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Monday, March 26, 2018

The much-heralded death of European Christianity

43d5b3120dcc8b49acdd1743f49aa714The Daily Mail announces breathlessly that "Christianity in Europe is dying out." This is just the latest in a long series of such stories that flit about the Internet, often heralded with equal glee by atheists (for obvious reasons) and by conservative American Christians who are happy to use their European brothers and sisters as a foil for their own allegedly more vibrant expression of the faith.

Peter Ormerod responds in the Guardian that this alleged "death" is actually a good thing for Christianity. It frees European Christians to embrace the "weirdness" of the Faith rather than trying to accommodate it to the pressures of society. I think he's absolutely right. In my own experience traveling in Europe, I have been struck by how vibrant and generally hopeful the (admittedly small) congregations I've visited are. Also, there typically are a significant number of young people.

The use of the term "death" for steep numerical decline is highly misleading. Yes, Christianity as a "cultural norm" is dying--but hasn't it been dead in that sense for a while now, in much of Europe? As long as there is even one new convert being drawn to Christianity, or even one person raised in the Faith retaining it or returning to it, the Faith is not dead.

To argue by numbers in matters of faith is one of the most vulgar and destructive mistakes we can make. Each human person is of infinite value. Life and death are not quantifiable.

Meanwhile, American Christianity, also in numerical decline compared to the recent past, seems to have wedded itself to structures of power with new fervor--at least conservative evangelicalism (and to some extent conservative Catholicism) has done so. I would much rather worship with a tiny congregation of European Christians free to proclaim the Faith in all its richness than in a megachurch whose Gospel was a corrupted blend of self-help superstition, American nationalism, and the worst cliches of prooftexting free-church Protestantism.

The further question that needs to be asked, though, is why the decline of European Christianity? The simple, and largely correct, answer given by Ormerod and others is that European Christianity has allied itself with power and that this has made it seem lacking in credibility. We often think of the medieval Church in this respect--the magnificent art and learning combined with the often brutal use of coercive power.

But while I do think that's part of the story, I wonder if we blame the Middle Ages too much. There is a much more direct and more obviously corrupt connection with more recent European history. In the Middle Ages, the people in power who used coercion to enforce Christianity were generally acting, as far as I can tell, out of sincere conviction that Christianity was true. The common people, while often poorly observant, generally (so far as we can tell) also accepted the truth of the Christian Faith. And the elites engaged in a number of efforts to evangelize the poorly catechized, precisely because the genuine truth of the religion was commonly accepted.

But beginning with figures such as Machiavelli in the Renaissance, some members of the elite began to argue that religion was valuable because of its role in maintaining social order. This was of course a revival of a view held by many ancient pagans. It's a fundamentally un-Christian, even anti-Christian position. By the 19th century, it was plausible for atheists to claim that many bishops (of the Church of England, say, but it was commonly believed that this was true of Catholicism as well) really "knew" that Christianity was false but maintained it for its social effects. One of the most common arguments against atheism was that it would lead to social chaos--an argument that tacitly conceded that the truth-based arguments for Christianity were at best inconclusive.

Now I suspect that unbelievers tended to exaggerate wildly how many members of the religious establishment really thought like this. If you think Christianity is patently false, you will have trouble imagining that its representatives are sincere. And of course we can't rule out the possibility that people in the Middle Ages thought this way as well. Certainly some of the Islamic philosophers seem to have thought that the Qur'an and Shari'a were mostly there to guide people who weren't capable of being guided by philosophy.

Nonetheless, it does look very much as if the modern era saw the rise of a more cynical attitude to religion, in which the maintenance of social order was no longer the natural outcome of believing the truth but a substitute for truth. And this is, in fact, what many people in Britain at least think "religion" is--simply an instrument of social control. Often Christians like myself get defensive about this and feel as if our unbelieving relatives and friends are being unfair. But we shouldn't forget that, in fact, there were people who explicitly maintained that religion was valuable specifically for this reason--and there still are such folks.

This is the kind of religion decisively discredited by the World Wars. If your main reason for supporting a Christian order is that it keeps people in line and keeps them from killing each other, and you proceed to spend several decades killing each other on a massive scale, "religion" is going to seem useless.

And this brings us back to Ormerod's point. The kind of Christianity that is dying in Europe needed to die. Religion for the sake of respectability, religion for the sake of social order, is not authentic Christianity. It is a particularly decadent and corrupted form of paganism with a Christian veneer.

In America, this kind of religion still has some legs. The widespread support of many evangelicals for Donald Trump--even the willingness to believe that in some vague way he's really a devout Christian in spite of all the actual evidence pointing the other way--is rooted in a deeply fearful, power-hungry vision of the relationship of faith and society. Some conservative Christians seriously argue that without Trump and other Republican politicians, Christianity in America is doomed. And of course, what they really mean by that is that America will go the way of Europe.

Not only is this craven and faithless (as Greg Forster pointed out in this magnificent piece), but it flies in the face of the historical evidence from Europe. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led to the current steep numerical decline in European Christianity.

In this, as in so many other things, if you aim for a lesser good you lose it, but if you aim for the true good you may (possibly--nothing is guaranteed) get the lesser good as well.

So why not drop all the triumphalist nonsense about how the "right" kind of Christianity flourishes numerically, and all the idolatrous rhetoric about saving Western Civilization. If we are going to be Christians at all, let's be Christians because it is true and beautiful and gloriously weird. Let's let the consequences take care of themselves. And if that means that we dwindle and die, so be it. The one thing we can be sure of is that if we cling to power we will face destruction anyway, having first corrupted and (so far as is possible) destroyed the faith delivered to us.

The Last Jedi: a defense and explication (lots of spoilers)


In this post, I'm going to lay out what I think the film The Last Jedi is about, and why the film is, for me at least, a thorough-going success, rivaling the original trilogy. This is not to deny the validity of many of the criticisms that have been made. The film doesn't, for instance,  do a good job of explaining why the situation is so desperate and why the Republic appears to have failed entirely. But on the other hand, the prequels tried to flesh out the politics of the Star Wars universe and were largely unsuccessful. It makes sense that the new trilogy would turn away from political analysis to return to the story of a rag-tag band of rebels against an evil host.  I regret the lack of effective world-building, but I can still appreciate both TFA and TLJ for what they are.  TFA is an enjoyable homage to the original trilogy. TLJ contains plenty of echoes itself, particularly of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it's obviously going for something different. Is that something different worth going for? And does TLJ succeed? My answers are "yes, definitely" to the first question and "yes, mostly" to the second.

