Thursday, November 20, 2014

Choice, death, and begging the question

In the University of Oxford, there should have been a debate this week, hosted by a University pro-life society, about the cultural impact of abortion.  It didn't happen, largely due to protests by other societies. You can read about it here and here. There are lots of issues around this, including of course the right to freedom of speech that one ought to expect the University to uphold.  There is also the issue of poor argumentation.

Consider some of the comments from groups opposed to the debate.  Here is the Women's Campaign: 
It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies... The event description seems to suggest that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. Framing the debate in these pro-life terms denies people autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies,
Now, apart from the ridiculous nu-speak (cisgender?), and the bizarre idea that only people who have direct experience of an issue are able to have an opinion on it, the problem with this statement is that it assumes exactly what ought to be debated.  Is the question of abortion simply one of one's own body?  Is this about a man with a uterus-free body telling a woman with a uterus-equipped body what she ought to be doing with her body?  Of course, the reason any of us are pro-life in this context is because we are convinced that there is a third party present - a baby, a life, a real human being.  Speaking up on behalf of a third party who is powerless and voiceless is, I would suggest, always legitimate, no matter how much it impinges on someone else's autonomy.

Six years ago, I wrote something about clarifying the terms of the abortion debate.  At that time, I had the feeling that many people did not understand that this was primarily a debate about facts, not values.  I argued then that nobody thinks killing is okay; it is just that we disagree over whether abortion is killing, and that is a matter of fact to be debated.  I still think clarifying this would be really helpful.

However, I no longer feel so optimistic that sorting this out would move the debate forward very much.  It seems clear to me now that there is a value debate going on.  It is not a debate about life, primarily, but about choice.  The comments from feminist groups about this proposed debate make it very clear that autonomy is the ultimate value for them.  We must be able to choose; each individual must be able to choose.  Let me be honest: I am no longer sure that if these people were convinced that the human foetus were a real, living person waiting to be born, they would want to ban abortion.  In other words, I very much fear that choice has become so important that people would consciously kill and sanction killing in order to maintain their own autonomy.

There is, I think, a profound link between choice and death, in a way that there is not between choice and life.  None of us chose to live.  In Christian thinking, life is a gift.  Life is grace.  It is given to us.  To go on living is also not a choice (contra existentialism).  I cannot choose to keep living.  Of course, I can and do make myriad small choices which contribute to the upkeep of my life.  But none of them is a choice to live, and neither is the sum of them.  In the same way, I make choices that contribute to the continued living of others, most obviously my children.  But I don't choose for them to go on living (neither did I really choose for them to live in the first place; life simply isn't within my power or gift).

But I can choose to die, and I can choose to kill.  Whereas going on living shows my dependence, and contributing to the ongoing life of others shows our interrelatedness, choosing to die or to kill is all about autonomy.  A choice with complete finality, for me or for someone else; a real choice, a choice which shows that I am me and I can enforce my will.

And that is the culture of death that springs from radical individualism, and is masked by positive sounding words like 'choice'.  God have mercy on us.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

True and True-er

Consider with me, for a moment, the Magnificat - Mary's song of praise to the God who lifts up the humble and puts down the proud and mighty.  The song is prompted by Mary's realisation, in conversation with her cousin, that God is really doing this.  The Messiah is coming, and she, Mary, will be his mother.

Here are two things you could say about the theme of the song in the context of the gospel:
1.  God always works by turning things around - putting down the mighty and lifting up the humble - and he shows that supremely in Jesus;
2.  In sending Jesus, God works to put down the mighty and lift up the humble - and as we see that in Jesus, we see that it is also how God has always worked.

I would suggest that statement 1 is true.  It moves from a consideration of God's general providence to a consideration of the incarnation, and sees the latter as the high point of all God's dealings with his creation.  He has always worked like this, and here - in Jesus - we see the mountain peak of his working, standing out above all his other providences and provisions.

But statement 2 is true-er.  It moves from God's action in Jesus, and sees it not just as the pinnacle but as the source  of all God's dealings in providence.  The incarnation is not only the mountain peak, but it is also the fountain-head.  It is true that we see, in the light of the gospel, that God's general providence also has this character of reversing the apparent status of human beings; but now we see that providence as the outworking of an inner logic, and that inner logic is the gospel itself.

I suppose I would see the relationship between statement 1 and statement 2 as the relationship between a true statement on the one hand and the statement of the truth on the other.

