Sunday, January 09, 2011

Homosexual Frogs / Little Baby Jesus

   Then up spoke baby Jesus,
from in Mary's womb:
"Bow down thou tallest cherry tree,
that my mother might have some!"

Every year Rowan Williams spends lots of money that he hasn't got putting up posters to persuade people to go to Church at Christmas. Quite what the point of this is, I couldn't say. Christmas is the one time of year when people would go to church regardless of whether or not there'd been posters telling them to. Christmas is the one time of year when churches lay on extra services, when the cathedrals and the more picturesque parish churches have to turn people away at the door.

These adverts are universally embarrassing. There was Jesus drawn in the style of Che Guevara, and the Angels running a call center, and Mary having a bad hair day. I really, really want to punch the person who came up with the "Christmas Begins With Christ" slogan. And Thursday begins with Thor and July begins with Julius bloody Caesar.

I assume someone already thought of "Church is for life, not just for Christmas."

This year, they've got one of those ultra-sound pictures of a human foetus that you get in ante-natal clinics, with a halo over its head, and the slogan "He's on His way."

I can see how the focus group came up with that one. It's even quite clever, in a "not particularly clever" sort of way. Advent is the time when Christians look forward to the birth of Jesus, yes? So, what does the focus group associate with "looking forward" to the birth of a baby? Nowadays most familys' first sight of their ickle bubbie is one of those grainy ultrasound pictures. People even put them in family albums, before the picture of the wrinkly thing a few minutes after it has been born. Rather charmingly, it means that the question "What are you hoping for?" is largely redundant. (I'm told that in the olden days baby's first clothes  had to be yellow or green, because until it popped out you didn't know if it was going to be a blue one or pink one.)

So the poster is saying "If Jesus were born in England today, Mary would have had a free ultrasound scan, so we should all be jolly glad that we live in a country where poor ladies with donkeys get that kind of thing on the National Health, and not America, where if you get pregnant and you're poor, Barak Obama kills you with a panel." [Check this: Ed] It's like one of those modern nativity plays which says that if Jesus were born today, he'd be born in a garage, not a stable; he'd be laid in a shoe box, not a manger; he'd be visited by college lecturers, not kings, and he'd be a Muslim, not a Christian.

 Well, no. I think it's probably saying something more like: "Ultrasound pictures the kind of thing we modern people associate with waiting for babies. But Jesus is a special, holy baby. And painters used to use halos to show when someone was special and holy. So a modern ultrasound image of an unborn baby with an old fashioned halo over its head is a clever ideogram for waiting for the arrival of a very special baby."

However, this image has proven terribly offensive to the kinds of people who get terribly offended by images of this kind.

Some people say that Christians spend a lot of time deliberately getting offended by things which are quite harmless, largely because they do. (Wallace and Grommit stamps aren't an attack on our traditional Christian heritage. They just aren't. And did I mention that no-one has banned Christmas?) But just lately, atheists, secularists and biologists have adopted the tactic of pretending that they can get just as frequently and just as pointlessly annoyed as their opponents can.

There's a pointless column in the Guardian in which pointless celebrities are asked to fill out a pointless questionnaire. Last year, one of them was pointlessly asked what historical period he would most like to visit. "The Garden of Eden", he replied. A pointless atheist sent a pointless letter to the next issue's pointless letter page pointlessly  pointing out that the Garden of Eden wasn't a real place so har-har aren't Christians silly? There was an apparently serious article on the Dawk's website pretending to be very cross indeed that guests on Desert Island Discs are still asked the question "Which one book would you choose to take to a desert island -- assuming that the works of Shakespeare and the Bible are already there?" This proves that atheists are worse off in modern England than homosexuals were in 1950s America. 

I guess this is how all political discourse works. If one side does something stupid, the other side's first reaction is to try to do something even stupider.

Now, if Polly Toynbee or someone had objected to the Archdruid's poster because it was quite clever and might encourage people to go to church, and that this was a bad thing because if people went to church they might come out thinking that God exists, and that would be a bad thing because he doesn't, that might have been a good point, in a "not a particularly good point" kind of way. I don't blame foaming non-theists for objecting to the Narnia books any more than I blame foaming theists for objecting to the Dark Materials books. I even sort of saw the point of the non-theistic bus campaign: if the worst kind of Christian can stick risible posters on the sides of buses saying that God exists, then obviously the worst kind of atheist is entitled to stick equally risible posters on other buses saying that he doesn't, or at any rate, probably doesn't. (The question about how, whether, and what kind of religious advertising ought to be allowed in a secular society is more interesting. But not much more interesting.)

