Thursday, July 30, 2009

Of human rights

Concerning the health care debate, Paper Clippings this morning has this insightful observation: "It is always fascinating how our culture needs to cast every discussion in terms of abstract rights, which inevitably leads to very ideological policy solutions to real life problems. E[s]pecially because when you ask the average intellectual where rights come from, he will tell you that 'society confers them.' So there is really no 'right' especially for what the majority feels is right." Now, the author is not arguing against the right to health care, access to which the church teaches is a human right. It is about the source of rights. On the view described, which is very prevalent, if a majority, or a tyrannical minority decides that something is a right, then it is. Conversely, when it is decided something is no longer a right, then it can be removed. Human rights are grounded in the dignity of the human person. The dignity of the human person, in turn, arises from her being created in the imago dei. Any other grounding for human rights is tenuous and, as history has taught us, even dangerous.

This same abstract and ungrounded reasoning happens in Christianity, too. Just this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced a rather strange arrangement in a desperate attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together. As Times of London faith commentator, Ruth Gledhill describes it in her post Archbishop of Canterbury attempts to paper over Church schism: "In a response to the decision this month of the Episcopal Church of the US to go ahead with gay consecrations and same-sex blessings, Dr Rowan Williams argued for a 'two-track' Communion in which the Church was divided between those with differing theological views of homosexuality — described by some in the blogosphere as 'Anglicans' and 'Anglican’ts'."

Of course, those who have a holistic view of what it is to be human and the reason and purpose of human sexuality are described negatively, as Anglican'ts. This brings me back to something George Weigel wrote about a conversation he had with Dr. Rowan Williams about "the difference between 'sacramental' and 'gnostic' understandings of the human condition. The former insists that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it; gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable, all changeable. The sacramentalists believe that the extraordinary reveals itself through the ordinary: bread, wine, water, salt, marital love and fidelity; the gnostics say it’s a matter of superior wisdom, available to the enlightened (which can mean, the politically correct). Dr. Williams seemed convinced that the gnosticism of a lot of western high culture posed a great danger to historic Christianity and the truths it must proclaim." The gnostic line of reasoning is abstract in the way the writer of the Paper Clippings post suggests.

There are voices of faith and reason. One that emerges is the world-renown biblical scholar and Anglican bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, who also wrote about this for the Times of London. His article The Americans know this will end in schism: Support by US Episcopalians for homosexual clergy is contrary to Anglican faith and tradition. They are leaving the family, is worth quoting at length:

"The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means 'treating everybody the same way', but 'treating people appropriately', which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant 'the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire'.

"Such a novel usage would also raise the further question of identity. It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of 'identity' parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the 'gay community' much postmodern reflection has turned away from 'identity' as a modernist fiction. We simply 'construct' ourselves from day to day.

"We must insist, too, on the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other — a distinction regularly obscured by references to 'homosexual clergy' and so on. We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires. The question is, what shall we do with them? One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may 'love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise'. That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. But much less like the challenge of the Gospel."
Loving another's destiny can be difficult because it is can be seen by the other as a denial and a rejection, but not giving in to the rationalization that what we want is what we need is important, especially when it is difficult.

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