A Christian gentleman in the nation’s capital

George Weigel

[On May 8, the Library of Congress and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars co-hosted a tribute to Dr. James H. Billington, who died last November 20. Billington was instrumental in bringing me to Washington during his service as director of the Wilson Center and we remained friends throughout his historic tenure as the 13th Librarian of Congress. As Librarian, Jim Billington vastly extended the reach of what is arguably the world’s greatest repository of knowledge. It was an unremarked aspect of his character, however, that I underscored in my contribution to the May 8 tribute.]

Clement Attlee once described Winston Churchill as akin to a layer cake: one never knew which layer of his personality would be displayed at a given moment — the 17th-century Churchill, imaginatively riding across the battlefields of Europe with his great ancestor, Marlborough; the 18th-century Churchill, standing in Parliament alongside Edmund Burke; the man born into 19th-century aristocracy at Blenheim Palace; the colossus of the democratic 20th century; or the visionary of the 21st century.

Jim Billington was similarly multi-layered in terms of accomplishments. To the rich array of his talents already described this morning, I would add one from my Wilson Center experience with him in 1984-85: His singular ability to enter any conversation and ask the one, penetrating question that got everyone thinking in a fresh way — no mean accomplishment among high-powered academics, who may doubt the pope’s infallibility, but not their own. In terms of character, though, I would highlight today what three and a half decades of friendship taught me was the deepest “layer” of Jim Billington — the layer that made all the other layers (the husband and father, the scholar, the public official, the diplomat, even the TV star) possible, and that made the man so compelling: Jim Billington was a Christian gentleman.

Once familiar, that character type is all the more precious for being somewhat rare today. So at a moment when some in our public life cannot bring themselves to use the word “Christian” to describe those murdered in Sri Lankan churches on Easter, while others weaponize faith for partisan purposes, let us remember, and be grateful for, the example of Jim Billington, Christian gentleman: A man in whom faith enlarged and amplified reason, while reason purified and deepened faith. With Pope Saint John Paul II, Jim Billington knew that (as John Paul put it), “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” And in his gentlemanly, Christian way, Jim Billington tried to help Washington understand that, in his service at the Wilson Center and at the Library of Congress.

Secure in his basic Christian conviction, Jim Billington was a man of great books who knew that a book’s greatness is based, not on aspects of its author’s identity, but on that author’s ability to unveil deep truths about the human condition. And from the great books, Jim Billington learned, and tried to help others learn, that the civilizational enterprise we call the West — including the American democratic experiment — has roots that ran far deeper than the Enlightenment, roots that reach back to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: to biblical religion, its teaching about the dignity of the human person, and its Exodus-informed conviction that life is adventure and pilgrimage, not cyclical repetition or meaningless absurdity; to the ancient Greek conviction that reason can get at the truths that are built into the world and into us; and to the Ciceronian conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force.

Inviting as many as possible into that great, multi-faceted civilizational conversation, in as many venues as possible and through as many instruments as were available, was Jim Billington’s grand strategy for the Library of Congress. It was a commitment forged by both faith and reason. And the accomplishment we remember and honor today was the accomplishment of a Christian gentleman, whose deepest convictions opened him up to serious conversation with everyone else.

At a moment in our national history when convictions tend to create silos rather than robust and thoughtful debates, it is good to remember the example of a man of faith and reason whose convictions created genuine human encounters, real conversations that broke out of zero-sum gamesmanship and enlarged the understanding — and thus the humanity — of everyone involved.

COMING UP: On the composting of thee and me

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In Herman Wouk’s novel, War and Remembrance, Warren Henry shocks his Bible-reading father, the novel’s hero, by claiming that human beings are “microbes on a grain of dust…and when it’s over we’re just dead meat.” The Washington state legislature has now topped the cynical young Warren Henry by declaring that we’re useful meat, as in potential compost, such that one can legally choose to be composted after death, then used for fertilizer.

The case for composting thee and me is put in reassuring ecological terms. “There are significant environmental problems with burying…bodies,” according to state senator Jamie Pedersen, author of the human composting bill. Katrina Spade, the founder of “Recompose” (the company promoting human composting) described the process by which her firm does its grubby business as “the same process happening on the forest floor as leaf litter, chipmunks, and tree branches decompose and turn into topsoil.” Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, a Washington State University researcher who tried Ms. Spade’s process on six cadavers, told the Washington Post that “the material we had, at the end, was really lovely; I’d be happy to have it in my yard.”

There, now: Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Anyone paying attention to the churnings of American politics knows that the coastal strip of the Pacific Northwest, between Eugene, Oregon, and the northern suburbs of Seattle, is an asylum of political correctness, fueled by what a cultural anthropologist might call substitute religions. What was already the most unchurched part of the country when I lived there from 1975 to 1984 has experimented, over the past four decades, with various ultramundane religiosities — from socialism to radical feminism to gender theory to the most esoteric forms of environmentalism — often layering one mania on top of another. With human composting, this madcap exercise has now been turned inside out, demonstrating the ancient truth that the worship of false gods — in this case, Gaia, or the Earth — is a sure prescription for lethal incongruity.

In the biblical view of things, men and women, created in God’s image and likeness, have a God-given dignity that implies a responsibility to care for God’s creation, the Earth. Exercising that responsibility is a good thing here-and-now; it’s also an act of generosity toward future generations, who should inherit the Earth as a garden to cultivate, not a garbage dump to manage. But if men and women are, in the final analysis, compost — “a cubic yard of soil,” as Ms. Spade told the Post — why should we possess a unique dignity? Why should we bear any special responsibility to treat the Earth and other living creatures well? If we’re just compost-waiting-to-happen, why should we treat nature with respect?

If human beings have no special dignity within creation, then we have no special responsibility for creation. By declaring us proto-fertilizer, the human composters implicitly deny our innate and distinctive spiritual qualities — our ability to reason and to choose, to love, to sacrifice, to act altruistically and to rise above self-indulgence and violence. Logically, then, don’t the human composters undercut their own case for the care of the Earth and its creatures? Radical environmentalism in the form of human composting leads to an ecological nihilism antithetical to the moral case for “sustainability.”

Turning each other into compost also vitiates the ancient human instinct to create special places for the dead, where loved ones may be visited and their memory honored. To gut that instinct by composting relatives and friends for use in Lynn Carpenter-Boggs’s yard suggests that the bonds of love, friendship, and community that exist in life really aren’t really significant: if we’re just fertilizer, why should we be valued in life and cherished in death?

It’s long been obvious that certain forms of radical environmentalism are an ersatz religion, with an ersatz sacred text (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), ersatz sacraments (those multiple recycling bins), an ersatz Satan (Big Oil), an ersatz theology of the Kingdom (the aforementioned “sustainability”), and an ersatz moral theology (using plastic straws being the latest example of an eco-mortal sin). It was only a matter of time before this ersatz religion’s false anthropology and cosmology — its denial of the unique status of human beings in a natural order that’s created, not accidental — would lead to the grotesque. With human composting, gussied up as a matter of ecological responsibility, the grotesque has most assuredly arrived.