BZ Gary Gutting: philosopher, gentleman, Catholic


Curmudgeon’s Corner

BROOKINGS – Consider it one of those small events in life that might be put down to coincidence, or …?

A couple weeks back while doing my few minutes of before-going-to-work morning reading, I was deep into “What Philosophy Can Do,” by Gary Gutting, who held an endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught for 50-plus years.

While reading Gutting’s book, I would occasionally come across a term or topic that I didn’t understand. When that happened, I would go online for clarification, oftentimes to other sites that talked about the professor or his work. 

Going online that morning, I was surprised to find that Gutting had died about a fortnight earlier, on Jan. 18. First time that’s ever happened to me: an author dying when I was reading one of his books.

I first encountered Gutting about eight months ago when I bought “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments.” Brief essays, they have been penned by philosophers since 2010 and run series-style in The New York Times.

I don’t buy many books, especially hardcover volumes. While the American publishing industry is long on quantity, it’s short on quality. I don’t mean to sound uppity, but I find few books hitting the market today that I consider worth purchasing for my own personal library. 

And books are expensive; but thanks to the Brookings Public Library, one of our city’s true treasures, I never lack for high-quality books and am able to own them for about a month at a time. The Gutting book (WPCD) I’m reading now is on loan from the library. But I digress.

The 133 arguments noted above are all succinct, cogent and understandable to the layman. No ivory-tower writing here. I find that especially making sense for Gutting, since at Notre Dame he taught undergraduates.

In one Stone essay, “Philosophy and Faith,” Gutting encounters the what-if-there’s-no-God question: “At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.” But that doesn’t exactly happen.

“The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them convincing proof and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other ‘big questions’ we’ve been discussing for 2,500 years.”

If you’re a thinking and maybe doubting-Thomas sort of Christian (guilty) or one whose growth in the faith ended at about the sixth-grade level with a how-do-I-know-the-Bible-tells-me-so mindset (soulset?) or a believer or non-believer of any ilk, it won’t do you any harm to take a look at Gutting’s writings. 

Had Gutting been writing a couple centuries back, his work would likely have made him a candidate for placement on the Catholic Church’s “Index of Forbidden Books.” The Index, incidentally, was last issued in 1948 and abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966. To my knowledge there are no “dirty books” on the list. Most of them are pretty highbrow and sound pretty boring. 

With no Index, when today a Catholic philosopher, one of its own, writes, ”I myself think that there’s no argument that decisively establishes that God exists,” what can the Church say? That comes in a chapter on “The New Atheists.”

But Gutting is a believer and is not saying that God doesn’t exist. He makes a strong faith-and-reason argument for the existence of God, as do many Christian philosophers and theologians.

The “What Philosophy Can Do” dust cover tells readers that “Gary Gutting takes a philosopher’s scalpel to modern life’s biggest questions and the most powerful forces in our society – politics, science, religion, education and capitalism – to show how we can improve our discussions of contentious, contemporary issues.”

Die-hard liberal lefties and set-in -concrete conservatives would do well to read Chapter One, “How to Argue About Politics” in “WPCD.” It contains some good advice for arguing in “The Principle of Charity.”

I’m not one to write book reviews or recommend authors; but in the case of Gutting, I make an exception. Not only does he make a faith-and-reason argument for the existence of God in a time of the new atheists, but he does so again in a way that is in keeping with Christian charity. Gutting is a renaissance man for all seasons and a gentleman in every sense of the word.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, now declared “blessed” by the Catholic Church on his way to canonization and sainthood, wrote in “The Idea of A University,” published in 1854 “that it is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.”

In a more secular sense, John Paul Jones, founder of the United States Navy during the American Revolution, noted that in addition to being a capable mariner, a naval officer “should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness and charity.”

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for Professor Gutting on Feb. 1 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus. 

To Gary Gutting I extend a BZ (Bravo Zulu) for being one of those men and women who have made the world a better place for their having spent a few brief days in it.

Have a nice day.