Sed Contra: The Dearth of Tragedy

Deal W. Hudson
September 1, 2001

I have often learned my most valuable lessons from my worst enemies. In graduate school, I spent several years wrestling with the texts of the atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught me one unforgettable lesson: Those who lack the tragic sense of life are apt to invent realities to replace the one they cannot face.

Nietzsche aimed his argument at Christianity, with its supposed invention of an otherworldly paradise. He was wrong on this score, however: The Christian faith affirms the inevitability of suffering. The cross is a perennial reminder of the tragic limitations that all human beings must not only bear but choose.

But if you look at post-Christian America from Nietzsche’s vantage point, you’ll see that it lacks that tragic sense. Witness especially America’s current mania for creating and destroying human life for the sake of treating disease. Everything is curable, we’re told, regardless of its cost in terms of other human lives.

Celebrities such as Christopher Reeve and Mary Tyler Moore have urged Congress to support the destruction of human embryos to extract stem cells for the treatment of spinal cord damage and childhood diabetes. Not far behind the stem cell debate will come a debate on human cloning, the possibility of making “another you” to provide replacement body parts as needed. In fact, some U.S. scientists have announced they intend to clone human embryos for the sole purpose of research.

Doesn’t anyone recognize that there are limits on what should be done to avoid suffering and death? Or has the avoidance of suffering become a kind of greatest good, conferring legitimacy on all deeds done for its sake?

When we feel our natural aversion to suffering and death, we are faced with a broad range of choices. Without the moral sense conferred by the tragic, people assume that suffering can be avoided by any means necessary, including the taking of human life.

This option was brought home to me dramatically on my family’s recent trip to Romania to adopt my four-year-old son, Cyprian. On the day we arrived, the Romanian government announced a temporary suspension of international adoptions. Why? More than 200 adopted Romanian children were missing, and it was feared that they had been taken across the border and killed for their body parts.

How is it possible to understand such cruelty? My friend, Crisis music critic Robert Reilly, once remarked to me that the loss of the tragic sense is closely linked to atheism (Nietzsche was an exception!). Without God, predestination becomes scientific determinism; the immortality of the soul becomes the immortality of the body.

This makes sense as an explanation for our current willingness to dissect human lives into whatever pieces we deem scientifically useful. Our infatuation with scientific progress and our toleration of the horrific program of harvesting body parts are nothing less than a misplaced desire for God—for immortal life—brought to bear on the treatment of illness. Avoidance of death has replaced union with God as our ultimate goal.

Reilly also pointed out to me that nature loses its moral power when God is removed from the picture, and the natural and social sciences replace theology as the highest source of intellectual authority. Believing that scientists speak the truth on all subjects, legislators and administrators tend to accept their pronouncements, even on moral matters outside their purview.

Those who accept life’s tragic limitations, however, view existence as a gift—something they may not and should not try to manipulate. They accept that there are moral limits on what the human will can accomplish in the face of death.

Over and over I hear that such attitudes change when it is your son, daughter, father, mother, wife, or husband who could be helped by embryonic stem cell research or cloning. If such a predicament should befall my family, I pray that God will give me the strength to bear my tragic circumstances without seeking to take advantage of the living.

In a country renowned for its optimism, we Americans go too far when we assume that sorrow and suffering can be avoided, and that, by manipulating life, we can beat death. The reality that we create as we try to escape our mortality will be stranger and even more cruel than the Brave New World that we were taught to fear as schoolchildren.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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