Righteous Anger

Our recent Roundtable Worship focused its conversation on “righteous anger.” While the Bible attributes this emotion to God throughout Israel’s record and it is referenced many times in the Christian writings, both Jesus and Paul, as well as others, caution us from assuming that our anger is righteous or that it even is good for our souls. Since most of us feel a good deal of anger these days, we had some deep conversation about how we should deal with it, both in extinguishing and in constructively channeling it. Here’s our liturgy from that gathering that disposed us to our conversation:

Call to the Table (antiphonal)

            Out of the angry storm of wounded hearts,

                        You call us to the quiet river of your peace.

            Away from numbing noise and blinding lights,

                        You lead us to the conversation of your love.

            In rocky soils of our despair

                        You plant a forest of your promise.

            In a world of blind hostility

                        You set a table of your mercy.

            We come to your table,

Your table of peace.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Remembrance (Unison)

            In our beginning hands reached out with nurturing fruits.

            In our frenzy to control our world the hand became a fist.

            Over ages promises were made and sealed, only to be broken.

            In the gift of your forgiveness, we walked forward hand in hand.

            In the promises of prophets we were led by stars unknown.

            In a faithful mother’s labors we were born to life anew.

 In a death fomented by the rage of our rebellion,

            You revealed a life eternally renewed by love.

                        Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Thanksgiving  (Unison)

O loving source of all creation,

For each day in which we breathe from your unending life, we give you thanks. For each gift of love sustaining earthly hope we give you hearty thanks. For your forgiveness that releases us from crushing guilt and dark despair our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the fellowship of table conversation our lips sing out your praise.

 

 

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Roundtable Call and Remembrance

Some of you have expressed appreciation for receiving elements of the liturgy for our monthly Roundtable Worship here in the mountains of North Carolina. After the lighting of a candle on our roundtable, we begin with the antiphonal Call that opens the way to dialogue. After a song, we then turn to Remembrance of the gracious work of reconciliation that has brought us to this day. That is followed by a thanksgiving, a taste of bread and drink, a reading, our conversation, and prayers of hope and commitment. Here are the Call and Remembrance from our last gathering for your use or meditation.

Call to the Table

   From the darkness of depression and despair,

                        You call us to the light illuminating all creation.

            Out of the glittering distractions of the turmoil around us,

                        You draw us to the peace of your courageous beauty.

            In the midst of all the horror of our lost humanity,

                        You reach out in hands of mercy and repair.

            When all our roads lead to the pit of earth’s destruction,

                        You lead us on the path of resurrected life.

            As we cry in hunger for the bread of mercy,

                        You spread forth a table for our healing.

            We come to your table,

Your table of peace.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

 

Remembrance (Unison)

The life you freely gave us all fell from our grasping fingers,

Yet you sustained us in the slavery of our wanderings;

You led us through the desert to oases of your mercy.

In the exhortations of your prophets,

you lifted up your hope for us.

In the visions of your mystics,

you renewed a fire in our hearts for you.

In the life surrendered on a cross

you poured out a flood of your creative love.

In that life we find your peace;

At your table we receive the fruits of your abiding power.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

 

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Fetal Personhood?

The US Supreme Court’s reversal of its earlier ruling (Roe v. Wade) upholding women’s right to abortion, has intensified the argument that the fetus, from the moment of conception, is a “person” and should have appropriate standing in the law. I have been reflecting on the history and meaning of the word “person” for over fifty years. In 2012 I posted reflections on the way personhood was being used to give corporations (fictional persons) rights to political speech once attributed to individuals. Let me just rehearse some of what I said then in order to understand how the concept of personhood is now being extended to the fetus.

“Person” goes back to the Latin “persona,” the word for the mask that was worn in public dramas. The masks were shaped to amplify the speaker’s voice. Their words could “sound through” (“per-sonare”) the mask so they could perform their role in the drama. To “have a persona” was to be able to take part in a drama beyond the roles of ordinary life.

From that dramatic practice it could be used to talk about those who had speech not only in the world of drama but also in the law. To have a persona was to have the right to participate in the drama of legal proceedings as well as public life generally, constricted as it was in Roman times. Mainly, “person-hood” was confined to male heads of households.

From the legal world it then entered the language of theology.  It was Tertullian (2d century) who used it to apply to God’s presence in the world through the “persons” of Christ and the Holy Spirit. When it came time to develop the Trinitarian idea in the Latin church of the West, theologians came to speak of God being in three “persons.” This was how the Latin-speaking world translated the “hypostases” of Greek thought about the Trinitarian “instances” of God. (This is my interpretation of the Greek “hypostasis,” which is a very controverted matter itself.) In this way, people in the Latin West could talk about how God was participating in the drama of salvation that is human history. God had three “personae” constituting the divine life. The divergence between Greek concepts of “hypostasis” and Latin concepts of “persona” led to intense and abiding differences shaping the two Christian branches to this day.

Thus, as religion developed in the West it was God who had “person-ality.” So did the church, as the Body of Christ, who is the “second person” of the Trinity. As Christ’s “body,” the Church was also immortal, unlike the associations of human beings. It was a “mystical body” that was a bridge to life eternal. In this way, by the thirteenth century, the Church brought into being the idea that there could be a seemingly human institution that could transcend the mortality of the individuals composing it. (Incidentally, this is where our word “parson,” the representative of the Church, comes from.) At this point an entity that is seen as a “person” is now seen as a vital center of creative presence in the public drama of world history, that is, having divine origin. To have “personhood” is to participate in the divine autonomy and creativity of the Triune God.

