Sunday, September 28, 2008

Descent from The Highest

One of my favorite books for contemplation is Tao Te Ching, the classic book of Chinese wisdom penned by the mystic Lao Tzu. This morning I was reading Chapter #18, which spoke of a historical progression - in fact, a devolution:

The Mighty Way declined among the folk
And then came kindness and morality.
When wisdom and intelligence appeared,
They brought with them a great hypocrisy.
The six relations were no more at peace,
So codes were made to regulate our homes.
The fatherland grew dark, confused by strife;
Official loyalty became the style.

(Blakney translation)

The "Mighty Way", or Tao, is the highest order of things, the uncreated and mysterious that lies behind all that exists. Following Tao is the highest road that any person or society can follow - as it apparently had in the depths of the antiquity to which Lao Tzu refers.

But it declined - and notice what replaced it: kindness and morality. Wow - what could be wrong with kindness and morality? Those are good things, right? True, they are - but they're lesser goods than following Tao. They're second-best to the greatest good.

Note what follows them: wisdom and intelligence. Apparently these are tertiary - if you can't follow Tao, and are unable to even be kind and moral, you can be wise and intelligent. But here we see the first mention of outright evil: apparently with wisdom and intelligence come "a great hypocrisy". This is easy to observe in everyday life: we all know people who are wise in a cunning fashion, even using "wisdom" to justify evil, and it is easy to find those who use great intelligence to advance themselves at the expense of others. These can slip in when the greatest goods in a culture are wisdom and intelligence.

Which explains why "the six relations"* were no longer at peace. With wisdom and intelligence so easy to counterfeit, strife would be almost inevitable. To deal with this, laws were drawn up, but they were an inadequate substitute for Tao. The cancer spread "from the roots" - originating in the homes and families, it seeped out into the culture at large until the entire "fatherland" was plunged into strife. At last all that was left was "Official loyalty" - an idiom in Chinese wisdom literature for external observance of norms with no internal disposition of true obedience.

As I read this, I thought over the past couple of centuries of Western civilization. To a layman like myself, it seems that we have followed this very path. Once obedience to Tao Himself - Jesus Christ - was presumed. Then it became optional, but it was presumed that people would be kind and moral even if they weren't obedient to Tao. This didn't last long, as following generations asked the inevitable question about being kind and moral: "Why should I?" Wisdom and intellect were exulted above even the lesser goods of kindness and morality, and obedience was not even on the radar. This brought what the Sage said it would: counterfeits and hypocrisy. Basic human relations degenerated, and strife seeped through our culture. This is where I see our general culture now: in the state where "official loyalty" is the norm, with cunning and self-promoting intellect the highest most are expected to attain.

Does this mean all is lost? Has everything sunk so low? No - there are still those who seek to be kind and moral, and those who seek the highest good: devotion and obedience to Tao. But a culture that has its standards set so low is only one step short of the final fate that the sages predict:


*Blakney's footnotes explain these as basic human relations: father and son, elder and younger brothers, and husband and wife. I don't know enough about the cultural context to comment on that, but regardless of specific application, the inference is clear: the most basic human relations, which should have been harmonious, were not.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Mortal Sin of Sarah Palin

I don't intend to make this site a spot for a lot of political commentary, save when it incidentally intersects with cultural and social commentary. Many are chewing up bandwidth regarding the U.S. Presidential race, and its most recent entry, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, so I probably wouldn't add anything new in the realm of political commentary.

However, I have been interested to see the severity of the reaction to Palin's appointment, particularly among hard-core pro-abortion feminists. It has gone well beyond disdain for her political stands. She has been reviled and castigated by the hard left in a way that words like "vitriolic" and "venomous" cannot capture. (Jonah Goldberg does a great summary in his column.)

Why the rabid response? It is far out of proportion to someone who simply stands on the other side of the political fence. My suspicion is that they despise Palin with such savage hatred because she has done the unthinkable, the inconceivable:

She denied their god his sacrificial victim.

