Life Begins at Conception: So What?

What follows began as a correspondence five years ago via social media with some one I know who challenged my claim that it’s undeniable both scientifically and logically that humans are humans from the moment of fertilization (with the creation of a new zygote, in biological terms). I had been trying to unflinchingly draw attention back to that singular, foundational, undeniable fact while news outlets and pundits were routinely shifting conversation away from that reality to any other subject they could possibly link to the pro-life / pro-choice debate (like the inconsistencies of some pro-life advocates regarding other policy issues, such as the death penalty, war, health care, etc). My response was once again to double down on the irreducible importance of acknowledging the full humanity of the new human creature from the moment of conception/fertilization, but then to move on to answer some legitimate policy questions that may follow from that premise, adding that, unlike the scientifically and logically demonstrable premise, my answers regarding policy were completely my own opinion. I’m glad I had the chance to differentiate between the objectivity of the premise and a more personal, perspective-relative grounding of my own policy thoughts following from that. And five years later, with a challenge to abortion currently in deliberation within the Supreme Court, I hope some of my theoreticals may prove to be sensical and compassionate.

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On The Threshold of Now

Janus, the personification of thresholds, beginnings, and endings, has had many depictions over the centuries. Common to them all and distinguishing him from every other occupant in the pantheon of Roman deities were his two faces opposite each other on either side of his head. He looked both ways with his two faces, and this, the Romans thought, made him the perfect god to preside over the boundary between any two given situations: war and peace, earth and heaven, past and future. He was the doorkeeper, the boundary master.

One conspicuous difference you’ll notice among Janus’ many depictions is that in some, his two faces are identical, and his head a perfectly symmetrical mirror image; while in others, his two faces are markedly different, one side bearded while the other side is not, or one side visibly aged while the other side is youthful.

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The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is depressed. He doesn’t feel very uplifted by the approach of Christmas, ostensibly because it has gotten “commercialized,” but really, as he admits to himself early in the special, because he perceives that nobody likes him, so, “Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Charlie Brown’s self-derision is healed in the end by the kindness and closeness of his friends. But many more people besides Charlie Brown struggle at Christmastime, either because they also think that nobody likes them, or else because the memory of lost loved ones becomes more painful now, or else because the changes they’re seeing all around them—the increased crowds and clamor; the repellent false sentimentality and self-interestedness of actual commercialization; the growing darkness, both spiritual and literal—just puts extra stress on them.

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Via pulchritudinis, non via satirae

There’s a famous anecdote about the emissaries of Vladimir the Great who were sent out to neighboring states to find some religion that might unify the sundry peoples under Vladimir’s rule. After rejecting several options (Judaism, Isalm, Germanic Catholicism) they came to the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, about which they reported later: “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth… We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” And thus, as the story would have it, beauty brought the kingdom of the Rus into the Eastern Orthodox orbit. A thousand years later, Pope Benedict XVI spent much of his career emphasizing the privileged place of the Way of Beauty—the Via Pulchritudinis—as the most attracting mode of evangelizing an increasing secular world.

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Kinetic Composition

I’ve been fascinated for a while now with a particular artistic motif which depicts King David, ruler of ancient Israel and credited author of many of the Psalms, in the rapturous throes of composing. Many images of David with his harp/lyre can be found dating right back through the early middle ages, but many of these are also of a somewhat static, poised David. As art became more expressive of emotion in the Renaissance and beyond, the figure of David became more dramatic. And David, as an artistic figure, is particularly suited for drama. Continue reading

Meat Sacks

We’re all just meat sacks animated with electricity for a little while. Once our brains quit sparking, there’s no consciousness left and no meaning left. The whole world disappears every time a brain dies (the world being only a subjective construct). This being the case, morality is just another feature of each brain’s construct of reality, not a real objective thing outside of ourselves. In other words, it’s not real, and anything and everything is totally permissible because any suffering that is caused is only temporary and will end in oblivion as if it never existed. Because there’s no enduring, conscious perspective in the universe, nothing matters in the end, which means nothing ever mattered from the beginning. There is no cosmic justice. All of our “justice” is just the tinkering of clever apes—accidents of physics.

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The Assumption of Mary

Maria est assumpta

Why do the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches celebrate the assumption of Mary? It turns out, it’s because of Easter.