What impressed me about TLJ, as I watched it, was the way every part of this sprawling film interlocked to reinforce the overall theme. The theme, as in most fantasy stories, is about the proper way to struggle against evil. TLJ has gotten a lot of criticism for being iconoclastic, but frankly the bizarre and naive combination of Manicheanism and pseudo-Eastern monism present in the original trilogy needed to be smashed. I don't read TLJ as cynical or nihilistic at all--rather, its complex narrative fleshes out what genuine heroism in a good cause looks like. Kylo Ren's line "let the past die" has been quoted as the major theme of the film, but I think the ultimate message is better summed up in Rose's words to Finn near the end of the movie, "It's not about fighting what you hate; it's about protecting what you love." (Alas, that doesn't make the "crash your plane into his plane in order to save him" episode any less ridiculous.)

The film tells three interlocking stories. The first story is about Rey's quest to find Luke Skywalker and bring him back to save the galaxy, and when that fails, to turn Kylo Ren to the light as Luke had turned his father Darth Vader. This too fails, when Ren kills Snoke but takes his place as leader of the First Order, inviting Rey to join him, which she refuses to do. But, in the final climax of the film, Luke does show up (though only via "Force Projection") for a showdown with Ren, echoing another moment from the original trilogy, the death of Obi-Wan. Rey rescues the tattered remnant of the Resistance and they all fly off on the Millennium Falcon. This is the principal strand of the story and the one that has gotten most acclaim.

The second story focuses on the fighter pilot Poe Dameron and his conflict first with Leia and then with Leia's temporary replacement Admiral Holdo, as the Resistance fleet attempts to flee the First Order. This part of the story shows strong influence from Battlestar Galactica (a good thing in my book), and is an extended "setup" in which we are led to think that Poe is the hero and that Holdo is either cowardly or traitorous, only to find that in fact she and Leia were on the same page and had a perfectly reasonable plan, which Poe manages to destroy leading to thousands of deaths.

The third strand of the plot, a spinoff of the second, is the story of the former Stormtrooper Finn and his new friend Rose, who ally with Poe and go off on a hare-brained quest for an expert code-breaker who will allow them to disable the tracking mechanism on the First Order flagship. Their adventures on a "casino planet" have been largely dismissed as a silly digression from the main story, but some critics have pointed out that in fact this episode gives the fight between good and evil more specificity and believability than Star Wars usually attempts. Finn and Rose wind up with an amoral criminal as their expert codebreaker, who casually betrays them (and the fleet) to the First Order when they are captured. Reunited with Poe in the final showdown on the salt planet, Finn disobeys the chastened Poe's orders to break off a suicidal attack, only to be (absurdly) knocked out of the sky by Rose, who delivers the line I quoted earlier as the fundamental motto of the film as a whole.

 I'll get back to why I think this third strand of the story is actually important. But first, back to the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren strand and the much-discussed theme of "killing the past."

The first strand:  "The Jedi must end"
 Rey goes to Atch-To as a naive hero-worshiper of Luke, whom she had considered a myth until the events of the previous film. She clearly expects, as do other characters in the story, that Luke will teach her to be a Jedi as Obi-Wan and Yoda had taught him. This is what the logic of Star Wars has led us to expect. But Luke confounds these expectations by tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder and insisting that the Jedi are a failure and need to die. Kylo Ren reinforces this message by telling Rey in their telepathic conversations (which we find out later were enabled by Snoke in order to turn Rey to the Dark Side) that she needs to "let the past die" or even "kill it if necessary."

The interesting thing about this is that it puts Luke and Ren on the same side. Both of them have taken away the same basic message from their confrontation (which we--and Rey--learn about three times, first from Luke, then Ren, then Luke again, each claiming to correct the other's previous version). Both have concluded that the Jedi Order needs to be destroyed. Some reviewers have suggested that Luke's reaction to his momentary impulse to kill his troubled apprentice is out of proportion--why conclude that the Jedi are all wrong just because you almost made one terribly bad choice? And, some have asked, why would the person who saw good in Darth Vader fail (until it was almost too late) to see anything redeemable in his own young nephew?

To answer this , we need to look at the history of the Jedi as shown in the films, including the much-despised prequels. The Jedi are an elite order of people who have been trained to use the "light side" of the Force. Theoretically, the Jedi want to recruit everyone who has the capacity to use the Force, although they have to get them very young in order to train them properly. The training includes rigid control of the emotions, which are generally linked to the Dark Side. This appears, from what we see in the prequels, to include a commitment to celibacy. That would mean that when Yoda warns Luke that his feelings for Leia could be made to serve the Dark Side, he's understating considerably and he's not just talking about the incest aspect. (Just looked this up and apparently Lucas claimed in an interview that the Jedi were allowed to have sex, just not marriage or family or any kind of "possessive relationships." The case for the creepiness of the Jedi just got way stronger!)

I don't want to get into the whole question of whether this is an implicit criticism of the Catholic Church, and if so whether it's a fair one. (But I think it is fair to say that TLJ is a Protestant, maybe even Quaker movie!) As portrayed in the SW movies, the Jedi approach seems to be fundamentally unsustainable. Vows of celibacy are one thing, but a hostility to all emotion is quite another. (This website, which of course isn't canon, says that Jedi are encouraged to feel emotions, observe them and then "let them pass through you" rather than clinging to them--which sounds very Buddhist. But it does say that emotions get in the way of hearing the Force. What then about "trust your feelings, Luke"? Feelings and emotions are different, I guess?)  And predictably, the Jedi seem to have little to offer someone who is experiencing inner turmoil. Such turmoil is, itself, seen as a manifestation of the Dark Side. The Jedi are also capable of ruthless violence, all for the greater good of course and done without anger. Yoda tells Luke in Empire Strikes Back that the Jedi must only use the Force for "knowledge and defense," but if that's true, then "defense" has a very flexible definition.

All of this explains why Luke responds as he does to the young Ben Solo. His abortive attempt to kill his apprentice was not just a momentary aberration. It was the reasonable way for a Jedi to respond to what appeared to be a rising tide of darkness within an extremely gifted student. After all, Obi-Wan and Yoda had both insisted to the young Luke that he had to kill his father, and both began discussing contingency plans (otherwise known as Leia) when they realized that he might not be willing to do this.

