Communists Pretending to be Protestants

I am a sassy dancer-man & hence I consider myself a connoisseur of sass. So I prefer to pass my time online by reading only the brassiest of the brazen. It was only a matter of time, then, before I got hooked on Jacobin, a new Marxist e-magazine. In one article they demolish New Atheism by revealing it to be a political tool used to justify Western imperialism.
I love it when philosophy becomes a battering ram; when arrogant “Enlightened” experts are reduced to non-sense, or when we realize that even the most basic concepts in our thoughts and imaginations are instruments used to oppress us. Marxists are usually among the best at both deconstructing everything the Enlightened hold dear and using philosophy to raise hell, so reading Marxist critiques of our mediocre-to-the-point-of-oppressive culture is like reading a candy catalogue to me. The sound of Western secularity ripping itself to shreds – like Marxists besieging New Atheists – makes very pretty music.

But as much as I love that distinctly unapologetic snark Marxists use to embarrass their rivals, and as sympathetic as I am to their concern for the oppressed, I don’t think I could ever be a Marxist. One of their recent articles gives me the perfect opportunity to explain why. Consider this excerpt – which a Jacobin contributor recently commentated on HERE – from Karl Kautsky’s Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation. You should go and read the entire article, but here’s a summary of Kautsky’s thoughts:

1) Once upon a time there was the terrible Dark Ages, and there was a bourgeoisie Catholic hierarchy which was oppressing the (proletariat) using false dogma to preserve their power and stifle progress.

2) It wasn’t until the Bible became available to the people that we begin to see any sort of truth (in the form of communist political thought) and this marks the rise out of the Dark Ages into an age of progress (secularity)

3) We see early traces of (communism) – the first hints of (rational progress) – in the groups condemned by the Medieval Vatican as “heretical”

Here’s what strikes me as odd; this is the same story Protestants often tell us about Medieval times. In fact, replace a few words & I can guarantee any evangelical or Baptist has heard this:

1) Once upon a time there was the terrible Dark Ages, and there was an (unbiblical) Catholic hierarchy which was oppressing the (true church) using false dogma to preserve their power and stifle progress

2) It wasn’t until the Bible became available to the people that we begin to see any sort of truth (in the form of sola fide – salvation by faith alone) and this marks the rise out of the Dark Ages into an age of progress (the Reformation)

3) We see early traces of (sola fide) – the first hints of (rejecting works-based salvation) – in groups condemned by the Medieval Vatican as “heretical”

The stories are too similar to be a coincidence; my bet is that Kautsky and his disciples, like all of Modernity since Descartes and the Enlightenment in the 17th century, have accepted the story that the Protestant Reformers have been telling about history, and are simply riffing off of it. For Kautsky’s view of history to work – the Medieval period had to be universally abysmal – a cesspool of violence, mental enslavement, and power-hungry popes. But lately historians have started to realize that this view of Medieval times might have been Reformer propaganda all along.
In a later section, Kautsky writes:

Since the time of the early Christians, the communists have always, and under all circumstances, laid stress on the duties of international and interlocal solidarity… they are in the first line of combatants against exploitation and oppression, and, in every place, they encounter the same opponents, and suffer from the same persecution. This it is which welds them together. From the days of early Christendom there has always been one special peculiarity among communists: that they form one all-embracing family, that the foreign comrade is just as much a brother as the native born; and that, in whatever part of the world he may happen to be, if he finds comrades he is at home.
Thanks to this peculiarity and to the lack of possessions, it was easy for their leaders, their agitators, to go from place to place. Poor they always were, for the man of property who joined them was obliged to distribute his means among the needy. The protagonists of the sect were constantly travelling, sometimes displaying a power of locomotion and covering an extent of ground in their journeys which would be quite respectable even in these days of railways. Thus, for example, the Waldenses of Bohemia were by this means able to keep up a constant communication with those of Southern France.
For this reason, communists became of the greatest importance in the conjoint revolutionary movements of the lower classes of their time. The greatest check to their progress was the local narrow-mindedness of the peasantry and petty citizens, which did them enormous injury in the face of their well-organized enemies.
Wherever this narrow-mindedness was conquered and revolutionary risings in isolated localities were brought into communication with each other, it was essentially the work of the communist wandering preachers…

And I giggled when I read it. Because Kautsky has just tried to turn communism into Christianity. According to Kautsky, communism is an endlessly persecuted belief, driven by its love for humanity that transcends all boundaries, hoping to create a universal friendship between all people. But notice that this is what Christianity claimed to be doing since 34 AD. Kautsky not only takes his history from the Christian Reformers, but he also borrows goals from Christianity as well. He thinks of communism like Christians think of Christianity.


Except Kautsky doesn’t believe Christians ever actually fulfilled these noble goals: Marx, from the beginning, called Christianity “opium for the masses” – a tool for the rich to make the poor docile. And we just read (so the story goes) that for at least the entire Medieval period – a whole millennia (500 AD – 1500 AD) Christians used their power to oppress everyone. I get the sense from reading Kautsky that his form of communism is less a secular upheaval and more like another reformation of the Reformation. Kautsky’s communism sounds much more like another Protestant denomination splitting off and “reforming” into what it considers to be “the true church”, except this reformation knows that God is dead and that Christians are the most depraved rulers. This makes for a curious form of secular communism, and I think most Marxists would agree with me here. Yet they borrow the same history and the same ideals from Christianity as well. So perhaps there is some truth in thinking of communism and Marxism as a kind of “secularized Christianity”. “Concern for the poor? That’s just watered-down Christianity!” As I once heard a disciple of Nietzsche stick it to a disciple of Marx.
This brings up a number of questions:

1) If the Protestant view of history is used by Marxists and atheists to outright dismiss Christianity as altogether evil and oppressive, shouldn’t Protestants reconsider how glibly y’all recite that story almost verbatim?

2) If Kautsky stands for many communists when he envisions Marxism as the universal (secular) bond of friendship which will unite all of humanity and free us from Christianity’s tyranny, then shouldn’t Christians view Marxism as an arch-rival? And if it is borrowing Christian moral ideals, might it even be a competing religion which has budded off from Christianity, like Mormonism or whatever you call Joel Osteen’s church? But if it is, then why has there been such an explosion of attempts to combine Christianity with Marxism (like liberation theology)? Why do so many evangelicals consider it hip to be a communist or socialist supporter? Such attempts wouldn’t be much different from trying to synthesize Christianity and Mormonism, which I suspect would sound much more scandalous to everyone involved.

3) We now see both communists and Christians claiming to suffer endless persecution in order to bring universal love and friendship to humanity. Both claim their message is the only true one, and both claim to suffer persecution for it. But who is lying? They can’t both be right, and both could be wrong. Who is worthy of our trust and allegiance?

John Calvin, contemplating the oppression of the proletariat whilst donning his favorite communist red garb!

So while I always look forward to reading Marxists, primarily because we both despise the complacency of modern culture and both think lots of popular philosophy is bunk, there are certain friction points between Marxism and Christianity which will always be at war. Marxism is attractive because Christianity apparently failed to practice what it preached. It claims to do everything Christians wanted to, except Marxists supposedly do it better and without the need of false religions. Conversely, Christians have typically been the primary foes of Marxism and communism. The underground Chinese Christians versus the Chinese communist government is today’s perfect example of this war.

What is Biopolitics and Why Should Anyone Care?

