Sunday, 26 January 2014

What is a good commentary?

One of the things I found surprising about Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium) as I sat in the adoration chapel last year reading it was the section on the homily. Strong social sensitivity, an exhortation for people to go deeper into the always-joyous-though-not-always-happy Christian life and a missionary zeal, are all things I expected.

In hindsight, it does make sense: the homily is not a place for strict catechesis, but it is also not a "non-catechetical" portion of the liturgy. Insofar as some portion of the Gospel accounts are read, the Gospel is proclaimed at each celebration of the Mass. Particularly interesting was the link between the Church qua Mother (the practical importance of which I emphasised here) and the manner in which the homily is given (cf. EG 139).

Paragraphs 135-175 are the relevant ones, for those who want to find out more about what the Pope has said. Four things stick out for me: his insistence on preaching that is centred on the Word, his brief overview of how to exegete a biblical text (cf. EG 147), the personal involvement in preaching, and in particular, the spiritualized reading of the text (cf. EG 153).

Now, what has this got to do with commentaries, and also, my own commentaries? Reviewing some of what I wrote, I found it interesting, but unsuited for anything that was not a deep analysis of biblical texts (particularly the Mathean ones, the Genesis ones, not so much). So for practical purposes, whilst I learnt a fair bit, I gained fairly little spiritually.

Various remedies exist, of course: having both a textual analysis as well as spiritual approach to the text (at different times), an incorporation of lectio divina, etc. But perhaps my approach was too cerebral from the start, and addons would just obscure what I was meant to be doing anyway. Given my generally cerebral approach to everything, I suspect this is more likely to be on the money.

I would like to quote a passage that has guided my thinking, and then propose a new way in which I will write commentaries (which have been on hold anyway, due to the burden of erudition I had placed on myself):

"In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?” When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait." (EG 153)

Now, it is commonly known to all that know me that I wish to be a priest (in the Society of Jesus, in particular, for which I get no shortage of slack). So I thought, what if I combined a homiletic styled reflection with my commentaries? I could take a text, read it a few times through, and ask myself the questions that the Pope gives - I could also ask what other people might benefit from in the text, and so prepare what might be a sketch of a draft of the idea for a homily.

One disadvantage to this approach would be that I will not be able to write commentaries that squeeze all the meaning out of a text. But that disadvantage is outweighed by the gains: to be able to quickly exegete a text for preaching, to understand the practical ramifications of texts, to see themes emerge in a way that is relevant to every day life, and many others.

So that is what I will do. God willing, I hope to start afresh my series of commentaries on Matthew with the "Do Not be Anxious" passage in Matthew 6.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Few Comments on the Rule of St Benedict

The Rule of St Benedict is one of the foundational texts of Western monasticism, and at only 70 pages long, I decided to give it a read. It is certainly insightful!

A few things struck me: first, I was reminded of the developed system of bishops and priests, something which my Protestant background keeps forgetting. Of course, bishops and priests are from the apostolic age, but the power and respect accorded to them is still surprising. Similarly, the Divine Office is already in full kick, and the liturgical calendar is well established also. Once again, as John Henry Newman remarked a couple of centuries ago, to be immersed in history is to cease to be Protestant. The ancient Church, at least in the West, is the Catholic Church.

At times, I was surprised by the emphasis on personal holiness and how it was to be attained - for whilst the rule has many Scripture quotations, I had never made a very strong connection between asceticism within the biblical corpus and holiness. The emphasis on punishment and obedience is probably more monastic than strictly biblical, however.

The passion St Benedict has for holy monasteries comes out frequently - the abbot is to be obeyed in everything, and yet the abbot is not the self-made leader, but the loving shepherd who will have to give an account to God for the state of his sheeps. He has a certain (amusing) disdain for other sorts of monks, as can be seen in the first chapter, where he shows he has no fondness for sarabaites or gyrovagues. The emphasis on loving relationships within the confines of the strictness of the rules gives for an interesting interplay, and I am curious as to how well it worked in practice.

There are a few sections which made me laugh, simply because of how seriously they described these matters, and I'll end by quoting them:

Chapter 22How the Monks Are to Sleep

"Let the brethren sleep singly, each in a separate bed. Let them receive the bedding befitting their mode of life, according to the direction of their Abbot. If it can be done, let all sleep in one apartment; but if the number doth not allow it, let them sleep in tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. Let a light be kept burning constantly in the cell till morning.

Let them sleep clothed and girded with cinctures or cords, that they may be always ready; but let them not have knives at their sides whilst they sleep, lest perchance the sleeping be wounded in their dreams; and the sign having been given, rising without delay, let them hasten to outstrip each other to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum. The younger brothers should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the seniors. On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses."

Chapter 40: Of the Quantity of Drink

""Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that" (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina of wine a day is sufficient for each one. But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence, let them know that they will have their special reward. If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer's heat should require more, let that depend on the judgment of the Superior, who must above all things see to it, that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.

Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly; because "wine maketh even wise men fall off" (Sir 19:2). But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less, or none at all, let those who live there bless God and murmur not. This we charge above all things, that they live without murmuring."

A Sketch of my Ecclesiology - Reflection on "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles

Note: for those unaware of the jargon used in Christian theology, "ecclesiology" refers to the study of the Church, in particular, the Church as a theological reality, not primarily from a sociological point of view.

Among all the issues I am not properly qualified to have an opinion on (which, really, is all of them), I think ecclesiology ranks high. Except, like many issues, I am forced to have some sort of opinion, tentative though it may be - it was the case for ethics when I wrote "Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic" and, as I think came through clearly when I wrote "The Road to Rome", ecclesiology is one of those areas where every Christian has to have some sort of opinion; I do.

I finished reading one of the ecclesiology treasures of the past century: "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles, a few days ago. Instead of doing a review, which I am not very good at doing anyway, I want to briefly present what the premise of the book was, present my own sketch of an ecclesiology, and see how it fits with other models, and how it stands up to the criticisms led by the late Jesuit.

