This is good stuff. By which I mean, why don’t we have more discussion, more intellectual byplay, of the sort on display here: Blackburn vs. Smith, but not really, you know, versus in the modern sense of how-dare-you-you-dirty-rat?
That’s not what the gentlemen are about. No slinging of abuse here, no heated contradiction; just some sharing of perspectives, some opening of curtains for examination of the way the sunlight falls on ideas stated one way or another. This is very civilized. It is not what you see on the Internet, I can tell you—as if you needed to be told. The Internet—sigh. That brings up a whole new scheme for symposia of, I am afraid, limitless duration. Back to my brothers Smith and Blackburn.
The first wishes us to put more time into defending human dignity “from secular bases,” the better to be heard and heeded. The latter argues that “universal human rights proceed from God, and therefore are God’s concern;” in other words, abandonment of the religious front would collapse the whole pro-life movement.
Well, now, a few observations, the chief of these being, I don’t see the two arguments as dramatically opposed to each other. I see them, in fact, as complementary.
On the urgency of arguing from a theological perspective, I stand alongside my brother Blackburn, not exactly fingering rosary beads as I do so but nodding enthusiastically to the assertion that Christians can’t “defend human dignity in the public arena without tying one hand behind their back.” A position, I must add, that my brother Smith doesn’t advocate unless I am missing something, and I don’t think I am. Smith salutes religious pro-life thinkers such as Dame Cecily Saunders, Paul Ramsey, and Leon Kass. I think his brief for a secular defense of human life proceeds from something like heartache over the failure of bioethics to give an account of human life’s value in the abstract. He wants to address the bioethicists in terms they might appreciate or at least understand with some cultural reluctance.
I have some doubts myself as to how effectively the people in question can be addressed, even in such terms as Smith proposes. The heart unmoved by awe for the miracle—properly that: “the miracle”—of human life seems to me unlikely to expend much anguish on the “human dignity” of the unborn or the extremely unwell. But I could be wrong. That’s the point. In the event I’m totally off base about the mysterious motions of the Lord with respect to human hearts and consciences, it seems to me incumbent that we meet secular folk on such ground as they occupy. If the mountain won’t go to Mohammed (an old phrase that seems to have dropped out of discourse), Mohammed must go to the mountain. Pro-life folk, in other words, must be prepared to bring secular reasoning to any discussion with secular folk. I don’t say that it’s going to work, but the argument for trying to make it work seems to me unassailable. You just never know.
One thing you definitely know is the intensity of the scorn—sometimes just the blank indifference, which can be worse—that all too many modern folk feel for traditional religious-based argumentation. The secular orientation of our age is virtually beyond dispute. A lot of these people plain don’t want to hear what they interpret as “preachin’.”
It wasn’t like this 50 years ago, prior to Roe v. Wade. Indeed, I think Roe v. Wade was a major game-changer from the secularist viewpoint. It conditioned people to think of life as existing on its own terms, without noticeable ends beyond the acquisition of localized pleasures and satisfactions. This is one of the reasons that, as I have argued in the Human Life Review, the resort to politics comes up short in the success department when the topic is abortion. Polls show a populace fairly evenly divided over the justice of intercepting unborn life. The now-familiar formula for meeting abortion proponents halfway or part way—no abortion save in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life—underscores the public’s ambiguity on this topic of extraordinary moment. One senses that a lot of people just don’t want to talk about it: don’t want to see themselves as party, actual or potential, to an assault on “life” or “human dignity,” either one. By the same token, many are reluctant to deprive others of the doubtful privilege of “terminating” a pregnancy. The various questions that Wesley Smith excels in addressing—euthanasia, the harvesting of human organs, etc.—call forth these very same sentiments: discomfort mingled oddly with emotional distance.
How you turn this great battleship in the water I don’t think anyone can really say with confidence, which is certainly one reason for wishing my brother Smith success in his quest to address the secular mind in secular terms. I don’t really recognize my brother Blackburn’s heart in the conclusion some might imagine as flowing from his argument—to wit, Wes Smith shouldn’t even be listened to. Blackburn isn’t impressed with Smith’s prospects for success in arguing for “human dignity” as a tool with which to beat back the waves of attack on the human proposition. He thinks the religious argument far more powerful.
Here, I think, my brother Blackburn has hold of the central point in the debate if in fact that’s what it is—a debate. The point at issue would be human responsibility for the greatest of all God’s gifts—that of life itself. I think we intuit very well the challenges attendant on going to the culture of today and proclaiming the old tale of a man’s rib and a woman’s awakening yawn in a far-off garden long ago. Some thus addressed would hear—or re-hear—and believe, carrying forward their belief to the examination of momentous questions such as, Can’t I pull the plug if I want to? Still others would flinch at the thought of such supernatural goings-on, reaching all the while for the remote control.
The purpose of the great narrative, of course, reintroduced into our midst, would be the engagement of the culture at the level of reality as opposed to fantasy or indifference. A god—or God—who made life: That would change things, would it not? It appears to have changed things for millennia: infinitely more than any Supreme Court decision, or any act of Congress, or any given tome by any given bioethicist, can be said to have changed them. You can’t get past this element. You may hope opinions can be swayed by resort to other, more palatable arguments, and that those arguments will conduce to reform and the general good. Nonetheless, no secular argument puts in the shade the contention that life is of God, not of Darwin or Dawkins or the Hastings Center. Unimaginable consequences flow from this understanding, consequences too deep perhaps for contemplation.
In the apocryphal book of First Esdras can be found, possibly, the operative phrase. Three attendants at a great banquet compare, in terms of strength, the properties of wine, women, and the king himself. A wise man among them bats down their reasoning. He extols truth alone. “Then all the people shouted, and said, ‘Great is truth, and strongest of all!’” Magna est veritas et praevalet!
I think that might be the one unexceptionable point amid the battle smoke and confusion of our time.
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William Murchison writes from Dallas for Creators Syndicate and is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. The author of Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (Encounter Books), he is working on a book about the moral collapse of secularism.