What is Biopolitics? It’s the hottest sub-field of philosophy that you’ve never heard of until just now, probably! Of course, it is also a number of other things, and some of these other things are nestled in obscure philosophy journals and pages of French postmodernism. So not exactly the clearest or most common topic in the world, but I believe everyone would be a bit more independent and skeptical (in the right way) and better able to protect themselves against being manipulated if they started thinking in biopolitical terms. I also have a series of posts in mind focused around biopolitics in famous literature (Plato) and popular film (Divergent) so I should take time to define my terms.
It’s best to think of biopolitics as a development of the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, in the beginning of his “Genealogy of Morality” claims that humans seek power, and nothing else. If it appears that someone is seeking something else, like a priest or monk seeking “to be moral and loving” (to take Nietzsche’s extreme example), it’s actually the case that these people are also seeking power themselves, it’s just that they were too weak to attain it in the normal ways, and have crafted entire illusionary worldviews to convince powerful people to submit to their authority and follow them. So, according to Nietzsche, Christian priests and monks are actually driven by hatred and repression, and all their practices can be explained in these terms.
Everything in the world, according to Nietzsche, is self-serving power, or a manifestation of that power. This explains Nietzsche’s infamous claim at the end of the book when he exclaims “there is no truth!” Many people (and my younger self) think Nietzsche lapses into absurdity here, because at first glance that statement is obviously self-defeating: if there was no truth, then the statement itself would not be true either, and then we would have no reason to think that truth does not exist.
But Nietzsche (in typical sassy postmodernist fashion) is proclaiming a deep, cogent statement underneath pages of hyperbolic aphorisms: Nietzsche is announcing that if he is correct, then there is no such thing as the kind of “Truth” that religions are looking for. There are no big-T “Truths” only the ones we see in the physical world around us: no God, no heaven, no metaphysical realm where the Platonic Forms float around and play all day, etc. All there is, is power. Power is the only Truth, in the sense that the power of physical forces vomited up everything in the universe, and the power of the human will is going to eventually be strong enough (through technology) to manipulate everything according to its own selfish will.
For those who care and for context, there are a few different names for the picture of the universe that Nietzsche paints. Most people consider it the “postmodern” or “nihilistic” worldview, Heidegger called it the “enframing” metaphysic, nowadays it might be called the “transhumanist” metaphysic. And if someone in Ancient Greek or Roman literature mentions a dance of “fortune and necessity” then this is the view of the world they have in mind. (If that seems like a weird coincidence, it is not; Nietzsche very consciously borrowed ideas from pagan Greece, which is why he calls himself a “Dionysian”; after the Greek god of drunken revelry)
Nietzsche starts simple, then pretty soon he’s deconstructed the entire human world and the universe. Worth pointing out here is that Nietzsche does not ever prove his axiom that all of humanity is only out for selfish power; that does not get much, if any, argument in Genealogy of Morality, nor (I think) elsewhere. The proof, we’re led to believe throughout the course of the book, takes the form of “this must be true, because look at how much I can explain about human behavior and religion with it!” The proof is in how far reaching and (brutally) elegant the theory as a whole is, and this is not necessarily invalid; scientists do the same thing all the time when debating how to best interpret data.
Moreover, Nietzsche could make this an axiom because all of Modernity had been making that same assumption. We see it in Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. We see it in how Hobbes views human nature and the social contract. We even see it as far back in Plato’s Republic when Thrasymachus tries to convince Socrates that justice is “nothing more than the advantage of the stronger”. So, in a way, Nietzsche’s axiom doesn’t need proving to most people; it’s merely known fact, and a fact known for centuries.

Postmodern Theories of Human Nature: Totally More Depraved than Calvinism

I bring this up because this axiom about human nature is where Christians and Nietzsche will diverge dramatically, and it is at the very beginning of the entire tradition that biopolitical criticism grows from. From the Christian perspective, this is simply an incomplete explanation of humanity; while a Christian would be willing to admit (because of original sin) that some or most human activity is motivated by selfishness, it could not be admitted that every human action by every person ever was pure selfishness.
Even a TULIP Calvinist who believes in Total Depravity could not accept such an idea, because if it was true, then it would mean that 1) Christ Himself did everything out of self-serving power 2) no one has ever been redeemed 3) If a Christian made this claim, they’d be admitting that they themselves are only motivated by selfish power. But that would also be an admission that they are not really redeemed, or truly a Christian, since redemption involves rising above selfishness and learning charity.
So having said all this, and given what I’m about to say (that biopolitics is founded on Nietzsche’s axiom, but still very useful for Christians) where do I get off? How can I, as a Christian, encourage using biopolitical modes of thinking? Am I not just compromising with the 6th head of the Beast of the Apocalypse AKA postmodern deconstruction? No, I’m not, at least as long as I realize that Nietzsche’s axiom has to be qualified (or in other words, toned down).
As I said above, it’d be fine for a Christian to admit that some or most human action works like Nietzsche says it does, just not all action. So, when Nietzsche claims that all Christians are driven by suppressed hatred, we are at liberty, to a point, to agree with him. After all, who hasn’t met Christians who aren’t very Christ-like? We see them all the time! Yet, we would also respond that Nietzsche hasn’t captured the whole picture; he’s captured something I call “pop-christianity” or “cultural-christianity” very perfectly, but there’s a genuine Christianity that is far superior and much different from cultural christianity, and thus that evades his criticisms.
Thus, if we keep Nietzsche’s mindset and method, yet tone down his axioms about human nature and metaphysics, it enables us to keep the good aspects of Nietzsche’s thought (revealing all the different ways that people oppress each other, and bringing human selfishness into the forefront of our minds) while leaving behind the nihilistic aspects (everything is power, there is no Truth) what we are left with is something like the Hebrew Prophets as they decry the ruling powers. I will pick this up further in a moment.


Foucault: Primary Heir of Nietzsche

Notice how Nietzsche’s axiom is very broad and general, and he applies it in sweeping brushstrokes. The exact manifestations of power, and how power structures society, is left to our imaginations. That is, until Michel Foucault starts philosophizing in France about a half-century after Nietzsche. Foucault essentially assumes Nietzsche’s axiom (all human action is motivated by self-serving power) is true, then proceeds to discover how power has shaped the institutions of our societies, and how power oppresses and molds us without us even realizing it. After all, if people are driven by power in everything they do, and people have created institutions and structures within society, then there ought to be power relationships built into the institutions, and they ought to seek after power themselves.
And indeed, Foucault finds power relationships and oppression pretty much everywhere he looks. He finds that the modern clinic and hospital exert power over patients through the power-relationship doctors have with them, changing how they think about themselves and the world (This is basically the premise for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). He finds that prisons, simply by being structured the way they are, and the power that guards and wardens have, affect the prisoners and warp their personal identities to the point that physical torture, in Foucault’s opinion, would probably be a more humane punishment.
Foucault even looks at the history of sexuality in the West and concludes that basic labels for gender and sexuality (like “heterosexual” and “homosexual”) were actually created to marginalize certain people, so power-relationships have created the labels that we now build into our personal identities, which is obviously problematic. Using these labels would be like a prisoner of war who was captured by the enemy and, after years of brainwashing, concluded that “docile servant” was simply part of their very self.

Enter “Biopolitics”, Stage Right

So we get a very bleak picture from Foucault, to say the least. Not only is the external world and society forcing us in certain directions, but we probably internalized some labels from society and convinced ourselves that “that’s who I really am” when in fact it’s just a label. And this is where “biopolitics” takes off; “biopolitics” is a label designating certain ways that society, medical institutions, and politics come to exert power on our bodies and medicine. Here are a few examples of biopolitics, and the kind of deconstructive questions someone in the Nietzsche/Foucault tradition might launch against them:

Plato’s Republic: Plato infamously declares that rulers must sometimes lie to citizens in a perfect city to make sure that they won’t do anything to jeopardize the city. But does Plato command this out of commitment to the truth, or because preservation of the city has become its own goal and Plato is engaging in methods of coercion and tyrannical force?

Designer Babies: It is possible now, using assisted reproduction technologies, to change the appearance and traits of your baby before it is born. Yet, why exactly would one what to do this? Is it truly in the best interest of the future child? Or is it more selfishly motivated by the parents? Moreover, where did the parents get their ideal of “beautiful child”? Is it a label that society sold them? And if so, is it really worth messing with a child’s DNA so that they will look more agreeable to the weird standards of beauty that strangers hold?

Eugenics: Eugenics is when a society decides that there is a certain group of inferior or undesirable people, and the population should be coerced away from breeding more people of that group. But how did that society come to hold those ideals? Are they really attempting to engineer human perfection, or are they simply worshipping idols of humanity crafted from their selfish imaginations?

Definitions of “Living”: In an Intensive Care Unit, let’s say we have a comatose patient. Are they living, or are they dead? In a sense, they are living, but only insofar as machines are helping their body go through mechanical motions. In any sense, they are dead, because there is no sign that the person is there anymore. So who gets to decide what should be done: the doctors, the family, the government? And how is that final judge defining key terms like “living” and “dying” and how did they reach those definitions? Are they qualified to be making such a huge decision, or are they basically just using their authority to force their values and opinions onto the comatose patient and the family?

If it involves suspicion that political power or arbitrary value-judgments have tainted something that claims to be “scientific” or “objective” and that something has an effect on our bodies or self-identity, then it falls under “biopolitics”. And any criticism of such a something would technically be called “biopolitical deconstruction”, although use of jargon is not necessarily required.

