Abortion, Natural Law, & Antisemitism?

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

This is the ancient history behind present day hot-button issues.

The plurality of stances possible within orthodoxy is surprising to our uncritical post-Enlightenment prejudices. On the other hand, heresy, perhaps by definition, or at least by etymology, tends to be sterile and one-sided. Ross Douthat, captures some of this heretical reductionism in Chapter 5 (“Lost in the Gospels”) of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “The goal of the great heresies . . . has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” [I’ve previously mentioned the surprising role Constantine played in the development of Christian pluralism here.]

Christians have been critically aware of orthodoxy’s perennial dynamism at least ever since John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which you can read here in its entirety at the Newman Reader.

Yet, there have been some constants in this torrent of constant change. For example, Judeo-Christian sexual ethics totally revolutionized the looser attitudes of their Graeco-Roman predecessors. More importantly, given the recent mayhem in Texas over abortion legislation, there is the ancient Christian tradition of opposing abortion. It is enshrined in its oldest post-biblical documents such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Your mom!

Your mom!

There is no direct mention of abortion in the New Testament, because the pro-life position was taken for granted by Jews. The early Christians, as good Jews, followed many centuries of Jewish tradition by rejecting abortion, contraception, and infanticide.

One example is the Alexandrian Jewish writings known as the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before dogs and vultures as prey.” It doesn’t take much effort reading between the lines to figure out these must have been fairly common practices among the Graeco-Roman population in which the Jewish diaspora lived. The most cursory glance at the historical scholarship done on Graec0-Roman practices will confirm what I’m saying here. You can also reference their literary output.

I can’t say what Asia and the Indian subcontinent thought about these things, but I’m guessing they were probably (unfortunately) very much like the Greeks and Romans.

The difference of the fates of Oedipus and Moses are instructive here. They hint at very different attitudes toward children. One exposed child is fated to be a criminal, while the other becomes a liberator.

"I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see."  Can't really say the same for Oedipus.

“I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.” Can’t really say the same for Oedipus.

Therefore, the interesting historical twist might be that being pro-abortion is anti-Semitic.

There are also connections with the controversy about natural law, and its application to our abortion debates, started by David Bentley Hart in First Things. He says the following:

“There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”

I’ll have to do some more research before taking sides in this debate. It might be the case, like with the abolishing of slavery (think Moses again), that being pro-life is yet another revolutionary innovation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists: Sartre’s Crossover

This story will leave you confused.

This story will leave you confused.

Almost everyone will agree that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is rightfully recognized as a major figure of 20th century atheism.  Fewer people will agree about his stature as a philosopher.  Even fewer people will testify to the staying power of his novels and plays, although he still inspires some good poetry written against his philosophy.

However, it’s still not general knowledge that Sartre was not only unfaithful to Simone de Beauvoir, but also to atheism.  With the help of his secretary Benny Levy (no not that one) Sartre wandered into Judaism late in life.  And so the late-late Sartre said things like these:

“The Jew lives. He has a destiny. The finality towards which every Jew moves is to reunite humanity . . . It is the end that only the Jewish people [know] . . . It is the beginning of the existence of men for each other.”

Edward Said had an encounter with the Sartre-Levy duo and wasn’t entirely impressed:

“Lévy (then still known as Pierre Victor) seemed to Said to be: ‘a sort of station master, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back.’ When Sartre made a platitudinous closing statement that failed to mention such burning issues as the Palestinians, disputed territories or Israeli settlements, Said assumed it had been written by ‘the egregious Victor’ himself.”

Read more about Sartre’s Judaism here.

Just to make things even more confusing, carnivaleseque, and Rabelaisian, Sartre wrote a Christmas play, in which he gushed about Jesus, when he was interned in a German POW camp.

 

Sartre walking away from atheism.

Sartre walking away from atheism.

 

  

 

One More Nortre Dame Book on/and the Legacy of Solidarność

solidarity

Last night I went back and checked the Notre Dame Press overstock site on a hunch.  I wanted to check whether they publish one of the few books I know of in English about the legacy of Solidarity from a theological viewpoint.  Indeed, they do.  Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity describes its task as follows:

“Using Poland as a case study, Beyer explores the obstacles to promoting an ethic of solidarity in contemporary capitalist societies and attempts to demonstrate how the moral revolution of the early Solidarity movement can be revived, both in its country of origin and around the world. Recovering Solidarity is widely interdisciplinary, utilizing Catholic social tradition, philosophical ethics, developmental economics, poverty research, gender studies, and sociology.”

The “gender studies” stick out like a sore thumb.  Gender studies don’t seem to apply to 80’s Poland, which, I suppose, is all the more reason to inflict it upon those people and times (yet, what Beyer wrote about John Paul II in the Huff Post here is on the mark).

sign of cross

This dissonance was amplified by my bedtime reading of Colm Tóibín‘s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.   The subtitle might be a slight misnomer, especially since the chapter on Poland, “The Memory of War,” deals with the author doing his best to ignore and dismiss everything about Polish Catholicism.  That’s because he’s mainly there as a globalist tourist expecting to have an Auschwitz epiphany.  He initially bypasses the great centers of Polish culture, nearly a thousand years of history, and heads straight for the crematoria as if there’s nothing else to see in Poland.

In my darker moments I feel the Germans won the memory wars by planting their worst concentration camps in Poland, instead of on their own soil.  This intuition is best exemplified by the New York Times “Polish concentration camps” controversy.  Not that Tóibín is any different from our wedding guests in Krakow, some of whom headed for the sites of mass extermination the day after our nuptials.