But Easter has to do with Jesus, and this feast day is about Mary, right? As with all celebrations of the Saints, of course, it’s Jesus who shines through them to receive the highest and ultimate praise. When we depict the Saints in our iconography, they have a halo around their heads; that halo is the light of Christ shining out of them. They have surrendered their old life, the mere life of bios—biological life—in exchange for zoe, the divine life that is God himself, united to human nature in Jesus Christ, and shared now with all his brothers and sisters, if they will receive it. Those who shine through with that light most brilliantly, who have evidenced to the Church that their lives are full of the Christ-life, we call Saints.

And so a feast day for a Saint is never really just about that Saint. It’s always about Christ who that Saint conforms to. There are some Christians who think of the Kingdom of heaven as a zero sum game, where any praise a Saint gets is praise that God isn’t getting. But that’s not how the Kingdom works at all. Christ glories in his Saints, and his Saints glory in him. Christ’s glory is not diminished when we celebrate those who belong to him; just the opposite—his glory increases. And so let’s look to Mary, and see how she increases her Son’s glory. Continue reading

The Exorcist: A Love Story

I recently read The Exorcist, the classic 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty (on audiobook and narrated by the author himself!). I imbibed the book, is more what I did. I was immediately drawn into this story of a demon-possessed young girl and her devoted mother whose tireless efforts at finding a remedy for her condition ultimately secure the ministrations of a Jesuit psychologist (Fr. Damien Karras) and a mysterious elderly exorcist (Fr. Lankester Merrin). Blatty’s poetic prose, his evocative scene-setting, character descriptions, and philosophic inner monologues all make the book a delight to read. The subject matter of the novel—a demon possession—also helps to keep the reader riveted, of course. >>Spoilers ahead<<

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An Ape’s Contentment

The following paragraphs contain some of the most poignant and simultaneously soul-sapping words I’ve ever read. I won’t waste time on any commentary except to say that this resonates with me because I know exactly what is meant here from experience. I know the flavor of the banal art produced not by the forgivable immaturity of atheistic communism (which at least had real conviction) but by the comfortable, horizonless, dead-endedness of a society that only rises to the level of pretend conviction at most, and more often only ape-ish itching and scratching:

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At Sea in America

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The Declaration of Independence is an astounding document. It’s short (you should read it). The majority of its content is actually an enumeration of “injuries and usurpations” by the British monarch King George III against the American Colonies, but the most interesting part is the first three sentences which give a rationale for why it is necessary for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” The following “unalienable rights” that the Declaration lists—Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—would become the shorthand for what America stands for, and would be the lifeblood of the next great document to be produced by the new country: the Constitution. G.K. Chesterton once observed, “America is alone in having begun her national career with a definite explanation of what she intended to be. And this is an experiment of the highest historical and philosophical interest.”

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The Pro-Choice Motive

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A recent referendum in Ireland followed the popular vote of the people there and lifted a constitutional ban on abortions when the mother’s life is not endangered. The legislation has yet to be drafted, but it’s likely to permit abortions now for the broadest of reasons, up to three or six months—who knows. I kept tabs on news stories there during the run up to this vote, and from what I witnessed in pictures of rallies, saw in comment sections and read in published articles from both sides, the pro-life side was, on the whole, more civil and polite, and the pro-choice side was, on the whole, more rancorous, insulting, and boastful. I’ve seen the same thing here in the States. In the visible public square, the proponents of the pro-choice movement behave more poorly than their opposition, have ruder signs and more vulgar slogans. But clearly, the pro-choice camp is the majority in the entire Western world now. And I don’t believe all of them are the rancorous rally-ers and picketers in the images featured in news articles. Continue reading

The Tools of the Spiritual Craft

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From Chapter 4 of the Rule of Saint Benedict:

First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Then the following: you are not to kill, not to commit adultery; you are not to steal nor to covet; you are not to bear false witness. You must honor everyone, and never do to another what you would not want done to yourself.

Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing. Continue reading

New Blog!

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So, I have a new blog now! As in, I now have two blogs; I’m not replacing this one. I’ve been asked to be a contributing blogger on the new website OrthodoxWest.com. This new site will include blogs, media, and articles on various topics related to the Western Rite in the Orthodox Church, particularly in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. Continue reading

Open Thou My Lips

open thou my lips

Domine labia mea aperies: Et os meum annunciabit laudem tuam.

The heavens declare the glory of God.  The skies proclaim his handiwork.  Trees and mountains can sing to God together, and even the rocks could start crying out.  But I can’t seem to open my mouth to pray.