When you've fought the pro-abortionists as long as I have, you get to know their strategies. It isn't easy to get a culture like ours, which favors fair play and the protection of the weak and helpless, to accept the mass slaughter of innocent children as public policy. They have to resort to oblique tactics, which they do by starting with The Hard Cases. Any apologia for abortion always begins with these.

Of course, the first is RapeAndIncest. This is glossed over in one phrase, without thought, and is always offered first because it strips away one argument against abortion - i.e. that the woman already exercised her "choice". Since a RapeAndIncest victim had no choice, surely one would not wish to impose upon her something she did not choose? Of course, this argument leaves unaddressed the question of how just it is to punish a child for the sin of her father, and glosses over how abortion makes it simpler for crimes like incest to be covered up and thus perpetuated. But those considerations do not occur to most who are faced with this argument - they simply concede the ground.

Then comes the next hard case: the Defective Child. What if the child is (*sigh*)...Not Quite Right? Such occurrences are tragic, and nobody's fault, but why make a bad situation worse? What hardhearted cad would, for the sake of abstract principles, force a woman to carry to term a child with a severe birth defect? Who can ask that of another person? What kind of a burden would that be on the family? And what kind of life would the baby have, anyway? Would it not be better to deal with the problem before it became a problem? And, since nobody wants to be a hardhearted cad, this ground is conceded as well.

At this point the argument is effectively won. The focus has been shifted from the humanity and rights of the unborn child to other factors, and from there it is easy to move on to other hard cases (the unwed teen, the poor woman, etc.) But it all hinges on those two wedges to force the door. Those two hypothetical cases are the linchpins of the popular acceptance of abortion in our culture. Without them, people would have to grapple with the savage reality of abortion, but so long as they can be trotted out, the critics can be silenced. After all, who can blame a woman who discovers that her child is carrying a gene for a severe illness, or has a defective heart? There might be a quiet clucking of tongues, and a gentle shake of the head as the eyes are averted, but who are we to judge? And so, in the name of compassion, the "defective" child is almost automatically sentenced to death.

Until someone like Sarah Palin shows up to strip away the noble-sounding phrases and expose this argument for what it truly is: bullying and cowardice.

To begin with, she already has four children. Four! Isn't that already a little - er - over quota? She's a very successful career woman with a high profile, high stress job - and she turns up pregnant. To most die hard feminists, her life circumstances alone indicate an abortion should be considered, if not assumed. But then she learns that the child she carries is "defective"! You can almost hear the indignant sputtering. Surely this, this of all circumstances, would qualify for a Hard Case Scenario B exception. A no brainer, easy call - when would you like that appointment?

No, says Sarah Palin and her family. Even though it is difficult to accept, they refuse to make the appointment. They will not take the innocent one down the long stone street to the temple to leave him with the ravenous god who claims his blood. From the eldest to the youngest they accept him, love him, cherish him - and all before she stepped into the public spotlight.

And how the brutal god and his acolytes scream and gibber with rage! Not only is the god denied his blood feast, but by choosing life the Palin family gives the lie to the excuses, the platitudes, and the cliches by which "defective" children are usually condemned to death. The brilliant light of love shines into the darkness cast by this common excuse, and like roaches scuttling for the baseboards, the apologists of death must flee before the simple witness of a family who accepts and loves all its members, "defective" or not. The shallowness and selfishness of the second excuse is laid bare as a simple housewife and mother utters the very words of God: "when I look at my child, I see perfection."

That is her offering, and that of her family: love and acceptance, not cowardice and blood. No wonder the pro-aborts hate her! She shows them for what they really are, and denies their god his rightful sacrifice! How dare she?

Maybe she dares because she bows down before a different God.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Magical Stem Cells

There has been much furor over Joseph Biden's campaign trail comments implying hypocrisy on the part of those who care about children born with birth defects but oppose "stem cell research". Most of the response has centered around the implicit (or not) reference to little Trig Palin, but what seemed to slip by was the implication regarding stem cells.

Of course, Biden follows the approved script by using the generic phrase "stem cells" without distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. Nobody objects to using adult stem cells, which nobody has to die to donate. Only embryonic stem cells cause the moral problem, because someone has to die to provide them.

