Monday, October 24, 2011

Class, Abortion, and Moral Horizons

Here’s another post originating from my experience in my most recent class, “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” There’s bound to be a lot more – eventually.

We spent a few weeks on the Israel-Palestine conflict, trying to take a complex look at the issues, in an attempt to isolate the religious and non-religious factors – or, at least, to see how these two sets of factor relate. My professor is a formidable historian, so it was terrific to learn about the history of the geographic location. He is a less convincing expert on religious dialogue, so his solutions seem childish at time – (i.e. his solutions essentially ask each religion to watered itself down). He is even less of a theologian, so we never seem to get into the heart of the matter, theologically speaking. But all in all, it was a good few weeks.

Then we started discussing Christianity and modern violence, mainly in relation to certain abortion-clinic bombers. I was astounded by my professor’s real ineptitude in discussing this matter. I was amazed, simply astonished, by the fact that he didn't really understand the pro-life argument.

(Side note: I don’t support any abortion-clinic bomber, especially if human life is at stake. In fact, I see an unraveling of the moral code that the pro-life issue stands on when we go down this violent road.)

Essentially, my professor sees the abortion-clinic-bombers as beholding to some bloody Biblical tradition that uses archaic and Old Testament justification for killing random people. Of course, he did mention the fact that these people also happen to believe that fetuses are human persons, but this was so minor to the explanation of the matter as to be laughable. Instead, he presented the ideas and words of the bombers in rich and violent religious language.

What he was trying to do was connect these bombers with the Jewish terrorists we were recently discussing, who felt the need to bomb Islamist holy sites so that the Temple could be rebuilt and the Messiah could return. These types of justifications for murder are couched solely in religious dialogue and specific interpretations of holy scriptures. I don’t think he was doing this intentionally to avoid the “life” or “personhood” debate; instead, I think he really thinks that the debate here is about some absurdly esoteric religious creed, one that takes no root in reason, but simply dogma. (I also think it is his academic nature to try and make connections between different religious conflict; however, these sorts of absurd comparisons most often miss the heart of the matter.)

It wasn't the time or space, but I wanted to say, “Excuse me, how come we’re not focusing on the fact that these bombers truly TRULY believe that abortionists are killing human beings? This is as much about religion as fighting against Hitler or bloody dictators – or anyone else that is killing thousands or millions of innocent people. Of course, there’s a religious element to it, but only in the fact that human dignity is in fact a religious expression.”

Once we accept that the bomber believes in the personhood and rights of the unborn baby, we can see his actions in a proper light. Then it becomes understandable. Now, I still find it wrong and immoral; but I don’t find it religiously impenetrable. But this is exactly what my professor seemed unable to do.

If someone were an animal activist that truly believed that animals deserve as much rights and protection as humans, then it wouldn't be a far stretch to understand that they might take arms to protect this cause. If we were to analyze this thinker, it would be ridiculous to gloss over the fact that they believe that humans and animals are equal, and paint them as a ridiculous radical. What is radical about this person is their belief; their action is actually quite reasonable, once the belief is understood.

What I couldn't believe was that my professor quite legitimately didn't understand this. I thought, “Although I don’t agree with the pro-choice movement, I understand it. I see where it is flawed. But if I accept a few of their foundational principles, I completely understand why they believe what they believe, and why they fight like they do.” So why can’t my professor do this? He seems to be doing exactly what all of his talk about ‘religious tolerance’ abhorred: misunderstanding the opposing side, and thereby painting them as unreasonable extremists.

My good friend and colleague (in the loosest sense of the word), Mr. John Harmon Esq., told me of a phrase by Lonergan, “the moral horizon.” There are certain clear moral issues that are simply beyond the horizon of some, whether because of time-period or some other hindrance. For example, slavery was supported by good God-fearin’ Christian people, people who otherwise treated all with respect and dignity – and this wasn’t that long ago. We cannot grasp this contradiction of beliefs now. It seems so clear that slavery cannot coexist with a true understanding of Christianity.