But this isn't what the storm in a mulled wine glass is about. Oh no. No, some secularist bods came up with the wheeze of pretending that they thought that the ultrasound Jesus is part of a sinister pro-life campaign by the Church of England.

Ultrasound pictures of foetuses look like babies. And people who don't agree with abortion want people who do agree with abortion to think that abortion involves killing babies. People who do agree with abortion are more inclined to say that a foetus is not a baby, but a thing which happens to look like a baby. So people who don't agree with abortion sometimes show people who do agree with abortion ultrasound pictures of foetuses to make the point that foetuses look so much like babies that they probably actually are babies. So ultrasound images of foetuses are now so much associated with people who don't agree with abortion that publishing one of those images in any context leaves you open to the charge of not agreeing with abortion, and although quite a lot of people don't agree with abortion, saying you don't agree with abortion is very offensive to people who do.

I trust this is perfectly clear.

Hard to work out what terms to use in these sorts of discussion, isn't it? In the first paragraph, I very naturally typed "ultra-sound photo of an unborn baby" because that's the normal English way of talking about such things, but changed it to "human foetus" for fear of offending my feminist friends, of whom I will very shortly not have any left. But that's biased the other way. A person I otherwise respect and admire (he is related by marriage to an author for whom I have occasionally expressed admiration) once remarked in an Internet forum that "foetus" is an offensive term, like "nigger" or "gook", used to dehumanize people who you want to kill. And I just typed "pro-life", which is a completely meaningless term, like "pro-air". Stick around long enough, and I'll probably be saying that someone or something is "pro-choice".

See? Words do affect how you think.

Now, my usual line on such things is the same as that of Mr C.S Lewis, to wit, that since I am neither a woman, nor a married man, nor a priest, the best approach would be to keep my mouth very firmly shut about birth control, abortion, and all the other complicated messy icky stuff that happens in the months before the Christening Party.

Assuming that you are allowed to go to Christening parties . Christening a child is worse than sexually interfering with him, isn't it? I lose track.

Someone once made out a very convincing case for renaissance religious art having had a consistent, theologically significant iconography around illustrations of the infant Christ's penis. At least, I assume it was a convincing case. I didn't read the book. I'm not actually sure why I even mentioned it.

Last month I heard the folk group Kerfuffle doing a very good concert of traditional English carols. One of the songs told the story of how some older lads took the mickey out of the boy Jesus, because he was poor and his mother was no better than she ought to be. So Jesus drowned them. The boys' parents are bit put out by this, and complain to Mary. So Mary puts Jesus across her knee and gives hm a good whacking. Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.

I'm not sure why I mentioned that either, to be perfectly honest. I do like the way in which the long instrumental break wobbles between "John Barleycorn" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

If we saw the image of a halo placed over a picture of the adult Jesus, the boy Jesus in the temple, the baby Jesus being suckled by the Virgin, or the new-born Jesus in the manger, we would take that halo to indicate that Jesus was a very special person. And one might have supposed that it was pretty uncontroversial to say that Christians do, in fact, think that Jesus was a very special person indeed.

Pelagians like Charles Dickens and Geraldine Granger believe that "Son of God" is a descriptive phrase -- it refers to all the special things that the grown-up Jesus did. His followers were so impressed with his innovative suggestion that you should be nice to people that they invented the title "Son of God" to emphasise what a good and original idea being nice to people was. And then they pretended that Jesus had applied it to himself.  (Fortunately, the bits where they say he said that we should be nice to people are completely historically reliable, even though the bits where they say that he said that he was the Son of God aren't.)

But that's not what Christians think: and its a safe bet that at least some of the people paying for the Christmas Begins With Christ campaign are Christians. Christians think that some intrinsic Jesusness of Jesus was already there when he was a child and a baby -- before he'd had a chance to say or do anything at all. And that was what the person who photoshopped the halo onto the foetus was presumably trying to convey.

If you are a Christian, this is all terribly uncontroversial. "Come and behold him, born the King of Angels", we sing. "The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay", we sing. "Veiled in flesh, the godhead see" ,we sing, hardly stopping to wonder if we are  unconsciously slipping into the docetist heresy. "Our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man". That's Christianity. If you don't believe it, you don't believe it, but there isn't much point in whining because some Christians still do.

(I suppose I have to allow the possibility that "Christians think that Jesus was special" is a completely novel idea to children and Guardian readers. Only a couple of years ago, we had a supermarket straightfacedly telling us that Easter commemorated the birth of Jesus. And before that, a surprising number of perfectly intelligent people seemed to be genuinely surprised that Mel Gibson regarded the Crucifixion as a central and iconic element in his faith. Perhaps the idea that Jesus, Mohammad and Bob Geldof are three roughly equivalent examples of People Who Have Helped The World is so entrenched in school R.E lessons that Rowan Williams really does need to take out an advertising campaign to counteract it.)

