September 2011 - Vol. 52
The Post-Christian Mind
Maintaining a Christian way of thinking
in a non-thinking world
By Harry Blamires
IntroductionIndividualistic notions of "rights"
If we examine how the word "rights" is used today we shall see that individualistic notions of the human role have deeply infected the post-Christian mind. No longer do we hear simply of the rights of man or the rights of woman, of human rights and civil rights. Demands are now made in the name of children's rights and animal rights, minority rights and prisoners' rights, gay rights and lesbian rights.
We must bring a little logic to bear on this issue. The expression 'gay rights' shows how grossly the word 'rights' has been abused. Special rights do not attach to being homosexual any more than they attach to having red hair or being left-handed. You might speak of a defendant's right to a fair trial when he is charged with murder, but it is not by virtue of his being a murderer that he has that right. On the contrary, he has the right to a fair trial because he may not be a murderer after all. An individual may justly be said to have rights as a citizen, but a gay man cannot claim any rights at all specifically by virtue of his being gay. He enjoys the usual rights of a free man, but no distinguishable rights as a gay man. Nor in fact does he really want such rights. He would be the first to admit that he does not want to be distinguished from others in any context specifically because he is gay. What he really wants is to meet with exactly the same treatment as his happily married neighbor. In other words, as a gay man he wants the tact of his homosexuality to be of no account, to be totally disregarded when such matters as applications for jobs are concerned.
The Bill of Rights, which settled the succession of the English crown in 1689, and whose provisions, where applicable, were embodied later in the American Constitution, spelt out the liberties of the subject and was specifically designed to put an end to religious persecution. That all subjects have the right to subscribe to whatever religious faith they choose is a principle of a just society. But to say that a person has the 'right' of religious freedom does not tell you anything about the person. It tells you something about the legal code to which the person is subject.
There are of course 'rights' that properly belong to individuals. I have a right to live in the house which I have purchased. This right, however, is better called an 'entitlement'. English law and general practice in England still speak of the 'title' and the 'title deeds' in respect of property ownership. Notions of proprietorship properly belong to this kind of right or entitlement. There would be a sense of outrage against injustice if a man's claim to live in his own house were questioned. Something emotively powerful is stirred within us when we hear of any challenge to a person's rights in this respect. It is regrettable that, when we transfer use of the word 'rights' out of this proprietorial sphere into the sphere where 'rights' testifies to nothing more than allowances conceded by e the criminal law, we carry over the emotive baggage that accompanies the word. human 'rights' will not play much of a part in the thought c and talk of a Christian. Where there is tyranny in government or injustice in a legal system, the Christian ought to be as zealous as anyone in resisting official pressures. But the Christian will not go around sticking the label 'rights' on every human demand to be tree of discipline. obligation, and moral imperative. The word 'right' cannot but carry with it connotation derived from the basic distinction between right and wrong. It is an emotive word, and usage of it has corrupted the post-Christian mind as overtones of virtue and righteousness have been allowed to wash over claims for dispensation from the moral law.
A distortion of
Gap between the
secularist mindset and Christian thinking
Thus we can assert with assurance that, philosophically speaking, a woman's 'rights over her own body' are nonexistent. I do not mean this only in a strictly Christian sense. I do not mean only that none of us can have 'rights' over what is intended to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. I do not mean only that we Christians have surrendered any such 'rights'. (For that is what baptism is all about.) No, I mean also that 'choice' in respect of our bodies is a peculiarly irrelevant concept. We do not choose to be born. We do not choose to be male or female. We do not - more's the pity, you might say - choose our own body. We have to accept it as an endowment wholly given to us. Yes, we should keep it inviolable. And we should submit it to uses for which the Creator intended it. But as for 'rights' over it, why, our authority over it is so weak that we cannot prevent it from ageing and decaying.
Whatever we may say in theory, in practice we know well the limitations of our authority over our body. We cannot deny to the influenza germ or the fever virus the 'right' of entry to it, the 'authority' for a complete takeover of it. Indeed, we have to respond to the body's demands upon us with slavish promptness. When these demands become pressing and clamorous, we have to run off to the doctor and have the body's latest requirements of us spelt out in detail. And woe betide us if we fail to respond to the body's dictates.
The imperiousness of the body's demands upon us and the groveling servitude with which we answer them make nonsense of claims to unqualified rights over it. Whose impulse am I obeying and what is the authority to which I respond when I break inconveniently into my work schedule to attend a medical appointment, when I ponder the doctor's diagnosis, when I receive the prescription he presents to me, when I rush off with it to the pharmacy, when I study and implicitly obey the instructions on the bottle or the pill-box? 'Three tablets to be taken daily on an empty stomach', 'Two teaspoons to be swallowed after every meal'.
It is true that, in a certain crude sense, I can direct the motions of my body other things being equal. I can order my hand to propel the pen across the page. I can order my legs to propel me across the room. I can order my arms and hands to remove a dictionary from the shelf so that I can consult it. I can direct my fingers to find the right page and my eyes to follow line after line. But can we seriously apply the word 'rights' to this kind of mechanical operation? You would not speak of a steering wheel's 'rights' over your cars direction, or the tuning knob's 'rights' over the radio station it selects.
Many great saints St Paul, for instance have eventually declared their desire to escape servitude to the body which this life on earth prescribes. Many poets such as Shelley and Keats have seemed impatient with the human being's imprisonment in the fabric of flesh and blood. Such people would surely have thought that to speak of exercising 'rights' over their bodies would be like prisoners speaking of 'rights' over their dungeons.
Common sense versus
The concept of
Indeed, human duty, in the personal moral sphere, is an essentially religious concept. Yet I myself have heard a sermon in which the congregation were told that to attend church merely out of a sense of duty was wrong. They ought to come because they wanted to, indeed because they enjoyed it. Such a denigration of duty as a motive is a grave and dangerous error. And it is particularly out of place when the services in question are such that no one with any literary or musical taste could possibly find 'enjoyment' in them.
It so happens that I once saw in the same newspaper two photographs of people worshipping. The one showed a handful of people kneeling in a village church. The other showed a packed mosque in which rows and rows of human hindquarters protruded from bowing worshippers of every age. The two contrasting photographs come back to my mind whenever I hear a parish priest introducing some new vulgarization of worship on the grounds that it will 'attract the young'. What attracts those packed rows of worshipping Muslims? Their behavior testifies to a strong sense of duty. The last thing it suggests is that the worshippers arc thoroughly 'enjoying' themselves. And, indeed, emphasis on worship as a duty to God ought to be the priority for all of us. It should supersede any specious notions of 'attracting' men and women to a place of worship as though it were a place of entertainment.
Ode to Duty
Stern Daughter of the Voice of GodlIt is not long before Wordsworth is making a remarkable confession:
Loving freedom and untried;So, in middle life, the poet pauses to examine himself, and he has to admit that, under cover of a love for freedom, he has too rashly and hastily accepted the guidance of personal inner impulse, shrugging off the call for obedience to divine authority.
The final stanza reads:
To humbler functions, awful Power!So the great prophet of the Romantic revolution, the seeming advocate of Nature's authority over us, finds his highest calling as a Bondman to duty, the offspring of God's voice. Even so we are all called to recognize our creaturely status as men and women made by God and called to his service. That recognition will naturally impel us to ask 'What do love in return?' rather than 'What more can I claim?', 'What are my duties?' rather than 'What are my rights?'
[This article is excerpted
from the book, The Post-Christian Mind, Introduction from
Chapter 1 and Rights from Chapter 2, by © Harry Blamires, first
published in Great Britain by SPCK in 2001.Used with
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom