Tag Archives: Catholicism

Hating Islam vs. hating Catholicism

I’ve decided to tread the fine line regarding my fast on expressing hate here. There has been an abundance of hate speech going around on my social media news feeds this month, and it’s been hard not to respond to the intellectual and moral inferiority of much of it. But that would involve expressing how little respect I have for certain individuals’ intellectual and moral capacities, which I have promised to spend some time not doing. Even so, perhaps I can permit myself to address the issue of hatred for a particular group of people in a more constructive manner. The hated group in question is of course Muslims.

CatholicMuslimOn the issue of relating to Islam I am pleased to have people pissed at me on both sides. I have Muslim friends –– genuine friends –– who are offended that I do not consider some aspects of their faith to stand up well to intellectual and moral scrutiny, to the extent that I would not remotely consider converting to it at this point in life. I also have Islamophobic friends –– again, genuine friends –– who deny the legitimacy of the very word “Islamophobic”, saying that Islam is a force of evil that all rational people should have a fear of. For them it is offensive that I am willing to give the vast majority of the world’s Muslims credit for pursuing a life of peace, at harmony with the highest powers and principles in the universe.

In any case, from this DMZ-walking perspective on the issue, I found Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent interview with the Huffington Post, promoting her new book, Heretic, to be particularly interesting.

This author and thinker has become infamous as something of a patron saint among secular islamophobes, so the mere mention of her name will have some people closing this blog right here with a quick curse on me, and others tingling with excitement that I might join them in their prejudices; sad on both accounts.

All I can say is that I merely wish to give credit where credit is due for her suggestion that Muslims can (unlike her) remain Muslims, subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, and pursue what is best and most uplifting about their faith, even while calling for its modernization in five key areas:
1. Allowing critical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammed.
2. Prioritizing the present life over concepts of the after-life.
3. No longer giving religious law precedence over secular civil law.
4. Ceasing to take mandatory commands as the basis for morality and civil order.
5. Ending calls to arms and killing others in the name of defending faith.

Another thing I found interesting about the interview was how, as a lady 7 years younger than myself, Hirsi Ali kept referring to herself as a representative of an older generation, but that’s sort of beside the point here. Her main point is that by accepting these sorts of challenges to their traditional orthodoxies, the other major monotheistic religions have become in many respects much stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of modernity; and in terms of its impact on world culture, it would be by far the best thing for all concerned if Islam would go through the same sort of internal revolution of self-reevaluation. On this I largely agree with her.

The counter-arguments to this position fall into two basic categories: a) The evil powers that be within Islam will never allow these sorts of reevaluations to happen, or b) If these sorts of changes would occur among the followers of Muhammed, the change would be so profound that they would no longer be justified in calling themselves Muslims.

The first is a matter of speculation regarding the future that is rather fruitless to argue about at any length. Suffice to say, there are certainly Iranian ayatollahs and ISIS supporters, among others, who wish to do all in their power to prevent any such reforms from taking root with their religion, but they probably won’t get the historical final word on the subject. We’ll see.

Regarding the second point, I am of the understanding that, first of all, we outsiders can’t really try to tell Muslims what their faith should mean to them and where its limits should be drawn, but then beyond that they’re not particularly keen on letting other Muslims draw those lines for them either. There isn’t any Pope of Islam, and as bitterly as Muslims may disagree with each other on all sorts of theological and moral issues, hardly any of them take it upon themselves to determine which other Muslims are to be recipients of Allah’s mercy in the after-life and which are doomed to damnation. In theory that sort of open attitude should make reform that much easier to bring about, though in practice it looks inevitable that any steps forward on Hirsi Ali’s five points will only come as the fruit of bitter and bloody struggles.

Needless to say, the time when Christianity went through its equivalent major struggle was nearly 500 years ago already. It may not justifiable to refer to Hirsi Ali as a potential Muslim Martin Luther, but she could end up playing the role of something like a Muslim Erasmus: eloquently pointing out some of the problems in the way the faith is being practiced so that other, less intellectual radicals who are more deeply involved in the religious system might become motivated to bring about changes from within. Yet it should be acknowledged that whether or not such reform happens, the resisters to reform are likely to remain in the majority, and the protesting, reforming minority will continue to be branded by the majority as “heretics” for many generations to come.

This brings us to the question of how we relate to those closer to home who identify with ideologies which famously resist reform. In the Christian case, up until the time of my birth at least, that primarily meant those evil Catholics. Without having to  go back as far as Martin Luther and his polemics against the popes of his age as the world’s biggest pimps, we can see all sorts of ways in which, over the past couple of centuries, hatred against Catholics has been a major factor in world politics in general and in US politics in particular. Nor did the Vatican do itself any favors by holding to a hard line against officially recognizing members of any other churches as fellow Christians until only about 50 years ago. When it comes right down to it, the matters that Hirsi Ali wishes to see reformed within Islam are the very things which radical Protestants have pushed to bring into the Christian theological debate for centuries already, and which many Catholics (and now more conservative Protestants) have been at best hesitant to accept.

Considering “sacred scriptures” to be human documents, subject to human perspectives and limitations in their attempt to reveal the divine, has been a difficult matter for many Christians to accept. Beyond that, as with Muslims, there has been the tendency among Catholics authorities to consider the traditional understandings of what God expects of us from within their official framework also to be beyond question. Daring to ask, “Has God really said…” remains valid grounds, among the most traditional monotheists of both persuasions, to burn someone as a heretic, at least figuratively if not literally.

Likewise focusing on the after-life at the expense of responsible living in our present, material lives is hardly an exclusively Islamic problem. Catholic preaching about possibilities of earning extra rewards in heaven, and avoiding extra sufferings in purgatory –– abuses that Luther railed against in is 95 Theses –– has remained a staple of their (and again, many conservative Protestants’) populist message, frequently at the expense of teaching people to love their neighbor and to act as peacemakers.

The question of the relationship between religious law and civil law in turn was the primary emphasis of Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in which he condemned anything that gave the Church less official authority in the lives of its members, including public education, civil marriage, civil divorce, separation of church and state, and priests’ liability to civil prosecution. The implications of Shariah law are actually quite mild by comparison. The same document goes a long way in promoting the sort of thinking which Hirsi Ali wishes to challenge see eliminated from reformed Islam in terms of “Ending the practice of ‘commanding right, forbidding wrong’”.

Finally we have the matter of religious leaders in both traditions declaring either “crusades” or “jihads” (very much equivalent terms) against those whom they label as “evil”. Even though this practice effectively reduces their affirmation of the ideal of being instruments of God’s peace to nothing more than the grossest hypocrisy, Catholic leaders have been more than a little hesitant to renounce the practice entirely, and to condemn their predecessors’ practices in this regard.

Am I saying all of this to revive a hatred for Catholicism among Protestants? God forbid! My point is that even though there are what I see as significant intellectual and moral failings within official Catholic doctrinal positions –– which are not only historical embarrassments, but issues relevant to contemporary morality and world peace as well –– I am not really even tempted to see Catholics as inherently morally inferior people. Most people, it seems, got over that issue when JFK was elected as president. The last stalwarts to cling to such a prejudice were probably the Protestant Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, and now even they seem to have outgrown it. So why then do so many people think that Muslims should be held as morally suspect for their lack of will to reform the tenants of their faith?

Let me summarize this matter as clearly as I can: I strongly believe in the value of religious faith to motivate people to do good, to see themselves as inherently interconnected with others, to find purpose in their earthly existence, and to enable them to forgive themselves in spite of all their experiences of failure in life. At the same time I recognize the risky tendencies within many (all?) religious traditions to validate tribal prejudices, to use blind dogmatism as an antidote to life’s uncertainties, to manufacture a sense of self-righteousness among their believers, and to hatefully attack others on these bases. I personally maintain a continuous crusade, or jihad, against these evils within my own life and within my own faith as much as God grants me the strength to do so.

On these bases I see all people of faith –– and most of those who currently lack a sense of faith –– as living with the same struggles in terms of their everyday moral practice. Some are more self-aware about it than others, but it’s not my position to issue final grades for them in this respect. Thus I wish to evaluate people as neighbors and fellow citizens of the world, not based on the extent to which the dogmas they subscribe to are compatible with the dogmas I subscribe to, but based on how they personally prioritize between their purposeful interconnection with others and their more dogmatic tribalistic impulses.

Yes, that includes Muslims. Yes, there are particularly disturbing aspects of the dogmas they officially subscribe to, just as there are with Catholic dogmas. Yes, I would like to see those dogmas reformed so that they are more conducive to achieving the sort of goals that Kareem Abdul Jabar outlined in his column this winter: “people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship.” I do believe that the kind of reforms that Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests would better enable Muslims to live that way. I also believe that more thoroughly accepting those kind of reform principles would help Catholics to more thoroughly live that way. But I don’t consider these reforms to be a prerequisite for any Muslims or Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists, or secular humanists even, in gaining my friendship and respect.

If people from each of these tribes can better learn to respect the others then, so much the better.


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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance


In recent weeks I’ve had a few people politely and privately comment on my blogs that they would like to follow them, but that the writing is in fact a bit too difficult for them. This is disappointing to me in a few respects, and I will make some efforts to improve in this regard if I can do so without “losing my voice” in the process.

Part of my point in starting into blogging to begin with, if I’m honest about it, was looking for ways to market my book designed to teach philosophy to teenagers. The book is regarded by many as a fairly successful attempt to put complex philosophical ideas into interesting and relatively easily accessible English for those who are not looking to go pro in the field of academic philosophy. So the point of the blog was originally, at least in part, to give free samples of the sort of language I use to explain philosophy in the book. But as my blog has sort of taken on a life of its own it seems I’ve sort of drifted away from that purpose.

My most popular entries here have been those which tackle religious or political concepts that outsiders find to be mysterious and incomprehensible on some level, but which they still want to understand in order to follow what people who are into such things are talking about: “Objectivism,” “Angst,” “the Rapture,” “Meritocracy,” “Pro-life,” etc. But these blogs tend to run well over 2000 words each, involving more intellectual lifting than the average non-academic wants to do as a leisure activity. Thus for one of my blogs to generate over a hundred hits makes it a pretty big hit by this page’s standards.

Compare that with my old friend Jim. Though we haven’t met face to face for nearly 30 years now, during which time our few mutual interests have sort of faded, Jim remains a friend. Jim has also become an amateur blogger in later middle age, but unlike me he is doing it “right”: He publishes about a blog a day, averaging something like 200 words each; usually brief rants against Democrats spiced with anecdotes of his day to day life as a grandfather and candy salesman. No one can accuse Jim of getting too complicated or intellectualized about his blogging, and thus all in all he manages to reach a much larger audience than I do.

Now I’m not really jealous of Jim. His blog reflects the simplicity and the group conformity inherent in the life path he has chosen, which in many ways I can respect in spite of how different it is from the life path I have chosen. The question is, regardless of the differences between his approach and mine, what can I still learn from my old friend? How can I make my blog ideas –– and perhaps my life in general –– more simple and accessible to “normal people”?

I decided to start with something that was easiest to relate to in Jim’s post-election comments this month: he talked about sharing traditional Lebanese vegetarian recipes with families of friends of his daughter. Jim is nothing like vegetarian himself, and not particularly health-conscious even as near as I can tell. He considers no-meat Fridays as part of Catholic tradition to be a Godly thing, but Mondays without meat for environmental or humanitarian reasons to be positively Satanic… but that’s beside the point. Jim’s mom is Lebanese, and the Lebanese are known for having one of the nicer forms of peasant cuisine to work its way into the American blend, so his discussion of such matters piqued my interest.

The dish he was talking about is based on lentils and rice: rather familiar culinary territory for me. Combining grains and legumes to get a whole protein is one of the basic vegetarian nutrition principles I am well familiar with, and lentils are the fastest cooking dried legume I know of. One basic bachelor lunch I’ve done more than a few times is to toss some lentils and 10-minute parboiled rice into a sauce pan with the appropriate amount of water to soak into them, plus about a half cup or so extra, and once the basic ingredients have softened up enough I season the quickie casserole with a packed of instant cup of soup mix of one sort or another. It’s cheap and cheerful, and usually keeps me going for a good while before I start getting hungry again. So doing such things “right” –– i.e., from scratch, and in a healthier form –– was of significant interest to me, and I could trust that Jim’s mother’s recipe would be a good contribution to my repertoire in that regard.