How to Not Lose Your Soul through Deconstruction

On the one hand, this kind of deconstruction is obviously important and very useful; if there truly is oppression and political power shaping the medical industry, anyone should want to know about it, and expose it. Foucault’s and Nietzsche’s mindsets and methods are very useful for this kind of thing. What bothers people (especially Christians) is that it seems like the only way to have access to such criticisms and revelations is to bite the bullet and give in to postmodernity entirely; nihilism, relativism and all. But let’s return to what I said above about toning down Nietzsche’s axiom.
Foucault, remember, accepts Nietzsche’s axiom (everything everyone does is for self-serving power) and makes it the departure point of his philosophical endeavors. It is what encouraged him to start looking for systems of oppression and biopolitics in the first place. But his discoveries are no less valid if instead of saying “everything is power” we only say “quite a lot (but not everything) is power”. Doing such a change doesn’t do anything to make the endeavor any less potent, or make the conclusions any more cutting. But it does make it suddenly a completely acceptable method for a Christian to use, and suddenly requires no compromises with nihilism.
Christianity does have to qualify Foucault just like it has to qualify Nietzsche: “Yes, most (or maybe even everything) in the society around us is oppressive. BUT there is hope for something non-oppressive to develop if radical changes are made.”
This is an important toning-down to make even for purely philosophical reasons that have nothing explicitly to do with Christianity. Without toning it down, we essentially trap ourselves in a postmodern circle; in the same way that Descartes and modernity could never dig themselves out of the “how do we know anything without a doubt?” hole, Nietzsche, Foucault and the postmodern tradition they founded cannot seem to dig itself out of the “we can never stop oppressing each other” hole. Because if it’s true that all human actions are attempts to gain selfish power, then deconstructing the current forms of oppression either means one of the following:

1) the person doing the deconstructing is making a back-door power grab – Like how the French Revolution overthrew Louis XVI, only to let the guillotine-crazy Maximilien de Robespierre gain political control.
(2) The vacuum created by the collapse of the current power structure is just going to be filled by another form of manipulation by someone else, and it could very well be more oppressive or more subtle and sinister, like when Egyptian protestors in 2011 overthrew their old, tyrannical President, Mubarak, and a new leader, Morsi was placed into power, who was just as oppressive, yet supposedly “better” because he was elected democratically (spoiler alert: he was not. Watch the film “The Square” to find out why)

So without toning down Foucault, nihilism seems to be the attitude one would take away from biopolitics and deconstruction. Who wouldn’t give up hope if we’re destined the live in a never-ending cycle of French and Egyptian Revolutions? (This is, by the way, the kind of existence that Hegel calls the “material dialectic”; the idea that there is nothing more to reality but the rise and fall of empires.)
But if we tone it down, what attitude would we take away from it then? I think we would be much more optimistic about what we’re doing, obviously, because the deconstruction and scrutiny would be done in the hope of clearing the path for genuine change. Consequently, I think what we would end up doing is prophetic justice; I think we’d be doing what the Hebrew prophets did when they went into cities teeming with evil and called it all out and stuck everybody’s complacent nose right into it. And we’d have their attitudes as well. After all, isn’t Isaiah chapter 3 or 5 basically just deconstructing ancient power structures, tailored in language that the ancient religious would understand?
The attitude of biopolitical deconstruction is often zealous and righteously furious. Don’t we hear that same tone in prophecy after prophecy of Isaiah? Yet, here’s the best way to summarize what I view as the critical difference between full-blooded postmodern deconstruction, and the toned down variety that I’ve been encouraging for half this post: Isaiah, after literally condemning the entire world as one massive, decadent, oppressive obscenity against God, spends the last 17 chapters (chapters 49-66) claiming that something beautiful and transcendent will grow out of the rise and fall of oppressive power structures, even in spite of humanity’s lack of cooperation.
Isaiah thus agrees with Nietzsche and Foucault; oppression and power structures are all around us. Where they part ways though, is how much hope there is for change. Is there nothing more than the constant flux of human selfishness, or is there a Truth that can bring about hope even in spite of humanity’s horrendous lack of compassion?
This is why I think Christians really ought to be more interested in things like deconstruction and biopolitics; deconstruction of oppression (done with a certain attitude and qualification) is nothing new to Christianity, and if the best deconstruction is now being done by a tradition of nihilists, then perhaps we have some new unlikely friends in our pursuit of prophetic justice.

Going Against the FLO: A Critique of “Why Abortion is Immoral”

            This week I will be critiquing Don Marquis’ classic bioethics paper: “Why Abortion is Immoral”. The paper was published in 1989 and to this day it remains one of the most-discussed articles in the debate on abortion. What’s especially interesting about this article is while it is obviously against abortion, which is considered the religious stance, Marquis is an atheist. Marquis’ main thesis explores what makes the act of killing wrong, which has direct ethical implications on the act of abortion. Marquis argues that what makes killing wrong is that it robs someone of a “future like ours” (or FLO, hence the snarky title); robbing someone of a future of happiness and productivity is the worst loss we could inflict on someone, thus killing (at least in some circumstances) is the ultimate evil. While this might seem to be a great help for the pro-life, anti-abortion side of the debate, especially for believers, I think that Marquis’ theory has a number of flaws that 1) invalidate the entire theory and 2) lead to certain conclusions (euthanasia and eugenics) that the typical religious anti-abortion advocate would not want to condone or adopt even if the theory was sound. My main criticisms are that 1) the theory leans far too heavily on an assumed, diluted sort of morality already in the culture 2) unless the theory smuggles in metaphysics to properly define critical terms like “good future” and “bad suffering”, it cannot work. But the theory is supposed to avoid any reference whatsoever to metaphysics and ontology, which means it fails to meet its own standards, as well as limits its ability to truly decide on the ethical problems it claims to answer.

The Basic Frame of the Argument

            Marquis begins the article by observing that the abortion argument has already hit a standstill that seems unresolvable. He notes the typical anti-abortion and pro-abortion arguments work as follows:

Anti-Abortion- The typical argument is that life is present from the very moment of conception and that fetuses “possess necessary and sufficient characteristics to be considered a human.” The anti-abortionist typically believes also that “1) the truth of that claim is obvious and 2) if the claims of personhood are proven, abortion is equivalent to murder.” (§ 5)

Pro-Abortion- The typical argument is that “fetuses are not persons or that fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings.” Like the anti-abortionists, they also believe that “1) the truth of these claims is obvious, and 2) that proving any of the claims against the personhood of the infant is sufficient to show that an abortion is not a wrongful killing”. (§ 6)

What we see in conflict, then, is two rival conceptions of personhood in disagreement, neither of which is obviously wrong, as Marquis also notes. For example, the anti-abortionist will claim support from the accepted moral principles “it is always [obviously] seriously wrong to take a human life” or “it is always [obviously] seriously wrong to end the life of a baby.” (§ 9)

Meanwhile, the pro-abortionist will draw from other, equally accepted moral principles such as “being a person is what gives an individual intrinsic moral worth” or “it is only [obviously] seriously wrong to take the life of a member of the human community.” (§ 9)

            Both are drawing from moral ideals from the greater culture, and therein lies the problem: as Charles Taylor argues in Sources of the Self, modern culture is in a philosophical crisis because our conception of what a “person” is, is actually a patchwork of many different, mostly contradictory earlier views that got mixed together over time. Marquis believes that this battle over “personhood” and what constitutes a person will continue in a standstill indefinitely. And if Taylor is correct, he’s right: one’s definition of “personhood” is entirely dependent on what one already believes about religion, rationality, metaphysics, and nature; change any one of those big packages of philosophy, and as Taylor argues, your definition of personhood will shift dramatically with them. And since the anti-abortionist and the pro-abortionist has drastically different answers to these big philosophical questions, the only way to make headway in the “personhood” debate is, strangely enough, far above and outside the confines of the abortion debate: the critical questions are much more broad, theoretical, and metaphysical.

            Marquis recognizes this problematic rigging of the “personhood” side of the debate and notices that there is actually another route to be taken that sidesteps all the problems of that struggle: the debate hinges around 1) what a person is, and 2) what constitutes an immoral killing. If arguing over 1 is a dead-end, there is still the possibility of coming to a conclusion through 2: “a necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing. After all, if we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible?” (§ 21)

Why Don’t We Want to Die?

