Begotten or MadeBegotten or Made by Oliver O’Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

O’Donovan’s jumping-off point was a British government report on artificial fertilization in the 1980s. He explores the differences between making a child through technique (which a technology society wants to do for everything) and begetting (or attempting to beget) a child like ourselves but without the level of control that advances in reproductive technology promise. He attempts to think through these issues, and the purpose of medicine in general, in a Christian way, and also discusses sex change operations as examples of this modern assertion of technique over the human body.

I found his arguments provocative and persuasive, but I have read very little in the area of bioethics. It’s an area that I wish I knew more about.

View all my reviews

Ronald Reagan, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War

George Weigel has a short article at First Things that discusses Reagan’s attitude toward both the USSR and nuclear weapons. The whole thing is worth reading, but I found Reagan’s attitude toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki especially noteworthy:

As for his nuclear abolitionism, Reagan, according to his arms control director, Ken Adelman, was appalled by the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hated the idea that an American president could wreak immeasurably greater destruction. Thus Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, far from being the cockamamie “Stars Wars” scheme it was promptly dubbed by political adversaries and journalists stuck in the conventional thinking of the era, was the technological expression of the president’s moral conviction that nuclear weapons were a grave danger that ought to be taken off-the-board in international public life.

Portraying Hugo Chavez as Christ

At First Things, Lisa Carroll-Davis recently described the Venezuelan president’s striking language about his predecessor Hugo Chávez on the one-year anniversary of his death: “Christ the Redeemer became flesh, became spirit, became truth in Chávez” and was “the Christ of the poor, the Christ of the humble, he who came to protect those who have had nothing.”

This was hardly an isolated incident:

The social unrest and economic privation that spilled out in protests in February 2014 were met by Venezuela’s leaders with redoubled proclamations of Chavista messianism. During the height of the protests, in a speech made March 5, 2014 at a military parade in Caracas marking the one year anniversary of Chávez’s death, Maduro proclaimed, Chávez “the Redeemer of the poor” and said that the poor were calling to Chávez the “Redeeming Christ of the 21st Century” to help them against the capitalist protestors attempting to undo all he had done for the poor….

In Venezuela, the conflation of politician and messiah have saturated the popular culture, as not only are the leftist political actors making statements exalting the deceased Chávez as Christ, the average citizens venerate the former president. Immediately after his passing in March 2013, public processions honoring Chávez included his supporters carrying posters of him and Jesus together. There were reports and pictures of widespread household altars to Chávez, with an effigy or image of him replacing Christ on the cross. Presenting Chávez as the messiah is not merely a convenient rhetorical trope for the ruling party. It is a sentiment that has been internalized and codified by those who supported him. What otherwise would be considered unorthodox, or at least heterodox, has become fully acceptable to a largely Catholic population.

Carroll-Davis puts this devotion to Chavez in the context of the Latin American Left and liberation theology.

World War I’s impact on world religion

Philip Jenkins’ new book on World War I’s religious dimensions, The Great and Holy War, sounds fascinating. In a post about how culture can change rapidly, he sums up the changes that he describes in the book:

The First World War’s impact on faith and faiths was immense. Reacting to the war’s horrors, thinkers of many shades rebelled against claims for human reason, culture and civilization, and sought new fundamental bases for religious authority – in Catholic terms, this would be a return to original sources, or ressourcement. In Protestant Christianity, we see this reaction in the work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, both directly inspired by their responses to the war. More broadly, we look at thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Otto. In the same years, the war destroyed one ancient realm of Christianity – in the Middle East – and laid the foundations for a new Christian world, in Africa.

Judaism was transformed by the war, which for the first time made the Zionist dream feasible. At the same time, the widespread sense of national betrayal – of failed participation in the ultimate apocalyptic struggle – powerfully motivated the Anti-Semitism that flourished from the 1920s onwards. Neither of the two greatest events in modern Jewish history – the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – would have been possible without the First World War, and its religious underpinnings.

