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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Modern Religious Pluralism is Neither Radical nor Modern

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Robert Wilken: not impressed with pluralism.

Commentators on religion are always harping about how our contemporary “radically pluralist” situation is unprecedented, and more likely than not, catastrophic for the Christian tradition.

Self-styled radical theologians such as John Hick in God Has Many Names, Charles E. Winquist in Desiring Theology, plus John Shelby Spong and Raimondo Panikkar in academically less respectable volumes (whose names I shall not mention), argue that Christian theology must change or die in the face of this revolutionary situation.

Robert Louis Wilken, one of our most important scholars of early Christianity, believes nothing could be further from the truth.  In the volume Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995) he proves that we’re only replaying the debates of early (and medieval) Christians:

“Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.  For the first four hundred years of Christian history a traditional religious culture (which was not, as once thought, moribund) set the agenda for many Christian intellectuals, and its spokesmen energetically contested what seemed to be the [exclusivist] pretensions of the new religion.”

As much as I hate grading undergraduate essays that begin with “ever since the dawn of the universe / man / culture / religion / Christianity” or with “those who cannot remember the past . . .” the case of religious pluralism is an instance where one of those phrases apply.

Take a look at the arguments of Porphyry, Celsus, Cicero, and they all pretty much sound like Symmachus when he argues against the Christians:

“We gaze at the same stars, the sky belongs to all, the same universe surrounds us.  What difference does it make by whose wisdom someone seeks the truth?  We cannot attain to so great a mystery by one road.”

They also sound like today’s “radical theologians.”  Closer acquaintance with history should turn our notions who the conservatives and liberals are in the religious pluralism debates upside-down.  It makes all the difference.

As luck would have it, the book is available at a massive 60% discount from amazon.com.