Dulles understands the Church to be, in a nutshell, a mystery. As he notes, mysteries are things one explores intellectually and experientially, but that finally have inexhaustible wealth, they cannot fully be comprehended:

"The term mystery, applied to the Church, signified many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself." (p. 15)

To understand anything of the Church, he says, we do have certain tools:

"Among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images. This consideration will lead us into some discussion of cognate realities, such as symbols, models and paradigms - tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day." (v. 16)

The first hundred pages deal with five models, the Church qua institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. The second hundred deal with how these models relate to areas such as eschatology, ministry and the relation between the Church theologically and the churches (one might say "sociologically"), as well as evaluation of the models. I will focus primarily on the first half.

It is no secret that I favour what Dulles called the "mystical communion" model, which he divided into "People of God" and "Body of Christ", and of which I favour the latter. Not only do I consider this model to be primary, but I consider it to be significantly superior to the others, because I think the others can sublate to the Body of Christ conception of the Church.

Very quickly, why do I think that the Church is best described by the image of "Body of Christ" (or "Mystical Body of Christ")? Put simply, the apostle Paul clearly says so in his epistles to the Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians. What exactly that means is open to some debate, but the truth of the matter is not; whilst he employs other images, none quite have the almost definitional status of the Church qua Body of Christ.

What about the other models? To understand how those fit together, I must explain a little what I think the term "Body of Christ" really means: it is open to confusion, because most Catholics (I include myself in that number) would probably think first of the Eucharist. In basic terms, I consider the Church to be the functional prolongation of the Incarnation, and hence that in her mission, structures and teachings she reflects those of Christ. However, the essence of the Church is not quite divine in the same way that the Son is divine, for even when the two spouses become one flesh, there remains distinction in essence: the woman, though one flesh with the man, remains woman, so too does the Church, though "one flesh" with Christ, remain distinct from him.

It is relatively clear, I think, how the other models form part of the Body of Christ one - the institutional aspect of the Church, though not primary, clearly follows from the fact that the Body has many parts, and some are leadership roles - in purely physiological terms, bodies have structures. They are not primary, but they are practical outgrowths of what is primary. The Church is also a sacrament: as Dulles points out, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God; he is the embodiment of the love of God, made visible in his flesh. The cross is a sign of God's love, then, not just because it symbolizes God's love, but because it is truly and really the most excellent act of God's love, which is invisible in general, and visible in Christ Jesus.

The first three models refer to what the Church is, whilst the other two refer to what the Church does: because I conceive of the Church as continuing the Incarnation, the primary raison d'etre of the Church is the same of that of Christ. What was the ministry of Christ? It had the two aspects of herald and servanthood, of preaching the Kingdom of God and service, particularly to those overlooked, despised or rejected. Therefore these remain the crucial tasks for the Church, not in spite of the Church being the Body of Christ, but because of it!

Dulles writes of the "mystical communion" models, which include "People of God" and "Body of Christ":

"For many purposes the analogies of Body of Christ and People of God are virtually equivalent. Both of them are more democratic in tendency that the hierarchical models that we have seen in our [chapter on the Church as Institution] ... The image of the People of God, however, differs from that of the Body of Christ in that it allows for greater distance between the Church and its divine head. The Church is seen as a community of persons each of whom is individually free." (p. 49)

Whilst there are similarities between these two sub-models, I think Dulles minimizes a crucial difference, and responding to it will help respond to the objections that are raised to the Body of Christ image, and the deficiencies it is perceived to have.

Dulles misunderstands the enormous difference between the two mystical communion models on how they relate the parts to the whole. In the People of God, each individual is presumably one of God's people, or perhaps one might say a "Person of God." In the Body of Christ, it is not so clear how parts relate to the whole, but what is clear is that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts: for I am not the Body of Christ, but together with others who are not the Body of Christ, we form it. Furthermore, the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all within the Church are alike, a section it might be useful to quote in full:
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts."

So the Body of Christ is not exactly a "democratic" model, nor is it non-hierarchical, at least not necessarily so.

Still, Dulles has some important objections to consider, both to the Body of Christ model, and the Mystical Communion models in general. To the Body of Christ, he says that a historical analysis will yield different understandings of the Body of Christ, and a modern question might be "is this body a pure communion of grace or is it essentially visible?" (p. 50) He also notes that an "unhealthy divinization" can occur in this model, in particular, that if the Holy Spirit is the life principle of the Church, then the actions of the Church would be attributable to the Holy Spirit, rendering sin in the Church as unintelligible. To the Mystical Communion models more generally he enunciates again the objections to the Body of Christ model, adding also that these models "[fails] to give Christians a very clear sense of their identity or mission," and that it does not account for the relationship between the parts and the whole, between the "friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace."

The different understandings of the Body of Christ view of the Church should not be an enormous barrier, nor should lack of clarity about the relationship of its parts be considered such. Dulles, in the next chapter, shows that the institutional and mystical, the visible and invisible, can be unified in a sacramental view of the Church: I claim that the sacramental is already present in the Body of Christ model, for two reasons: first, as above, the Body of Christ reminds most Catholics of the Eucharist, not the Church - the Eucharist is an example of how the Body of Christ can be "really, truly and substantially" present in something, how the Eucharistic species can become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and yet remain a visible "substance", the bread and wine. Second, both Dulles and I consider Christ to be himself a sort of sacrament, in fact, a sacrament in the truest sense of the word: "Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God as turned towards man." (p. 62). Hence, just as the visible and invisible combine in the Eucharistic species, and as Jesus is himself a sacrament, so his Body, the Church, has the interplay between concrete and mystical within its very nature, which is sacramental because it is the Body of Christ.

Does the Body of Christ model divinize the Church unhealthily? Only to the extent that the Incarnation, in divinizing humanity, or Baptism, in imparting the divine life, does so. The concept of "Theosis", or divinization, has a long history in Christian theology, and yet I think it is quite clear that Theosis does not impute wrongdoing to God. Simply because I, in the words of the apostle Peter, "partake of the divine nature", that I have been adopted as a child of God, does not mean that I am sinless. When Paul says that his life is in Christ, he does not mean by that to infer he is sinless. One can be divinized without becoming God, and hence the Body of Christ can be divine without being impeccable.

Finally, on the view I have expressed above about what the Body of Christ model means, I have made it quite clear that it does give a clear charter for mission: unlike the People of God model, which seems to be static, from within the Body of Christ model comes what the Church should do - it should be the Body of Christ, and so do as Christ does.