When Luke first meets Rey, he realizes that she, like Ben, is a deeply troubled person with great talent. He tells her that this "didn't scare me enough" in Ben's case. When she immediately feels the draw of the "dark" place under the island, he treats this as some fundamental flaw in her. Yet when Rey dives into the repository of the "dark side," nothing terrible happens.  She doesn't become evil--instead, like Luke in the parallel scene in Empire Strikes Back, she gains self-knowledge. Luke encountered a vision of Darth Vader (whom he did not yet know was his father) and killed him, only to see that the face inside the helmet was his own. Rey seeks a vision of her parents, but only sees endless images of herself. This paves the way for Yoda's words to Luke that Rey already has all the wisdom she needs within herself.

Luke has been on the island for years, seeking to reject the Jedi traditions--but he has deliberately sought out a place of great holiness for the Jedi tradition, and has never actually been able to carry out his intention of burning the Jedi texts. He treats Rey in classic Jedi master fashion even while claiming that he is only teaching her in order to debunk the Jedi ways. He is deeply terrified by her alleged attraction to the "Dark Side," which is a highly conventional Jedi reaction. Thus, ironically, the naive Ray, who seeks initiation, into the Jedi tradition is the push Luke needs to free himself from the Jedi tradition--or, perhaps, to renew it by returning to its true principles.

Luke's final "duel" with Kylo Ren shows the new enlightenment he has reached because of his encounter with Rey. It is a homage, of course, to Obi Wan's death in the first Star Wars movie. But while Obi Wan tells Darth Vader "if you strike me down I will become more powerful than ever," Luke tells Ren, "Strike me down in anger, and I will always be with you, just like your father." It is the language of relationship, rather than the language of power. It is a threat, but also a promise.

Ren's desire to destroy the past violently is not actually a constructive answer. Killing the past, striking it down in anger, only means that it haunts us all the more. Rey's attempt to turn Kylo Ren to the light fails, but that doesn't make it foolish or wrong. At the end of the movie, Ren appears triumphant, but he has unfinished business with both the dead Luke (and, as Luke has pointed out, with his father) and the living Rey.  And Rey has emerged as a genuine heir of everything good in the Jedi tradition, regardless of her parentage.

The second strand: Poe vs. the women
The strand of the story that concerns Poe's conflict with Leia and Holdo over the proper way to fight has gotten a lot of praise and criticism on ideological grounds. Generally speaking, conservatives hate it because they see it as heavy-handed feminist propaganda and they find its attitude to heroic sacrifice inconsistent (good when women do it, bad when men do it). Feminists typically like it, for obvious reasons. I'm on the feminist side on this one. I think it's a neat reversal of conventional stories of derring-do, as well as a homage to Battlestar Galactica (which on the whole I find a good thing). I recognize that there are problems with the plot, but on the whole I found the characters engaging and the standoff one of the tensest parts of the movie, because the film created genuine uncertainty about who was in the right. I don't find Holdo's actions inconsistent--the movie never suggests that courage and sacrifice are bad things in themselves, only that they need to be, as Catholics would say, "rightly ordered." (See Aristotle, and Aquinas, on courage as a mean between cowardice and rashness.) 

Just as the main strand of the film criticizes the ideology of the Jedi order, so this strand criticizes the
ideology of action movies in general, in which the way to resist evil is always to "get in a plane and blow things up." And yes, this is gendered, because men generally are more likely than women to fall into this error. Holdo is set up to look like what my wife and I would call (if you'll pardon a reference to the other classic screen sci-fi mythos) a "Kai Winn" character, from the obnoxious Bajoran leader in Deep Space Nine--someone who conceals her selfish ambition, and perhaps even her treason, behind the mask of motherly female authority. Personally, I loved this part of the story, precisely because I found it disconcerting. I also loved the completely unrealistic gentle treatment Poe got from Holdo and Leia when his mutiny failed.

This strand of the story mirrors the main strand in that more conventional "Star Wars values" are first presented, then debunked, then reaffirmed in a chastened way. Heroic self-sacrifice isn't bad--it just needs to be clearly necessary and serve the common good rather than being an expression of machismo.

The third strand: "Protecting what you love"

The Rose/Finn section of the film has attracted the most criticism, and it does have some problems. The extended sequence on the casino planet drags the movie out, and Rose's "saving" Finn by crashing into him is a rather bizarre act that strains suspension of disbelief, besides seeming like a heavy-handed statement of a theme that has already been made adequately. But from a strictly thematic point of view, this is actually the strand that pulls it together, with Rose's line about protecting what you love rather than fighting what you hate.

Again, this is really just a restatement of a line we have heard from Yoda: "Fear leads to anger. . . anger leads to hate. . . hate leads to suffering." (Maybe the only memorable thing in The Phantom Menace? Other than just how goofy it was?) That this line, which summarizes the message of the film as a whole, is given to such an "unimportant" character further cements the democratic, iconoclastic message of the film.

The closing scene of the film takes us back to the "casino planet" for a shot of a kid using the Force to lift a broom.  In spite of the problems with the earlier casino planet sequence in terms of the pacing of the plot, the events on the casino planet turn out to be thematically central to the film. Rose has commented that the financiers who gamble on the casino planet are the "worst people in the world." The true villains of The Last Jedi are not cackling space wizards but well-heeled, respectable people who sell weapons to both sides in the conflict. And the true heroes, at the film's end, are the down-trodden children who are just beginning to discover their own innate power.
       

                    Conclusion

For me at least, The Last Jedi is just iconoclastic enough to be fresh, while managing to evoke the combination of corny humor and romantic myth-making that made the first trilogy so successful. In the end, the film does not destroy the mythos of the series as a whole--it refreshes it by challenging some of its unacknowledged problems and giving it a more egalitarian message. Star Wars is one of the quintessential American myths (in both good and bad ways). By subverting the "hero blowing things up" model and substituting a message about the potential for heroism in everyone, this last installment has substituted one aspect of the American myth for another. From my perspective, this new version is largely an improvement.

I was finally inspired to finish this long review by watching The Empire Strikes Back today with my five-year-old daughter. The Yoda sequences on Dagobah are among my favorite scenes in the whole franchise, and watching them I realized how much The Last Jedi owes to its predecessors even as it tries to sort out some of their mixed messages. Also, not having watched Empire for a while, I'd forgotten how much TLJ's closing fight really does echo the battle on Hoth in the earlier film. In one scene, Luke destroys an Imperial Walker when the battle is functionally over, accomplishing nothing that I can see for the greater cause. It is precisely this kind of pointless derring-do that the later film will criticize. The earlier films, like most action adventures, create action sequences that in the end don't accomplish much, while completely skating over this futility. In TLJ, the futility is hammered home. Actions have consequences.