            Marquis starts his exploration of this problem by considering why we personally don’t want to die; something that he considers to be obvious enough to everyone, and something that he takes to be more or less universal for everyone:

We can start from the following unproblematic assumption concerning our own case: it is wrong to kill us… What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. (§ 23)

            This sounds reasonable enough, but notice a few things. First, Marquis is not answering that killing is inherently wrong, in fact he adamantly opposes that idea. Some killing is entirely appropriate and fine according to Marquis:

The value of a future-like-ours account cannot be a bare future account either. Just having a future surely does not make itself rule out killing the above patient. This account must make some reference to the value of the patient’s future experiences and projects also. Hence, both accounts involve the value of experience, projects, and activities. (§ 44)

He also implicitly reveals this when critiquing a rival ethical account:

One does not want the discontinuation account to make it wrong to kill a patient who begs for death and who is in severe pain that cannot be relieved short of killing. (§ 44)

            His account of killing is consequentalist: the goodness or badness of the killing depends (as I will show below, entirely depends) on the effects it causes in the future. In short, if they don’t have a FLO (future-like-ours, AKA a good future) then at least euthanasia is permissible. I will expand on the theoretical problems of such a position later, but for the moment I simply want to point out that Marquis’ position entails euthanasia, and that is a position that is simply unacceptable to most anti-abortionists of the religious type.

Second, notice that this account is arrived at simply through Marquis using his moral intuitions to determine why killing is wrong. Compare this to the analytic method in which, say, Aristotle or the Scholastics, determined the goodness or badness of an act and Marquis’ method will be revealed to be woefully subjective. The entire method is dependent on subjective feelings, and simply hopes that we have agreeing feelings on the matter without much argument. But these feelings are not at all reasonable, or even intuitive in my opinion. I think there are a number of sorts who would not believe death or the loss of a future is as bad as Marquis argues.

            Let’s say, for example, that we have a gnostic sort, someone who believes the physical world is bad, and that the best thing is to be liberated from it by death (This may sound absurd to modern Westerners, but many people over the ages have come to kinds of gnostic views: 1. many ancient Greeks 2. some of the most popular Christian heretical sects 3. Buddhists & Jainists)

            These people would surely disagree with the critical component of Marquis’ FLO argument, because to this sort of person, to die would not be a loss, but an immense gain in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because if you believed, as the gnostics do, that the physical world is a prison constricting, deluding and adulterating our true spiritual selves, then would there be any reason to spend any more time in it than you’d be absolutely forced to? Suddenly any living future, especially a long productive future in this world, would simply be a distraction holding your spirit back, possibly even leading it astray by causing excessive attachment to worldly things. Having a future good life, to a gnostic, would not be a good thing but rather an extended prison sentence. The loss of a FLO, which is a terrible thing to Marquis, would actually be a great gain to this gnostic. Consequently it would be complete non-sense for them that the reason killing is bad is because we take a good long life away from the victim; a good life, to them, is a bad thing to avoid as much as possible in the pursuit of spiritual escape. If this was the only possible consideration in the ethics of the action, I would think gnostics would support mercy-killing everyone as soon as their spirits achieved liberating enlightenment. (the vast majority don’t, of course, precisely because they believe killing is wrong due to other considerations.)

            All this is said simply to show that Marquis’ reliance on the assumptions that it’s bad to be killed and that having a well-lived future is good is entirely dependent on the cultural ideals we just so happen to find ourselves growing up in. Go back in time, or go East, and we may no longer find these affirmations of life and success which Marquis relies on to give the FLO argument its force. Some entire religions don’t particularly want the kind of “good” and productive life Marquis banks on. Some religions want liberation from life right now. And this shows why basing solutions to ethical problems on our “obvious” moral intuitions isn’t a good idea: the problem with intuitions, besides being subjective, is that they are entirely based on the culture. In this specific case, it depends on a common morality that already affirms my life and existence; that tells me that my life is good and that I should want to live. These ideals in our Western culture are probably off-shoots of the Christian affirmations of nature and life that the West used to believe (see Taylor’s Sources of the Self) but these affirmations certainly aren’t shared everywhere.

            What’s the point of saying all this? It’s this: the FLO argument will no longer work if our culture shifts ideals, which cultures tend to do.

Different Kinds of Suffering

If the patient’s future is a future of value, we want our account to make it wrong to kill the patient. If the patient’s future is intolerable, whatever his or her immediate past, we want our account to allow killing the patient. Obviously, then, it is the value of that patient’s future which is doing the work in rendering the morality of killing the patient intelligible. (§ 45)

Allow me to move on to my second major criticism of Marquis. As seen above, a future is not enough to save someone from being euthanized or aborted, that is only a new method to ask the question with; what makes the difference is whether the life will be on of suffering or not. If there’s a future good life, then abortion is bad, but if there’s a life of suffering ahead, then killing is fine. Two major problems with this, & I have found these problem in most utilitarians.

The problem is that the approach makes no reference to the quality of suffering that is to be avoided. It may seem odd to talk as if there are “kinds” of suffering, as if some suffering is good, but that’s actually exactly what I’m saying and it isn’t as odd as some might think. For example, there is athletic suffering. Anyone who has been in a sport, and especially anyone who has excelled in a sport, knows that the good of victory and excellence comes at a very unpleasant price: so much suffering must be experienced in the form of two-a-days, the inevitable injuries, the losses, and the sometimes brutal competition. Yet, many athletes feel, in retrospect, that it is all worth it once they have achieved some great goal. So let’s say we have a life that is destined to be the world’s strongest man. That life would be full of both emotional and physical suffering in the form of practice, training and competition. Yet would anyone consider this the kind of suffering that would merit aborting the life in the womb out of benevolence? How do we compare this kind of athletic suffering with the sort of suffering they want to avoid? It will be a life of suffering, but who would abort or kill an athlete suffering through the hardships that will one day make him glorious? To simply want to eliminate suffering is too vague. I suppose this is why Marquis adds that references must be made to “the value of the patient’s future experiences, and projects.” (§ 44) Read: if they go on to do great things and live a good life, then killing them is immoral. This is also why Marquis says we shouldn’t allow people who are so depressed that they can’t see any value in their futures to kill themselves: “My future can be valuable to me even if I do not value it. This is the case when a young person attempts suicide, but is rescued and goes on to significant human achievements. Such young people’s futures are ultimately valuable to them, even though such futures do not seem valuable to them at the moment…” (§ 49)

Whose Good Life? Which Flourishing?

            But I sense a second problem here, a certain smuggling of metaphysics and objective values which this theory wasn’t supposed to do. What makes the difference between a just killing and a bad killing? Answer: the future that we’d be taking away from them. If the future is good and filled with “significant human achievement” then killing is immoral. But if it is one of “intolerable pain” and the patient “begs for death” (§ 44) then it is permissible under this theory to put them out of their misery. But 2 questions here: what counts as “significant human achievement”? Is it a life of productivity in the economy? Is it selling one’s possessions to follow Christ? It is rising above repressive Christian morality to impose a morality based off our own creative power? The answer will be different for whoever we ask, because everyone has a different conception of human flourishing, which ultimately has to make reference to “strong evaluative judgments” as Charles Taylor calls them in Sources of the Self. Or to translate into simple terms, they have to start discussing metaphysics, ontology, and other things that start having us treat morality like its objective and absolute.

And what counts as “intolerable pain”? The world’s strongest man has likely suffered more than almost anyone else in certain ways, yet how many people would consider that a “bad” thing to be avoided at the cost of death? And that someone “begs for death” along with this pain is contradicted by Marquis himself over why depressed teenagers should not be allowed to kill themselves: no doubt these teenagers are in intolerable pain and beg for death, perhaps from psychological agony (why else do people want to kill themselves?) yet Marquis makes an exception for stopping them from suicide, assuming that they will go on to do valuable things. (§ 49)

            So that they will lead lives full of pain and suffering, and at times even beg for death, is not really what makes the decision here of whether it would be ok to euthanize or abort them: what matters is their future. But again, what constitutes a good future? Answering this question requires a massive bulwark of answers to the deepest questions of philosophy (see Alasdair MacIntyre’s main thesis in After Virtue) and many people will adamantly disagree. So to base the killing off the quality of one’s future life is to implicitly assume standards of “good”. But isn’t this basically the same as forcing one’s religion on someone else? It’s saying “I know what’s best for you, and am deciding your life or death based around it.” Actually, it’s even worse than that: the religious supporters are usually honest and conscious of the ideas that guide them to make these kinds of judgments, but this whole set-up allows people to convince themselves that they aren’t doing such a thing.

These kinds of accounts of morality (utilitarian and/or consequentialist) are supposed to work without any of those background ideas and value-judgments, which is why at the end of the paper Marquis takes pride that his ethical system “rests neither on religious claims nor Papal dogma” (§ 65). Except at the end of the day it will have to rest on religious claims that each individual brings into the equation, or at least the same kind of absolute-value-judgments that religions are infamous for making. Because the critical “good vs bad future” idea depends on this kind of absolute morality judgment. It just so happens that, due to historical accidents and the fact that Christianity took over the entire Western world for a while, we all tend to think in the same direction when we start throwing around words like “moral good” (except Nietzsche, of course, that beautifully honest misanthrope).