The phenomenon, I’m assured, is not unique to me. Prayer is hard to do. Continue reading

Monarchy*

regalia

I’m generally not for the new trend of bio-pics about currently living people (Barry, Snowden, The Iron Lady, The Social Network, The Theory of Everything). While depicting figures from the past brings them back to “life” in a fictional sense, depicting living figures seems to me to be robbing them of their own ongoing, real drama in this world. Their story isn’t yet finished, so it’s objectionable to try to tell it—even a portion of it—because the end of their narrative, the conclusion that is necessary to cast the final light over all the rest of it, hasn’t yet come to pass. But I’ve made an exception in watching the Netflix original series The Crown, because the living figure which it depicts is exceptional. Continue reading

Soul Attack

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A pang of emotion shot through my stomach the other day—a stab of mysterious longing that unbalanced me as I was returning to the office from my lunch break. Transcendental yearning overwhelmed my faculties in the parking lot, and under the weight of my own soul, saturated with qualia, my knees weakened. I had a soul attack. Continue reading

The Things that Go Bump

Ghost

In October the nights get longer and the air gets colder. For the ancient agrarian Celts in the British Isles, this time marked the end of the growing season for crops. They would have to harvest as much food as they could to last them through the winter, but if there was a poor yield, the anxiety of that problem would be settling in right about at the end of October. Winter, that cold and dark time of year when the danger of sickness and starvation is at its height, would just now be reaching the tips of its icy fingers into people’s lives, and the dread of death, even the memory of death in previous winters, would intensify. With this recalled memory of death, the veil between this world and the invisible one was either imagined to be, or else truly perceived to be by those with the sight to see it, made thinner. Continue reading

It Happened at Night

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One night in 2008 I awoke in the middle of the night to a strange sound. I was still groggy, and as I blinked my eyes to try to get them to focus in the darkness of the room, the sound became louder. All at once I was inexplicably certain that the sound was that of massive, feathered wings beating—not as if they were in flight, but just as if they were flapping for the effect of their sound, since they were clearly flapping in the same place: at the foot of my bed. Continue reading

How The Early Church Viewed The Eucharist

Eucharist window

In a recent post I summarized my Faith journey into the Orthodox Church. I wanted to include a section in that post on the very important topic of the Eucharist in order to highlight maybe the most striking difference between what I grew up believing and what classical Christianity teaches. I didn’t include it in that post because it would have made it much too long, but I did save what I had written about it. That section is what follows here: Continue reading

The Age of Reason and The Age of Faith

scriptorium

On this blog, I try to emphasize the importance of stories. The stories we tell shape our minds and hearts — they shape the very way we perceive the world. And when those stories are about our own history, what’s at stake in the telling of them is both our worldview and our sense of self.  Telling the story of Western civilization is a tall order: that story must weave characters, events, institutions, and geography into a coherent order with a coherent logic. It must not only describe events, but imply causalities; it must not only describe characters’ actions, but suggest their motives. Otherwise, the history may be factual, but it will not be meaningful. To be useful to us, it must be a story. Continue reading

The Last First Step

Last First Step

Back in 2011 I started writing a series of posts entitled “According to the Whole” which was focused on exploring the issue of Christian disunity and where I was looking for possible solutions. The posts were personal and were informed by my own intellectual and experiential journey, but they weren’t overtly autobiographical. I used them to ask questions, make diagnoses, and offer prescriptions in a general sense, but I didn’t use them to tell much of my story. Now my story which spawned those questions and thoughts has reached a definitive point, even a conclusion of sorts, and I want to finally tell it. Continue reading

The Mystical Supremacy of Choice

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David Bentley Hart on the nihilism behind our idea of freedom:

“We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition: the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve. The ‘will’, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else, and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the highest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics — that is, the non-existence of any transcendent standard of ‘The Good’ that has the power or the right to order our desires toward a higher end. Continue reading

Is God An Old Man?

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Or, A Primer on Depicting the Trinity

In the Western Tradition of the Church, yesterday was Trinity Sunday. This always comes the Sunday after Pentecost, and it celebrates the reality that God has been revealed to us as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Tradition recognizes that this complete revelation of God occurs on Pentecost, when all three persons of the Trinity have been revealed to us, and so Pentecost doubles as Trinity Sunday in the East. Continue reading

Whence Is All the Fervour?

