I’ve been fully negligent at responding to reader emails the past six weeks or so. I enjoy reading the replies so much, and have meant to do an email just responding to feedback for some while now. So here we are.
If you’re a new subscriber, welcome! I’ll link the original newsletters to which people are responding, in case you want to read the archives.
“Exhaustion with Sin” strikes me as a pretty good gloss on “mortification.” At least locating it there would make sense of how negative and depressing the whole thing is, even while acknowledging that in the Christian life it is part of a Spirit-enabled conversion of the soul.
I didn’t mention this in the newsletter, but some of the criminology I was reading that prompted it actually employs 'mortification’ to speak of what happens when prisoners enter prison. The idea is, essentially, that they are stripped of their agency, leaving them feeling destitute and hopeless. It’s a vulnerable moment for them, and can be conducive to helping them pursue permanent transformation. So this comment is more on point than you might have realized!
This made me think a lot about addiction, which has similar patterns of age-related indulgence and desistance – that is, a great many young people use drugs and meet various criteria for a “drug abuse disorder”, but then many if not most simply stop on their own as they get older and more tired. While I think your point about “my current life is untenable”-type thinking perhaps playing a larger role in desistance (for addiction or crime) is correct, I would suggest that there’s a different sort of role for a positive vision of the good. Namely, people often start out thinking that crime was the most appealing choice, the most exciting choice, or (in the case of gangs) the choice that would give them a community to belong to or cement their role in a particular community. When the consequences of such a life start to catch up with them, they get to a point where they feel like they are so far gone that they don’t have any choice but to continue in such a life. (A similar, often very biologically based gravitational pull affects people with addiction.) In these cases, a positive vision (often in the form of a testimony) helps them to understand that they have another option or opportunity.
This is true, and important. The difficulty is that a lifetime of sin also tends to make the positive vision of the good seem–Not Good.
I would love to read/hear more sometime about how a Christian should wrestle with the desire to have a child who looks (and is) very much like him/her, the biological parent. As I am someone who has a physical condition that prevents me from bearing a child (at least so far without healing from the Lord), this has been the hardest aspect of accepting our new reality for my husband and me: grieving a child who looks like us, a child who might have been or could have been. Questions abound in my mind like, “If we would have had a daughter, would she have had my eyes?” “Would our son have had your smile?” “Would he have had X family trait or Y personality aspect?” It could be, and is likely in my case at least, that this is just a sinful impulse, but does it reflect the reality of God as Creator when we want to be co-creators in this manner? I haven’t found much help in processing those desires and “what-ifs” at all. We decided very early in our marriage never to pursue IVF or surrogacy, but I can certainly understand the temptation and desire to use those methods better than I could before marriage.
I think this is one of the hardest questions in procreative ethics. There are ways in which the desire for phenotypical similarities can become disturbingly vicious, and which demand serious challenges. I have not worked this out in full (despite writing a dissertation that comes very near to these questions), but it seems to me that the grammar of 'pride’ is applicable in this context. The desire to see ourselves reflected within those we create is plausibly an instance of a fundamental narcissism–but it may as well be a recognition that the joint union of spouses is good, and that a unique joy arises within it that we would delight in seeing extended in and through the individuals who emerge from it. That extension can happen in adoptive relationships, I think: but I think we go awry if we bracket the biological dimensions of those bonds entirely.
And on the same theme:
I am skeptical about voluntary childlessness unless there are very compelling circumstantial and prayerfully-reached reasons for it. I am also skeptical that the morally best option is procreate within marriage as much as possible (I presume, though could be wrong, that you agree). What, then, are the ethical practices of that middle ground? Should we be using contraceptives at all? If so, what kinds and what grounds would be adequate? If not, should we use the rhythm method? Something else?
I don’t think the imagery of “middle ground” is the right way to think through such a question, though it is natural, as it seems to put opposing contraception and procreating as much as possible on the same spectrum. I don’t think they are: denying contraception’s licitness in no way entails the responsibility to procreate. As long as abstention from procreative acts is possible, then there is no formal continuity between those views.
None of that addresses your very important questions, though, about the appropriate means of regulating conception. I need to get going on a book….