So at this point, the question becomes this: why not start using metaphysics, and philosophies based around absolute moralities? If utilitarian and/or consequentialist attempts to root morality independent of this sort of religious-metaphysical morality ends up subtly doing metaphysics and parasiting off religious ideals, then why not just be honest and take religion/ metaphysics seriously and let them into the conversation?

Problem of Pretend-Omniscience

            Moreover, I want to make an observation that seems to be missed entirely in the argument: how does anyone figure out the future of the unborn child? Let’s not pretend we’re omniscient here: to say anything about the unborn child’s future life is to make assumption after assumption after assumption. This is a problem, I think, with all consequentialist accounts of morality, but I think it is glaringly obvious in Marquis. How in the world are we supposed to guess the entire life of an unborn child? How can we gauge the literally uncountable variables that end up shaping a life? To even suggest that we can do this is to pretend that we have near-omniscience, which of course we don’t, and never will, no matter how smart our technology gets.

            Let’s stop pretending: in practice this guessing-at-the-future will only be based on the “obvious” things: “this child will be handicapped, let’s put it out of its misery.” “This child will be born to a bad family, might as well keep it from that suffering.” “This child will be poor, we can’t have that!” Since we can’t really read the future, we’ll read whatever we can and extrapolate, and this will almost surely result in using this method to justify killing fetuses that will be handicapped, or poor, or disadvantaged, or below-average in whatever form. But isn’t that simply eugenics?

And won’t we use this pretend omniscience to assume the absolute worst case scenarios? The assumption is that the handicapped child won’t live a life of love and support, and that the suffering will be entirely meaningless, and they’ll be a bother to other people their entire lives. The assumption is that the poor child will be destined for poverty forever, and that poverty is something that makes life not worth the effort. We assume that they will never receive or do anything of worth, simply because we can’t imagine how the poor or the handicapped or the below-average could possibly live a life our personal ideals consider good, and we end up using this to justify killing them before they even get a chance to prove us wrong.

In the Hope of Something Better

            My goal here has been to show that 1) Marquis’ FLO thesis suffers from relying too heavily on a certain assumed Western, post-Christian morality most people in the abortion debate just so happen to have 2) It can thus only work by assuming certain beliefs that the typical person will bring into the equation, especially when it comes to standards of what the “good life” consists of, and what kind of “suffering” is considered to be unacceptable. I think these criticisms, if true, reveal Marquis’ FLO approach to abortion will not be of much help to the anti-abortionist side. Moreover, I think these criticisms bring doubt over whether any utilitarian or consequentialist ethic will help make headway in the abortion debate. As explained in the “Frame” section of this critique, there are two main battlefronts in the abortion debate; the first is an argument over the personhood of unborn children, and the second is an argument over the nature of killing and what constitutes a “bad killing”.

But as I have pointed out, the only possibly route to a solution in this battlefront depends on questions in metaphysics and human nature. And as for the second battlefront, I have shown that utilitarian and/or consequentialist accounts end up having to assume a sort of background morality that already defines “good future” and “bad suffering” in a specific way, which depends on how one has already answered questions about human flourishing. And these are metaphysical and ontological questions which are supposed to be far outside the scope of the abortion debate, and which modern ethics was supposed to have gotten over already (most ethicists view metaphysics as outdated medieval notions).

            So if the first battlefront can only be answered by getting into metaphysics, and if the second battlefront has to, whether explicitly or implicitly, start leaning on metaphysics, then why not start allowing metaphysics into the conversation? Religious ethics are mostly jeered about because their ethical outlooks start from metaphysics, but if even secular ethics have to lean on metaphysics, then is this really a fair prejudice?

            In fact, given that the first battlefront is in a deadlock, returning to metaphysics seems to be the only way to make any sort of progress at all there.

            Or, if the second battlefront has to begin to rely on moral intuitions in order to make an argument as to why killing is bad, then another way to change the conclusions would be to change the morality of the culture so much that the common reader will have different moral intuitions about the ethics of killing. But this means essentially teaching the entire culture new religious beliefs about human nature (read: teaching them new metaphysics). It seems that if Marquis has captured the debate’s essence well, we will have no choice but to begin turning to metaphysics and the like. The only question is whether we’ll be honest about the fact that we’re actually doing metaphysics (because again, it’s unpopular), and whether we’ll return to the religious outlook (like Christianity) or the areligious outlook (like Nietzsche).

            Finally, it must seem odd that I’m actually going after an argument against abortion. But as I believe I have shown, the FLO account can still easily lead to a eugenic/euthanasia mentality, and with consequences like that, most who call themselves “pro-life” would reject this argument as strongly as a pro-abortion argument. I suppose my purpose by critiquing someone from my own camp is to show that the pro-life side needs to employ a different kind of argument to make the progress that it hopes to. Consider this a case of friendly deconstruction for the anti-abortion cause.

Paper Proposal Submitted to SCP

I’m behind schedule since posting my last article. Partly due to researching and writing a paper proposal for the 2014 Society of Christian Philosophers conference. This time the conference theme will be celebrating Alvin Plantinga’s classic “Advice for Christian Philosophers“. My mentor alerted me to the audition deadline for the conference this past Thursday… and the deadline was this morning at midnight. So I spent some serious writing/researching time on it that I would’ve otherwise put into writing for this. Here’s the abstract that I submitted. Hopefully it gets accepted, although if I have enough people asking me to write it for GRK Wildcat, I’d be willing to work on it even if it doesn’t make it in.

Advice for Christian Bioethicists: Navigating an Old Problem in a New Context

Christian views in bioethics, specifically the abortion debate, still suffer from the same poor regard and hostility from the academic community that Christian philosophy in general suffered from around the time of Plantinga’s “Advice for Christian Philosophers” (AFCP). Like earlier Christian philosophers, Christian bioethicists today have to navigate widely-accepted arguments that not only yield conclusions antithetical to orthodox Christianity (like infanticide and eugenics) but also draw from theoretical frameworks that are incompatible with Christianity. As Don Marquis has noted, the abortion debate has been deadlocked for some time; is the Christian anti-abortion stance destined to be forever relegated as an irrational fringe position as the field continues to embrace conclusions that many Christians consider immoral?

I believe Plantinga’s proposed method for doing Christian philosophy in “AFCP” may be promising for Christian progress in bioethics. Christian bioethicists should apply Plantinga’s advice and base their ethics on Christian principles they know to be true, even if many current philosophers will scoff and find this methodology unconvincing. Plantinga’s method seems vital towards Christian progress in bioethics, because as Marquis has noted, anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists draw from incommensurate goods, and I will argue Marquis thus reveals these two sides to be examples of “rival ethical traditions” that MacIntyre discusses in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? If they are rival ethical traditions, then it would be wise to work from Plantinga’s method, because as MacIntyre argues, the only other option for defeating a rival ethic is to reduce it to a reductio ad absurdum or incoherence. Moreover, Plantinga’s call for Christian boldness and courage implies that abolitionist movements and activism may also play vital roles in helping bring change to bioethics: Christians should focus on converting the views of their less-antagonistic societies instead of trying to persuade their radical antagonists through a rigged, deadlocked academic debate.

Also, despite writing this I nevertheless wrote an article responding to a very famous, well-regarded paper in the abortion debate: Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral“. You might want to read it to prepare for my response, although I think anyone will be able to follow my thoughts if they don’t. Believe it or not, I’m very critical of it, even though it’s (mostly) anti-abortion, and I am very anti-abortion. You’ll have to read my response to find out why. Expect to see it on here within the next 24 hours.

Excommunication & Catholics who Divide by Zero

Last week, Cardinal Burke, the highest ranking American in the Catholic hierarchy, stated that Nancy Pelosi and all other pro-abortion government officials who go to Catholic Masses should be barred from taking the Eucharist, citing a certain bylaw in the Catholic legal system called “Canon 915” which states that: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”However, the Archbishop of Washington DC, Donald Wuerl, who has authority over Pelosi and other pro-abortion officials in this regard, has publicly announced more than once that he will not bow to any pressure to deny them communion. Wuerl has justified this open stance by saying that he refuses to use communion as a “weapon” to bring politicians in line:

“That’s the new way now to make your point. We never – the Church just didn’t use Communion this way. It wasn’t a part of the way we do things, and it wasn’t a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it; the challenge has always been to convince people.”

