Fat Middle-Aged Wannabe

This is an occasional blog exploring spiritual matters.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Epiphany

I had an epiphany the other day. It all started innocently enough with an argument about abortion that I was having with a (very conservative) office-mate of mine. I made my usual argument ("What is it EXACTLY that distinguishes a human fetus from an adult cow?"), and he made the usual conservative Christian argument ("If you're not sure that it's not a sacred life, how can you make the decision to kill it?") The guy with whom I was arguing is very conservative - into the whole patriarchal interpretation of the universe, if you know what I mean. So I popped off with the comment "If you were a woman, you'd be a huge supporter of abortion rights. If it was YOUR freedom we were talking about!" Ouch. Really dumb move. My opponent said very quietly "I don't think that you should be telling me what I would or would not do." And of course he was right.

No one is less amazed than I that I actually learned something from this argument. C'mon - we've all gotten in a thousand arguments about abortion, and nobody's mind is ever changed one iota by any of it. The point is never to convince our opponent that we are right - the point is to convince ourselves that we are right. In this case, I actually managed to become convinced that my opponent was NOT wrong. Which isn't to say that I decided that I was wrong - I don't think that I am wrong. I just no longer thing that my opponent is wrong either. "But wait! He says that abortion is murder, and you say that abortion is acceptable under certain (admittedly arbitrary) circumstances. How can you both be right?"

Well, I have been pondering Isiah 55:8 - "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD" for a couple of weeks now, and it sort of laid the groundwork for my epiphany. There are a number of issues in this world - war, the death penalty, abortion, end-of-life issues, stem cell research, etc. on which I believe it safe to say that the right answer is not known by anyone. There may be "a" right answer out there, or there may be a host of right answers, but in any event we as humans are not able to discern the right, which is to say that we are not able to make rational arguments for why any particular answer is the right answer. We are forced to resort to irrational arguments or beliefs to support our position. On these issues, agreement is almost impossible. So what is the right thing to do on these issues? Apparently, each of us has to call at as we see it, and stick to our guns. Time and God will eventually resolve the issue.

This is one hell of a solution, but I see no alternatives. It is an odd solution, in that it doesn't really require me to change my position. It just requires me to keep in mind at all times that my opponents are not stupid or ignorant or being manipulated by the media - they are simply calling it as they see it, choosing to be irrational in a different manner than myself, and sticking to their guns. It also requires me to keep in mind that "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD" - i.e., I am no more right than my opponent. A guy like David Brooks at the NYT would characterize this epiphany as typical liberal wishy-washy crap; he likes for people to take a stand, to proclaim an absolute moral position. But I don't think that the world is so simple. I believe that yes, people should tackle moral issues and come to some position on them, but that they can NEVER be sure that they have the right answer. The best that one can hope for is that over (a lot of) time, a general concensus will emerge, and that that concensus will be closer to the will of God than the concensus that existed before the issue in question became an issue.

Take the example of slavery. Up until maybe a thousand year ago (and in particular in biblical times) a concensus existed that slavery was OK. Not a particularly nice thing, but a fact of life - certainly NOT an abomination in the eyes of God. At some point, however, people began to question this concensus and eventually the concensus swung in the other direction: Nowadays virtually no christian would defend slavery. I know of no good, rational argument against slavery; nonetheless, most people now have the conviction that slavery IS an abomination. Why did the concensus move in this (rather than the opposite) direction? I don't know. And how do I know that the concensus won't swing back the other way? I don't. I have FAITH that universe is fundamentally good, and that in the end things will move in the "right" direction; i.e., towards the good or the will of God. To me this is what faith is all about. I don't believe in a theistic God that loves all his little children and intervenes in the affairs of the world for them if they just pray hard enough. But I do believe in the fundamental goodness of the universe. And I admit that my belief is just as irrational as the "little children/God the father and creator" view which is more common. Why does this state of affairs make no sense to me? Because "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD".

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