With TLJ, the Star Wars franchise has finally, reluctantly, grown up a little. Maybe that's not entirely a good thing. But in a culture of delayed adolescence with a fixation on acts of violent heroism by young males, I think it mostly is.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars movie review--but not the one you expect

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I've been working on a series of blog posts on Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which was published five years ago and which I finished reading about a year ago. So it probably shouldn't surprise that I am now writing not about the new Star Wars (which I'm going to see on Tuesday) but the last one, which I only just watched last night (in preparation for seeing the new one). I'd heard a lot of mixed reports on it--many of my friends think that it's too much of a rehash of previous films. Having watched it, I think that's true. It's not a shattering, ground-breaking movie, but I enjoyed it a lot (and probably would have been more impressed on the large screen). I'm certainly looking forward to watching the next one.

Like many people, I particularly liked the story of Finn, the stormtrooper who changes sides. He begins the story without a name except the designation FN-2187. Early in the film, one of his comrades is killed, and reaches up and touches FN-2187 on the helmet, leaving a bloodstained handprint. At this point we only know the character as just another faceless stormtrooper, but the bloodstain individualizes him. A few minutes later, he and he alone refuses to massacre civilians, and eventually helps a Resistance pilot escape. In the fighter, as they are fleeing the "First Order," the pilot, Poe Dameron, names FN-2187 "Finn," just before the fighter crashes and Finn believes that Dameron is dead. I wasn't sure that Dameron would stay dead, and of course he doesn't--turns out he was thrown from the craft and survived perfectly fine. Apparently the original plan was for him to die, and I think that would have made Finn's journey from nameless stormtrooper to individualized hero more poignant.

I also really liked the ending, in which Rey finally tracks Luke Skywalker down on a coastline that reminded me vividly of my ancestral Shetland (i believe it's actually Skellig Michael in Ireland). As I said to someone today, I can put up with nearly anything in a movie that gives me a shot of a windswept landscape overlooking the North Atlantic.

The curse of Star Wars, I think, is Joseph Campbell. His homogenized stereotype of a "hero's journey" has locked the franchise into certain patterns that it can't seem to escape. Of course Hollywood blockbusters tend to follow well-worn grooves anyway, but the particular mythic model George Lucas chose has, I think, accentuated that basic tendency of commercial entertainment. This is why George R. R. Martin's work stands out, I think. It isn't so much that Martin is "cynical" or "nihilistic" (though of course his vision is very dark), but that he treats his characters as individuals. Their actions fall into certain broad patterns, but the complexity and freedom of real human lives keeps busting the heroic stereotypes apart.

Supposedly the new Star Wars movie is bolder than its predecessor. I'll find out on Tuesday. But since apparently it starts with more shots of Skellig Michael, I'll be happy no matter what.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Brad Gregory--Excluding God, or, It's all the fault of Duns Scotus


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Chapter One of The Unintended Reformation is probably the most often cited. Indeed, many of the negative reactions to the book focus on the thesis Gregory argues here. Ironically, the chapter is atypical inasmuch as the root of modern secularism identified here lies not in the Reformation itself but in late medieval theology, specifically the work of Duns Scotus. According to Gregory, Scotus' concept of "univocity" radically altered the traditional Christian understanding of God. In traditional Christian theology (i.e., in the work of the Church Fathers, the Eastern tradition, or the earlier scholastics such as Aquinas), God is radically other than creation. All creation depends on God and participates in God, but no concept drawn from creation (as all our concepts are) is adequate to describe God. God is not a specific example of a broader category of "things that exist." God transcends all our categories and all our language. For Aquinas--himself much less "apophatic" (i.e., more willing to make positive claims about God) than many other great theologians of the tradition--even "being" can only be predicated of creatures and God analogously. Creaturely "being" derives from God's and thus has something that resembles it, but the differences are always going to be far greater than the similarities.

Scotus, in contrast, believes that there is a concept of "being" that can be univocally applied to God and creatures. Gregory argues that this is, implicitly, a radical move that makes it possible to think and speak about God in the same way we do about creation. But he admits that in itself this highly abstruse theory would have had little effect. This is where the Reformation comes in. By shattering the unity of Western Christendom and igniting fierce debates about how we know God's revelation, the Reformation cast Europeans back on an abstract, philosophical concept of God, which had been subtly altered by Scotus. Hence, post-Reformation Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) increasingly tended to think of God as the greatest of beings within a universe that could in principle be explained through reason and natural law. As the rapidly developing disciplines of the natural sciences explained more and more of reality without reference to God, God's place within this cosmos dwindled to that of the First Cause of Deism, and eventually to Feuerbach's mere projection of the human mind.

There is a reason why this sweeping argument has drawn so much criticism. In the first place, it's generally a bad idea to rest big claims about intellectual history on Scotus if you aren't a Scotus expert, because Scotus is such a darn difficult author. (In fact, I have a paper on Calvin I have wanted to publish for years which, among other revisions, probably needs to have all the Scotus cut out.) While Scotus did say that one can predicate being univocally of God and creatures, this was a very narrow and technical point, and the people I know who know something about Scotus generally seem to agree that it won't bear the weight Gregory puts on it. While Gregory does cite Scotus scholarship, he generally doesn't seem to be familiar with the bulk of recent work on Scotus, or at least he doesn't cite that work. Instead, his view seems to owe a lot to a 20th-century Catholic polemical trope of blaming the Reformation on the distortions of late medieval theology. In the 1990s, the largely Anglican theological movement called "Radical Orthodoxy" embraced the idea that Scotus had been the point where the Western theological tradition Went Wrong, and many more broadly "post-liberal" theologians of different traditions make similar points, it seems to me. Gregory cites Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron's 2007 The Priority of Christ for his view on the significance of Scotus' adoption of the concept of the univocity of being. Now I myself am very sympathetic to this strand of recent theology. I think there may be something to the "blame Scotus" argument, in fact. But it's unwise to rest too much weight on these claims when generally speaking the people who are actual Scotus experts qualify them at best and scoff at them at worst.