In Max Ernst's surrealist take on the Bitter Withy, the boy Jesus halo falls off while the Virgin punishes him. (Or maybe she punishes him because his halo has fallen off?)  No idea whatsoever why I mentioned that.

If we are say that Jesus Was Special, does it follow that Baby Jesus Was Special, and therefore that Baby Jesus Was Special Even Before He Was Born. If Baby Jesus Was Special Before He Was Born, does it follow that babies in general can b e special even before they are born? If Unborn Jesus had an intrinsic Jesusness, does it follow that Unborn Andrew and an intrinsic Andrewness? Does the mere attribution of qualities to a human shaped figure in an ultrasound photograph come dangerously close to saying the foetuses are human beings? And does that represent a tick in the box against abortion being a morally neutral act? Did, in short, the people who thought that the C of E Christmas poster was presenting a subtle pro-life argument actually have a point. Not so much because the pro-life brigade own all images of unborn children, but because there's something "pro-life" in the whole idea of the Incarnation?

A belief in the personhood of the foetus does not, so far as I can see, logically imply that abortion is morally wrong under all circumstances, much less that it should be prohibited by law. Nearly all of us accept that persons can legitimately be sacrificed to the common good. We all regard dead miners as a price well worth paying for coal-powered electricity stations. We all regard dead pedestrians as acceptable collateral damage in the cause of getting from point A to point B very fast. We may say that we don't, but we do. But if we could convince our self that the children being knocked over at pedestrian crossings weren't humans, but only human shaped objects, we'd feel less guilty about ignoring red lights when the road was quiet and we were in a hurry. Stupid people frequently claim that torture and executions don't violate anyone's human rights because the sorts of people who get tortured and executed don't really count as human. The noxious expression "feral child" is worth rolling around your tongue for a few minutes, too.

I'm sorry: I said I wasn't going to talk about this.

And of course, the extreme anti-abortion position is a mirror image of this: people who would like to see abortion prohibited under all circumstances fear that once you allow abortion to be a morally neutral act -- once you concede that a foetus is not a person, but  only a person-shaped object -- you may end up saying that babies are only person-shaped objects; children are only person shaped object; in fact, people in general are only people shaped objects. And that this will be terribly convenient the next time you want to start killing them.

I think  that this is what they must have in mind when they talk about life being "sacred" because people (even unborn people) have "souls". I don't think that they think that the "soul" is a funny little ethereal butterfly that lives in the pineal gland and needs protection. (Has anyone ever really believed that?  Did St Paul? Did Descartes? Plato did, I suppose.) They mean that they want us to think of "human beings" as whole, finished, things -- not lumps of meat, collections of atoms, bags of organs, but, well, people. They mean that "everyone is 'I' ". They mean that everyone has their own subjective experience, that you can and should and must imagine what it would be like to be a murderer, or a torture victim, or an infant, or a foetus -- or, in some versions, a fox or a whale  or a sperm -- and that you can never do to one of those little "I"s what you would not want done to you. And then they rather sacrifice the moral high ground by setting fire to clinics and assassinating doctors.

Some of them, I mean. One wouldn't want to blame a whole group for the behaviour of its most extreme members. Oh no.

There are times when its quite useful to think of humans as human shaped lumps of meat. Say, when you performing an autopsy, or when you  are dropping bombs on a school. (To preserve freedom of course; and we all agree that my freedom, by which we mean my right to read the newspaper of my choice and have a choice of which church to attend, is far more important than the lives of foreign children. We may say that we don't, but we do.) There are other times when it is very difficult to think of humans in that way: when the lump of meat is your own child, for example, or the person you want to marry, or the composer of Hey, Mr Tambourine Man.

Who was it who said "God isn't a thing you could find in the Universe: he's a way of thinking about the Universe"? The soul isn't something you could find by dissecting a brain or weighing a dying patient: it's a way of thinking about brains and dying people. Most people happily shift between the two ways of thinking. Extremists on both sides think that there's only one perspective and that the other one can be abolished. Along, very probably, with the people who agree with it. 

Do the people who believe that everyone is special believe that because they believe that God really and truly historically became a baby, whatever "became" means? With the corollary that, if you could prove that the story of the Incarnation was completely unhistorical, they'd all suddenly say "Oh, well in that case, we're fine with euthanasia, assisted suicide, and capital punishment after all." Or have they embraced the story of the Incarnation because they already believe in the specialness of the human race? Or was the story only ever a way of saying a thing about the specialness of human beings that won't quite fit into ordinary language?