One reason why this is important is that it helps us to read providence correctly.  Because, let's face it, we often see the proud and the mighty remaining pretty lifted up all around us, and the humble being ground into the dirt.  We could not actually write the Magnificat off the back of providence alone.  But if the gospel is true, then all of those occasions when we do see something that looks like this become little reminders of the great reversal that lies at the heart of the meaning of creation - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Jesus Way

I have finally finished reading Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society.  It was not a very cheerful read.  The thrust of Ellul's diagnosis of western culture is that it has completely fallen prey to technique.  Things that were designed to make our lives easier have in fact taken over our lives.  Ends have disappeared; everything is about means.  We are becoming more and more efficient, more and more technically adept...  But why?  For what purpose?  We no longer know.  Everything truly human is suppressed in the rush to turn ourselves into part of the great machine.

As a sort of antidote, I have begun re-reading Eugene Peterson's book The Jesus Way.  My main practical concern reading Ellul has not been for society as a whole.  I find his picture sadly compelling, and it genuinely grieves.  But what troubles me more is the way the church has fallen prey to the same tendencies.  Peterson sets out the problem:  "More often than not, I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practised by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations and causes...  But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus...  Doesn't anybody notice that the ways and means taken up, often enthusiastically, are blasphemously at odds with the way Jesus leads his followers?  Why doesn't anyone notice?"

Peterson's point is that Christians so often try to do the work of Jesus - Kingdom work - in ways which stand in sharp contradiction to the Kingdom.  Why doesn't anyone notice?  I would suggest it is because these ways and means get things done.  Too often for our liking, Jesus' way looks like a meandering, long-way-round, slow, rough path.  We can apply a few simple techniques to get things done better.  We still have the same goals in mind, of course; we just have a better way of getting there.  And without a doubt, our ways and means work.  They grow churches, they stabilise lives, they increase knowledge.  Still the same goals...

Or are they?  What if Kingdom goals are not the sorts of things you can pursue any which way?  What if it is only Jesus' slow, wandering path that will actually get us there?  What if 'getting there' isn't really the point anyway; what if it's all about the way?

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Here is some more joy from Jacques Ellul.  Painful to read, but important I think.

"Public opinon... is completely oriented in favour of technique; only technical phenomena interest modern men.  The machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob.  What excites the crowd?  Performance..."

In other words, getting things done is all that counts.  Efficiency and achievement rule the day.

"What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.  The act is sufficient unto itself.  Modern man can think only in terms of figures, and the higher the figures the greater his satisfaction.  He looks for nothing beyond the marvellous escape mechanism that technique has allowed him, to offset the very repressions caused by the life technique forces him to lead.  He is reduced in the process to a near nullity."

The means has become the end, and everything genuinely human is in danger of being lost.  As Ellul goes on to say, when the increase in performance becomes the measure of all things, the individual human is lost; he becomes part of the mob, because only the whole can drive performance on.  Collective performance expresses the will to power of the mob, to which the individual will is sublimated.

The results are two-fold.  On the one hand, a mystical devotion to technique, expressing itself in absolute faith in progress; on the other, a "deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious ones.  The amused glance people give the philosopher; the lack of interest displayed in metaphysical and theological questions...; the rejection of the humanities which comes from the conviction that we are living in a technical age and education must correspond to it; the search for the immediately practical, carrying the implication that history is useless..."

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that this is indeed the world we live in.  And I want out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Killing sin

I have recently finished re-reading John Owen On the Mortification of Sin, something which I do periodically and always find beneficial.  It has been a few years since I last dusted it off, and this time through I noted something I have not spotted before, and which struck me as very different from much of the instruction currently given on personal change.

Owen spends some time setting out what it means to mortify sin, and makes it clear that the power to so comes from the Spirit, and is given only to believers.  Then he gets on to some practical steps, of which there are nine, including "Get a clear sense of... the guilt... the danger... the evil... of the sin", "the first actings of sin to be vigorously opposed", and "Thoughtfulness of the excellence of the majesty of God".  These directions make up the bulk of the work.

But when he is done with them, Owen writes "Now, the things which I have hitherto insisted on are rather of things preparatory to the work aimed at than such as will effect it". In other words, think all you want about the guilt and evil of your sin, put as much effort as you can into meditation on the majesty of God, you still haven't even started to mortify sin.  For the actual battle against sin, Owen has only two directions, and since one of these is really just a reminder that this is the work of the Spirit, there is actually only one thing to do that belongs to the real fight against sin:

"Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin".

That's it.  Of course, we are used to exercising faith in Christ for the forgiving of our sin, but for Owen it is faith also which will kill it.  Setting faith at work here means regarding Christ as the one who will defeat sin in us, actively expecting him to do it, and then waiting for him to come through.