Furthermore, the idea that post-Scotus theologians, including the Protestant Reformers, thought of God as fundamentally the same kind of being we are seems very strange. William Ockham, seen by many (including Gregory) as taking Scotus' innovations even further, had a radically "apophatic" view of God in which God's nature is pretty much completely unknowable and all we can talk about is God's will. And this is generally the approach of the Reformers. Calvin, contrary to the stereotype many hold of him, fulminates against the idea that God is arbitrary, to the point of rejecting the basic distinction all medieval theologians made between what God has chosen to do and what God could have done but didn't. (I write about this in that paper I referred to earlier.) He believes that all God's actions flow from his nature. But the nature, again, is fundamentally unknowable. The older Catholic polemical trope of blaming everything on the late medieval scholastics, in fact, was more likely to argue that Ockham in particular made God so entirely other from us that reason has nothing to say about God--and this is certainly a more plausible interpretation of at least some of the early Protestant theologians (most notably Luther).

But even if Gregory is all out to sea on what he says about Scotus, and wrong to suggest that the Reformers followed Scotus in this respect, that doesn't really affect the basic argument of the chapter, at least insofar as it supports the overall case made by the book. After all, blaming Scotus wouldn't, in itself, support Gregory's argument that the Reformation is the source of the modern secular world. Rather, Gregory's most significant argument is that the sharp disagreements about God's acts of revelation that took place in the Reformation left post-Reformation Christians with no sure ground to speak about God except that provided by reason and natural science. And put in that way, I think it's a highly plausible argument. Not conclusive--as various reviewers have pointed out, one can easily argue that post-Reformation developments, by no means determined by the Reformation, were more truly decisive than anything connected directly with Protestantism.

There's also a somewhat more nuanced way to put the argument than Gregory chooses, one that was made by Louis Bouyer in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. In this way of thinking, late medieval philosophy and theology tended to set up an either/or between God and creation. This became central to the Reformation. The Reformers sought to tear down human agency in order to exalt divine agency, rather than seeing the two as occupying radically different metaphysical "space" and thus as fundamentally compatible, as Aquinas did. (For instance, Aquinas seems to have no problems speaking of God causing humans to act in a particular way--freely. And yet he generally defines freedom in a "libertarian" rather than a "compatibilist" way, as the ability to choose one of two contraries.) Arguably, the Reformation's exaltation of the divine against the human caused Europeans to think of the two as a zero-sum game, so that every discovery of natural causality pushed God into a smaller and smaller "corner." Even this only makes sense if we speak in terms of a very general ethos rather than specific ideas about nature, since all the Reformers would have insisted that, in Calvin's words, nature is the "theater of God's glory," and would have agreed with the medieval tradition that God is active in and through "secondary causes." (Their opposition of divine and human causality was pretty much limited to soteriology and revelation, it seems to me.)

All of that being said, it's surely hard to deny that most modern people do have assumptions about God that are radically different from those of the patristic and medieval traditions. The popularity of "Intelligent Design" among conservative Christians, with the assumption that this says something meaningful about God's activity in creation, is one indication of this. (I wrote two blog posts about ID which you can read here and here.) As a number of people have pointed out, nearly everything that Richard Dawkins and other "New Atheists" write betrays a radical ignorance of what Christians have historically meant when we speak of God. It's incredibly hard to get through to atheists on this, not least because so many Christians hold precisely the view the atheists are attacking. To be sure, most medieval people weren't educated in the nuances of theology and no doubt held "crude" views of God, but the prevalence of misunderstandings (or just a radically different set of assumptions about what "God" means) among highly educated people indicates that there really is some kind of major chasm in the Western intellectual tradition. As MacIntyre famously said about ethics, there has been an intellectual eclipse similar to what post-apocalyptic sci-fi often posits with regard to science. And while the Reformation itself clearly did not cause the chasm, Gregory's thesis that it threw Europeans back on the resources of a purely abstract, non-theological concept of God seems plausible.

Plausible of course doesn't necessarily mean convincing. This is a highly interesting chapter, but not the strongest way to begin the book given the speculative nature of the argument and the serious reasons to question major parts of it. In later posts, I'll discuss whether the later chapters make stronger arguments (spoiler: generally speaking I believe they do).

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Silence

Image result for silence final shot rodriguez death clutching crucifix



Several weeks ago, I finally watched Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Given the title and the theme, it's probably appropriate that it's taken me so long to write about it, though that's fairly typical for me.

For people who don't already know the film: it's based on a book by the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, which is in turn based on historical events of the early 17th century during the Japanese persecution of Christians. A Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Christovao Ferreira, has disappeared in Japan, and rumor has it that he has apostasized. Two young priests are sent to find out what happened to him. After ministering to the persecuted Japanese Christians, they are betrayed and arrested. Both the novel and the film focus on one of them, a fictional character named Rodriguez (played by Andrew Garfield) who himself eventually follows Ferreira's footsteps and apostasizes.

The apostasy, in both book and film, is presented as a paradoxically Christian act. Rodriguez himself is never tortured--the Japanese authorities choose rather to torture Japanese Christians (who in some cases have already apostasized), telling Rodriguez that he can end their suffering by renouncing the faith himself. This is done by the ritual act of treading on a portrait of Christ, the "fumie." In the climax of the story, witnessing the tortures of the Japanese Christians, pressured by his own former mentor Ferreira with the argument that apostasy is the Christlike, unselfish thing to do, Rodriguez hears the voice of Christ saying, "You may trample. . . .it was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world." His renunciation of Christ is therefore, an ultimate act of discipleship--or at least this is the suggestion that Endo's narrative makes, followed by Scorsese's film.

I read the novel many years ago and need to reread it. From here on, I will refer primarily to the film. In Scorsese's telling, at least, Rodriguez is fulfilling not only a Christian ideal (imitatio Christi) but a Buddhist one. Both Japanese interrogators and his apostate mentor Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson, himself a Buddhist in real life) suggest that by ceasing to cling to his faith, he would be letting go of self, transcending all attachments in an act of pure compassion. Scorsese explicitly endorsed this interpretation of Rodriguez' apostasy in an interview with him I heard on NPR. It isn't surprising, then, that many conservative Catholics have reacted badly to the film (as many Japanese Catholics reacted badly to Endo's original novel). Furthermore, Ferreira also tells Rodriguez that Christianity is fundamentally unsuited to Japan, like a tree that can't take root in a swamp. He argues that since the Japanese have no conception of a spiritual reality transcending the natural world, even the converts who suffer and die heroically for their faith are really dying for an unrecognizable distortion of Christianity and are acting primarily out of personal loyalty to Rodriguez and the other missionaries.