By defending the Body of Christ model as primary to understanding the Church, I am not negating the importance of other models; I agree with Avery Dulles that the Church is ultimately unfathomable. Still, the Body of Christ "definition" of the Church is primary, in the same way that "true God and true man" is primary for understanding Jesus Christ, though we can nonetheless explore both his divinity and humanity, and give models like "King, Prophet and Priest", or the various models proposed by historical Jesus scholars, some more dubious than others, such as Cynic philosopher, "a marginal Jew", peasant revolutionary, proto-Marxist socialist egalitarian feminist libertarian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, etc... 

I heartily recommend Dulles' book, as I said, probably one of the most important ecclesiological books of the 20th century.

[Page numbers taken from Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974 edition]

Thursday, 23 January 2014

I am not a Roman Catholic

I am not a Roman Catholic. I was not born in Rome, I have not lived in Rome, heck – I have never even been to Rome. I was, in fact, born in England, and hence, since Irish Catholics are Catholics from Ireland, Mexican Catholics are Catholics from Mexico, I propose that I should be called an English Catholic.

Why is “English Catholic” misleading, and why am I referred to as a Roman Catholic, anyway, even by other Catholics who know I am not Roman? In a very limited sense, the name is not wrong: the Catholic Church’s leader is Bishop of Rome, and what is sometimes referred to as the Holy See is, in fact, the Roman See. Somewhat deeper, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, referred to the Church as “Sancta Catholica Apostolica Romana Ecclesia,” (Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church). Perhaps that solves the mystery, then, the reason people call me Roman is that Vatican I said so.

Not so fast. The first draft of the document did not actually have the term “Apostolica” in it, and it was added in response to the English speaking bishop’s complaint that the word “Romana” might be deemed to support the Anglican Branch theory, which basically says that the Catholic Church is in fact divided between Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Council did not wish to support such an odd claim. The East, the West and the English together formed the full Catholic Church, according to this theory. Whilst these churches are indeed in schism with respect to each other, they each conserve apostolic succession, and so are true churches. It is not surprising that only Anglicans believe this, and not all of them, at that.1 And yet, if it is the case that I can be called a Roman Catholic just because the First Vatican Council said so, then I can equally be called an Apostolic Catholic or a Holy Catholic. If only the latter were true!

The absurdity of these other adjectives, equally proclaimed by Vatican I, make it clear that it was probably the Anglicans’ doing that I be called a “Roman Catholic.” This does not make it true, for even if one accepts the Vatican I argument, “Roman”, “Apostolic”, “Holy” and even “Catholic” are attributes not of the person, but of the Church. Were I to be ordained a bishop, then I might in some sense be apostolic, were I to become fully sanctified, then I would be holy – there is very little sense in which I will ever become Roman, however.

So I am not a Roman Catholic. I probably should not even be referred to as Catholic, just as Christian, for a Catholic is simply a Christian in the true sense of the term. To think otherwise is to implicitly accept that there is such a thing as, for instance, an English Catholic, distinct from a Roman Catholic. As John Henry Newman pointed out, however, when the Church of England decided to install a bishop in Jerusalem, even the Anglican Branch theory broke down, as when one wishes to install bishoprics where another of the so-called branches of the Church of Christ exists, one denies ipso facto the legitimacy of the others.2 The fact that the Catholic Church exists worldwide, and counts among it English Catholics such as myself testifies that, even if the Church of Christ does not “subsist in” the Catholic Church as she claims it does in Lumen Gentium (the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), it is not Roman other than the limited sense given above, which stands behind the First Vatican Council's statement. 

1 For a Catholic treatment of the issue, the CDF’s “Dominus Iesus” is probably the best place to start, and a link to the declaration can be found here:
2 Well, Newman did not quite say that it broke down, but it was at the very least strained.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why Religious Life

The religious life (meaning the vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience) is forever producing commentary, both from secular quarters and Catholic ones. Three weeks ago, Br. Justin Hannegan, a Benedictine, published an article in Crisis Magazine explaining why the religious life was imploding in numbers, which can effectively be summarised in the title “Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.” The essence of his argument comes from an analysis of a paper published by the secular sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (here), which shows with an impressive amount of data that the cause was the end of the Second Vatican Council, in particular, the emphasis on the universal call to holiness. Hannegan argues that an perverted spirit of egalitarianism that emerged after the council has effectively made religious life into masochism, obscuring the highway to holiness that it represents. He writes:

Religious life, in itself, is not a desirable good. Religious life is a renunciation. It is a kind of death. It involves turning one’s back on what is humanly good and desirable. Consider the life of a Trappist. A Trappist monk deprives himself of sleep, deprives himself of food, gives up a wife and children, puts aside the joys of conversation, gives up his personal property, rises at 4:00 in the morning every day to chant interminable psalms in a cold church, loses the opportunity to travel, and even relinquishes his own will. The thought of being a Trappist is not an appealing thought. It instills a kind of dread—the sort of dread that we feel when we contemplate a skull, or when we stand over a precipice, or when we look across a barren landscape. All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect. All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive. The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will. No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will. No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods. Such a desire would be mere perversion.

Hannegan goes on, however, to point out why religious life exists at all by quoting various saints:

Instead of asking people whether they desire religious life, we should ask them whether they desire salvation—whether they desire to become saints. If sanctity is the goal, then religious life and all its harrowing renunciations begin to make sense. Although religious life is the hardest, most fearsome way to live, it is also the most spiritually secure, most fruitful, and most meritorious. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that because they renounce property, family, and their own wills, religious “live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.” According to Saint Athanasius, “if a man embraces the holy and unearthly way, even though as compared with [married life] it be rugged and hard to accomplish, nonetheless it has the more wonderful gifts: for it grows the perfect fruit, namely a hundredfold.” Saint Theresa of Ávila even tells us that she became a nun, against her own desires, because she “saw that the religious state was the best and safest.

