Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Culture of Life, Revisited

Brian of Boy on a Bike and Dialogical Coffee House has been kind enough to post several thoughtful comments, with links, to my earlier post in which I waxed snarkalicious about various disjunctive propositions the Bush administration continues to try to ram together in all defiance of reason and supposed ideological commitments -- most recently, the DOJ's effort to assert federal prerogative to effectively pre-empt Oregon's twice-ratified-by-the-good-people-of-Oregon Death With Dignity Act. I explained that I believed the government's position in Gonzalez was part of a larger effort by the Bush administration to broaden the way in which we understand "life" in an effort to chart a path to the ultimate criminalization of all, or virtually all, abortion procedures.

Because my argument more or less necessarily focused on the fundamentalism at least nominally ascribed to the administration, Brian latched onto the question of whether a "culture of life," so-called, is something that belongs to Christians, or some subset thereof, and whether such a thing can have anything like the same meaning to those of us who are (more) secular. He writes, of "Christians and non":

The spheres can certainly overlap, and the two can work together on a good many things. You do, however, have to pick at nits when you get down the philosophical/theological foundations of the two spheres. There they will never intersect. But, as I said, that doesn't preclude the two from working together for a common good (poverty, economic and social justice, etc). In fact, I'd argue that it's just these sort of relationships that Christians looking to make real cultural change, especially in the realm of social justice, must make.

This point resonates with me not because I share Brian's faith, necessarily, but because I have warmed to these sorts of discussions at DCH and elsewhere. Call it peanut butter for all I care: if an approach to policy arises that venerates fairness, social justice, equality of opportunity, and (implicit in all of these) charity, you can count on my support. Brian also provided a link to Gideon Strauss who posits a few propositions that might lend themselves to "joint cultural renewal efforts":

1. A belief in the inalienable, innate dignity of the human person;

2. A belief in a transhistorical normativity;

3. A belief in the common good as a complex end to be jointly pursued;

4. A belief that human society is structured into diverse spheres subject to diverse norms and authoritative offices.

What I find striking about this is that it seems almost indistinguishable from basic principles of humanism -- really all but 2., although even that belongs in a humanist account, I think. (Ah well-rounded undergraduate education, we hardly knew ye'!)

I reacted negatively to Brian's initial formulation because I applied a literal, broad reading to the phrase "culture of life" while Brian reads it with considerably more theological content. I didn't like, as a putative secularist (or "non"), the thought that my orientation was being set up in opposition to, or divergent from, a culture of "life." The implication would be that mine is a culture of "death." In the context of abortion, I accept "pro-life" as a legitimate rallying moniker, because sincere exponents of that position sincerely believe that's what they are. But when they turn it around and suggest that those who oppose their views are "pro-death" that's something else entirely.

Given transhistorical normativity and all, I really don't think my values differ all that much from Christians'. As an American mutt of European, non-Jewish pedigree, I think it's fair to say that even absent truly "transhistorical normativity" it might as well be transhistorical for all the difference it makes to me: this country was built in Enlightenment form atop a foundation of English law and tradition and all of these things owe a great debt to Christianity. I want to hedge here: non-Christians (I should hope, for fear of inadvertantly expatriating myself) are every bit the Americans that Christians are. Still, there are basic historical facts and patterns it does no one any good to ignore. By the time non-Christians were a large enough group to exercise much influence on law and society, the ink on the framing documents was dry, following which -- and by design -- any subsequent change, as we have seen in the past hundred years or so, can occur only with painful slowness and by a process of incremental reform. Perhaps this is wise; perhaps not. I'm not going to deal with that right now.

I continue to struggle, in my discussions with Brian, to understand the principles of evangelism properly understood. I take it as granted that where two parties' or groups' interests align they can find common cause and work together. Even Ted Kennedy got behind Bush on education in the first term. But I don't think I like the idea, that I think is implied throughout this discussion, that a non-Christian's approach is necessarily "utilitarian" or "pragmatic" to the exclusion of matters of heart and faith. When in my work I encounter a case that involves a grisly crime I don't recoil from it because it ill-suits the common weal per se; I recoil because something deep inside of me begins to weep for the cruelty of it, the waste. Whether or not that's properly understood to be a spiritual response, or one borne of some deep undefined faith, or "peanut butter," I'd be willing to bet it feels about the same for all of is. I think that's what Strauss calls "transhistorical normativity," and I tend to agree that, from whatever historical or evolutionary or designed origin, it's feelings like that which bind us all in our common humanity.

I fear I may have wandered off topic. If so, Brian, by all means set me straight and help me understand the discussion.

UPDATE: Joe Kearns of Dialogical Coffee House asks whether the pro-life position, to the extent it depends on the idea that abortion is akin to murder, has a scriptural basis, and if so, how far it extends -- i.e., does it reach as far as any fertilized egg, to an extent that precludes cloning for clinical research and so on, as the christian right typically would have it? A very interesting discussion ensues. (Hat tip, Brian.)


Blogger brian said...

What I find striking about this is that it seems almost
indistinguishable from basic principles of humanism -- really all but
2., although even that belongs in a humanist account, I think. (Ah
well-rounded undergraduate education, we hardly knew ye'!)
Yes, and that's a critique of Neocalvinism (as practiced by the folks
at DCH) from other
Christians (especially those curmudgeons at tNP). "Humanist" is also hurled
at Neocals here.
But enough of links -- this isn't my blog. Intellectual, theological
Christians tend to draw a line in the sand at the Enlightenment --
either you think it was Bad Thing, and has led to the moral
destruction of humanity, or you think it was Bad Thing, but the
philosophical foundations can be redeemed.

That said, I think you desire to better understand evangelism will be
difficult because there isn't really a unified theology. Well,
perhaps the Religious Right has a unified front, but I'd argue that it
wouldn't withstand Scriptural scrutiny. But there is really no sort
of consistent Christian perspective toward the role of government (see
this). This is why, even with my optimism, a true Christian political movement will never happen in the U.S. Honestly, we can't agree how to worship (one of the lines drawn in the sand for many denominations), so how we can expect to come to the same conclusions about politics? From a purely practical standpoint, if Christians aren't willing to be pluralists, we will never be able to do God's work completely. Abraham Kuyper, one of the founding fathers of Neocalvinism, understood this. While his political party was overtly Christian, it worked within the scope of the Dutch parliamentary system and was able to work successfully toward its distinctly Christian ends.

11:14 AM  

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