If I remember rightly, these ideas are present in the original novel. But as a viewer of the film, I find them unconvincing. Scorsese never shows us a good reason to believe that Ferreira is right. The actual glimpses we get of Japanese Christians seem to contradict his claim that they aren't "really" converts to Christianity and are simply motivated by loyalty to the missionaries. (And why are they so loyal to the missionaries anyway?) The Japanese elites who mastermind the persecution are sophisticated and plausible, but they have utter contempt for their own commoners and, of course, are willing to use horrifying brutality in order to preserve their social order. Ferreira's narrative, and that of his Japanese masters, appears to be self-serving nonsense given the evidence we see in the film. In fact, in the world of the film, the Japanese peasants receive Christianity with joy as a message that brings them hope and meaning, and they cling to it stubbornly in the face of agonizing torment.

The film actually ignores a great deal that could be said on behalf of the Japanese authorities and against seventeenth-century Catholicism. Except for one moment when the Japanese "Inquisitor" thinks Rodriguez is inviting Japan to "marry" the Portuguese (as he points out, he's actually talking about the Church), the imperialist undertones of the conflict aren't really addressed. The Japanese had good reason to worry about the way the Portuguese colonizers used Catholicism to give themselves a foothold. In Sri Lanka and Southern India, the Portuguese persecuted Buddhism, destroying the holiest relic of Sri Lankan Buddhism (Buddha's tooth) in a public ceremony (the Buddhists now claim that this was a replica and that the real tooth is still intact). Even the use of the term "Inquisitor" for the Japanese persecutor is ironic, given its normal association with Catholicism. Had Rodriguez gone back to Europe and proclaimed that Christ had told him to apostasize, he would have encountered his own religion's Inquisitors quite quickly. While the brutality of the Catholic Inquisition has often been exaggerated and in fact paled in comparison to the methods the Japanese used, the fact remains that the Catholics of this era were quite willing to use torture and execution to preserve their social order against threats. Similarly, early modern Europe was not exactly a place in which the lives and human dignity of peasants were highly regarded. Japan and Europe had a great deal in common, in fact. The film makes no attempt to draw out these parallels. That isn't a criticism--it's not as if the social injustices of early modern Europe or the violence employed on behalf of the Catholic Church are unknown in our culture, or as if Hollywood is generally interested in presenting an unduly favorable picture of Catholicism. But since some Catholics have apparently dismissed the film as anti-Catholic, it's worth noting that in many respects it is, if anything, the reverse. Indeed, it is if anything an anti-Buddhist film, shattering the "peaceful Buddhist" positive stereotype many in the West indulge in and showing the brutality of which a Buddhist culture was capable.

That is not to deny the very real sympathy Scorsese clearly feels with Buddhism. The Buddhist understanding of "no-self" and compassion comes through very clearly. But ironically, it is Rodriguez, not Ferreira, who most fully embodies it. Neeson's Ferreira is weary and sad, "empty" in the negative Western sense as well as (or instead of) the positive Buddhist one. In the flashbacks the film provides, it seems that his apostasy, unlike that of Rodriguez, was prompted by his own torture, after he had already witnessed that of others (Rodriguez, in contrast, is never harmed physically). His explanations seem like ex post facto rationalizations. But they give Rodriguez the framework on which he will act when the spectacle of the Japanese converts' torment becomes unbearable. Rodriguez does what Ferreira suggests, and he arguably fulfills the "selfless" ideal Ferreira has held out to him, but he does it for deeply Christian reasons. And in the end, Christianity gets the last word, with a final shot of Rodriguez corpse, wrapped in flames as part of a Buddhist funeral, clutching a crucifix.

Silence is an ambiguous and tragic film, not a work of propaganda for one side or the other. It defies easy explanations, even those of its own director. It captures the paradoxes and ambiguities of religious faith as powerfully as any film I have ever seen. And, precisely because of that, it is one of the most profoundly Christian films ever produced, worthy of a place just a step below the sublime Of Gods and Men.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

An appreciation of the Reformation

1000 Years of German History Documentary 8: Martin Luther (1483 A.D)
As usual, I'd meant to have posted more on the Reformation leading up to the 500th anniversary tonight, including a series on Brad Gregory (only one post out in that so far). However, this is only the anniversary of the posting of the Theses, which is typically seen as the public beginning of the Protestant movement. So I'll be posting more in the months--and years--to come, perhaps up to (or even beyond) the anniversary of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Since I'll be 81 by then, this assumes that I will still be alive--and that we won't all have been enslaved by robot overlords, or slaughtered by a supervirus, or uploaded into an AI, or doomed to nuclear annihilation as a parlor game for billionaire playboys.

But tonight I'm going to set polemic aside and write about what is worth appreciating in the Protestant Reformation, and in Luther particularly, since this is his night.

Luther's 95 Theses were provoked by the public scandal of "indulgence-selling." Technically no selling took place--it was a lot like the "recommended donations" Christian radio and TV stations list these days. In return for a donation to the Church, people were given certificates assuring them of a partial or complete (the latter depending on certain spiritual conditions) forgiveness of the "debt of temporal punishment" due to sin. (I am not going to explain all of that here and now. If anyone reads this and wants it explained, post a comment asking and I'll be happy to oblige.) In other words, he was attacking a kind of popular religion in which people assuaged their fears of God's judgment (particularly of purgatory) by ritual acts.

The theology that produced the Theses, however, had been forged in the crucible of Luther's struggle with a very different strand of late medieval theology: an intense, internalized piety that did not rely on external rituals to pacify the conscience. In this rigorist theology, to be forgiven even in the sacrament of confession required genuine contrition and a love for God above all else. In the theology Luther was taught (a version of "nominalism" mediated by the fifteenth-century theologian Gabriel Biel), God had established a covenant that he would give grace to anyone who "did what is in them." This was meant to be reassuring--do your best and God will do the rest. But since "doing what is in you" was understood to mean loving God with all your heart, Luther found that it was not, in fact, in him at all. What was in him, after many efforts, was a smoldering resentment against the God who would demand such things in the name of the Gospel.

In the Presbyterian church where I played the organ last Sunday, the pastor said (in what was on the whole an excellent sermon) that late medieval Christians thought they would be justified by keeping the commandments of the Old Testament law. This isn't accurate. But from Luther's point of view, it would have been an improvement. Jesus made the law more difficult by internalizing it. And it was this internalized law that Luther had received as the Gospel--the "new law" of love, understood as a command to love God and neighbor at the very threshold of the spiritual life.