Finally, the war’s outcome was critical to the modern history of Islam. The end of the Caliphate left the world’s Muslims in quest of alternatives, of a return to fundamental sources of religious authority. All the various solutions that we know in the Islamic world – from state secularism to radical Islamism – have their roots in the First World War and its immediate aftermath.

So the war sparked huge changes, and we are still living with the consequences. It marked a global religious revolution.

Studying the densely packed events of the Great War, it is often easy to forget just what a shockingly brief span of time they covered: just four years for formal hostilities, with several more years of chaos immediately following—but still less than a decade in all. And yet, as we have seen, the world changed totally in this time. Although Norman Stone was speaking chiefly of military and political trends, we readily echo his observation that “in four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940.” In religious terms, we might prefer to set the dates still wider apart—perhaps from 1850 to 1950.

I posted once before on Jenkins’ summary of the dark mood in Europe before World War I.

Reproductive technology and the abolition of man

Andrew Sandlin’s website recently featured a column by Scott Masson relating reproductive “innovations” like the ones in this column (which he referred to; here’s another recent example) to the reflections of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. A key excerpt:

Although the relation of power and responsibility is a perennial theme in literature, science fiction breaks ranks with the entire humanities tradition precisely because of its object and its understanding of the human. The ethical teaching of the sages of the ancient world had equipped us to relate to our fellow man as individuals. They were not naïve. It was a Roman proverb that warned that homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). There was no nobility to our savagery in their eyes. But they assumed that man, as a creature living in his own world, would continue to propagate himself, his kin and his nation naturally, not turn his power upon himself. Regardless of the blight of war, pestilence and famine, he would never consider eradicating his own existence or the natural world around him as it had been created. The sages of old never considered that we would adopt what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the view from nowhere, or conceive that, as Hannah Arendt has observed of our scientific contemporaries’ perspective, the human condition was a prison to be escaped. To such a radical perspective, only Divine revelation can speak persuasively.

I believe that is why it is those who have imbibed the wisdom of the Scriptures are so profoundly needed in our day. This is where the third of the men who died on that inauspicious fall day, C.S. Lewis, comes in. Unlike Huxley, he remains unread in most schools. Yet it was he who prophetically warned where unbridled technology and an amoral science bent on reimagining the human might lead.

In his wartime Durham lectures, later collected under the title The Abolition of Man, Lewis observed that a ruling class of technocrats and well-meaning experts had arisen who were seeking to conquer nature and its ills, only to end up conquering man. What they were doing in the name of humanity had a decidedly ironic and inhumane end. In his memorable words, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” He continued, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

Speaking in 1945, Lewis was doubtless reflecting on the eugenics movement of his day and the totalizing power of the state, particularly evident in Nazi Germany; yet he was explicitly ruminating upon the educational and cultural establishment of his own country (and the Western world) that had given rise to it. It is this fact, which also characterizes the third installment of his own science fiction trilogy, which makes his insights as relevant as ever. The “humanitarian” impulse of the scientific and political elite has not left us, in fact, the social “conditioners” in education who have “abolished man” have gathered strength; biotechnology has become a huge element of our economy; and the power of technology has steadily grown and expanded into our very homes.

In the third essay of The Abolition of Man, which shares the title of the whole work, Lewis specifically addresses contraceptives as one of his examples of the things that are trumpeted as examples of Man’s control of Nature (probably more explicitly in his day — I think that the language of rights and liberation has more currency in our day). Here is his reference:

What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. (pp. 66-67 in 1996 Touchstone edition)

Will and Ariel Durant on religion, morality, and the state

One passage that stuck out to me in The Lessons of History came at the end of the chapter “Religion and History”:

Puritanism and paganism— the repression and the expression of the senses and desires— alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religion and Puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism ( other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief. (50)

The first part of this paragraph makes a point similar to the one made by Patrick Deneen in some of his recent articles (see here and here).