The name for this traditional delight, Jim tells me, is m’judra. While I was waiting for him to type out the recipe as we chatted one night I started looking for other evidence of such a concept on line. The closest thing I found was “mudra”, a collection of Hindu dance moves. Jim assured me that the two concepts are entirely unrelated.

The first surprise with this recipe was that it calls for about an hour’s worth of cooking –– more than four times as much as I’m accustomed to putting into my lentil foods. He suggested leaving things to soak to cut down on that time, but that wouldn’t actually help much in my case. Even so, with my open floor plan apartment it’s not a serious hardship to have something cooking in the kitchen area while I’m typing, reading or watching videos for hours at a time in the same room. So I even if I couldn’t do it for a quick lunch I could still try it for a dinner experiment for one some night.

The main ingredients are about a pound of brown lentils mixed with rice and fried onion. I usually go with red lentils more on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to try it his way at least once. He also recommended brown rice rather than the long-grain white stuff I usually use for convenience. So I went shopping before trying this out. Unfortunately the local gro here only carries two sorts of lentils: red and green. So I decided green would have to be close enough. They were a sort of brownish green anyway.

The starting point was to put the lentils into the pot with about twice their bulk in water, and to add a relatively small amount of rice, as a glue of sorts, once the process was at about the half-way point. Since the recommended cooking time for brown rice as a side dish is actually far longer than that for lentils I went ahead and put both of these right in at the start. The water seemed like a very small amount, and indeed I did have to keep adding during the process, but perhaps my “vigorous boil” was a bit more vigorous than what Jim’s mom used to do operate at.

The next step was to dice and fry up the onion in oil, and to mix the onion and oil in with the rest. Jim said to get the onion nearly black, and I thought that might be a bit of overkill, but in frying on high I actually got closer to his instructions than I intended to. That part was actually seemed to be fine though. The idea seemed to be that with my glasses off I wouldn’t be able to tell what was lentil, what was rice and what was onion. It was all one homogenous looking brown mass.

The challenge really came with the spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. I thought I had all of those, but it turned out that allspice was missing. Normally I keep allspice in the house for Christmas baking if nothing else, but I had not bought any since returning to Europe from Africa in May… so I decided to improvise. I substituted some “Christmas cookie spice mix” that I had for the cinnamon and allspice, and the ginger and clove in that mix turned out to have a bit more kick than anticipated. I saved the dish (for my solo eating purposes) by adding a little molasses to take the edge off, and at that it actually ended up going down quite nicely with a bottle of Christmas beer I happened to have in the fridge. What it lost though was its simplicity and Lebanese purity. I’ll have to try again in that regard.

In other areas of life as well I struggle to find a proper balance between simplicity for its own sake and the sort of complexities that I trust to bring safety, convenience and efficiency into life as I know it.  Let’s not even bother discussing how dependent I am on electronic gadgets and fossil fuels; I’m as hopeless as any white man in such things. What I really want to work on is finding the right balance in terms of reducing the intellectual complications that tend to dominate life as I know it. Can I ever get my life down to the same level of mental simplicity as my friend Jim? Do I really want to even?

Rather than seeing things in terms of tales of the virtues of our ancestors that we need to find our way back to (Jim’s conservative perspective) –– or in terms of some broad narrative about the primitive prejudices, superstitions and ignorance of our ancestors that we need to overcome (the archetypical political liberal perspective) –– I see our societies as a complex mix of both. I’m thus unable to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, super-ego and id factors so easily as my friends with more monolithic world views. So I’m continuously complicating what they see as simple issues with what they see as impurities or unnecessary added ingredients. This keeps me from being able to write the sort of pure and simple polemics that both friends and foes would be able to use to conveniently categorize my ideas.

This cattle ranch, currently for sale outside of Great Falls, Montana, is actually bigger than the whole Gaza Strip.