This is as far away from the CBT-disguised-as-sanctification that we often see as you can get.

Two things really strike me about this.  Firstly, it will only work if Jesus really is a gracious Lord, and really has conquered sin.  It's not a technique, but an appeal to a person with power to exercise it mercifully towards us.  It consists in expectation, and waiting, and looking, and longing.  In other words, it throws us absolutely on Christ, and not on any source of peace we can summon up in ourselves.  (Don't speak peace to yourself until God has spoken it to you, Owen says).

Secondly, this clarifies for me that sanctification, no less than justification, is by faith alone, because by Christ alone.  And this is both liberating and glorious.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Homo Economicus

Here is some cheery analysis of the subordination of human beings to economic techniques, from Jacques Ellul, writing originally in 1954:

The bourgeois morality was and is primarily a morality of work...  Work purifies, ennobles; it is a virtue and a remedy.  Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaces God and the life of the spirit.  More precisely, it identifies God with work: success becomes a blessing.  God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well...  This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Sound at all like the Conservative Party Conference?

For the proletariat the result was alienation...  It might be thought that the primacy of the economy over man (or rather the possession of man by the economy) would have come into question.  But unfortunately, the real, not the idealized, proletarian has concentrated entirely on ousting the bourgeoisie and making money...  For the proletariat, as for the bourgeoisie, man is only a machine for production and consumption.

Sound at all like the modern Labour Party?

The counterpart of the necessary reduction of human life to working is its reduction to gorging.  If man does not already have certain needs, they must be created.  The important concern is not the psychic and mental structure of the human being but the uninterrupted flow of any and all goods which invention allows the economy to produce.

In summary:
Money is the principal thing; culture, art, spirit, morality are jokes and not to be taken seriously.  On this point there is once again full agreement between the bourgeoisie and the Communists.

Here's the thing - modern life is not characterised by the conflict between right and left.  That just sits on top of a very substantial agreement over ends and means.  The end is the efficient functioning of the economy, and the means is the efficient marshalling of human capital and the efficient exploitation of natural and artificial resources.  If there is some difference as to how these means are to be established, they are relatively trivial.  Capitalism and Communism are both examples of economic techniques which dehumanise man and turn him into a machine - and therefore each individual into a very small cog in the machine.

How is one to fight against this?  Surely not by planning a better economic or political life; this is just to replace the current technique with another.  We must refuse the invitation to be inhuman, even if that means refusing the invitation to be wealthy and comfortable.  We must live for other things - really live for them, not just use them as distraction and refreshment around the edges of our work.  For Christians and for churches, I think it means resisting the encroachment of technique in the Church.  We are not there to be efficient, or to utilise people, or to complete the plan, but to know and enjoy the living God.

And that is revolutionary.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ministering spirits

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels.  Angels are funny things.  They are all over the place in Christian architecture and iconography, and for those in more liturgical traditions they form, in theory at least, part of the context of worship ('with angels and archangels...').  But I am not sure we have much practical use for them.  Indeed, they are something of an embarrassment.  It is just possible to construe worship of God as being compatible with our modern world; after all, God can be re-envisioned fairly easily in ways that fit the post-enlightenment paradigm in which we live.  But to believe in Angels puts you in the same realm as people who believe in the healing power of crystals, and people who take astrology seriously, and whoever it is who reads all those books about near-death experiences.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that one cannot tell the Bible story without angels. The presence of Gabriel at the Annunciation is sufficient to secure their place in the narrative. But other than these 'big events' - with which I suspect we are happy because of long exposure and also the sense that these are dramatic one-offs and therefore not normative - angels mostly appear within those parts of Scripture for which we have least time. The weird bits of the book of Daniel give a portrait of angelic warfare, linked to human prayer, which seems uncomfortably mythological. The various scenes in Revelation featuring angels are often so bizarre as to require explaining (away) in other terms.

All in all, I think for most of us angels are acceptable backdrop, so long as we don't seriously have to believe in them or their activity.

I think we could gain a lot by recovering a genuine, practical faith in the work of angels. For starters, a God who intervenes by the ministry of angels is very clearly not the god of the deists, and so a principal idol is cast down. Moreover, the presence of angels around us signals God's own presence in the mundane details of our lives.

Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that to believe in angels as the Bible portrays them is to believe that we are caught up in a world of spiritual activity - and more specifically spiritual conflict. The Archangel Michael cast down the dragon, who now roams the earth in fury.