This raises a few important questions: by saying this, Wuerl questions the motives of those like Burke who want to deny Pelosi Communion. It also brings into the forefront serious questions about what it means to be excommunicated, why people are excommunicated, and whether abortion is really as serious as the Vatican hierarchy claims it to be. I hope to sketch an answer to all these questions, and by doing so, show how Wuerl is gravely mistaken in his understanding of Communion, excommunication, and the Catholic view of abortion.

Everything You Know about Excommunication is a Lie

            Before I can answer why Cardinal Burke wants to excommunicate Pelosi and company, we must first gain an understanding of what excommunication truly is, and this is trickier than you might think, because it’s often misunderstood. In fact, it may very well be the case that you’ve never been given the actual definition of excommunication. It’s one of those doctrines that is often used in prejudiced rhetoric to make a mockery of Catholicism. Normally, excommunication is understood as what the Catholic Church does to someone who gets too smart (usually conceived as a scientist) and starts discovering “the truth” against that power-hungry pope. Perhaps something like “Galileo proved heliocentrism, so the Church excommunicated him to hell” or “the king stopped paying taxes to the pope, so they excommunicated him to hell”. I was actually taught both in a college-level European history class. But it’s a complete mischaracterization of excommunication. Here’s a much better definition from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

            Excommunication… is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence. Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. (“Excommunication“)

            In regular language: excommunication is a severe penalty, but more of a diagnosis than a punishment; it is not done to condemn someone to hell out of papal rage, but rather it is simply a recognition that the person has given into so much immorality that their soul is in serious danger, and that they are “Christian” in name only. But this is done in the hopes of making the person realize their error and turn away from it completely. And because it has the goal of healing in mind, excommunication is not permanent & is removed once the person repents and gives up the sin:

“…such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction.” (“Excommunication“)

So leave behind the idea of angry Vatican officials drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and damning to hell all the politicians who won’t cave in to their demands. This isn’t a matter of rage, but about truth, diagnosing a severe spiritual cancer, and making last-ditch efforts to fight the infection. If we cannot understand the true meaning and motive of excommunication, we won’t be able to understand the rest of this issue, and suddenly everything begins to look like a bunch of repressive priests trying to control everyone. Excommunication is a medicine, and it’s meant for the good of the person, not for their eternal condemnation. In light of that, consider this statement Wuerl once made about the practice of excommunicating pro-abortion politicians:

“Incrimination of others has become a hallmark among some groups and individuals in the Catholic Church in our country today,” he wrote. But “the intensity of one’s opinion is not the same as the truth. Speaking out of anger does not justify falsehood.”

You get the sense from Wuerl that the Vatican wants these excommunications because they’re super-angry and want to make an example out of Pelosi for disobeying them, like some sort of spiritual tyrant. But remember what we just discussed: excommunication is not done for such an immature reason. It is done for grave reasons. It is chemotherapy for spiritual cancer. Burke wants excommunication not “out of anger” but because he wants the Church to be brutally honest about an infection. Moreover, to say that this stems from Burke’s “intensity of opinion” is to not only misrepresent the point of excommunication but to misrepresent Catholicism on a fundamental level. Allow me to illustrate this with a metaphor.

The Mathematician Who Never Did Math

            Let’s say that we’re in a prestigious college society devoted to mathematics. While we’re at it, let’s push the metaphor and say that we’re actually really good at math. And the society we’re in is called the Trig Club. Hot-dog, do we love math. And we all get together weekly to work on math problems, help each other get the right answers, mess around with asymptotes and square roots, whatever. Everything is all fine and good until one day, one of us does something blatantly wrong: he divides by zero. Because the unalterable laws of our beloved and sacred mathematics have been violated, this would bother us badly, and we would politely, yet firmly, tell him and walk him through why he’s wrong. But that doofus just won’t change it; he demands to divide by zero. The next week, he’s done it again in other solutions and proofs, and before long we’re pretty sure he’s just throwing random numbers and operator signs together in sophisticated looking ways. We’re upset at this point. We go to him and tell him “You can’t just pretend to be doing math like this. What you’re doing isn’t even math anymore, and if you keep doing this, you’re not even a real Trig Club mathematician, you’re just pretending to be.”              The guy gets really indignant and storms out. But then later that week, while you’re walking from class to class, you see that freakin’ guy again. And this time he’s in the lecture hall, teaching a room full of impressionable freshmen (is there any other kind of freshman?) that you actually, totally can divide by zero. A few people don’t believe it, but he refutes them by saying “Look here, bucko, this is what mathematicians think now. See? Here’s my membership card proving I’m a member of the Trig Club, so I know how math really works.” And this convinces everyone that not only is it ok to divide by zero, but that everyone in the Trig Club believes it too.

At this point, you go home and you’re upset. Naturally, you get on Facebook and start messaging all the freshmen you can find, telling them that there’s an imposter mathematician telling everyone to divide by zero. You do this not so much out of wanting to spite the guy, but because 1) He’s pretending to be something he really isn’t, and that’s also going to make the real mathematicians look wrong 2) He’s teaching people something that is literally wrong. You can’t divide by zero. There is no squabbling about it. If this continues pretty soon the entire college is going to be doing incoherent math. And the worst thing is 3) he’s making it even harder for the freshmen to learn real math, because he’s convincing them they know it when they actually don’t. You’ll have to un-teach them all the errors they picked up before you can teach them real math.

            And this is how Catholicism thinks about heresy and grave sin: it’s like dividing by zero to us, and if left unchecked & unchallenged it not only leads others astray, but begins making Catholicism itself look wrong. And excommunication is the equivalent of getting on Facebook and posting warnings: it’s an honest declaration that “No, we don’t actually endorse that, and ok, he’s acting like he’s the real McCoy, but he’s really not.” It’s not spite or anger so much as it is protection.

Not a Weapon, but a Noose

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 1 Cor 11:27-30

With this medicinal, protective understanding in mind, maybe we can begin to make some progress. “OK,” you might be saying, “so Burke doesn’t want to excommunicate Pelosi out of rage, but why not just let her take communion? Is it really that big of a deal? Isn’t that the loving thing to do, and aren’t y’all Christians all about love?”

            First off, yes, it is that big of a deal. One of the reasons is that St. Paul in the verse above is very clear that those who are immersed in grave sins, like supporting abortion, should not take Communion because it will severely hurt them. In fact, St. Paul is stating in the last verse that taking Communion while in a state of serious sin has been a cause of death. We must keep in mind that the Eucharist is literally the Body of Christ, and that is an awful, literally divine thing. It isn’t something to play with; remember that the last place God chose to dwell in, the Ark of the Covenant, had a tendency to kill or otherwise ruin everyone who didn’t treat it reverently (1 Samuel 5 & 6 is a terrific illustration of this). And I’m not even saying God gets angry and punishes the sinners, but I am suggesting that, simply by being in a state of grave sin, God’s loving presence becomes something that suffocates us. When God comes to us, He just can’t help but blast away all the sin choking our souls. But if we attach ourselves to that sin, and refuse to let go of it, we just might get blasted away too by accident.

            Christians are about love, that’s why we don’t let people in grave sin take Communion; it’s a matter of protecting them. Protecting them 1) from a Presence that they could not currently survive and for all we know could blast them away 2) from coming to treat the Body of the God-Man as something typical and unimportant 3) from letting others get to thinking that the grave sin is alright, and allowing them to be influenced by a bad example. It’s certainly not the kind of “do-whatever-just-don’t-bother-me” freedom that Americans are used to, but Catholicism is neither American nor all that into negative freedom.

On top of that, by denying Communion we are trying to make them realize something important: “Stop hanging onto that which will kill you!” & this is done out of genuine concern for them. Wuerl is half-right: the Eucharist is not a weapon, but it is a noose for those too attached to sin.

Who Cares if She’s Pro-Abortion?

            Wuerl, in an interview he did on this issue in 2009, made this comment as part of a dis against the pro-excommunication-for-Pelosi crowd:

“In his circles of Hell, Dante places the people with sins of passion at the very brim – barely burned. But at the core are those who sinned against the truth.” (Check it)

I found it supremely ironic. I won’t go after how this is kind of a bad oversimplification of Dante’s Hell (because all sins are sins against some truth according to Catholicism). But I will go after how if this is true, then Wuerl is by his own admission letting pro-abortion politicians wade into the deeper regions of Hell, and consequently doing a terrible job as bishop. Because according to the set rules (dogmas) of Catholicism, abortion is a sin against truth, specifically the truth that a human soul begins to exist at the moment of conception. Straight from the Catholic Catechism (the rulebook for Catholics):

2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

2319 Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God. (READ IT ALL)

Essentially, it’s like trying to divide by zero to Catholics. Wuerl seems to treat this as such a political issue that he forgets it to be a truth issue too: the main thrust of Burke’s argument to deny Pelosi communion is not that he wants her to arbitrarily agree with the politics of Catholicism (whatever those are) it’s that she’s adamantly attached to legislation that violates a truth of human nature, and thus far willfully disobedient to recognizing that truth. It is not an arbitrary “incrimination of others”. Moreover, the motive is not “speaking out of anger” and the condemnation is not a “falsehood”, but an attempt to keep others from being led into falsehood.