Now, as Sister Theresa Noble, in responding to the article over at Ignitium Today, points out, the Benedictine seems to be suggesting an excellent way to Pelagianism, the heresy memorably combated by St Augustine of Hippo, the idea that people can earn their way to salvation. Still, if he subbed in sanctity for his mention of salvation, he does have a point: very few people spontaneously wake up with a desire to be obedient to someone else, renounce marriage and sexuality, and not own anything. Preaching desire for the vows as a way to vocation will almost inevitably lead to married life.1

If I was being overly cynical, or more likely, I was completely ignorant of the way the Church understands the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, I would be inclined to think that they were either a way for a power-hungry Church to dominate people, or an exercise is pointless asceticism. Both are ignorant, and for those who know where they come from, absurd. The vows, at least as I see them, have at least three closely related purposes: they are evangelical, they are eschatological and they are practical.

Before I explain why I think the vows are central to the Church's mission, I should probably note that my perspective is different to those from other religious orders' traditions: I am not seeking to be a Trappist, or a Benedictine, or a Franciscan, etc. Each of these great orders will have a view on why the vows are taken. Instead, I will present a view that is at least moderately within the Ignatian or (broadly) Jesuit tradition. Since I am not (yet) a Jesuit, perhaps this is a bit presumptuous of me, but I will do so nonetheless.

The evangelical counsels are named so because they are, in fact, evangelical. That is to say, they foster the conditions which are most suitable for evangelism, for mission, for the proclamation of the Gospel. Obedience makes a person versatile to their superiors (in particular, note the Jesuit fourth vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of mission), poverty means they will be less attached to a particular place (as someone with a mortgaged house, for instance) and chastity also increases versatility. Historically speaking, the Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominicans) adopted the evangelical counsels as part of their own ministry, particularly in the context of the Albigensian heresy, where the monastic orders were limited in their ability to counter the heresy because of their monasticism.

The vows are also profoundly eschatological for two related reasons: they mirror the ministry of Jesus and they point to something other than this world. In mirroring the life of Jesus, those who take the vows show in exemplary fashion an aspect of Christ – they are like the poor preacher who had no-where to rest his head, they are like the chaste man who laid down his life for the Church, a theological marriage only to be consummated in the parousia, and they are like the obedient Son of God, obedient even unto death on a cross. This leads to the question, why? If one seeks to find the answer in purely worldly terms, the task will be in vain – because the vows, just as the life of Christ, point to something beyond the grave. Poverty leads to riches, as Paul says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Though he gives himself bodily to nobody, in doing so, he is able to give himself bodily to everyone. The the obedience of Christ on the cross points to, and indeed, is a precondition of, the resurrection. Hence, the vows are not only centred on the Gospel, but point to its truth, and point to the life of the world to come.

Finally, they are intensely practical: both in the common sense pragmatic way and in the “practical way to holiness” type way that Br. Hannegan, the saints, and John Paul II (cf. Vita Consecrata) pointed to. They are pragmatic because they allow greater freedom – one is more free when less attached to material possessions, more versatile when not committed to the married life and children, and in a strange way which most religious can attest to,2 more free with the vow of obedience. An explanation of why that is the case would take a while, so I recommend Fr. James Martin, SJ's discussion of the issue in “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

When things are practical, however, it is not for the sake of being practical – pragmatism is, by its very nature, instrumental, a tool in the hand of the user. Practical for what? One answer might be, “for whatever you want to do”, and to a great extent, this is true. For this reason, these vows, particularly the vow of chastity (understood as vowing not to marry, ie as celibacy) can be abused for selfishness, at least when not professed for some other purpose (as religious vows are made). For the Society of Jesus, the vows are made for the purposes of mission and service to others, in recent times, particularly the poor. For other orders, the purpose might be slightly different, though the vows are still helpful in those pursuits.

Finally, they are indeed paths to holiness. One should not quote the saints as proof-texts on this point, but the witness of the holy people of times past is broad and has a degree of unanimity: religious life is excellence in the path to sanctity. Some of the reasons are like the ones above – the religious life is the life of Christ, not just in the vows, but in the community, contemplative and prayerful aspects of it. Probably the clearest, second to the example of Jesus, is the eschatological reason: in living a life that points to the Kingdom of God, it serves not as a pointer to others, but as preparation in itself. If C.S. Lewis was right in saying that the Christian path is such that we may become little Christs, then living like Christ, imitating Christ, is sure to be the fastest path to being transformed into Christs.

Still, the Second Vatican Council is not incorrect when it teaches that, in the words of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” This universal calls are universal, by virtue of baptism, and even further than that. But whilst it says that it is the essence of the Christian vocation to grow in the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love, it does not say that any particular way of following Jesus is the same. I think religious life probably is an easier path to holiness, which implies that the married saints really are heroic. This view might sound clericalist (though most, or at least many, religious are not ordained, and hence not clerics), but it is actually surprisingly obvious: a life of prayer, immersion in saintly spiritualities, liturgy and various expressions of Gospel centred life is seems evidently going to lead to greater holiness, and not even in a Pelagian standing way, but because religious life is clearly and simply a response to Jesus' call to leave everything and follow him. The issue is, how does one incorporate the same embodiment of the ministry of Jesus into married life? That difficulty is why religious life is an easier way to holiness.


1. I must emphasize the “almost” - because I was drawn first to the vows, then to the Society of Jesus where they were expressed in a way I found expressed what I thought they meant the best. I have never met anyone like me, however.

2. Whilst it is certainly freedom in a very real sense, if one takes freedom to be the mere absence of structures in life that guide one's path, of course one will not find it more free. The tales of people who have left religious life and written as if it were awful that whoever the superior is in the order would tell them to actually do something, did not understand the meaning of the term “obedience.” If they did not want to be obedient, they should not have vowed to do so.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theology in the Language of Today

It is imperative for the Church in all times and places to be in dialogue without the culture of the world, and therefore for the Church to be able to couch her theology in the language of the world. Christians have done this to varying degrees of success over the ages. Part of the problem is that each society has a multi-layered culture which incorporates a different lexicon, and so the "vernacular" changes depending on who one is speaking to.

Why is contemporary language important? Many reasons spring to mind: one cannot truly believe what one does not understand, one will not learn what one cannot understand, mental barriers emerge when somebody uses language that is foreign. In this sense, relatable language is evangelical.

Another important reason is that language furnishes our conceptual framework. According to some people (in particular, adherents to linguistic determinism), the grammar and vocabulary of a language structures and could even limit and determine human knowledge and thought. Even if a theory of strong linguistic determinism is false, it remains clearly true that language provides clarity to concepts which would be too vague to communicate otherwise. Since language defines concepts for communication, it follows that understandable language is crucial for communication of the Gospel.

