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?