Contra Wuerl, there is no squabbling over who is Catholic & who is not, as if it is a matter of who is most sincere. Being an institution with certain beliefs that are set in stone (the technical word for this is “infallible dogma”) finding out who is and is not a real member of it is simple: do they contradict the rules of conduct? Yes? And do they do so knowingly and without care? Then they can’t really be a member; they shouldn’t be allowed to do members-only things. Should the ex-mathematician who divides by zero be allowed to participate in the weekly meetings, or accompany the rest of the group to the pub after for the meal they share as a math community? Not as long as he insists on dividing by zero. There’d be nothing to squabble over; he’s wrong and he can either fix it or not.

Now, one could (and everyone has for millennia) argue that the Catholic idea of a human soul beginning at conception is non-sense, or a lie. But that’s much different from claiming to believe it when in practice you act like you don’t. It’d be one thing if a rival math society rose up against the Trig Club’s hatred of zero-division and claimed that dividing by zero is the way of the future. It’d be quite another thing if someone within the Trig Club started proclaiming that and planning sabotage. Likewise, Burke is simply calling out Pelosi for not really believing what she pretends to by calling herself Catholic, in the hopes of diagnosing the growing illness before it requires amputation.

Enemies Charge in Ceasefires

            Here’s one last thing to consider: Wuerl, in my view, is playing right into the hands of those who want Christians to give up the fight against abortion, and those in general who want the Christians to stop being such sticklers about morality. The refusal to do anything is not standing ground and fighting, but a ceasefire. And when our frontline stops shooting, that’s when the enemy captains blow the whistle to charge forward. It would be like a doctor saying “Ya know, I could actively fight this infection, but it might get messy so I’m not going to operate. I will, however, pray about it as the wound turns gangrene.” Inactivity on the part of a bishop means a gain for the pro-abortion crowd. Because while we’re praying about it and talking about educating Catholics better, the “catholic” abortion crowd is already educating Catholics, and going into church with them, and following them right up to the altar.

iPhone 5s & All-Night Vigils

I was browsing through the popular youtube videos this morning when I found one that interested me, shocked me, then made me pretty sad. It is caseyneistat’s video “The Dark Side of the iPhone 5S”. Here is the link:

                And suddenly my thesis that the typical modern is not excellent by either Christian, nor atheist, nor pagan standards becomes all the more stronger.

                In the video, the main question that keeps getting brought up is “Why are you doing this?” And no one is able to give all that systematic of an answer. It mostly reduces down to: “because I really want this phone… I guess”. And here we see a bit of cognitive dissonance, I suppose we could call it; on the one hand, these people have invested a huge amount of their time, energy and probably health to waiting in line (one group of guys probably younger than I am claim to have been in line for 2 weeks) and on the other hand, the value of the desired good is obviously not worth it, hence why the video is so bizarre to us. Moreover, the people themselves, when actually questioned as to why they are doing this, don’t even seem all that convinced that what they’re doing is proper and good.

                Here’s what I mean: there are only about three things I would commit 2 weeks to waiting for, or even a day or two for that matter. I would make such a huge sacrifice for my future wife. My future child. A best friend. And if anyone were to ask me why I was doing such a thing, I would gladly tell them, and the force of the reasoning would stick to most people. They would understand why I wasted so much time waiting, because a wife, a child, a friend is irreplaceable and above value. They are goods that, even if they were to require my life as a sacrifice, would still be entirely worth it. Consequently the time would no longer be considered “wasted” but rather well-spent. It was spent on a forever unique, completely inimitable love, and this reasoning can be understood by just about everyone but the worst misanthropes, and maybe Schopenhauer.

                Can the same thing be said of an iPhone? Is it of the same quality as the love of family and friends? Of course not, but there are many things clouding the water here. One of those things is modern-day branding, which seeks to convince its consumer base that the product IS actually of the same quality.

Consider a main thesis of James KA Smith’s work “Desiring the Kingdom”. According to Smith, Christianity is in a constant battle with certain aspects of the culture, such as consumerism, because they are both seeking to mold people according to a certain conception of the good life. With this conception of the good life also comes habits. So for the Christian good life of becoming saintly, the habits involve church involvement, almsgiving, prayer, etc. Then there is consumerism. The consumerist good life is the one shown and sold to us in the typical commercial: buy this thing and your life (or you yourself) will be better! It has its own habits, all of which are antithetical to religious frameworks: they include a love of shopping, a willingness to discard old possessions for more up-to-date ones, and identifying with the brands you use. And don’t we see all of these habits and more in the people of the video?

The iPhone has tried to convince us that it’s worth more love than it actually is. In this way, it can be called an idol. And idols are bad not because it makes god angry and super-ready to punish you with locust-plagues, but because it’s illusionary: idols promise things they don’t deliver on. It might be plausible to some to call Christianity mythic or superstitious in certain regards, but not when it comes to idol worship. When it comes to idols, Christians and the fiercest atheists can unite together to tear them down. And why do Christians hate idols so much? Is it because we do it to impose our religion onto others after we’ve ripped apart their beliefs? No, or at least that’s not the motive it’s supposed to be done for. Christians hate idols because Christians hate illusions. Especially illusions that end up convincing people to do things wrong, like sacrificing their children to a statue or sacrificing their sanity for a phone.

Deconstructing Brand Idolism


How is the iPhone causing such love in their fans if it’s merely illusionary, and why? The answer is in modern branding techniques: they don’t only hype up a product, but build a community around it. That way, the product not only becomes something useful, but something that, through loving it, literally gives you friends and a fuller life. The ideal is to convince people that when they buy an iPhone, they don’t just get a phone, they get a community full of iPhone users that will accepted them as initiated brethren. “You can have a whole new community, make new friends, maybe even find your soulmates,” the brand’s culture insinuates to us as we see legions of loyal and happy users smiling together. If only we buy the new iPhone.

In a way, this has striking resemblance to religious initiations. Again, as KA Smith notes, it encourages habit-building, which over time builds up a sort of “natural love” in people. This is why not only the iPhone, but most things being sold in modern commerce, could be considered idols. They try to promise entirely new lives if we own them. But in reality they will simply give us an expensive high for a few days, then we’ll get used to the thing, then a few years later we’ll be told it’s out of date and that you need the NEW thing in order to be cool and accepted and successful.

Of course, businesses would have a reason to convince us of all this: customers may leave if prices get too expensive, or the stock drops, or the services get a bit unreliable. But if they can be convinced that the meaning of their lives and the acceptance of their community depends on it, then people will put up with anything, since now their lives are at stake in a very real way. Then customers will begin to do the kinds of things most people will only do for their loved one, like wait out in the cold for days. Because for the customer who has been sold on this, the route to even having love at all may involve having this phone, ASAP. The entire set-up is tailor-made for exploitation.

                And companies, especially Apple, have learned to capitalize on selling this fake community. It can be seen even in the youtube video I posted above. At the very end, when the phones are ready, and the store opens, all the employees begin chanting and cheering, even going so far as to make a cheering-line for those who have been waiting in line for weeks and days, congratulating them like cheerleaders to victorious athletes. And all this serves to do is further reinforce the image that the iPhone will make us happy/give us friends. But of course, this is all an illusion: do the employees care so much once you’re out of the door? Once you’ve spent the money, the hype ends, and within a few days you’re in need of something else to fulfill you emotionally/spiritually. So then we start looking for the next cool new product, and a cycle begins. One that fills us with fantasies and daydreams, and fills company pockets with money.

                This is why idol worship is bad; because it gets us stuck in cycles hopelessly looking for fulfillment in things that have no real power to do such a thing. But they do have the power to exploit us.

All Night Vigils of a Different Caliber


                Moderns typically pride themselves on not being anything like the ancients, and especially not the religious ancients. But here we see an extremely ancient (religious!) practice, secularized and taken out of context and (in my humble opinion) diluted. I am referring to the practice of keeping all-night vigil. It was a highly recommended way to resist demons and temptations, and was especially popular with the Desert Fathers & Mothers, ascetics and monks. Like waiting for the iPhone this was a rather extreme practice, yet many believed the spiritual benefits were great enough to rebuke the demonic.

