of judicial and religious fundamentalism on the U.S. Supreme Court. He says that we are one appointment away from a fundamentalist majority on that Court and that the impact would be catastrophic to the America we think we know.

Susan Jacoby has reintroduced "free thinkers" (i.e. secularist) into American history.

Though Dr. Wills does not share his perspective, the late Robert Funk spent the last years of his life searching for the historical Jesus through The Jesus Seminar which he founded.

Both Geneive Abdo and Reza Aslan have written about challenges within Islam similar to those discussed by Dr. Wills.

Jared Diamond has characterized religion as "the handmaiden of kleptocracy," a view which is appropriate to the various degenerate forms.

Bruce Feiler has tried to sort through the millenia of overlay to understand the roots in the Eastern Mediterranean of modern religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity).

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

Quick buttons

© 2008  The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may not be used for any commercial purpose without the express, written consent of Paula Gordon.  Non-commercial use is permitted and encouraged provided that credit is given to The Paula Gordon Show, appropriate urls cited, links are provided where possible and meaning is not altered by editing.