But the real hollowness of Biden's statement lies in the implicit promise that stem cell research could somehow, someday yield a treatment or cure for a genetic condition like Down's Syndrome.

I've stayed abreast of developments in all forms of stem cell research for years. I've seen outrageous claims made by ESC evangelists, but never have I heard even the most rabid propagandist go so far as to claim that stem cell therapies could cure or treat Down's syndrome. Yet nobody blinked when Biden made this outrageous statement that didn't have a shred of scientific backing.

Why not?

Because embryonic stem cells are magical.

That's right: magical. To the modern mind and imagination, embryonic stem cells play the same role as magic did for prior generations. The "promise" of embryonic stem cells fits into the same imaginative niche as the Philosopher's Stone did for the Renaissance alchemist. Once located and the secrets unlocked, All Things will be possible, be it the transmutation of elements or freedom from weakness and decay.

Anyone who bothers to research the nascent field of cellular therapy knows this to be nonsense. Truly revolutionary changes in medical treatment, such as antibiotics and x-rays, have long since been made. The stem cell treatments that have been developed - all with adult stem cells, of course - are simply more tools in the array of options available. No miracles, no restoration of youth, often simply the arresting of a deteriorating condition - real progress, but slow and undramatic. Even if therapies were eventually developed from embryonic stem cells, the same results could be expected.

But anything so prosaic as the facts cannot hold a candle to the glittering promise of one of the oldest of human myths: eternal youth and vibrant health. Every race and culture has tales of the elixir or fountain that postpones the ravages of age, or the hidden valley or castle whose residents remain forever youthful and vigorous. Typically only The Worthy are fit to discover these wonders, though the definition of Worthy has varied by time and culture. To some, it would be the most triumphant warrior; to others, the most innocent or just plain lucky. One suspects that the modern criteria would be sufficient academic credentials and ample federal funding, but the idea is the same. The longing for immortality, the dread of the pain and humiliation of disease and aging - these are potent forces even when we shove them to the back of our minds. We hunger for a solution, and are willing to sacrifice anything - even our own children - to the hope of attaining it.

Every age has magical hopes. For example, take the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. which was cutting edge science fiction in its day. At one point the protagonist is taken to the heart of the nearly magical Nautilus to be shown the source of its power. This turns out to be (drum roll, please): electricity. One can imagine the Victorian shivers at the potential of this mysterious wonder force. The modern reader, who probably knows more about electricity than the most advanced scientist of Verne's day, simply shrugs and asks, "Generated by what?" Actual knowledge and common usage has a way of demystifying the magical, because it forces people to face the practical limitations of grandiose ideas, and to come to grips with the problems as well as the potential of a solution. One gets that impression reading the actual scientific literature on stem cell research: the air of caution, the acknowledgment of how little is known, the qualified phrases used when discussing the potential for use of the research.

But none of this makes it into the press releases or the offhand comments by ambitious politicians. Those parties aren't interested in informing or instructing, they're interested in telling people what they want to hear, and the people want to hear about magic. Someday the research will bear fruit, and cellular therapies will take their place in the array of available medical treatments. People will look back with a smile on the early claims regarding these therapies. They'll wonder how anyone could have believed such things.

But of course, that age will have moved on to embrace their own magical hopes.

Monday, September 08, 2008

"Our Church, too"?

I recently had an unfortunate disagreement with someone to whom I am moderately close. I'm not a fan of relational discord with anyone, and much less with someone like this. And much as I'd like to simply put the whole thing behind me, there was one comment that was made in the midst of the disagreement that has had me pondering.

The immediate topic of dispute was abortion. Like me, this person is Catholic, but unlike me, she is pro-abortion, and sees no conflict between that and participating fully in her parish life, including taking the Eucharist, being a cantor, etc. I've simply been silent on this matter for years, ostensibly out of interest in relational harmony but probably more out of cowardice. However, this disagreement provided the opportunity for me to express my concern for the state of her soul, not simply for her pro-abortion stand but for her continuing to take the Sacraments.

Naturally, she took my concern as condemnation, accused me of being Torquemada and enjoying it, etc. But in the midst of it all, she made an interesting comment. "There are lots of people who think like I do", she said, "and it's our Church, too!"