Nye and Tyson

Are you a naturalist or a supernaturalist? That is, do you believe the physical cosmos is all there is and ever has been, or do you allow for some other nature, even transcendent reality, above or behind our nature? If you’re not sure which you are, or if you’re not very confident about why you are whichever you are, you could read the books and papers and articles of philosophers and thinkers on the subject going back to the beginning of early Modern naturalism and up to our contemporary time to include the broadest scope of thought on the subject. Or you could just read the opening chapters of C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. Continue reading

Team America

If you’ve ever played sports or competed in any way on some kind of team, then you know what it’s like to form a bond with people over a shared purpose or goal. It’s a strange dynamic: a communal identity may form, a pride for the group and its members, a desire to see it succeed. Complete strangers can quickly form deep connections when they’re forced to cooperate to achieve a mutual end — especially when that end is outward oriented, such that a team’s identity depends on a context beyond itself, like a marketplace or a league…or a global stage. Continue reading

The Mothering of God


The fourth Sunday in Lent in the Western tradition is special. It’s known by several names: it’s been called The Sunday of the Five Loaves from the Gospel passage for the day (John 6:1-14); it’s also been called Rose Sunday because the clerical and alter vestments change color from violet to rose  — but why the change in color in the first place? Another name for this Sunday gives us a clue: Laetare Sunday (Laetare meaning: Rejoice).

The Introit or entrance chant for this Sunday begins in Latin: Laetare Jerusalem, et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam. (Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her). This chant is taken from Isaiah 66:10. The call to rejoice here in the middle of this season of repentance is meant as an encouragement to us, a comforting reminder of the tenderness, the nurturing, even the motherliness of God. Continue reading

Is Consciousness Physical?

When we see, hear, smell, or feel something, what’s happening? How do we take in information about the world around us, and how does that information get to us?

When I smell the fragrance of new azalea blooms in my yard, actual microscopic particles emanating from the blooms themselves are wafting through the air, entering my nose, and interacting with my olfactory cells. Anytime you smell anything, there’s physical contact in the form of floating particles occurring between you and the source of the smell. Continue reading

Hate Crimes = Thought Crimes

Last month, two Douglas County, Georgia residents were sentenced to notably steep jail time for riding around in a Confederate-flag-laden truck and shouting at, threatening, and pointing guns at black motorists, shoppers, and attendees of an 8 year old’s birthday party. They were participating in a “Respect the Flag” group which, in no uncertain terms, was explicitly promoting white supremacy. But the young couple in question, Kayla Rae Norton, 25, and Jose Ismael Torres, 26, had actually threatened violence, even crashing an African American birthday party with guns drawn.

I can’t begin to imagine the terror the parents and children at that party felt, but I’m glad that terror was translated into a twenty year sentence with thirteen to serve for Torres and a fifteen year sentence with six to serve for Norton. But the judge, William McClain, indicated his verdict was not merely in response to the level of trauma experienced by the victims, but because what the two defendants had committed was a hate crime. Continue reading

Caitlyn and Rachel

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The strange saga of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP leader who was outed by her parents for pretending to be African American, is continuing with news that she has changed her identity –becoming Nkechi Amare Diallo– and has written a new memoir called In Full Color. In 2015 when Dolezal became a national talking point, when her utterly bizarre success at creating an identity as an ethnic woman of mixed race (both her parents are actually white) fighting the fight of a civil rights leader and champion of black progress was exposed, the popular verdict was that she was an imposter. Here was a white girl trying to be black. Darkening her skin, wearing her hair in dreads, and adopting language and clothing to intentionally identify herself with African American culture. Continue reading

“Christianity” Disambiguated

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Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter

The Christian landscape in the world today is multifaceted, varied, and sometimes jaggedly divided. In a world where global news coverage mentions “persecuted Christians in the Middle East” in one breath and “the Christian Right” of America in the next, we may begin to suspect that the simple shorthand “Christian” isn’t quite sufficient for describing the sundry groups it’s supposed to cover. In many places in the world (in the Middle East, for example), the name “Christian” may imply both a distinct culture and a distinct race or ethnicity. It’s beyond my scope to enumerate instances where that’s the case, so instead I want to limit the meaning of “Christian” here to a belief system, a philosophical-religious position. In terms of the content of the belief system (and in some cases the history or tradition of that system), we can divide the Christian landscape of today into some broad distinctions, just to help us navigate better how we use the term. This isn’t any official taxonomy, just some conceptual categories offered for your edification. Continue reading

My Favorite Cuss Word

Cuss words. Every language has them. And every speaker of their language knows them, even though not everyone says them (or at least not all of them, because as we all know, not all cuss words are created equal). But what are they, exactly? What makes a word a cuss word?