But I am amazed by my professor’s lack of real understanding of the issue because he lives in our present times. But in the world of secular academia, Harmon chided me, my professor had probably never encountered a real legitimate argument against abortion. He has never been presented with an academic explanation. It is almost as if his present mindset cannot grasp it. To him, pro-lifers are embroiled in the same sort of ideological warfare that led to 9/11. The pro-life argument is beyond his moral horizon.

This still amazes me; and I wonder how I should act/react.

Final note: There has been a tendency in all that I’ve read for this class to point out the “hypocrisy” of those who believe their religion to generally preach peace, but who also see that it can justify acts of violence at time. My professor shakes his head at the “incompetent contradictions” of these backward people.

But every single secular state believes the exact same thing: that people want to live in peace, but there are times that violence (i.e. war) is necessary. Only extreme pacifists would disagree. So the abortion-clinic-bomber is not simply wrong because he’s killing life to defend life: almost every person believes this a distinct possibility. The bomber is wrong on other moral levels, ones that this post doesn't intend to discuss.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Quick Word on Herman Cain, Other Republicans, and Picking Political Candidates to Support

This may be a very hasty generalization (and therefore misleading or perhaps flat-out wrong), but I intend to present some considerations, in order of importance, when picking and analyzing political candidates from a Catholic perspective. I don’t suppose this to be exact; but hopefully it’ll point to some sort of truth.

What should be the first considerations of Catholic when thinking about and analyzing political candidate, in particular, for the presidency? I submit that it should be the candidate’s attitude and belief (and political record) concerning the treatment of the dignity of the human person – especially toward those most in need of political consideration. I understand that this is a broad and perhaps vague first consideration. At the moment, I can’t think of a better way of saying it.

This is why abortion lands #1 for many Catholics and other Christians: it is the clearest and most horrendous attack on the dignity of the human person. It is not simply that the number of abortions is above and beyond other attacks on life – euthanasia; death penalty – but that it is representative of basic attack on the dignity of the person. Unlike the death penalty, which I disagree with in a 1st world country that has other means of detaining an individual, the child of the womb has never done anything to give up any of their freedoms. The “sin” of the child of the womb is unintentionally inconveniencing the life of another. This logic is an attack on the dignity of life in its most basic form. Putting the conveniences of an individual over the life of another is evil.

Second, a Catholic should consider the candidate’s stance on issues that deal with the human family and culture. JPII: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” This is when we start dealing with marriage, effects of policy on the family, etc.

Third, we should consider the political approach to dealing with the poor. The Church’s teaching on social justice is clear about the preferential option for the poor. A politician, and those like us who vote for politicians, must always consider how policy will affect the poor among us. Ratzinger says that this is the moral test of a society: how it treats it most vulnerable.

Only when we get beyond these initial political considerations should we be discussing things like economic policies. Now, let me get this straight: a candidate’s ideas of economics can definitely be enough for us to disregard them as viable options, even if they fall securely on the moral side of the first three considerations. All I’m saying here is that the first three are more important. We should be hesitant to support someone with the “correct” approach to economics (and solving the recession) if his/her alignment on the first three issues isn’t in line with Catholic teaching, tradition, and contemporary thought.

This gets me to some difficulties I have with a brand of Republican candidates, like Herman Cain, whose approach to the poor is problematic. Before I say another word, let me be clear about what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that the Democrats’ approach to the poor is the right approach. I’m not arguing for specific political action. I’m simply expressing my internal eye-brow-raising at some of the things Cain has said – things that make me question how he will approach the considerations of the poor, dispossessed, and economically marginalized.

Cain said: “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.” I think that this is a gross simplification of the socioeconomic situation of the poor and unemployed in America – simplification to the point of either stupidity or moral incompetence. I suppose I understand what he trying to say, but I still disagree; plus, I do not find a comment like this to come from a man who is even close to the Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor.

