Most of us are familiar with the famous phrase no man is an island. What many might not know is that it was penned during a time of extreme illness and suffering. Staring at his own possible death, John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island,” that all mankind are connected in God, bound to each other like a continent. The death of one person then, like a bit of land swept out to sea, affects us all. Bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender would agree with Donne, writing that “the lives of fellow citizens may be bound together in such a way that all are aggrieved by the death of one.” He goes on to note that such sentiments might seem strange to moderns, coming across like quaint relics from a time when religion was more than merely a set of opinions to be held in private. To think that what one does in private, especially if one dies, somehow has an effect on everyone? This seems to fly in the face of our experience today. This is because we live in an age that is preoccupied with autonomy.
On January 23, 2019, amidst cheers and applause, New York State passed legislation that added abortion rights to their state constitution. The crowd chanted “Free abortion on demand! We can do it! Yes, we can!” The World Trade Center joined the celebration by lighting its spire pink, the color of Planned Parenthood (ironically, while the memorial below bears the names of the unborn children who lost their lives in the attacks on 9/11). To those of us that oppose abortion, the jubilee cut right to the heart. Abortion is no longer regarded as a necessary evil, but something to be celebrated, even shouted from highest rooftops. What caused such a shift?
Sharran Sutherland: “I am hoping that by sharing these pictures of my precious little boy that it might just make one person who is contemplating abortion decide to let their child live.” Read more here.
“He has been with us in the darkness of the womb as He will be in the darkness of the tomb.” ~Gilbert Meilaender, “Bioethics: A Primer for Christians”
It is revealing to look at how metaphors change throughout history, for these most often reflect shifts in the ways we look at the world and ourselves. Consider how the expressions for “having children” have changed. Older metaphors contained in them a sense of reverence for the process: “begetting” in ancient Israel, “genesis” in ancient Greece, and “procreation” in premodern times here in the West. Today, we “employ a metaphor of the factory, ‘re-production,” perhaps “impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation),” observes philosopher Leon Kass. A phenomenon so deeply rooted in our biology is spoken of in mechanical and impersonal terms that seem at odds with our humanity. This is just another hint that the two-story view of the human being – with its splitting of body and mind, biology and will – has insinuated itself into our discourse. This is another outworking of the two-story view of truth in our world today (see the footnote for an explanation). Nowhere is this bifurcation of the human person more apparent than in the case of abortion and the personhood theory used to justify it.
Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.
From Orthodoxy, “The Suicide of Thought”
“….Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book— the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose— a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.
“Hope” by G.F. Watts
“Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, threatens to desert them.”
G.K. Chesterton on G.F. Watts’ Hope
Sea Ghost by G.F. Watts
“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” G.K. Chesterton
Here is a thoughtful article from one of my favorite scientists/theologians, Alister McGrath: Is God a Figment of Our Imagination? On Certainty, Scepticism and the Limits of Proof. In it, he claims that “everyone who believes anything worthwhile and takes the trouble to think about things – including atheists, Marxists, or secular humanists – will find themselves having to confront the vulnerability of their beliefs. We are all in the same boat.”
I would add that honestly confronting the vulnerability is key and as I did this, I saw that I would have to give up more with atheism. We are all in the same boat in some ways but at the end of the day, when it comes to levels of vulnerability, our beliefs are ultimately in different boats. Not all boats are created equal. I learned this by investigating the fundamentals of atheism or the bottom atheism’s boat, you could say. It had more holes.