With that one phrase, she betrayed the fault in her thinking, and her view of the Church.

"Our Church"? Last I checked, it was Jesus Christ's Church. Not my Church or her Church or Joseph Ratzinger's Church or Hans K√ľng's Church, but Christ's Church. That means He sets the conditions for participation. The Church is not, at root, a human institution. Her members are human, but her Head is Divine.

It seems to me that the crux of the issue lies here. A person who looks on the Church as the dynamic expression of Divine activity in the world is going to think very differently than one who sees the Church as simply another human institution. The former view ultimately sees the Church as a family with God as Father, while the latter sees it as a political institution that can be swayed and changed by humans.

This is not a trivial difference. If the existence of the Church and terms of participation therein are set by an eternal, immutable God whose will cannot be swayed by any human pressure, then statements like "you shall not murder" are understood to be absolute. Whether the commandment is ignored or obeyed, it remains valid because it has been spoken by the defining authority.

But if the Church is a human institution, whose existence depends on the participation of its members, then it is defined by those members and can be changed by them. This is a political or anthropocentric perspective (to tie in to my earlier posts).

To be fair, my friend was somewhat handicapped here. You see, she was educated at one of our land's premiere "Catholic universities" - and yes, it's one of the ones that threw over the faith for the secular agenda a couple of generations back. Thus her education about the Church was big on the importance of the Church's human members throughout history and how different things were across the centuries, and very short on the enduring Presence of Christ and the things that remained constant despite the various times and cultures which the Church has served.

In short, her outlook is tuned to the human externals of the Church, rather than the Divine Heart and His immutable laws. That's what she was taught, and she's comfortable there. My suggestion that she will have to answer for disobedience someday didn't fit her outlook, and was therefore violently rejected.

I'm very thankful for something that was taught me long ago by my own father. Again and again he drilled into my thick young head that someday I would stand before the Throne of Christ and answer for my obedience and disobedience to His holy law. One of the answers I'll not be able to give then is that lots of others were with disobedient right along with me. And one thing I certainly don't want to have to answer for: behaving like His holy Church was somehow mine.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Weblog resurrection

It's been (literally) years since I tried my hand at web logging, but now I'm stepping back in. I thought this one was totally moribund, and had actually started a different weblog (which I've since deleted), but thanks to my wife, I was able to retrieve this one.

So I'll take another stab at blogging. Why? After all, the first venture died of neglect - what makes me suppose the second will be more successful?

Good questions. The plain response to the second is: I don't know that it will. I know part of the reason that my maintenance of the other blog tapered off was that shortly after I started it, I got heavily involved with an online forum. The interactive dialog nature of forum participation was more to my temperament than keeping an online diary, and before long I was a moderator there. I made many friends there, and am still an active participant.

As for the first question: why blog at all, especially if forum participation seems more my "thing"? Well, partly because I find myself wanting to say things that don't fit the brief post model suitable for forums. Also, I've found myself making lengthy comments on other people's blogs. To me, this indicates that I feel I've got enough to say that I should probably say it in my own venue rather than camping on other people's.

But the most immediate and pressing issue is a very practical one, and I'd best warn everyone up front about it. Here in my home state, Michigan, we're facing a terrible referendum this November, and I need a place to post thoughts about it. I'll post about other things, and hopefully get enough in the habit that I'll keep on posting beyond November 5th, but there's a lot on the line with this issue, and I'll be saying a lot about it.

So to begin: for full information, people should visit the MiCAUSE website to get the background. The Other Side has a website as well. I'll probably be referencing it from time to time, if only as an example of how emotional appeals and half truths can fatally deceive. I've already had a piece published in our local paper on it, which in turn was a response to a piece the week before (which, unfortunately, I didn't preserve a link to).

That'll be enough to go on for now. I'll be back, possibly later today. One of the things that doomed my last effort was the internal urging that I had to be Massive and Profound and Terribly Insightful with every post, which meant that if I didn't have a tome ready to post, I felt I wasn't ready. I'll try to amend that this time. Brief posts, though hopefully always thoughtful, will be more the rule.