There’s a nonchalance with certain Republican sympathizers, who just shrug and say, “Hey, we’ll never solve the poverty-problem. Those who try to only end up putting us into more debt. It’d be nice if handouts worked, but they don’t.” Starting here and then working toward a viable and moral solution is one thing; but most often these comments are the end of the conversation, as if our responsibility toward the poor is low on the totem pole. But my point is that it should be one of the first considerations.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Myth of Secular Humanism, Revisited

At a educational training conference recently, my thoughts were driven back to a topic that has been discussed before on this blog and in several of our meetings, the idea that there is a consensus out there that by sticking to reason, science, and what we can know (practical knowledge) and by throwing off the shackles of superstition, religion, 'the God of the gaps' (or at any rate by relegating such eccentric intellectual hobbies to the private interior of oneself), we gain an objective perspective of reality - the way things really are.

The speaker at the conference was giving a brief commentary on diversity, and he suggested that there are two 'A's - Awareness and Acceptance - which are involved in a healthy, diverse community. When different groups become aware of differences, and then accept the Other notwithstanding those differences, this diversity is achieved, and the community avoids that unnecessary and grim tragedy of violence, hatred, and prejudice. He finished up by noting how the very conference room of us was full of Irish, Italian, Polish, African American, and Latin people... and who cares what anybody is? It's not as important as what we have in common. All this to the nodding of many heads in the room.

Now it goes without saying that all human beings have equal dignity (at least when we've accepted certain dogmas!), but my concern here is not with diversity. Rather, I think it very important and fascinating to note that the speaker's statement was accepted as a description of objective perspective, stripped clean of prejudice and bias, when in fact he had put forth a very strong position built on very particular beliefs.

He demanded to know why people could not put their personal prejudices aside and just accept everyone regardless of race, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. But this of course would mean accepting (either by internalizing or externally conforming to) his view of what is simply right and wrong. What he was really demanding is why everyone shouldn't act and think the way he does. I think this would be made most manifest if we took him to a culture whose beliefs radically differed from his own, say, the antebellum South, to a group of slave-owners. I suspect he wouldn't dream of simply respecting their culture as different, becoming aware of their different beliefs and accepting them.

Which brings us once again to the question of discerning the real, objective moral standard by which different beliefs and attitudes can be judged. More on that another time. For now let it merely be said that what is needed is not no judgment, but right judgment.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Communion Response to Altruism

Too often people conceive of Christianity as a repression of desire, and hence a repression of the real self. Christianity tells you to live for others, and not yourselves. Christianity hypocritically tells you to be selfish in order to gain heaven – the logical fallacy is clear.

This misses the heart of the faith. Christianity recognizes that our own desires and others’ desires are bound up together – that our very existences as social and relational creatures disallow me to separate my individuality from yours.

Christianity is not purely altruistic; on the other hand, it is not an egotistical self-gorging of the appetite. It is an acknowledgment that my desires and your desires are somehow inextricably bound up in the cosmic story of creation, salvation, and redemption.

Friday, October 7, 2011

More on the 'Eternal Perspective'

I was just reading Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth (Vol. 1), and encountered a passage of his that seemed to relate to our conversation of the EP. Speaking of the title Jesus uses of himself - 'I am' or 'I am he' - Benedict describes the encounter between Jesus and the Jews on this subject:

"Abraham, Jesus tells us, not only points back beyond himself to God as Father, but above all he points ahead to Jesus, the Son: 'Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad' (Jn 8:56). At this point, when the Jews object that Jesus could hardly have seen Abraham, he answers: 'Before Abraham came into existence, I am' (Jn 8:58). 'I am' - once again, the simple 'I am' stands before us in all its mystery, though now defined in contrast to Abraham's 'coming into existence.' Jesus' 'I am' stands in contrast to the world of birth and death, the world of coming into being and passing away. Schnackenburg correctly points out that what is involved here is not just a temporal category, but 'a fundamental distinction of nature.' We have here a clear statement of 'Jesus' claim to a totally unique mode of being which transcends human categories' (Barrett, Gospel, II, pp. 80f.)." (page 350).

This reminded me of our discussion of the EP as a more-than-temporal distinction. I don't really have further thoughts yet, but I just thought I would post this quote for others to consider.