Well, it's no terribly big discovery that Christians think that Jesus' specialness conveyed specialness on everybody else? What was that hymn that Miss Walker taught us: "....and that a higher gift than Grace should flesh and blood refine: God's presence and his very self and essence all sublime." Not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking up of that manhood into God, as the fellow said.
Mr Richard Dawkins thinks that the  "soul" way of thinking about human beings is so wrong -- and so obviously the result of the "god" way of thinking about the universe -- that he wastes spends a whole section of his book-shaped -object on something he calls "The Great Beethoven Fallacy." (In biology, "great" has the specialised meaning of "a thing I read on the Internet and found irritating". A similar usage occurs in the Daily Mail, so that "Several people have complained about new arrangements for refuse collection" becomes "The Great Bin-Bag Revolt.")

The "great" fallacy is that Beethoven's mum was unmarried, poor, had lots of other kids, some of whom were sick, and that his Dad had multiple sexually transmitted diseases. Any proponent of legal abortion would have allowed her to have a termination and thus killed the second greatest composer who ever lived. Any fool can see the problem with this argument: you might just as well say that Mrs Beethoven had prevented the Fifth Symphony from being written if she'd told a horny Mr Beethoven that she was feeling quite tired and would just as soon curl up with a cup of cocoa and watch Vienna's Got Talent tonight, if that okay with him.

Dawkins thinks that one of the advantages of curing us all of the belief in God is that we'll also be cured of the belief that every unborn baby is a potential little Beethoven. We will stop regarding human life as sacred, and start permitting stems cell research, euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, infanticide, the death penalty for people who go to the Noah's Ark  Farm Zoo etc [Check this. Ed.]

The Beethoven paradox is, in fact, a joke: on the level of the one about the two fish in the tank. ("Do you know how to drive this thing?") It forcibly drags you from one way of looking at the world (humans are lumps of organic matter, tanks are a kind of small aquarium) to another (everyone is special  and some people are so astonishingly special that they write symphonies; tanks are a sort of military vehicle.) If you only believe in one perspective, then, of course, you won't "get" the joke. I doubt if someone raised in a nudist colony would understand why people laugh at nob jokes.

Images of foetuses wearing halos; legends in which Jesus is both the Messiah and a very naughty boy: poems about "the Word within the word unable to speak a word" are holy paradoxes  -- jokes even -- in very much the same spirit. So, come to that, are Renaissance paintings which draw attention to Christs' Not "half god and half human" as the Guardian theatre critic thinks, but completely God and completely God and completely human. Try and get your head round the idea that Jesus was an eight year old and also God. Bet you can't! But try and get your head round the idea that the mind that wrote the choral symphony was embedded in a lump of meat -- bet you can't do that either!
Most of us do in fact believe in the sacredness of human life. We may say we don't, but we do. We think of unborn children as "he" or "she"; we say "she is carrying my son" or "my baby kicked". We expend huge amounts of love and energy on differently abled people who are never going to have a very high quality of life. We say "This is where Granny is buried", not "This is where the lump of matter that used to be my granny is buried" or  even "My granny stopped existing and so we chucked the remains in the dustbin." We get very cross indeed when doctors cut up dead people without asking permission.

And maybe we shouldn't. Maybe no baby can ever have a halo. Maybe no person can. Maybe there is no cosmic joke. Maybe here is only one way of looking at things. Maybe we should think of the thing in Mummy's Tummy as a very complex lump of matter that is in the process of becoming a person; but feel no sadder when it dies than if we had (say) had our tonsils removed. Or damaged a complex plasticine model of the Albert Hall that we'd taken a good deal of trouble over. That's a perfectly viable position. Some societies, have, I guess, been more callous or less sentimental about babies than we are. About children. About people.

It's a complicated philosophical question and there are good arguments on both sides. But the idea that Church of England is being a bit naughty by possibly alluding to one side of the complicated argument in public is a little bit worrying.  It's like, we're taking it for granted than one way of looking at things is always right and the other way of looking at things is always wrong.

Assuming a consensus where no consensus exists. "You can't sing the Cherry Tree Carol: it expresses an idea about un-born children which doesn't agree with my philosophical position. It is a pretty story but it is, how you say, politically incorrect." 

