Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Antiquity, Christianity and Modernity on The Sanctity of Human Life

A friend of mine recently posted a link to a video of a sermon by Mike Erre in which he highlights the strain of thought present in Greek antiquity which displays calloused disregard for human life that is 'defective'--meaning, primarily, the mentally or physically disabled--along with an intense glorification of all things triumphant, beautiful, and well-proportioned about humanity. He then asks whether this Hellenism is still alive today, pointing to our culture's obsession with body image, abortion of the disabled, and the practice of eugenics as evidence that it is, at least to some degree.

The stirring video reminded me of David B. Hart's phenomenal essay on John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Where the message from Erre focused primarily on antiquity and whether the Hellenistic aspect of it persists, Hart turns his attention to the ethos of modernity and finds a similar, but distinct, strain of anti-humanism--or at least anti-'defective'-humanism-in-service-of-a-greater-humanism, as a proponent of this point of view might prefer to have it.

Hart also draws our attention to eugenicists but makes a very bold claim; while most bioengineers, abortion advocates or proponents of unfettered embryonic stem cell research would likely claim to abhor eugenics and other 'extreme' manifestations of their discipline or belief system, Hart argues that eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilization, selective breeding, infanticide, and genocide all follow logically and properly from the post-Christian, 'rationalist', Darwinian ethos of modernity, and that the moderate moderns just aren't as steadfast in their convictions as the eugenicists. Which is a fancy way of stating the rather obvious; that a rejection of Christ--the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all human life--is a rejection of the inherent beauty and sanctity of all human life.

Hart, visa-vis John Paul II, rejects outright the notion that bioengineering, bioethics, eugenics, stem-cell research or any of these distinctly modern issues require any nuance or subtlety on the part of a Christian engaging with this cultural phenomenon.

To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research ... Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

For the Christian there seems there should be very little grey area. For many in Antiquity there was not much grey area (either you were a defective or you weren't). For the fully dedicated post-Christian Modern there shouldn't be any grey area either. Either human life (all of it quite defective in one sense, as Mike Erre rightly points out) is disposable or it isn't. Which is it?

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