An Imaginary Conversation
The evening before last I was able to attend one of the most thought-provoking lectures I have heard in a long time. Catherine Gallagher, an English professor at Berkeley University in California, is an expert in Victorian literature and of Jane Austen’s collected works. Mrs. Gallagher’s presentation was inspired from a brief section from Austen’s Mansfield Park wherein she attempts to demonstrate that Austen was hinting at a desire to engage the slave trade discussion that was taking place in England.
Professor Gallagher read aloud a fictitious dialogue that she brilliantly composed between the characters in Mansfield Park, as if Jane Austen had decided to include such a discussion. Gallagher showed herself not only as a gifted writer but also a true historian! She incorporated into this imaginary conversation the differing perspectives that formed once England enforced her ban on the international slave trade. There were two prominent positions represented in this conversation, the first being that England’s difficult stance was the result of practicality and economic convenience. The second was motivated by moral conviction over the treatment of other human beings.
Once Mrs. Gallagher finished with her reading, she offered some fascinating commentary amidst some time set aside for Q&A. What struck me most was a question she posed to the audience about religious conviction: “England’s sense of guilt and desire to correct her contribution to the slave trade was largely the result of religious belief in God’s wrath and love. Understand that I am a secular humanist, yet I wonder if secularists have enough passion to lead the way in social justice?” At this, many in the room shifted uncomfortably. Here is a self-proclaimed secular humanist declaring that she questions whether secularists have passion enough to stand up for morality in society! It was absolutely amazing to witness.
History certainly defends her point: it is only the religious that have fought for moral justice. More specifically, Christianity has been the root cause of defending morality in Western Civilization. Other movements that claim to fight for social (not moral) justice are rooted in secular ideals that view man as the god of his own existence. These movements quickly gain momentum but soon prove to be faulty, and many times crumble within a few years of their boldest achievements. Consider the French Revolution. Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, both secularists, paved the way for French rioting and the Reign of Terror. Even after the French established a form of Republicanism, this shabby government stood only for a brief moment until Napoleon rose to the scene.
The more I considered this particular point, the more I was convinced of the truthfulness of it. Gallagher hit it right on the nose.
After the lecture I expressed my deep appreciation to the professor for the intriguing presentation, and even asked a question or two of my own. Kaylee and I very much enjoyed ourselves.