The fact that concepts appear in linguistic form is part of the reason why Christians have been hesitant to translate their conceptual frameworks into the vernacular of an age: precision arises when one uses a particular language, and dead languages have the bonus of remaining static and precise. Ecclesiastical Latin is an instance of a language the Church has declared "sacred", simply for the reason that theology most precise in Latin, in part because much theology was developed in Latin, in part because it is now dead and immutable.

This hesitation is not without due reason, as the East-West schism shows: according to the 1995 document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the famous filioque clause which separates the Western and Eastern Church doctrinally may not be a doctrinal difference at all, but a linguistic issue. "Procedere" has been used to translate "ἐκπορεύεσθαι" and "προϊέναι", whereas only the latter translation would reflect the doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church, the former indeed being heretical. Whilst the East-West schism is more complicated historically than one simple doctrinal difference, the filioque controversy does indeed highlight the problems that can result when doctrines readily understood in one language are transferred to another. Less fundamental issues may well lie at the heart of other doctrines, such as papal infallibility, as John Ford points out in a recent article.[1]

Whilst theological orthodoxy is important, it is no substitute for the essence of the Church's apostolate, which is its missionary commission. So the Church must, despite risks, translate her theology into language which can be understood by the receivers of her missionary impulse. Who are these people? The Church's "preferential option for the poor", as well as her Master's anointing "to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17, quoting Isaiah) makes clear that those who live in poverty are the first port of call for the missionary Church. So language appropriate to that context is required, and a rhetoric which is intelligible to the poor necessary.

Without minimizing the important duty towards the poor, the missionary comission is to preach the Gospel to all the nations, which includes those that are not marked distinctly by poverty (understood at least in part in material terms). This means that other groups need the Gospel translated into language fitting for their context - including my own, the analytic tradition in philosophy and the natural sciences. What does it mean to couch Christian theological concepts in the language and vocabulary of these groups?

I will not here embark on such a monumental project, although any Christian who lives in a particular cultural context must address the issue of formulating the core tenets of Christianity at some point, lest they deny their core vocation as Christians as missionaries. What I will do is make a few comments about past re-formulations of Christian theology, and ones underway at present.

It is important to note that this has been done before, in the hands of one of the greatest theological minds in the Western tradition, St Thomas Aquinas. In his day, Greek philosophy was the prevailing intellectual norm, and his Christianizing of Aristsotelian philosophy has profoundly marked the Western Church. St Thomas therefore presents us with the paradigmatic case of theology in dialogue with philosophy, even the philosophy of pagans like the ancient Greeks. It is true that some elements of Aristotelianism had to be condemned, but it equally true that the insights of Aristotle were important for theology, and if nothing else, allowed greater intellectual rigor in Christian theology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of Catholic philosophy has attempted to emulate St Thomas' Aristotelianism in a time in which it is untenable, instead of taking the dialogue insight and Christianizing the new "pagan philosophy." Just like in St Thomas' time, there will be many sceptics that such a venture is possible - a quick look at the Condemnations at the University of Paris will suffice to show that they abounded - and yet he managed to pull of an incredible feat. We must now turn to modern philosophy to see how current language can be used to express Christian truths, and so give renewed intellectual rigor to Christianity. The work of saints like St Edith Stein and St John Paul II are good places to start in the continental tradition's sub-area of phenomenology (I am unaware of any analytic philosophers in phenomenology), and perhaps John Joseph Haldane and Richard Swinburne, not to mention the Protestants Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, can form some sort of beginning of the analytic tradition's side of things.

The natural sciences must also be addressed with the eye's of a theologian, and I can think of no better starting place than the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology, which I have the treat of delving into his first volume later on this year. Just like Greek philosophy might have been considered out of bounds for theology because it was pagan, so now the naturalism that prevails in scientific circles should not deter Christians from entering into it with the firm convictions of Christ.

I do not know what form a scientific theology would take, and yet it is undoubtedly necessary for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science, which is probably considered the most important intellectual authority in the West today. I do not know what an analytical philosophical theology would look like, and yet for intellectual dialogue between Christianity and what probably should be considered the highest intellectual authority, philosophy, it is crucial.

I find myself in the strange position of being in the middle of the three: a Christian, and therefore a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Whilst this characterization is certainly unfair, some might consider my area of science the very pinnacle - physics - if only because of the reductionism that is virally present in society. Misconceptions notwithstanding, if it is the case that I continue to learn about these fields of study upon which I am embarked, I should in principle be particularly capable of the task at hand. It is not a nice idea; it is a necessary one.

[1] Ford, John, "Infallibility - terminology, textual analysis and theological interpretation - a response to Mark Powell", Theological Studies, 74 (2013).

Friday, 17 January 2014

Issues with Utilitarianism

In the past few weeks, I have been developing an ethical theory that works within a fundamentally utilitarian framework (some of which can be seen in the past weeks' blog posts), but instead of equating utility to happiness or pleasure (as in classical utilitarianism) or preference (as in modern preference utilitarianism), I gave a somewhat vague idea of utility as the valuable, which would include things that are self-evidently valuable (like happiness or pleasure) as well as values which might be considered to be theological (like the value of life, for instance). I have begun to refer to this conception of utility as "generalized utility" or GU.

In generalizing utility this way, I think I have overcome one of the emotional objections to utilitarianism, which is the charge of shallowness. "Surely ethics is more than mere pleasure or mere happiness" the objection goes, and with Generalized Utility Utilitarianism (GUU), indeed it is. Still, there are other problems of a general sort, and I will refer to them as the problem of finitude, embodiment and depersonalization.

