Monday, February 13, 2006

The way we as a culture value human life is demonstrably inconsistent, incoherent and conflicted. The values of a significant number of Americans are founded on religious considerations that defy reason and spit in the eye of compromise. As tolerance declines, the possibility of consensus fades and the fear of the majority trampling on the minority appears well founded.

How we value human life obviously makes a huge difference in our ethics and morals. Our ethics and morals dictate what laws we favor and thus what politicians we support. The conflict rages in the Senate and the Supreme Court even as I write this.

What's a rational person to think? What is a reasonable approach to valuing human life?

With a series of short essays, I'd like to share one Sunday school teacher's notions. And I'd like to start with a deconstruction of the "Conservative" view, the view that I would prefer to call "radical right-to-life."

These people think, like a lot of us, that humans are endowed with immortal souls. They believe the soul enters the body upon conception, that is, at the precise moment the egg and sperm unite. Thus every fertilized egg is a human being. To deliberately prevent implantation in the womb; the subsequent growth and development of the embryo; and the birth of a child, all these things are (in their theology) quite literally murder.

The beauty of this view is that it can be fully developed in four sentences. It involves simple, clear ideas and even a fairly young child understands it. The extreme simplicity of this version of reality sends up a warning signal, but doesn't automatically make it irrational. Just note in passing that when there is controversy; and one side claims a simple truth, that side is often wrong.

So why would anyone disagree with such a straightforward set of statements?

Well, there's the Christian Bible, the foundation of Christian thought. The Bible does not clearly and unequivocally claim that there is such a thing as an immortal soul, much less that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception. If I err in this assertion, I invite correction. (E-mail me: .)

Now, at times, the Bible does have God saying things like "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…" But this can be taken in any number of ways: God knows everything, including the future; souls exist prior to conception and God knows them; God selected you before you came into existence.

People do try to make this passage mean what it clearly does not: that the soul of the prophet entered his mother’s womb. Now it does say that he was conceived in his mother's womb, which is pretty strong. But what human being, what mammal is not normally conceived in its mother's womb? Interestingly, in places the Bible says that animals have souls. Some more modern writers have concluded that animals have souls in exactly the same manner as humans. Some passages support this: for example, Ecclesiastes 3:21 "Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"

Then there's that little matter of immortality. Certain passages of the Bible speak of the death of the soul. Ezekiel 18:4 "The soul who sins is the one who will die."

Other more modern writers draw distinctions between souls and spirits: for example, here, and here.

It's not always clear from the text what the Biblical writers thought. In some places, there are suggestions of an afterlife; in others, the text suggests there is not. The afterlife imagined by various readers of the Bible also varies greatly. Some theologians argue that, upon resurrection, humans will experience an odd sort of half-material, half-nonmaterial existence. Others flatly assert that we will be the same as we are now, only more so. It's not clear that a soul is required in either case, because it is the body that is resurrected.

Of course, each modern writer claims to know the one correct, unique truth. They also assert that disagreement with their views is sin and will lead to the death of the soul or its roasting in the fires of hell.

Now, I'm no expert. I don't speak Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. I figure most people are more like me than the experts who staked out their positions and earn their living from it. I figure most people want to be reasonable and reach sensible conclusions that are helpful, not dogmatic. The point of the foregoing exercise is to say expert opinion is well and truly divided on the nature of the soul as written about in the Bible. In such a case, it seems unwise to legislate or engage in hostilities based on any particular version of the truth. Of course, the radical right-to-life movement wants to outlaw abortion, and is often quite hostile to views that slightly differ even just a little from its own views.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that souls enter the egg along with Dad's DNA. What follows from that? See my next post to find out what sorts of troubles arise.

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