Dear Andrew

It is quite clear from the above that you are a [misogynist] [baby murderer] and wish to [perpetrate a silent holocaust] [reduce all women to the status of Gorean breeding machines]. At the very least, in trying to be even handed, you have pretended that the [deluded pro-life lobby] [deluded pro-choice lobby] have a valid point of view. Right thinking folks simply do not engage with [baby murderers] [misogynists]. But that is what I would expect from a [liberal] [fundamentalist] [Romanc Catholic] like yourself. If you were not surrounded by people like [Nick Eden] [Sam Dodsworth] [Phil Masters] who think you are a genius and agree with everything you say regardless, you would think more carefully before dashing off this sort of rubbish.

I agree, however, that Kerfuffle are excellent.

Anonymous [via Blackberry.]


-teeth- said...

"Maybe we should think of the thing in Mummy's Tummy as a very complex lump of matter that is in the process of becoming a person; but feel no sadder when it dies than if we had (say) had our tonsils removed."

The problem with "should" here is that we've evolved to have very strong feelings toward those little lumps of matter in order to protect them and perpetuate the species. Otherwise a ... well, an elegantly-written version of the usual argument, I suppose.

Sam Dodsworth said...

we've evolved to have very strong feelings toward those little lumps of matter in order to protect them and perpetuate the species

Not sure about this. If we have hard-wired triggers at all then it's for big heads/big eyes, not lumps. If everyone instinctively felt protective towards [foetuses][unborn children] then the question of what to call them wouldn't be politically loaded.

Also, I'd like it to be known that I was getting unreasonably irritated by adverts for Christianity long before it went mainstream. :-)

Andrew Hickey said...

I think you've done a pretty good job of trying to remain even-handed here. Nonetheless I *also* think that I can tell which side of the argument you prefer, and that side is the opposite to the one I fall on.
But I'm wondering how much of that is actually in the text, how much is my misinterpretation, and how much is my own semi-conscious worry that my own view makes me a 'bad person' (I would worry the same way if I had the other view).
Just wondering how many others came to the conclusion that Andrew's views are opposed to their own...
Either way, another very well-written piece. Shame it's too late to put it in the Dawkins book.

Andrew Hickey said...

NB for the three people who decided to google 'Andrew Hickey abortion' presumably as a result of that comment, I don't talk about what my own views are either, for much the same reasons as Lewis (though unlike Lewis I am married).

Cambrensis said...

... a [liberal] [fundamentalist] [Romanc Catholic] like yourself. ...

We need more liberal fundamentalist Roman Catholics.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little said...

Just wondering how many others came to the conclusion that Andrew's views are opposed to their own...

Well, Andrew seems to be communicating the view that it's ridiculous to see an anti-abortion message in the ultrasound poster. Whereas Pro-Life Lobby Posturing was the first thing I thought of when I saw an ultrasound with a halo: "Oh, Gods, yet another reminder courtesy of the anti-abortion movement that who cares about the mother's life/health/situation/etc. when what's in her womb has hands and feet and a heart and oh Jesus could have been aborted too and wouldn't you feel bad about that SO DAMN TIRED OF THIS CRAP."

So, in this respect, yes to your question, very much.

Cambrensis said...

A pagan perspective.

Mario NC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mario NC said...

"A belief in the personhood of the foetus does not, so far as I can see, logically imply that abortion is morally wrong under all circumstances, much less that it should be prohibited by law. Nearly all of us accept that persons can legitimately be sacrificed to the common good."

This reminds me of every single discussion about the Hiroshima bombings. A lot of Americans justify the actions of the US by presenting this logic: "The slaughter of thousands of people (and potential babies) because of radiation and starvation were O-K because it prevented more deaths and it was instrumental to end the war". Or in more simple words, "Killing people can be justified for the greater good". I'm not sure if every person who presents this logic is against abortion (improbable), but I do think that a lot people who supposedly believe in the "sanctity" of human life immediately contradict themselves when the concept of life enters the realm of politics or ideology.

The tricky thing with the fetus/baby logic is that, esentially, a baby is an object perceived as inocent and "pure" whereas, say, the Nazis, were adults who decided by their own free will to follow a murderer. I find this proposition utterly ridiculous, but it does present an interesting example on how the society transfers certain moral abstractions on amoral objects: "is bad to kill a baby because a baby is innocent and it doesn't know the difference between right and wrong" vs. "the japanese people deserve to die because they followed a crazy fascist"

Sam Dodsworth said...

The crucial thing to remember is that a belief in the personhood of the foetus also has implications for the personhood of women - as even C S Lewis seems dimly to have realised.

ZZ said...

All I want to know is why you people pronounce "blood" like "wood" instead of "blud", which is the totally logical way...