I think we can broadly divide all cuss words into two categories: the vulgar and the metaphysical. By “vulgar” I don’t mean anything bad, only lowly, non-elevated, or even common. These words deal with the physical and bodily aspects of life — the things that make us more like the animals than the angels. The metaphysical words, however, show that we aren’t so very different from the angels. Continue reading

The Good News Feed?

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For the season of Advent I decided to take a break from all social media. I had succumbed to the all-too-common habit of checking news feeds and notifications on an alarmingly regular basis. It became an unthinking action, performed by muscle memory — a steady dose of input, information, entertainment, drama, and amusement throughout my day and into my night as well. The first thing one experiences after cutting oneself off from social media is a kind of withdrawal: the stilling of the hand as it reaches for the phone or browser tab, the recalling of the mind as it returns over and over to thoughts of likes and shares, the calming of the will as it’s denied its desire to scroll. >Just…want…to…scroll<. Continue reading

The Enfleshment of God

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We’re currently in the season of Christmastide, in which the Church across the world celebrates the reality of the Incarnation of God. This central reality –inaugurated at Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, first seen at Christmas, but then proceeding on through the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels– is what gives meaning and purpose to every faithful Christian. God has become a man. The ramifications of this central reality are manifold and profound (and are properly explored at length beginning at Epiphany/Theophany and throughout the rest of the year), but now at Christmas we tend more to celebrate the fact of God becoming a man. The King of all creation has decided to come and dwell with us; there’s so much to consider about what that means, but for now, “O come let us adore Him.” Continue reading

Advent Songs

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The season of Advent has arrived. But nothing kicks the legs out from under our observance of Advent like premature Christmas songs. Advent, as I’m sure you know, is the season leading up to Christmas, designed to focus us on the hope and expectation of Christ’s arrival, his advent in the world. It does this by reminding us that the world was in darkness before Christ. And it also uses that remembrance to bolster our desire to see him come again in glory at his second and final advent to dispel for good all lingering darkness. The spirit of Advent, then, is of watchfulness and waiting. Because of this, Christmas songs are inappropriate to the spirit of the Advent season. They don’t jive; they’re incongruous. Continue reading

The Edge of Existence

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Today, I feel like going for a hike. Getting out in nature, being surrounded by hills, trees, creeks. This is an improvement from yesterday when I felt like being surrounded by nothing at all. Literally wanting to be removed from everything, surrounded only by void. The hike gets me away from people and buildings and highways and chatter, but there’s still the hard, spiky reality of a world all around me to reckon with. For someone like me, who occasionally feels like I’m having an out of body experience in my own body, aware of the utter strangeness of my existence in a world whose own existence is equally strange, and how weird it is that I can contemplate my own conscious perspective within that world, the periodic desire to be separated out from that world, to retreat to some neutral space that isn’t me and isn’t the world, is to be expected. Continue reading

Saint Ambrose on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Depiction of the Good Samaritan at Chartres Cathedral

Depiction of the Good Samaritan at Chartres Cathedral

Saint Ambrose on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:23-27):

“This is a simple account of a reality.  And if we meditate deeply upon it, it will confirm for us certain wondrous mysteries.  For Jericho is a figure of this world, to which Adam, cast forth from Paradise, the heavenly Jerusalem, because of sin, descended; that is, he descended from the things of eternal life to the things of this lower world: he who through, not change of place but change of will, had brought exile upon his posterity. Continue reading

The Best Banana Pudding — Part 2

nana puddin competition

There can be no “Best Banana Pudding”. That’s the conclusion I reached last time in Part 1. The nature of banana pudding was determined to correspond to no ultimate rightness or wrongness. So if I like this pudding and you don’t, both of our perspectives are important and justified to those who matter the most — ourselves. Neither of us can be wrong.

Maybe it’s this easy, frictionless neutrality that has encouraged our age to extend the banana pudding principle to all manner of things. Maybe there’s no universal reality to ethics or virtue or beauty or humanity or religion. Continue reading