Luther's fundamental starting point, which he learned from his confessor and mentor Johann von Staupitz, was that God's love for us precedes and causes our love for God, not the other way round. For Staupitz, this was expressed through traditional Catholic devotional practices such as meditation on the Passion (something that, of course, would be central to Lutheranism as well, if in a somewhat altered form). But as early as portions of his first Psalm lectures (1513-15), and certainly in his Romans lectures (1515-16), Luther was moving beyond Staupitz. Staupitz was working within the broad Augustinian consensus of medieval theology (and indeed was part of the rigorously Augustinian wing of that theology), in which we are acceptable to God by being transformed by charity, infused by God into our hearts. Luther found this insufficient, because he worried that his charity was not enough and his transformation was too imperfect. Hence, he began to formulate a radical "negative theology," partly influenced by the German mystics, in which our only righteousness is our acknowledgment of our unrighteousness.

This is why, for Luther, the practice of selling indulgences, or indeed encouraging people to earn them as means of avoiding purgatorial punishment for themselves and others, was so abhorrent. It was not simply that such a practice was an "abuse" and exploited people (though Luther certainly cared about that) but that it defeated the whole purpose of repentance and, indeed, of purgatory. A truly repentant person would not run away from God's punishment, but would throw himself on God's mercy. Purgatory, as Luther saw it at this point, was a postmortem state of uncertainty about one's salvation, just as hell was the state of despair about one's salvation. When the soul acknowledged that it deserved hell, it would find itself in heaven. Indulgences were not just a financial scam--they were a spiritual scam, luring people into a nervous, self-justifying quest for spiritual comfort rather than the true peace that is only found when we stop trying to cajole God into accepting us.

Luther's mature doctrine of justification by faith alone was not yet present in the Theses or in the broader critique of scholastic theology out of which they arose. I'll write more about that theology (and the points where I disagree with it) later. But clearly Luther was right that much of the religion of his time--and of ours--is about trying to strike a deal of some kind with God, and that all such deals fundamentally miss the point and trap us further in the very doom we are seeking to escape.

In the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the three heroes become trapped in something called "Devil's Snare"--a vine that winds itself around its victims more tightly the more they struggle. (This happens in the book too, but they get out by lighting a fire--there's good symbolism in that as well, to be sure.) Hermione calls out to the ever-nervous Ron, "Don't struggle--relax." Not an easy thing when you are being strangled to death by a sentient vine, but when he manages it, the tendrils loosen and he falls to the floor. Luther's soteriology is, fundamentally, that we are all caught in the devil's snare, and we only get out when we stop struggling. This is why he used extravagant, hyperbolic rhetoric such as the infamous advice to Melanchthon in 1521 to "sin boldly but believe yet more boldly."

There are all kinds of criticisms that could be made of the way Luther interpreted and applied this concept. But for all of us who have suffered various kinds of spiritual anxiety, the fundamental insight is vitally important. Anxiety about salvation, the worry that somehow we may be displeasing God if we do or say or believe the wrong thing, is at the root of much of the evil Christians have done over the centuries. That's why the focus on abuses and corruption is so wrongheaded, and so false to Luther, when talking about the Reformation. Much of the evil in the Church comes not from worldly prelates who don't care about the things they profess to believe (though when that happens, it's certainly harmful), but from people who are desperately, passionately attempting to secure their own standing with God, and who sacrifice other people on the altar of their own spiritual insecurities.

So here's the fundamental truth in the Protestant Reformation, which Christians of all traditions should honor and take to heart: the sacrifice is already offered. The victory is already won. We do not have to convince God to save us. We have to refocus our attention from our own anguished self-importance to the objective, sovereign, unshakeable act of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Among all the theologians of the Christian Church, Luther may be the one who points most consistently and most inexorably to the Cross. And that is why we all need him.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Unintended Reformation, part 1



Front Cover
I have been meaning for some time to write a review of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which came out five years ago now and attracted a lot of attention. Reformation scholars, at least those focusing on theology, have, generally, panned the book, while Catholic apologists of course find it red meat.

Personally, I greeted it with delight when I first began to read it, as the book I would have wished to write myself if I had had the time and the learning to do so. On soberer analysis, it certainly has significant faults, and many of the objections that reviewers have raised are entirely valid. Nonetheless, I find the central thesis hard to dispute. No doubt some of this derives from my youthful exposure to the writing of Chesterton, but my years of studying the Reformation with David Steinmetz tended to confirm rather than refute that early impression. (It is only fair to say that Steinmetz himself was not a fan of Gregory's book--indeed the last conversation I ever had with him was in large part an argument on this very subject.)

The thesis is quite simple and is stated by the subtitle of the book: "How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society." Gregory argues that the division caused by the Reformation--the breakdown of the broad consensus on the basic questions of life that had characterized the Middle Ages--contributed decisively to the rise of a society in which these questions would be answered in secular ways, and indeed in which no coherent and unified answers would be possible. He articulates this in six specific ways, to each of which he dedicates a chapter:
1. Metaphysics (Excluding God): division over the proper understanding of divine revelation led Europeans to fall back on an already existing concept of God as the "greatest being" within a rationally comprehensible universe, a view of God which (unlike the more orthodox, apophatic view that had previously prevailed) would turn out to be "excluded" by the rise of modern science.
2. Epistemology (Relativizing Doctrines): division over what the proper doctrines were led inevitably to skepticism and relativism about the possibility of ultimate truth.
3. Politics (Controlling the Churches): the breakdown of a unified Church led to governmental control of religion, and eventually to the exclusion of religion from public life
4. Ethics (Subjectivizing Morality): The relativization of doctrinal claims, combined with the Protestant rejection of traditional Catholic soteriology and ethics, led to the breakdown of moral consensus described by Alistair MacIntyre in After Virtue.
5. Economics (Manufacturing the Goods Life): All of these previous developments, combined with the sheer chaos and violence of Reformation-era warfare, led to an unleashing of greed that, freed from the restraints of traditional Christian ethics, created modern capitalist society.
6. Secularizing Knowledge: The traditional understanding of education as a quest for truth beneath the broad umbrella of the Church turned into a purely secular quest for objective, rational knowledge, which, as in other areas of modern society, eventually broke down into subjectivism and pragmatism.

In subsequent posts, I'll look at each of these chapters in detail. But first I want to say something about Gregory's basic methodology, which I think has often been overlooked or simply dismissed contemptuously by his critics.

