You know, there are many things in the study of the natural world, or sometimes in mathematics, which go against intuition. Our experience takes shape in a world of friction, gravity, and air resistance; when for the first time one sees the feather and the stone strike the floor of the vacuum chamber, it’s a shock. After you file out of the demonstration lab, All objects accelerate at the same rate in a gravitational field becomes an article of faith, because how often do we put feathers and stones in vacuum chambers in daily life? Days go by, years, in which all falling feathers waft gently downwards and all stones drop like stones.
But we know better, only because of a determination: to “remember not to forget” that the whole picture is more complicated than it looks at first glance.
I love how Erin at bearing blog brings together the Tantum Ergo and an optical illusion. I bookmarked this piece on a while back. Still worth re-reading.
2. An interesting piece, reframing the abortion issue: Muslims, Christians, honor killings, and abortion”>Muslims, Christians, honor killings, and abortion
I have, for a while now, been developing a theory that honor is actually an important part of feminism, and indeed American culture in general, despite the fact that we tend to think of honor codes as belonging to foreign cultures and older times. That’s why I was interested in Appiah’s book. Appiah is a philosopher of Ghanaian origin now at Princeton, which means I know practically nothing about him because my knowledge of philosophy is minimal. But he evidently writes for a mass audience, and in this case he argues more or less what I was thinking: that the desire for honor is an ingrained part of the human being, and that it still exists in the modern West but in an altered form. He argues that honor can, in fact, be employed in the service of liberal reforms. In the book, he describes three “moral revolutions” of the past — the end of dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade — which fought traditional notions of honor with newer versions of honor. After that, he discusses how this process might be deployed to end honor killing.
Honor killing, like footbinding, is ultimately based on reproductive control. Just like Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet to make them look chaste, families in honor-killing societies are expected to police their daughters’ sexual behavior in a conspicuous way. This helps prevent illegitimate children from being born, and also gives some promise of fidelity to future husbands. This in turn boosts women’s chances of getting husbands of high status — or any husbands really — putting both the woman and her family in an honorable estate.
Since the sexual revolution, a sizable contingent of Westerners, feminists not least among them, have sought to disconnect honor questions from chastity altogether. But there is one controversial, morally dubious practice that Westerners engage in that also ensures their reproductive control. The title of the post tipped you off: abortion.
Now, when I say abortion is a morally dubious practice, I am not talking about my personal opinion of it so much as what Americans at large think of it. Poll results are notoriously variable on this, but the overall gist of it is that a large number of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong, a killing even, and yet they are willing to allow it in some cases, especially rape. So that leads to the conclusion that a non-trivial number of Americans think it’s OK to end an innocent life to clean up after sexual misconduct.
Many activists don’t buy this. They think the inconsistent numbers mean Americans don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. But after reading Appiah’s book, I can completely believe they think both things at once. It is highly consistent with what happens when honor and morality conflict. The question is, if this is honor killing, what sort of honor is being defended here?
So in one sense, Americans probably understand Middle Eastern honor killing better than they think they do. But of course, in another way honor killing and abortion are polar opposites. One assumes that reproductive control is a collective project, with the woman herself only having one vote in the matter, and often not the most important vote either. The other has the woman take on nearly the entire responsibility herself, with everyone else around mainly to support whatever decisions she makes.
If you truly don’t believe abortion is wrong, the appeal of the latter position, especially combined with the abuses of the former, is undeniable. But a few cautions are in order. The old collective model of reproductive control never really went away, partly because individuals aren’t always great at making sexual decisions. Many a woman has found that their friends were right when they said, “I know that guy is hot, but he’s bad news.” Parents still rightly try to shape their kids’ behavior, schools educate them about birth control, and so on. Where the collective model goes wrong, it is because people put the woman’s interests behind their economic or political ambitions, or hiding their own failures, such as the fact that they didn’t protect their daughter from getting raped. But it’s not like economics and failure-hiding aren’t reasons for a lot of abortions.
Another problem with the woman-alone model is the position it puts men in. Some men have claimed that, since women have the right to abortion, they should be able to refuse to pay child support, if the pregnancy was not their intention. Women have generally objected on the basis that, if one person has to decide whether to have the baby it should be the woman, and anyway men have so many other privileges this isn’t such a big deal. But this is not exactly a long-term plan for equality. Feminists want to take away those other privileges in any case, and the whole structure creates a zero-sum game between the sexes: the more reproductive control the woman has, the less the man has, and vice versa. If reproductive control is such a point of honor as many feminists make it, it’s little wonder that men don’t particularly want to cede it.
Pick an area of human life, any area—marriage, family, sexuality, politics, the economy, faith, philosophy, science, education. It doesn’t matter which one, because whichever one you pick, wherever you look, you’ll find a crisis. And for as different as each crisis may be, at their core, at their root, you’ll find they all have one crisis in common: a crisis of identity.
As men and women, we don’t know who we are anymore. It’s not just that we don’t know Christ. It’s that we don’t know us.
We don’t know what it means to be the image and likeness of God, to be men and women, mothers and fathers, bodies and souls. We don’t know our own dignity. We don’t know our own beauty. We don’t know that every word we speak and every gesture we make has the potential to make visible the invisible God, to reflect his glory and his love.
Somewhere along the way, as a culture, we forgot that. We also forgot that each and every person has their own particular witness to bear, their own particular truth about God to reveal.
Which means we’re walking around not seeing that each of us is an unrepeatable work of wonder, that no one else in all of time will image God quite like we do, and that when we silence the witness of any one of us—inside the womb or outside the womb—we’re losing more than a person. We’re losing a glimpse of God that no one else can or will give.
But how do you tell people that? How do you help them see? How do you get them to understand that when they’re freezing embryos or aborting babies or abusing their bodies, they’re doing something infinitely worse than juggling pottery rescued from the ashes of Pompei or letting children doodle on Caravaggio canvasses?
4. Elizabeth Duffy writes about our conflicted attitudes toward motherhood in The Repulsive Truth:
Our culture cannot decide how it feels about new life. On one hand, people want children on demand, whenever it’s convenient, with in vitro and fertility treatments. On the other hand, people want abortion on demand, anytime, anywhere, no restrictions. Kids are either a malignancy to be avoided, or conversely, something you must want desperately.
There is no longer any room to allow children to happen, to receive them graciously, and to care for them because it’s the right thing to do. Culture demands that women make a choice between loving motherhood or hating it. And if you choose motherhood, you had better throw yourself into it with massive gusto, because it was your own silly decision.
The repulsive truth is that nothing will provide satisfaction in life but self-gift. Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Married, Single or Religious, you have to find a way to give yourself to others, while expecting nothing meaningful back in return.
Motherhood is terribly difficult at times, and mothering many children can also be isolating and labor intensive. I know from experience that I make it worse by withholding myself and pretending I’m a martyr in someone else’s cause, and that my joy increases when I take responsibility for my actions, as well as my failures to act, and give myself wholeheartedly to whatever outcomes may befall me, even if they be children. And like any process of purification, the decision to give oneself is not once and forever, but has to be repeated every single day.
I refuse to fall into the trap of either fetishizing or denouncing the vocation of motherhood. I choose to be detached from the ridiculous ways people mischaracterize the Church’s teaching and those who follow it.