In the thought of Protestant and radical reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the “person-hood” of Christ was then transmitted to believers through Baptism. They gain the right to appear in public as equals with a conscience. These conscientious individuals then form churches, which are associations of individual believers bound in covenant. This is the stream that feeds into American thought about freedom of conscience and association. To be a person went from being a participant in Christ’s body to being simply a human being created “in the image of God.” Over several centuries, this personhood, in law as well as theology, was extended to formerly enslaved people, now recognized as “persons,” and to women, whose “persona” had for centuries been borne by their fathers or husbands. All humans could now claim the divine attributes of a personhood that had evolved in the theological conception of the Divine. It became an attribute of human life as such.

At this point personhood was no longer the mask by which one participates in the larger drama of the law, but became the very life of the human being. On this basis some are claiming, as with the Platonic view I discussed last time, that from the moment of conception the fetus has the complete powers of the self created in the image of God. Such an argument is the outcome of a two-thousand year development of an idea that has moved from theater to law to theology and thence into biology. From the theater’s stage it moved to the heavens, from which it descended with all the powers of the divine into the microscopic assemblage of genetic material embodied in a single cell. Yes, it is a “religious” concept, but very few people understand how it has evolved to shape this particular argument about the right to abortion.

Americans are now faced with fierce and emotional arguments about the “rights” to be attributed to this fetal human as well as how it can be represented in the courts of law. Much of this argument will revolve around the question of whether this “person” has the capacities to act that can be called autonomous in some sense. In any case, “personhood” is a powerful rhetorical strategy drawing on centuries of cultural development. Awareness that “fetal personhood” is a theologically-inspired construct ought to help us sort out this legal, medical, religious, and deeply emotional controversy. Your own thoughts are always welcome here.

 

 

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Abortion Metaphysics

The life-and-death controversy over termination of pregnancies, as I intimated last time, continually leads me back to the metaphysical disputations rooted in our ancient philosophers. In broad strokes, the controversy is fueled by two different understandings of the reality of life itself. One comes out of the Platonic tradition as it has evolved in the Christian West over the centuries. In the Platonic vision our own world is a dim or distorted manifestation of eternal “ideas” (eidon)—the pure forms of things outside of but informing the transient world we inhabit. In the ancient Hellenic world, this relation of seen and unseen worlds underlay the so-called Gnostic myth of the way an eternal soul entered into flesh, dwelled on earth, and then returned to its pure immortal state among other eternal souls. I see this myth every week in the obituaries of my small-town newspaper. This is the mythic template for the original creeds of the Christian church, in which the eternal “word,” or Christ, became flesh (was incarnated), lived among us, was crucified, died, and ascended back into heaven to reign eternally with God the Father. It is a myth we celebrate every Christmas and Easter. It is deeply woven into the taken-for-granted metaphysics of many Christians.

This is the metaphysical and mythical worldview behind claims that “life” begins at conception, when, in this modern version, the eternal life enters into our world. In earlier centuries, as with St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul’s entry was delayed for thirty to six days (depending on your sex). In English common law, it entered upon “quickening.” What is enduring here is the notion that there is a “soul” or “life” that somehow takes form in this world in the fleshy materials of the womb. It is of the eternal, the absolute, the divine. It is the manifestation of the ultimate form of being. Here is the source of the sense that it lays absolute and timeless claims upon us.

In the classical world, it was Aristotle who formulated a quite different perspective on reality, one that sees it as a process of unceasing growth and development. Rather than being focused on the relation of the eternal and the transient, he directed our attention to the biological reality of constant change and self-organizing development. While this was often conjoined to a notion of the “telos,” the full realization of its inherent organizing principle, our attention in this view  was constantly directed to the forms and processes of growth. This perspective, this metaphysic, underlay the subsequent development of Western science, finding in Aquinas (13th c.) its fundamental religious expression. Later, I would claim, it appears in an evolutionary form in the work of the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The life we know is not the manifestation of some pre-existent eternal “idea” or “soul” but a growth toward an ever-greater, more complex form of reality and consciousness— what Chardin called the Omega point.

It is this Aristotelian metaphysic, whether acknowledged or not, that underlies the conception of human pregnancy as the complexification of matter into increasingly conscious forms of life, with heightened value and claims on the lives of others as it gains increasing self-consciousness and autonomy. The emerging human being deserves our care from its very inception, but this is different from the absolute rights doctrine that sees it as the immediate manifestation of an eternal soul.

These are not easy ideas or distinctions to grasp immediately. I hope I have been able to dissipate at least some of the fog that may be besetting you as you make your way on this. In a sense, both are religious and metaphysical views that are informing our policy arguments. That the Platonic view has so deeply permeated Christian theology does not mean that the Aristotelian is any less “religious.” Indeed, the Thomistic tradition, even if ironically, attests to the enduring religious power of an Aristotelian metaphysic. It finds even more pronounced expression in the various evolutionary worldviews and myths of our own time.

In a sense, we need both emphases in our ethical debate, but only as emphases, rather than absolutes. Only then can we begin, it seems to me, to defang the poisonous rancor that now puts so many women’s lives in jeopardy, even if our previous legal regime led some to a callous disregard to the mystery of engendering and caring for the precious life we are and create.

 

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