One place where my tendency to “complicate issues” has got people on both sides angry at me in the past week is over the Gaza issue, where I don’t see either side as having the high moral ground or as deserving of my public support. At the heart of the matter is the fact that both Hamas and Israel consider themselves to have a God-given right to this silly little piece of land smaller and more naturally unproductive than some Montana cattle ranches. If either would effectively admit that their claims to that territory are based on ethnocentric hubris rather than an unquestionable divine command –– opening the way for them to find some other stretch of God-forsaken mountain and desert terrain to live on –– or if both could come together and say, “Fine, leave us in peace and you can have this stretch of land over here for as many generations as your descendants care to stay there. Don’t you let any of your people attack us and we won’t let any of our people attack you,” the hostilities could be done with this week already. Neither side has demonstrated the integrity to do either of these things though.  Meanwhile the Gazans seem to have an obsession with turning themselves and their children into martyrs –– in both literal and figurative senses –– and the Israelis seem to be more than ready to assist them in this process. To say that they deserve each other would be callously cruel to both, yet in some basic sense quite true.  All I can say for sure is that the situation it is too complicated for me to take up the moral cause of defending those on either side.

A slightly less complex issue perhaps, but one I likewise do not presume to take sides on, has to do with developmental projects in the Philippines taking place at the expense of traditional ways of life. A former student of mine called this subject to my attention this weekend and asked me to sign an on-line petition on the subject, which I am not yet ready to do. Basically it seems that a major economic infrastructure development program has been rushed through official channels and forced onto the local people through a process of eminent domain seizures.  The protests against this could very well be a worthy cause to support, but based on what little I know I am not ready to assume that I know what is best for the Philippine people in terms of what their leaders should and shouldn’t be allowed to do to encourage economic development and to provide basic services for their citizens. It could well be that government officials there are taking bribes from business interests to allow them to build industrial complexes and tourist infrastructure that could end up doing the common people more harm than good, but then again this could also be a means of increasing these people’s life expectancy by ten years or more through better health care, more dependable income and a more nourishing diet. I’m really not in a position to say, and compared to other environmental and human rights crises in the world I am aware of, this doesn’t seem to be among the most critical. But with further information I reserve my right to change my mind about the subject later on. That’s the way things go for us complicated people.

Yet there is one form of simplicity that I treasure more than virtually any other joy in life: interaction with children of all ages. The highlight of my Thanksgiving week this year was in fact sitting and doing barnyard imitations with a 4-year-old, and being called back for endless encores. From newborns to teenagers, every phase of childhood and youth provides its own rewards for adults who have the inclination and opportunity to interact with those at such a level. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, though teenagers in particular seem to be easily tricked into thinking otherwise. The main point is that life is continuously moving forward for all of us, and appreciating the opportunity to make the simplest forms of human contact along the way –– especially with those who are likely to continue on with it long after we are gone –– is one of the experiences that makes the process of life most rewarding.

So as we once again find ourselves racing into the Christmas season, I would like to encourage all of you to stop and consider the combination of complexity and simplicity that the holidays are bringing into your lives. Don’t try to simplify your life by making crude generalizations about people and things you don’t really know that much about; and don’t let the simple basic pleasures of life, like the time you spend with those you love, get unnecessarily complicated. In all your Christmas shopping and partying don’t get tricked into trying to prove something about yourself through some artificial forms of ostentation, and remember to appreciate the value of those around you, from the closest loved ones to the most complete strangers. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

I might consider my old friend Jim to be a complete jerk when it comes to politics, and he might well feel the same about me, but underneath all of that crap there is a kind-hearted fellow that tried to keep me interested in doing art photography and with whom I could commiserate over our difficulties finding girls to go out with back when I was in my late teens and he was in his early twenties. If I can still make basic human contact with him regardless of all of the complications that try to come between us, I believe my life will be far richer for it. If there’s something I can learn from him in terms of connecting with other people in a more simple and straight-forward way via this medium, so much the better.

To those I have alienated with my unnecessary complexity, I’m sorry, and I will try to improve. That doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to join into causes that I see as more complicated than you do, or that I’m willing to convert to your particular brand of religious experience, but it does mean that I want to better learn to keep such complications from isolating us from each other. If within those limits you feel like you could help me with this process, I’m quite available to consider whatever hints or instructions you have to offer.