The IVF issue provoked a lot of responses. I should probably devote a full newsletter to them. I might.
There’s much about this I disagree with, in part because there way in which we learn to navigate what life and death are in more normal ways (what we eat, whether we exterminate bugs, how we think about political killing) affects what judgments we make in this area. The dimensions of the act are, as you rightly argue, different, but our moral sense of the rightness of a course of action are habituated by how we evaluate the goodness of “life” in other instances.
I think this is certainly true: the young boy who callously tortures a frog has learned the wrong lesson about the universe, and needs to repent. At the same time, it is not a generalizable “life” that is at stake in such wrong actions, but rather a particular form of life with its own creaturely capacities. There’s a romanticism about 'life’ that I think we ought to resist, which flattening the 'pro-life’ label to include all manner of species contributes to.
But there are, as I mentioned, principled reasons to avoid such an expansion as well. The reality is that abortion is sui generis as a moral act. Only killing in war or punishment comes close to it—but in those areas, guilt can plausibly be invoked to make killing justified. The decision to terminate an innocent human life radically shapes a person, as it remains within their character until it is renounced and repented of. The objection to abortion is not a general objection to anything that leads to the ending of a human life. There are lots of acts that I do which might, in fact, unwittingly or unintentionally contribute to the shortening of my own life and the lives of those around me (using certain chemicals, for instance, to control the pests in my yard). Yet the proportionate reasons I have for so spraying, and the diffusiveness of my agency in causing those deaths, make whatever “complicity” I might have relatively benign. Nothing like this obtains in the direct termination of an infant in the womb, though, when there are insufficient reasons to do so. What happens in the womb is a focal point for the demonic war against humanity that rages around us. We might say, even, that it is the focal point for it in our own time.
A reader asked:
No mention of euthanasia in this paragraph?
No, and that might be a mistake, but I have intuitions that the badness of killing at the beginning and end of life are distinct: they’re both morally wrong, and heinously so, but I think the former might still be worse than the latter. But I’m not wedded to this.
I saw Domenech’s post on the Federalist and some of the French-Ahmari exchange. While the debate on where conservatives go from here is an important one, I’m struggling with idea that journalists appear to be leading that debate. My concern grows out of 1) the inherently bubbled nature of media-on-media commentary (It’s a self-selected, narrowly defined view of the world), and 2) the tendency towards changeability in new media journalism types like Domenech, which you astutely point out. Perhaps that’s why Domenech is so vociferous. Maybe he’s seeing his position on gay marriage as being an error and this is his penance?
I hope so, but I suspect not. Domenech wants to make this a debate about the necessary conditions for liberty, religious or otherwise. He previously rejected the idea that same-sex marriage would require infringing religious liberties–as someone like Andrew Sullivan still does. But that position is only plausible, I think, if you grossly misunderstand what marriage is and what role it plays within a society. Domenech gave up on it then, and I doubt he’s going to exert much capital trying to fight a rearguard action on the issue now.
Your point about journalists leading the debate is really important, though. I’d add that it is not only narrow and self-selected, but dehistoricized (at least in any real sense of 'history’). The discussion has oscillated between headlines from today’s culture wars and sweeping narratives about liberalism and its effects on our world, without any real attempt to do the kind of work to show how those two hold together. Maybe they do. But unless someone does that kind of careful work, I worry that they’ll continue to offer either unreasonably bleak views of the future animated by overly romanticized understandings of the past.
Of course, if they do undertake such work, they would no longer be: journalists.
Enjoyed this issue. I listen to The Federalist Radio Hour, so I’ve heard Ben quote this very quote from F. H. in a variety of interviews. The answer you offer, if I’m reading you correctly, is eschatological. You call it sober-eyed realism grounded in hope. Is God not both the Lord of history as well as the church? Can God not raise his people up from the ruins, from the dust? Does God not always, somehow someway, preserve a remnant unto himself? Is God the savior, not us? The fate of America and that of Christianity may intersect, but they are not the same.
Yes. This is the theme of the talks I gave this spring at Torrey Honors, which I’m told may finally be released this week. Otherwise, this is a terrific note to end on.