The last of these I will not comment on much here because I think a proper application of GUU solves it, though I will mention what it is: in classical utilitarianism, people are not valuable in themselves, but they are valuable because of their function as sentient beings. This produces some problems, most of which can be dismissed by classical utilitarians as moral squeamishness, but others jar our moral intuitions to such an extent that due consideration must be given. John Rawls points out one such consequence, that of telishment, which takes its root from the word punishment. The idea is this: if punishment for some crime, say rape, is to be justified in utilitarian grounds, then it must be the case that it maximizes utility overall. However, if such a thing as punishment (the inflicting of some suffering to reduce suffering overall, in utilitarian terms) is to be justified, then in some cases scapegoating innocent people will also work. If punishment is to act as a deterrence, then it only matters if the person is not responsible in the case that others know, so if nobody knows that someone else is in fact responsible for the rape, then telishment can act as a deterrent in much the same way. In short, the utilitarian framework justifies punishment only insofar as it deters others from committing the crime, not as an act of justice or of retribution. There is no room for people "getting what they deserve" in this classical utilitarian framework, unless it happens to be the case that it maximizes happiness, which leads to punishment-as-deterrence being non-specific to who actually committed the crime.

As I said, GUU seems to solve this problem quite comfortably, even if it can be criticized that it does so too comfortably: other values other than happiness make up Generalized Utility, and so Rawls' criticism falls flat if one were to add some value like justice to the mix.

The other two issues are far more substantial: embodiment refers to the fact that humans are situated in one place, at one time, living in concrete circumstances, such as particular familial and societal bonds. On the classical utilitarian view, absolute impartiality is demanded, so the difference between one's child and a stranger, or a baby child and a pig, is simply their capacity for utility. Failure to recognize this reality may lead to ethically erroneous results from utilitarianism.

Finitude is the term I will use to refer to the epistemic problem inherent in utilitarianism: an action that might usually have good results leads ultimately to a bad result, and so the person is said to have done the wrong action. Whilst a smile is usually harmless or brightens another person's day, for instance, smiling at some particular person may, in an unusual case, make them consider that everyone else must be much happier than they, and so lead to a cycle of self-harm and eventual suicide. Clearly a negative result came about from what is generally considered a good action, but nonetheless, since negative results ensued from the particular action of smiling at that particular person, the action must be condemned as morally wrong. How was the smiling person to know that their action would lead to a negative result? The essence of the problem of finitude is that the consequences of one's actions are ultimately unknown, and so the utilitarian is left with rules of thumb for acting, at best, and incurs the risk of doing wrong all the time.

These are real problems, even if in some sense they are not absolute: one can easily say that indeed, our intuitions about what follows from the fact of our concrete circumstances as individuals (as opposed to utility-containers) are flawed, and it is the case that one's duties towards one's consideration of one's children, as well as consideration of strangers, should be the same, that there is no moral difference between feeding one's child and the child of a stranger. The infamous ethicist Peter Singer seems to take this view in his well-known paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and his discussion of the drowning child story (as well as talk of the so-called "expanding circle") show that he at least cares little for geographical closeness. Considering this line of reasoning, the problem of embodiment is a form of the demandingness objection.

The finitude problem is also not absolute, in the sense that it is practical and not theoretical - the arguments for GUU could succeed without the practical capacity of actually being able to determine right from wrong in any given case. If that is the case, then one remains with the crucial question of trying to understand how to act morally, and then if the finitude problem proves unresolvable, then we are left conclusively in the dark, having proven that we cannot know what to do, morally speaking.

And yet, I do need to answer these objections, because GUU must result in, to put if quiantly, some sort of set of "family values", where my child and someone else's is counted differently, as well as being at least semi-practical in answering questions of "what ought I do?" In fact, just as with Rawls' telishment objection, I think family values can be incorporated into GUU. The more values get added to the calculation, however, the more difficult it becomes to solve the epistemic finitude problem, and here I am currently left to flail my arms, suggesting tentatively that a sort of rule GUU be used at present. Except, I cannot see how one is meant to justify that step in theoretical terms: if I really should maximize the good, then surely following some rules all the time will lead to actions which must be condemned. I cannot foresee how to solve the finitude problem.

Polkinghorne's Perspective on Science and Religion - Reflection on "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity" by John Polkinghorne

I read this book earlier than I had planned to (January as opposed to July) because I have gone through my January reading list, and also because the title intrigued me: I have long retorted to the claim that I believe in some invisible being (God) and that such a belief was ridiculous by pointing out that, as I study physics, I seem to believe in all sorts of things that are invisible. Worse, although I claim that God could be seen when he was incarnate in Christ, quarks (said to be some of the most fundamental "stuff" that make up matter - protons and neutrons, for instance, are made up of three quarks each) are intrinsically invisible; our current scientific understanding is that we will most likely never be able to directly observe (and probably never even separate) quarks. And yet, we believe they exist. So it must not be too ridiculous to think that invisible things exist, after all.

But Polkinghorne's book, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, is not a response to believing in invisible things, even though he does mention the connection in the very last pages. This book is not a detailed statement on his harmonizing of science and religion, or of a deep discussion of the connections and divergences between the two: this book, as he says, is basically an outline of such theses born out of the sort of questions he gets asked when he speaks on these issues.

Before I proceed to go into my thoughts on the book, a note on who John Polkinghorne is: the man was, for a very long time, an eminent physicist and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, and when he decided that he had done his part in the field after many years, he became a clergyman in the Church of England. In fact, the chap is Sir John, because he got knighted in 1997, and like many eminent religious scientists, he has also received the Templeton Prize. He knows his physics - which means that he does not suffer from the same level of accusations of misusing science, as some philosophers and theologians do, sometimes baselessly, sometimes not - and he knows his theology. Which means, as various people have noted, that he is an ideal candidate to speak on these issues.

The book has eight short chapters, each dealing with some of the themes that arise in science-religion discussions. I will comment on some of them, since the others seem to present mostly "well-travelled" points of view:

1. Fact or Opinion?
2. Is There Anyone There?
3. What's Been Going On?
4. Who Are We?
5. Can a Scientist Pray?
6. What About Miracles?
7. How Will it End?
8. Can a Scientist Believe?

1. The three most compelling aspects of science is how useful it is, how effective it is in answering questions about the world we live in, and importantly, how much agreement it commands. Religion, by contrast, is said to either be universally false, or at best, a matter where opinions are higher than facts. Science is about facts, religion about opinions, and so obviously science must win. Generally, my response is that religion, somewhat like philosophy, may not give answers that command universal respect, but is nonetheless a crucial part to knowing what is true; it has more scope, asks and answers different questions, and answers them in different ways. Supposing some religious account could be true, the diversity of religious views is no testament to their universal falsity.