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Love, Priorities, Tolerance

On the Abortion Question

I must confess that I’ve become a regular follower of the new television series, ”The Newsroom”, and I was particularly touched by one aspect of episode 6 that was on here a couple weeks ago. In it a gay black man, working as a teacher, was coming out in support of a candidate who didn’t believe gay men should be allowed to work as teachers. His reason for supporting this candidate was that he believed that the most important political issue that he could possibly confront was abortion, and this anti-gay candidate happened to be, in his opinion, the best possible candidate to advance the agenda he saw as a priority. The anchorman, “Will” had a crisis of conscience after the fact for harassing this fellow about the seeming contradictions in his politics: supporting a candidate who wouldn’t respect him as a person because of his sexuality. To this the fellow replied, quite heatedly but eloquently, that he didn’t need any liberals to stand up for him, and that he refused to let anyone define his politics for him based on his race, his sexuality or anything else. He could choose for himself what he will stand for, and what he chose to stand for was to fight against abortion.

I in fact know many people from the US for whom abortion is THE political question, most commonly on the basis of a perception that this is the only possible “Christian” position on the subject. Most of them go on from there to look for ideological and religious justifications to agree with other aspects of their favorite candidates’ positions, provided that these candidates are sufficiently dogmatic in their opposition to abortion.  I respect the moral character of these old friends of mine to stand up for a cause that they believe in and to make that a political priority even, but I don’t like what it does to their integrity when they find themselves drawn into supporting other positions which would seem to be fundamentally opposed to their basic identity in the process. But then again, I want to try to limit myself in terms of my rights to define what their basic identities are –– politically, socially, spiritually or in any other sense.

For many people abortion is a major emotional issue because the whole idea of babies tugs pretty hard at the heartstrings of pretty much all human beings. Toss around magnified images of second trimester fetuses which look even more baby-like than newborn babies themselves and we’re talking maximum emotional stimulation for women in particular. Telling someone thus stimulated that the subject causing this reaction in them is not actually a person is a fool’s errand at best. Toss in a few verses from the Psalms about God shaping us in the womb and you have a perfect emotional storm.

When I was still in Bible college in Massachusetts in the early 80s I was assigned this sort of suicide mission. It was an English class that I would have been exempted from, were it not for the fact that I naturally write rather slowly; thus I didn’t get enough of the essay questions on the proficiency exam done to get the points needed for exemption, but that’s rather beside the point. Suffice to say the basic course material was hardly challenging for me. The areas in which the course required effort was in speeding up my writing and keeping myself out of trouble regarding my attitude.

In any case, part of the course was oral and written debating skills –– areas in which I was already supremely over-confident at that point. Those who were less confident in the matter picked out propositions that they were quite confident they could defend, regardless of their limited rhetorical skills. Others were randomly assigned to argue against the propositions they came up with.  Most of these were things that someone could present a counter argument on without being branded as a heretic: like whether “speaking in tongues” was the definitive evidence of “being filled with the Spirit,” or whether complete abstinence from alcohol should be a moral requirement for all Christian believers.  All well and good until this one sweet and sensitive young lady stated that she was going to argue for the proposition, “All abortion is premeditated murder.” Guess who was assigned to be the opponent on that one.

Needless to say, I chose to lose that debate on purpose, with the potentially lower grade being far less of a risk than being labeled as the campus abortion advocate.

I still don’t feel particularly comfortable defending the whole idea of abortion. Sometimes this still puts me in a rather awkward position. Next month I’ll once again be coming to the part of the ninth grade religious education curriculum where I will have to conduct classroom discussions about the morality of abortion, and in over a decade of teaching this subject I have never been able to do so without feeling rather stressed over it. My basic approach has evolved into a method of introducing the subject by saying that there are four forms of ending human life that are legally permitted in various parts of the western world. In alphabetical order those would be abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and warfare.  All of these are morally problematic, but for various reasons some people find some of them more morally acceptable than others. I then take an in-class survey of which of these the ninth graders themselves find to be the most and least immoral. Almost without exception the vast majority within each such class finds warfare to be the most immoral and abortion to be the least immoral of these four ways of taking human life. From there I attempt to Socraticly question why they have chosen as they have, and if possible I try to organize a more formal panel debate over some of the issues raised, but rarely are there any students here (in Finland) who wish to take a public stand against abortion in such a context. I’m generally left in the position of stating a few distinct facts about the matter:

  • Whatever else can be said about abortion, it is a physically and emotionally traumatic experience for the girl in question, and I would seriously hope that none of the young ladies before me there would ever have to go through such an experience.
  • The risks inherent in sex should be taken seriously, and even if one does not believe in the traditional morality of only having sex after marriage it is important to be very careful, very selective and not at all in a hurry about finding sex partners.
  • If they are not able to talk frankly and honestly with a potential partner about all aspects of sex, including birth control, intercourse should be quite out of the question, and there should never be an attitude of, “well, if you get pregnant there’s always abortion.”
  • All that being said, in my experience it is more than likely each of these kids, prior to graduating high school, will have had a classmate or two who has had an abortion, though it would be unlikely that they would actually find out about it. Hopefully if they do find out about such matters they will be able to treat the girl in question with an appropriate level of tact, respect and if necessary, personal support.

I’m not legally or morally in a position to say much more than that. They have classes in health education which cover the physical side of things more thoroughly. Beyond that I believe that any attempt on my part to give heavy sermons on sexual abstinence would not only be hypocritical at this point in my life, but also rather counter-productive. And any attempts to further shock or traumatize them regarding the process of abortion itself could justifiably get me fired. So I leave it at that, hoping that if any of the students are in dire need of someone to talk to about such matters I am one of the people that they can trust. Fortunately very few have turned to me in that capacity over the years.

As to the moral arguments concerning abortion itself –– the arguments I intentionally chose to lose some 30 years ago –– there is very little worth my repeating here. The essential question remains, at what point along the way from sexual release to fertilized human ovum to embryo to fetus to healthy newborn baby, does “the soul” –– a fully functional expression of individualized human life, worthy of our protection and respect due to its own inherent value –– come into play? There is no obvious biblical teaching to clarify this matter, nor is there any clear medical consensus on the subject that I am aware of. Thus more often than not it comes down to a set of emotionally held dogmas that cannot be logically proven to be wrong and thus they are held to be foundational truths.

Over the centuries science has narrowed down the debate somewhat. During the Old Testament period it was somewhat axiomatic to say that knowing what happens in the womb as the baby takes shape in there is just one of those things that, like weather patterns, is beyond human understanding (Eccl. 11:5). All that could be said for sure was that once a man shot his seed into the woman there was potential for something miraculous to start happening in there, which in the best (or worst) case could result in a baby. When along the way this thing inside the mother became “a living soul” remained controversial.  Some took Genesis 2:7 to mean that it was only in the process of actually breathing that a person becomes a living being. Some took Exodus 21:22-23 to mean that causing a miscarriage is the equivalent of manslaughter, and justifiably subject to brutal retribution, thereby indicating that the fetus is already a living being before it starts breathing at least.

The first “scientific” approach to the subject that the Church took seriously was that of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly quotes from Aristotle’s “On the Generation of Animals” in his Summa Theologica, accepting the basic idea that in distinguishing between “form” and “substance,” the baby’s form is determined by what the father shoots in, whereas the substance of the baby comes from what the mother contributes during the course of the pregnancy. As Aristotle put it, “While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the reality of a particular body.” This also provided a handy explanation for the Christological problem of how Jesus could be entirely divine and entirely human: his form/pattern/soul was perpetually being given by God, whereas his physical substance was contributed entirely by Mary. In fact it’s really rather difficult to make sense of the “eternally begotten” bit in the Nicene Creed outside of this paradigm.

But part of the implication of this teaching is that, as the Monty Python boys put it, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” The soul would already exist within the seed that the potential father ejaculates, and thus it is forbidden to masturbate, or practice oral sex, or (male) homosexual acts of any sort, or bestiality, or condom use, or even early withdraw; because all of these things would place the souls already present in the semen in someplace other than the sacred receptacle it was intended for.  From there it was up to God to decide which of these souls he would provide bodies for.