The character and history of the modern state

In a paper given at a conference on the state, Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics gave a definition of the state and discussed its origins. Here are some key passages:

The state as a corporation (a collective “person” that has its own legal existence):

The question now is: what does it mean to say that a state is a corporate entity? The state is a corporation in the way that a people or a public cannot be. It is a corporation because it is, in effect and in fact, a legal person. As a legal person a corporation not only has the capacity to act but also a liability to be held responsible. Furthermore, a corporation is able to hold property. This is true for incorporated commercial enterprises, for institutions like universities and churches, and for the state. A corporation cannot exist without the natural persons who comprise it — and there must be more than one, for a single individual cannot be a corporation. But the corporation is also a person separate from the persons who comprise it. Thus a public company has an existence because of its shareholders, its agents and their employees, but its rights and duties, powers and liabilities, are not reducible to, or definable in terms of, those of such natural persons. A church or a university has an existence because of the officers who run them and the members who give them their point, but the property of such an entity does not belong to any of these individuals. The state is a corporation in the same way that these other entities are: it is a legal person with rights and duties, powers and liabilities, and holds property that accrues to no other agents than itself. The question in political theory has always been not whether such an entity can come into existence (since it plainly has) but how it does so. This is, in a part, a question of whether its existence is legitimate….

The significance of the capacity for political corporations to hold property ought to be noted. Of critical importance is the fact that this property does not accrue to individual persons. Revenues raised by such corporations by the levying of taxes, or the imposition of tariffs or licensing fees, or by any other means, become the property of the corporation–not of particular governments, or officials, or monarchs, or any other natural person who is able to exercise authority in the name of the corporation. The political corporation, being an abstract entity, cannot enjoy the use of its property–only redistribute it among the agents through whom it exercises power and among others whom those agents are able, or obliged, to favor. The state is not the only political corporation capable of raising revenue and acquiring property, though it will generally be the most voracious in its appetite.

Explaining the rise of the modern state:

According to Martin Van Creveld, the state emerged because of the limitations of the innumerable forms of political organization that existed before it. The crucial innovation that made for development of the state was the idea of the corporation as a legal person, and thus of the state as a legal person. In enabled the emergence of a political entity whose existence was not tied to the existence of particular persons–such as chiefs, lords and kings–or particular groups–such as clans, tribes, and dynasties. The state was an entity that was more durable. Whether or not this advantage was what caused the state to emerge, it seems clear enough that such an entity did come into being. The modern state represents a different form of governance than was found under European feudalism, or in the Roman Empire, or in the Greek city-states.

Having accounted for the concept of the state, however, we now need to consider what kind of theory of the state might best account for the nature of this entity. Ever since the state came into existence, political philosophers have been preoccupied with the problem of giving an account of its moral standing. To be sure, philosophers had always asked why individuals should obey the law, or what, if anything, could justify rebellion against a king or prince. But the emergence of the state gave rise to a host of new theories that have tried to explain what relationship people could have, not to particular persons or groups of persons with power or authority over them, but to a different kind of entity.

To explain the emergence of the state in Europe from the 13th to the 19th centuries would require an account of many things, from the decline of the power of the church against kingdoms and principalities to the development of new political power structures with the transformation and eventual disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire; from the disappearance of towns and city-states, and extended associations like the Hanseatic League, to the rise of movements of national unification. Attempts by theorists to describe the state that was emerging are as much a part of the history of the state as are the political changes and legal innovations. Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montequieu, Hume, Rousseau, Madison, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx were among the most insightful thinkers to offer theories of the state during the course of its emergence, though theorizing went on well into the 20th century in the thought of Max Weber, the English pluralists, various American democratic theorists, and Michael Oakeshott. They offered theories of the state in the sense that they tried to explain what it was that gave the state its point: how it was that the existence of the state made sense. To some, this meant also justifying the state, though for the most part this was not the central philosophical concern. (Normative theory, so called, is probably a relatively recent invention.)

Kukathas adopts Hume’s view that the state arose by chance, and this is the least satisfying part of the article. I thought that his overview was helpful, though.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 72 other followers