But interestingly, Polkinghorne takes the opposite stance, and his point is important to heed: science isn't really about facts anyway, it's about interpretations of facts. One could hardly publish a scientific paper that was just data (or "facts") - one gives discussions, organizes the data, speaks of its significance. In short, the aim of science is the theory, not the facts. Insofar as fact and theory are mixed, then, the distinction between the evidence and opinion is not quite as clear cut as some would like to believe it is. Certainly, there are reasons for the opinon, but they are indispensable. He also points out the need of opinion to judiciously consider one's data set - sometimes one must eliminate some data because it is background noise, but that can also lead to problems.

He does go on to speak about the religious side, but the terrain is quite well gone over, and I will not dawdle on all his views, just the ones that seem to bring a new perspective.

2. The second chapter gives a brief overview of his reasons for thinking that there is "Someone out there." He provides two basic arguments, one from fine-tuning, and one from the applicability of science.

I do not think fine tuning arguments are very good, for two reasons: first, they are inherently probabalistic, and yet, it seems difficult to see how one would know about what other values the fundamental constants could take on purely scientific grounds, so it's not so clear to me that we do know the unlikelihood of this universe. Second, design type explanations to these sorts of problems seem to me to override the general rule of thumb in science to prefer metaphysically economic explanations: yes, it could be that angels pull the Earth around the sun and make all the effects of gravity look like what they do, and yet it is so much simpler, or in other words, metaphysically economical, that it be the result of attraction between masses.

The applicability of science is a far more interesting argument, one which produces peer-reviewed philosophy papers in eminent journals every so often - so it is not a ridiculous argument, although I grant that Polkinghorne's presentation of it seems quite weak. What is more interesting, and is something he could have developed more, is the idea that the a priori knowledge of mathematics is so unusually applicable to the real world, which is usually only knowable a posteriori. Nonetheless, I am still uncomfortable of drawing theistic conclusions at this point.

3. This chapter deals with two underlying questions that pop up frequently, and those are "what's God up to now?" and "what about suffering?" The problem of evil is basically given a free will defence, interestingly, even extending a certain sort of freedom to the natural world, and so attempting to solve both the moral and natural evil problems. The curious thing about his "free-processes defence" is that it involves a sort of necessity clause - the fecundity of evolution requires the capacity for both positive and negative mutations, for instance, and so a free world necessarily has things like cancer. It's not clear to me that the free-processes defence works, but it's also not clear that it fails - I simply do not know the possibilities and necessities involved in the creation of the world.

His point on what God is doing now can be summed up in one, very important, line:

"God is not a God of edges, with a vested interest in beginnings. God is the God of the whole show."

By this he means that God does not simply create and then move on to more interesting things, but that creation is a continuous act of unfolding and sustaining. Evolutionary biology is not atheistic unless one understands God's place to be that of setting things in motion purely or zapping things into existence. More generally, events that look like chance and events that look necessary are, in a sense, no problem for the theist, only insofar as the theist understands God not to be just the Alpha and the Omega, but all the letters in between also. This much seems sort of obvious to me, but it is interesting how often it is neglected, even though it is foundational for Christian theology: I am being "made new in Christ", for instance, and this is not just a once of zapping thing, but an inward transformation that happens over time.

5. This was perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book. His answer is yes, obviously, and yet he does not give the response that has grown to be a sort of common cop-out: that prayer is basically a form of self-help with a spiritual dimension. His proposal is what might be considered a "classical physics" version of QDA (Quantum Divine Action) based on chaos theory. On this view, God basically works in small, non-perceptible ways, which have great influences on other events because of the butterfly effect. I don't know how powerful that makes God's action in the world, but I suppose that could work for small things, like answering prayers.

That might work, and it would certainly explain why prayers are not usually answered in such a way that precludes natural explanations. It's not a falsifiable view, but as long as God could be acting in that way, it does not rule the possibility out. What makes Polkinghorne's view in this chapter difficult is that he, because of free choices and so forth, "even God does not yet know the unformed future." It is hard to accept such a conclusion. In fact, one does not have to, since I think the concept of "middle knowledge" effectively deals with the issue of knowledge about free agents without determinism. For the record, when applied to soteriology, this view is often referred to as Molinism.

8. For Polkinghorne, the reason that science and religion can go well together is that they are looking at different questions. The essence of his harmonization project is summed up in his last paragraph's opening sentence:

"Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality."


Whilst I find Polkinghorne an interesting intellectual interlocutor, I must admit to preferring other Anglican clergymen's comments on science and religion, such as the less eminent as a scientist, but far more prolific as a theologian, Rev. Alister McGrath. Polkinghorne's chaos theory approach to divine action is one I would like to pursue further, and I can look with renewed excitement towards the chaos mathematics course I was going to take in 2015. His "continual creation" point is important, but it can simply be said to be biblical, and so "unoriginal." His views on science would probably be helpful for many, but I am largely convinced by scientific anti-realism (which is a view mostly rejected by scientists, I would say because scientific realism is nicer) and his only response to that view is a basic no miracles argument.

So whilst this short book was worth the read, I concur with a certain Masters student who was defending her thesis in a seminar room which I chanced to walk into: Polkinghorne answers questions very well, because he asks the easier questions.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Human Rights are Moral Illusions

I wrote previously on the question of whether human rights were to be given to humans insofar as they function as humans, or humans insofar as they actually are human (see here), in particular focusing on the issue of abortion, and I ended on that issue by noting that rights lend themselves to a hierarchical system of rights, where some take precedence over others, thereby leaving the abortion issue unresolved even if humans have the right to life merely by being human.
Illusions: things
are not as they seem.

I claim that human rights do not exist as moral realities, but that they are illusions created by other moral realities. Let me distinguish, however, between moral and legal conceptions of rights: clearly, legal rights exist, since they are existent by the mere fact that the legislation of some country, or international law, recognizes them as existent. Rights are important as legal concepts - just not, I claim, as moral or ethical concepts.

Before I continue, I must define more precisely what I mean by "human rights". I will take the first definition proposed by Jerome Shestack in the Human Rights Quarterly when he says that "Sometimes "right" is used in its strict sense of the right holder being entitled to something with a correlative duty in another."[1] This definition brings out two features that seem to me to be crucial to discussions of human rights: human rights are entitlements and they have correlative duties.