In his first book, Salvation at Stake, Gregory took on what he saw as reductive, secularist, theory-driven approaches to the phenomenon of martyrdom (specifically martyrdom at the hands of other Christians in the Reformation era). He insisted that we must attempt to understand sixteenth-century people on their own terms rather than claiming to understand them better than they understood themselves. This created a great kerfuffle at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but many Protestants as well as Catholics appreciated his respect for sixteenth-century Christians of all stripes. (In fact, I couldn't tell from the book that he was Catholic). While many Protestants have seen The Unintended Reformation as nothing more than Catholic propaganda, it needs to be understood in terms of his overall project of rescuing Reformation history from reductivism and what Gregory calls "supersessionism" (the view that our present inevitably followed from the past and is superior to it). Gregory sees the hyper-specialization of historical scholarship as an obstacle to serious, respectful analysis of the collective choices that made history take one turn rather than another. He is trying to do a kind of meta-history that all the scholarly fashions of our time militate against. Hence, I think that a lot of the criticisms misfire. We need to consider first whether, in fact, what he's trying to do can and should be done, and then whether he has, overall, succeeded in doing it (if it should be done).

I think that what he's trying to do is ambitious and, in the nature of things, impossible to do perfectly. He's working at such a large scale of generalization that he's certain to make a lot of mistakes--and he does. He also has a tendency to be overly grandiose and combative in tone (which got him in trouble with the previous book as well), and this puts people's backs up. But I think his book is, on the whole, a much-needed trumpet blast waking us up from the slumber of hyper-specialization and dreary reductionism.

One possible criticism is that while he argued in the previous book for understanding past figures on their own terms, in this book he claims that, in a way, he understands what happened in the Reformation better than the Reformers did. But I think Gregory would respond that he's not claiming that their actions were "really" something other than they thought they were, but simply that their sincere religious reforming efforts led to consequences down the road. And that is, as far as it goes, correct. Nonetheless, there are places where Gregory does seem to impose a "metanarrative" that distorts what the Reformers themselves thought they were doing. The first chapter of the book, on which a lot of reviews have concentrated, is unfortunately one of the major examples of this, as I'll explore in the next entry.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Saving the embryos: a new variation on the "trolley problem"

My friend David Schell has asked me (and several other prolifers he knows) to respond to the viral post describing Patrick Tomlinson's supposedly deadly challenge to the prolife position. Several good responses have already been written, including some fine posts on David's FB page. Here's mine.

In Tomlinson's scenario, we have a choice between saving a five-year-old child or 1000 embryos from a fire. This is, of course, a variant of the "trolley problem," and as in all such dilemmas, the situation is made artificially simple and stark. Tomlinson claims that no prolife person has ever said they would save the embryos, and that this proves that prolife people don't really believe that life begins at conception.

First of all, as others have pointed out, it's absurd to claim that if other people would act, under pressure, in ways that don't seem compatible with their declared beliefs, then they don't really hold those beliefs and you don't need to deal with the intellectual arguments for them. That reflects a very shallow understanding of human psychology, and perhaps a certain desperation to dismiss the actual philosophical arguments for life beginning at some point before birth.

Tomlinson's argument needs to be refined: rather than asking whether one would save the child or the embryos, he should ask which the prolifer thinks should be saved. That of course weakens the conflict he wants to create between prolifers' instincts and their alleged principles. But the fact that Tomlinson's original argument was specious isn't my fault. And it's still a dilemma--I feel considerable reluctance to say that it would be morally right to let a child die in order to save embryos. And here Tomlinson is right: this is because I, personally, am more certain a five-year-old child is a human being than I am that an embryo is a human being. It does not follow from this that there are no good reasons to protect embryonic life. Under pressure, in such a stark dilemma, I would most likely save (and think it right to save) the child. It does not follow that it is right to destroy embryos deliberately.

Like most polemicists on both sides, Tomlinson chooses the extreme example that suits his side of the argument. There is a wide range of room for "moderate" positions in which life begins at some point between conception and birth, and we aren't sure which. Thus, even if his example proved everything he might wish, it would not follow that life does not begin until birth.

But the biggest problem with Tomlinson's scenario, and with all variants of the trolley problem, it its utilitarianism. Tomlinson assumes that he's made the point especially strong by using a thousand embryos instead of just one. Some counter-arguments assume that the moral situation would be radically altered if, for instance, the embryos were essential to the continuation of the human race, or if instead of a five-year-old child the alternative was to save an old and sick person.

One of the fundamental moral principles which secular moralists (and some religious moralists too) seem to have abandoned in our culture is that the value of human life is not numerate. (There is, for instance, an entire moral argument against empathy on the grounds that empathy is "innumerate.") Of course, if we can save several lives rather than one, then all things being equal, we should do so. But because human life is of infinite value, multiplying the number of humans at stake does not fundamentally change the moral situation. Not only would it be legitimate, under many circumstances, to save one person rather than a thousand--but often it would be morally obligatory to do so.

If I had a choice between saving one of my daughters and saving a thousand people who were not close family members, I would save my daughter. And I would not think of this as an act of moral weakness. On the contrary, I would think it wrong to make the opposite choice. I have an overriding moral obligation to protect and nurture my children. That doesn't mean that I think their lives are more valuable than those of others--but they aren't less valuable either, and all human life is of infinite value.

A further basic error of a lot of modern secular ethics is the belief that action and inaction are morally equivalent. This stems from utilitarian consequentialism--the idea that what matters most is the result of our actions. Thus, if I let someone die or kill them, the result is the same so the moral quality of the act is the same. This is nonsense and leads to impossible moral dilemmas. And as Ben Shapiro has pointed out, it's implicit in this scenario's argument--that the choice to allow embryos to be destroyed in order to save a child makes moral objections to actively killing unborn children insincere.

In a real, plausible situation, the decision would almost certainly not boil down to two sharply opposed possibilities with the certainty that whichever I saved would live and whichever I didn't would die. My decision as to which of two lives (or groups of human lives) to save would depend on all kinds of factors: my responsibility to one or the other party, the helplessness and vulnerability of the parties, the possibility that others might save one or other of them, the likelihood that I would be able to save them, my physical proximity to them, and, yes, the relative numbers involved and the probable effect of saving or not saving those particular lives.

In short, this argument does have some value in making prolifers question whether we are really as sure that an embryo is a human person as we are that a five-year-old child is a person. But it does not do the work that Mr. Tomlinson and his many fans want it to do. But it is doing something else valuable--provoking all of us to think through more carefully why we believe what we believe and just what we mean when we say that human life has value.