The scientific basis for this traditional moral perspective was actually debunked by a monk, Gregor Mendel, less than 150 years ago. The idea that we each get 23 chromosomes from our moms and 23 from our dads, and the unique combination of those determines our forms (which was actually discovered less than 100 years ago) definitively proved Aristotle’s theory of where the soul comes from to be wrong. But at that point in history the church was so busy fighting against the Darwinist perspective that it hardly noticed the far deeper heretical implications of this monk’s discoveries.  One can only imagine what Mendel would have had to endure had he tried to publish his findings 300 years earlier.

So the science of genetics has fundamentally changed the church’s understanding of where the pattern for individual humans comes from, but what it hasn’t done is provide a basis determining whether the sin of abortion is closer to the sin of masturbation or the sin of murder in terms of the old understanding.  If we think of the “soul” in the terms in which it is used to translate Aristotle’s ideas, it takes shape whenever there is a pattern established according to which a new human being could be formed. The medieval understanding was that these souls existed at the moment of ejaculation, and they were thus unanimous in the understanding that most of those patterns would never be realized, and it was sort of up to God which ones got all the way to breathing “the breath of life”. The guilt associated with preventing an actual human life from being realized based on that pattern was variable, depending on how close it actually got.

We now recognize that those patterns take shape at the moment of conception, and that in the long trip from potential human being to actual human being conception is a more monumental step along the way than the actual first breath, in that it is at the moment of conception (rather than ejaculation) when the pattern becomes fully formed, but it is unclear whether either marks the definitive transition point from potential to actual. A more realistic transition point would be the point at which pre-natal consciousness has taken shape, but even that is somewhat problematic, both in terms of diagnostics and in terms of establishing a philosophically consistent standard on the matter.

But what all of this comes back to is a question of what we mean when we talk about the intrinsic value of human life.  Are we saying that all humans are incredible treasures, and we should thus try to fill the world with as many of them as possible? Are we saying that intelligence as such is the highest value that evolution has produced, and the thing most worth saving and defending in the universe, in particular in the form in which it occurs within our own species (implying that the more intelligent one is, the more entitled one should be to survive)? Are we saying that there are certain things in terms of personal flourishing for each of us as humans that require contact with other humans, and we must thus consider (all of) them to be instrumentally important? Are we just saying that the moral tenants of empathy and reciprocity should be applicable first and foremost within our own species? Or are we saying that there is some other “spark of the divine” within every actual living, breathing human being that deserves to be protected purely on the basis of religious dogmas with no other explanation necessary?  All of these positions have their champions even today; all of them have their problems in terms of fully consistent application.

All that uncertainty being on the table, I still believe that every actual human life has its own value, which can’t be applied to lives that might have been under other circumstances. I believe that, if anything, our moral responsibility at this point in history is to limit the number of children we bring into the world, not to maximize our reproductive potential. So when it comes to miscarriages I believe that they are tragic events for those who experience them, but not an indication of sinfulness or moral failure. I don’t believe that married ladies in their 40s who allow themselves to get pregnant in spite of the high risk of miscarriage at their age are guilty of reckless manslaughter when such miscarriages happen. Thus I don’t believe that fetuses and babies actually belong in the same category with each other as moral objects. And on that basis I don’t believe that the suffering of fetuses being aborted, or the loss of those potential contributors to our societies, really belong in the same category with the tragedy of actual children dying every few seconds from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Thus to me abortion is not the political issue.

If it is the issue for you I would hope that you first seriously consider why it bothers you so much compared to other causes of human suffering or loss of life. If this is a “back door” way of trying to evangelize and proclaim to the world the values of your own religious convictions, I would suggest that you prayerfully reconsider the implications and effectiveness of such a strategy. If you are honestly afraid that God will cause earthquakes and tornados and other forms of judgment on nations that practice such sins, I would strongly suggest that praying for mercy is a better safeguard than trying to legislate the morality you believe God wants. If it is the genuine human suffering and tragedy that bothers you, for consistency sake I hope you would also fight against other forms of human tragedy that I have mentioned above, particularly contributing to aid for girls and young children in Africa and the Indian subcontinent (even if taxes on the wealthy must be raised in the process). But most importantly, while I fully respect your right to believe as you do, I hope you realize that someone can still be a good Christian and a good person while believing differently than you do on these matters.

And when it comes to the current election cycle, may God have mercy on us all and protect us from each other’s stupidity.


Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Sexuality