Various attacks on human rights have occurred in philosophy: Jeremy Bentham famously said that human rights were "nonsense upon stilts", Karl Marx rejected them as bourgeois inventions and illusions, and Alasdair MacIntyre argued that "there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns." MacIntyre's point was that there have not been successful arguments for the existence of human rights, and I will take him to be correct on this point.

Other groups, notably animal rights activists, object to human rights being human to the detriment of other species - that is, they object on the grounds of speciesism. Whilst these objections are important to consider for defenders of the concept of human rights, it is clear that (in the case of the animal rights activists, at least) they wish to expand the concept of rights to other creatures, such as animals, or some have suggested even that the environment has rights. Hence, they would reject human rights only insofar as they applied exclusively to humans and hence negated the idea of animal rights.

Of the bases for human rights that have been proposed, all are unconvincing: early modern philosophers, such as John Locke, appealed to faulty notions of natural law. John Stuart Mill, from the utilitarian perspective, claimed rights could be founded upon utility, and yet, appeals to utility are too fluid for any recognizable understanding of rights (such as, that they are inalienable). Legal positivist accounts (Thomas Hobbes could, perhaps, fall under this category) claim that rights come from the authority of the state - a claim I can agree with only insofar as it is said that human rights come from the authority of the state legally, which says nothing about how they arise morally without some theory to the effect of "state-makes-right." Related to these are the rights that arise from Marxist conceptions of the state, where individual rights do not exist as unalienable, and are always subject to the changing needs (or whims) of the state - until the Marxist utopian ideal is reached, that is. Rights conceptions which rely on a conception of humankind as individual and autonomous suffer the same criticism as Kantian ethics does, largely because Kant underlies many such theories (I would suggest reading Bernard Williams' masterpiece Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy for such criticisms). I cannot comment on Rawlsian arguments for human rights because I am not sufficiently familiar with his theory (other than in outline). Perhaps Rawls can succeed where others have failed.

To establish the non-existence of moral rights will take more than a paragraph about the failings of other theories to prove them, particularly because not being able to prove something does not mean it is not true. Yet belief in them does not appear to be self-evidently justified - on what basis, other than perhaps the theological one I have not discussed, can homo sapiens be said to have moral entitlements? Suppose that I can now claim that human rights do not exist qua moral rights - what follows? I have labelled human rights as moral illusions, and this they are: supposing they do not exist, we nonetheless perceive them to exist, and my question is, why? What moral reality underlies our misleading perception that human rights exist as moral entities?

I have dismissed the idea that human beings have entitlements as human beings, and here the other part of the definition given by Shestack becomes relevant - do I dismiss also that human beings have correlative duties? No. Herein lies the proposed basis for the moral illusion of human rights: because everyone has duties as human beings, moral structures with the appearance of human rights appear. The appearance of rights is rooted in the reality of duties.

For instance, take the right to life: if everybody has the duty to respect the lives of others, then it at least seems, in general cases, as if everyone has a corresponding right to life. Or the right to freedom of speech: if everyone has a duty to allow others to think freely and speak freely, the illusion of a right to freedom of speech is born. The view that human rights are the fount of duties (to grant the entitlements and respect the liberties) is actually backwards: it is duties that becomes the fount of human rights.

This view will be, I think, acceptable to various groups: the animal rights activists may have to give up their name, but now have a much more solid foundation to claim the respect for animals that they seek. Environmental activists can now speak of environmental rights as shorthand for the duties which humans have towards the environment.

There does seem to be one glaring problem with my thesis: my adoption of a utilitarian framework may lead one to think that it must be conceptually difficult to speak of duties, since duties more naturally arise in deontological accounts of ethics. This is only superficially true, as it is clear that the duty to maximise utility is inherent in utilitarian theories. I will discuss how more specific sorts of duties arise out of this general duty, and so render this account of duties-to-rights intelligible at another time.

One particular case I will address was the one left unresolved when I discussed whether human rights were to be granted by function or by nature, that of prenatal children: I argued that they had the right to life, and yet, this did not lead conclusively to the position that abortion is always wrong, only that it is generally wrong (that is, unless exceptional circumstances warrant the setting aside of the right to life). I cited Naomi Wolf as someone who appears to hold this view.

Now I have proposed that rights come from duties, and now it seems clearer that I can make a firm moral judgement: from the fact that it is always our duty to consider our own good as interchangeable with that of others (a duty that arises from broad utilitarian considerations as well as Catholic edicts such as "love your neighbour as yourself"), and if it is the case that humans are loci of incredible value, then we have a duty towards humans. Again, the considerations of by function vs. by nature that I described previously in "Intrinsic Human Rights - by function or by nature?" now kick into play, as it becomes clear that humans are valuable as humans, not as beings who function as humans. Therefore, the killing of prenatal children is morally wrong not as a breach of rights, but as a failure to comply with one's moral duties. This serves as my response to the "violinist analogy"[2] of Judith Jarvis Thomson, because on this view one does have the duty towards the violinist.

Once again I raise the issue as one I have acknowledged: where do these duties come from, particularly on my own utilitarian framework? I will turn to this issue, one I claim to be easily dealt with, on another occasion.

[1] Shestack, J., “The Philosophic Foundations of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998) 201-234
[2] Thomson, J.J., “A Defence of Abortion”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66



1. It is clear that I must square all of what I have been saying in light of my theological understanding of humanity. For instance, is it not the case that the right to life is something inherent in all humans by virtue of their being bearers of the Imago Dei? I have set aside theological considerations, and, as with the note above, I will address the issue of understanding how these two (or three) points of view match up in another piece. 

2. What about natural law bases for human rights? I recognize that it has been the natural law which has historically given rise to the language of rights. I will address these concerns later on. This is a very important area however, because not only is natural law intrinsically secular (and so it can be easily brought into the public sphere), but since rights have their genesis historically in natural law theories, human rights as concepts are unlikely to be properly understood outside their context.

3. Since I have been reading a lot of academic papers recently, I feel the need to apologize for not researching for this blog-post. Although it may sound snobbish to say so, I do have a decent background in the idea of human rights, and so I have relied upon that to get a feeling for how the field stands today. I make no firm assertion that what I say is original or not rejected for some good reasons that are unknown to me.