                I suspect many people in our modern society would scoff at staying up all night to fight demons through worship. But really, are we all that different from them, in light of the iPhone 5 crowds? We stay up all night in order to resist the sins of unpopularity and un-hipness so that we can have the beatific vision of giving an underpaid sales rep $200. The saints of past eras stayed up all night to resist armies of darkness, so that they could have the beatific vision of communion with Beauty & Love itself. Maybe the latter were too superstitious, but we can’t say that their stakes were low, or that the goal wasn’t magnificent, or that the joy earned was demonstrably false. We moderns cannot claim the same.

Why De-Baptism is Silly


There is a new fuss about a certain freethinking society who is selling very professional-looking “Certificates of De-Baptism”. Some commentators are up in arms about it, calling it an attack on the Church by an aggressively secular society. But if this is the best attack that the aggressively secular society can put forth against us, I’m less than concerned. In fact I find the whole affair pretty silly, and wouldn’t be surprised if this is more a publicity stunt than a full-blown attack.

                 Still, the leader of the Freethinker association (Dan Barker) is also an alumni of my alma mater (Azusa Pacific University) and thus I feel that this becomes a matter of honor, a defense of my school’s reputation. Because if no one from my school answers him, my philosophy degree could appear even more useless than it already does. So allow me to provide a defense on the importance of baptism, and why it is not some vague hocus-pocus that we use to abuse children and then damn them to hell.

                I would like to begin my defense of baptism by stating the most obvious fact about human nature that I can think of: humans are selfish to the point of harmful. This is central to the Christian understanding of sin, but I know of non-Christians and militant atheists who would gladly admit the same. The Marquis de Sade wanted liberation from religion so that we’d all be free to pursue selfish hedonism. Nietzsche not only admitted humanity is selfish but glorified it, claiming that we can become superhuman through selfishness. Freud’s theories of psychology only work if we have selfish, nigh depraved desires and can’t have them due to the taboos of society. And Homer’s greatest hero (and the oldest hero in Western literature) is egotistical to the point of sadism; his own comrades die because he can’t have a certain girl for a war-trophy.

                So allow me to take this view of human nature as pretty much axiomatic; it seems proved by experience, Christians and non-Christians alike. I have nothing to say for those who believe that all humanity is perfect and good; those people must have one hell of a theodicy to deal with (or, rather, anthrodicy).

Metaphysics of Sin

                Anyway, as I mentioned above, this understanding of humanity is central to Christianity as well. Augustine is probably the most obvious example of this, as his Confessions are a lifelong account of the many selfish actions he and his childhood friends committed. An infamous example of this is when the child Augustine steals pears out of boredom, at another he leaves the country without telling his mother, St. Monica, because he knows she would object. These experiences are probably why Augustine came to believe that humans are born with the wrong kind of will, a selfish one. And that grace consists foremost in re-orienting the will towards the divine things of God.

                Rene Girard thinks much the same thing: human desire is rooted in imitation; we tend to learn by imitating, and this bleeds into wanting the things that others want, too. But only one person can have the desired thing, like a certain women or a rare Thriller record autographed by MJ. And when that happens, two people become rivals over it; both want it and only one can have it. We want it, and we’ll fight to get it, even willing to kill the other person.

And this is obviously bad, because a society would annihilate itself if everyone did this. So what tends to happen is that we’ll repress lots of these desires, then go to a gladiator game (ancient) or go to a football game (modern) and get catharsis from the violence that we participate in vicariously. Rinse, have a bad day and repeat; it becomes a cycle. But the problem is this cycle is dysfunctional and mostly illusionary; if we just keep going along with it, we’ll live an easygoing lie forever. But if it falls apart, we might kill someone.

Unless human nature changes, these are the two options: either have people repress themselves into socially acceptable drones, or have them start killing each other to find out who’s strong enough to take that Thriller record by force. Fortunately though, Christianity claims to offer a third alternative: changing human nature and re-orienting the human person through the sacraments, especially through baptism. It is claimed that doing such a thing will result in a new person that doesn’t need to participate in these dysfunctional cycles, because they are not selfish and have no desire to compete and kill.

This sums up pretty well what Christians mean by sin. It’s simply an entailment we draw from the fact that humans are selfish. I suppose if you believed all of humanity is perfectly unselfish, benevolent and caring from birth to death in their natural state, there would be no need for baptism. I’m not sure if the Freethinkers believe humanity is perfect as-is, but if they do, my question for them becomes “Why in the world do you, given all the evidence against it?”

The Metaphysics of Baptism

So, we recognize the grand human capacity for selfishness, and see how a real solution would have to work. Now it is a matter of stating how the proposed solution of baptism is supposed to solve the problem, since the casual relation between water-dunking and spiritual rebirth is not at all obvious. But the reason most people get hung up on the ritual is because they only look at the outward form, forgetting that the ritual points to a more important spiritual meaning. It is not the action of dunking in water that does anything, but what it signifies.

And what it signifies is this; the receiving into a community of people who have also been liberated from the endless cycles of selfishness. We go into the water only as an individual, and individuals have no real point not to be selfish or competitive; if there is only me to worry about, why not make my entire life about me, me and me? Why not make the primary ends of my life selfish success, power and personal gain? But when we arise out of the water, we now become part of a Body and community, of which we are now a branch. And branches have much different concerns than individuals, because they now must worry about the well-being of the entire Tree, and of all the other branches, since they are all unified as one single entity. Individuals can get by with being selfish, but families cannot. In fact, when one enters a family, they often find that they have to practices virtues that are entirely antithetical to their old life; they must care for others, and sacrifice themselves for others, and give instead of take, make peace instead of fight endlessly.

So we can begin to see baptism as not some weird barbaric ritual, but for what it really is: being born into a family. One primary change in baptism is a change in relational status; we go in as individuals, but leave as a family member. And with this relational change, the entire point of our lives is re-oriented, we have to act like a family member, and this is a much different way of life than that of an individual. Consequently we come out of the water with different virtues; familial virtues like trust and love instead of the individualistic one of competition and power.

The power in baptism is that it changes our status as a person by giving us a new context within a community and family. It declares to us that, contrary to our psychology and natural state, we are meant to love, not to fight. And it declares this by giving us a gigantic new family to practice our love on.

Embarrassing Implications for De-Baptizers

So, this understanding of baptism puts the Freethinker’s condemnations of baptism as child abuse in a really embarrassing position. What baptism does, as I have shown, is not dismiss black marks that God has declared us to be responsible for by fiat, but rather re-orient our wills by taking us out of the context of dysfunctional individualism and into a family. We do baptism because it introduces new-borns into a community before they get sucked too far into competition, selfishness and all the dysfunction that comes through living in the world of individuals for too long. So if connecting children to a community is child abuse, then we should consider schools, sports teams, volunteering and after-school programs to be child abuse too.

In fact, we should do that for nearly every activity we consider “wholesome” for children, because the whole point of parents trying to give their children “good” childhoods reduces to trying to get the children to commune well and play nice with others. But this would be silly; every parent wants friendship for their children, and will force them through whatever afterschool activity they must in order to bring them to it. I would suggest to those parents another good way to help their children; get them baptized into a church that doesn’t treat Christianity like a state religion.

So given the real meaning of baptism, I can only assume that the Freethinkers must not want children to grow up in a community, rather preferring them to spend all their days alone, reading science textbooks as they plot how to seize all the power and rule over all their not-friends.

But this also makes the call to de-baptize ourselves embarrassingly wrong-headed. De-baptism no longer becomes a matter of liberation from the myth of some arbitrary god who is so, so very angry at us for the time when a couple of nudists noshed the wrong fruit millennia ago. It becomes a matter of removing ourselves from community, isolating ourselves and sticking ourselves right back into the cycle of competition, hatred and mutually-assured destruction. De-baptism is revealed to be an instance of a branch lopping itself off from its only hope for life in order to rot on the ground, all alone. And so is it really all that odd that this de-baptism business could probably be considered a mortal sin? It’s no different from the hellish decision to spend an eternity alone over communion with all the saints. But I digress.

I really doubt that all this is what the Freethinkers intended with de-baptism. I assume that my fellow Azusa Pacific alum, in typical APU fashion, wishes to spread good cheer and unity throughout the entire body of humanity. In which case, Christians raise their hands up to the heavens, respond “Amen!” in agreement with him, and baptize all the children.