Tóibín only changes tracks sporadically to become irked by the naive “mildness” of Poland’s practicing “Solidarity Catholics” of the 90’s and mocks them for their remembrance of the Katyń massacre.  He totally ignores the fact that in excess of 2.5 million Polish Catholics were killed during World War II, because their suffering somehow doesn’t count–even though Timothy Snyder points out they, not the Jews, were initially selected for extermination.  Perhaps the catholicity of suffering in history is too messy for us too take in?

I’ll come back to the topic of memory and World War II some other time, because I’m convinced that Eva Hoffman was right when she told me in private conversation that a balanced understanding of Poland’s history in the West is impeded by competing Jewish and Polish martyrologies locked in a zero-sum game.

There’s also a lot to be said about Tóibín’s discomfort with how much the liturgical calendar set the pace of life in 90’s Poland, and how much he could “relax, feel at home” (last words of the chapter) once he got back to the 24/7 consumerism of Western Europe. He might take comfort in the liturgies of capitalist secularism beginning to dislodge Catholicism in present day Poland.

The sometimes over-the-top clericalism of Polish culture might need some competition to clean house, but I fear the real gains of important historical episodes, for example, Solidarność, will be lost in the shuffle.  Dariusz Karłowicz, no stranger to these pages (I’ve written about his work here, here, here, and here), outlines the practical and theological contributions of Solidarność in an essay I translated a while back for the Tischner Institute in Krakow.  He concludes with questions I’d like to see Gerald Beyer’s book address:

“The qualified unity which shows itself during pilgrimages or f loods finds few outlets during day to day dealings with others. To judge from its past f lashes, the hidden potential of solidarity is still immense. Will it be utilized? Without a doubt, its guardian is Pope John Paul II. Will the Church be its future guardian or maybe the developing world of social institutions and non-profits? It’s hard to say.”

You can find the rest of this essay here on the Tischner Institute site.  There’s also an essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor I had to re-translate into English on the same site here (all because the original got lost and the Polish edition was the only one left).

z9433517AA,Ks--prof--Jozef-Tischner

Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. He had a way of grabbing your attention. More about him in future posts.

Forthcoming: The Experience of God – Hart, David Bentley – Yale University Press

Beam me up.

Beam me up.

“Despite the recent ferocious public debate about belief, the concept most central to the discussion—God—frequently remains vaguely and obscurely described. Are those engaged in these arguments even talking about the same thing? In a wide-ranging response to this confusion, esteemed scholar David Bentley Hart pursues a clarification of how the word ‘God’ functions in the world’s great theistic faiths.”

The Experience of God – Hart, David Bentley – Yale University Press.

Rabelaisian Catholicism Redux or: How to Keep the Church Impure

pelikan impure

The Cappadocians: Keeping it impure

Yesterday’s post discussed (here) how early Christian theology was fundamentally “polluted” by the Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life.   But historian Jaroslav Pelikan suggest the contagion goes down even further, right down into the marrow, into the very language used to compose the New Testament:

“It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek–not in the Hebrew of Moses and the prophets, nor in the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, nor yet in the Latin of the imperium Romanum; but in the Greek of Socrates and Plato, or at any rate in a reasonably accurate facsimile thereof, disguised and even disfigured though this was in the Koine by the intervening centuries of Hellenistic usage.”

He continues in Christianity and Classical Culture:

“As a result of this convergence, every attempt to translate the New Testament into andy of almost two thousand languages–including a Semitic language such as Syriac, despite all its affinities with Hebrew and Aramaic–has, on encountering any term, been obliged to consider above all its previous career in the history of the Greek language; and that was a problem of natural theology [metaphysics] no less than a problem of philology.”

god greek

Well . . . YEAH.

There’s been quite a lot of talk about divorcing God from the Greek heritage at the very least ever since Harnack (one of the great enemies of this blog . . .  The hope is to keep him continually rolling in his grave).   While trying to argue away the Greek “accretions” to some vaguely “pure” Gospel he said, “. . . Roman Catholicism has nothing to do with the Gospel, nay, is in fundamental contradiction with it.”

We’ll see about that as tomorrow we turn to the article “Farewell, Old Pagan World” by Philip Jenkins, one of our leading public commentators on religion, and modify its claims, to the advantage of impurity, with the help of Catherine Pickstock.  This being Bloomsday, listen to Joyce playing upon the theme of purity from the life of Moses here.

James Joyce sings

James Joyce sings “From the Fathers”

Meanwhile, today’s readings please our Rabelaisian sensibilities (read the manifesto here) with one of the seediest episodes from David’s life and a Gospel reading about “a sinful woman [from] the city.”

Rick Perry is Right? The Myth of Religious Freedom in America.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that's it.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that’s it.

I don’t want to belabor the obvious when it comes to Perry’s right-ness.  What I want to concentrate upon is why he’s right about how freedom of religion has played itself out in the American public square.  Stephen L. Carter has written extensively about this issue, specifically how the metaphor of the wall of separation originated with Roger Williams (not Jefferson) and was always intended to protect religion from the interference of politics, not the other way around.    Some go as far as claiming we’re in a Stephen Carter moment right now:

“This should be the Stephen Carter Moment. For the past decade, the Yale law professor has been our most eloquent critic of strict separation of church and state. With vigor, he has championed the injection of religiosity into the public square. In his seminal 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, he decried the secularization of American life, the ‘trend in our political and legal cultures, toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion.'”

Wall?  Which wall?

Whose religion? Which wall?

Lo and behold, Rick Perry said pretty much the same thing the other day in a press conference.  He has the Raw Story (predictably) panicking, “I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state.  Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The Raw Story people should calm down because they’re swimming against the tide of American history.  David Sehat has argued in a book (a helpful summary by the author can be found here), to the discomfort of both left and right, that American religious freedom, or freedom from a particular religion, is a myth.  Certain American religious groups (Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons) have always been legally excluded by certain Protestant groups.

You can be wrong most of the time, but you can’t be wrong all of the time.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.