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Note: I wrote this blog post originally at Walking Christian. I re-read it and thought it was pretty good and I wanted to post it here too. 

This is probably one of my favorite topics to discuss and debate. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I feel like I’m fairly competent in discussing this issue and giving a good pro-life case. I think one of the huge points of confusion in this debate comes when using terms such as human being, human nature, personhood, humanity, and human organism. These words have very different meanings in different contexts and this only asks for an equivocation to occur. Hence why I think defining one’s terms and usage of them before ever debating the issue is extremely crucial. Otherwise, you’ll just be tripping over your words and making a mess everywhere.

Personally, I hate treating personhood as if it’s some deciding factor for an individual to be counted as a person. See, my language already is assuming that there are human beings that are not persons, and this, I think, is problematic. Sadly, the philosophical community has assumed that a “person” is just a collection of traits that make one valuable. So, what I want to do is define my terms and proceed to explain my case for the pro-life position using thomistic language and metaphysics. In doing so, I will demonstrate why I have such a problem with this divide over personhood. Moreover, by using a Thomistic metaphysics, I will try and show that this “personhood” issue isn’t really an issue at all.

The basic idea

First of all, I think it’s fairly plausible, if not blatantly a fact, to say that at a biological level we are a human organism. Now, I’d like to state that I equate being a human being with having a human nature or essence, and a human nature belongs with that substance that is human, i.e., a human organism. There is a substance (the human organism), that has a nature (human nature), and this nature is what makes the organism what it is, namely, a human being. So the terms human being and human organism will be used synonymously to simply mean that which is a member of the species homo sapien.

From the get go, metaphysically speaking, a human organism is what it is because it has a human nature, and these cannot be separated. You cannot have a human organism that does not have a human nature because then the organism would not be human. Having a human nature, then, is a necessary condition of being a human organism. Therefore, one can say that a biological human organism is a human being.

To quickly switch gears, I’d like to illustrate the basic pro-life argument.

The basic argument is this:

1. It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

2. A fetus is an innocent human being.

.’. It is wrong to intentionally kill a fetus.

I first want to deflect a common objection that the first and second premise are equivocating and thus the argument commits a basic fallacy. The conclusion doesn’t follow, according to this objection, because the meaning of the word “human being” changes within the first and second premise. The first premise would be true if by human being one means a person. This premise assumes a moral use of the term “human being,” as Mary Anne Warren points out. That’s all find and dandy. But the supposed equivocation occurs in premise two. Bear in mind that the assumption behind the objection is that personhood is the morally relevant criteria. If the term “human being” in premise two means a “person,” then the argument would be valid but unsound due to this premise being false, according to the objector. But if the term “human being” in this premise means a member of the species homo sapien, then the premise equivocates terms and is thus invalid. The reason is that being a member of the species homo sapien is not sufficient for personhood since you can have humans that are not persons. What’s relevant is personhood and one has not distinguished whether one means “human being” to mean a member of the species homo sapien or personhood. As I will argue later on, the personhood criteria is heavily flawed, and a human organism by nature of what it is is entitled to rights and moral status thus avoiding the problem entirely since being a member of the species homo sapien is sufficient for moral status. (Note that I have argued for this here.)

When does a human being come into existence?

To further add to this idea of a human being, my basic argument is taken from what Oderberg calls the “argument from continuity of development.”[1] This will also lead us to answer the question of “When does a human being come into existence?” The argument, as Oderberg explains, is “that there is no metaphysically significant dividing line in embryonic and foetal development separating something that is a human being from something that is not; hence the embryo/foetus is a human being from conception onwards” (8). Oderberg elsewhere notes that the argument is about the “identity of the foetus — is it the very same thing throughout its development? More precisely, is it the same human being as the baby/child/adult into which it develops?” (12). This is the type of premise that the “I was once a fetus” argument is based on. The basic idea goes like this: I was once a fetus. I am the same person I was then. If I were to look at a photograph of me that was taken 2 weeks ago, I would be justified in claiming that that’s me. I could say the same of a picture taken 10 years ago of me. I could also say the same thing of a picture taken when I was 2 years old. I could also say the same thing of an ultrasound taken of me at 2 weeks old. That fetus is me. If I have rights now, then I had rights then. If it’s true that the fetus retains its identity throughout his/her(its? I don’t know what the politically correct term is), then the correct way to view the developing fetus is to see it on a continuum. If this is all true, then the answer to the question “When does a human come into existence?” is from the moment of conception.

Now, to address this issue of personhood and when a fetus “gains personhood”, I’ll turn to the concepts of act and potency which is derived from Aristotle’s philosophy.  To say something is in “act” or to be actual is to describe the way something is. Feser, for example, uses a rubber ball to demonstrate this. He explains how “among [the ball’s] features are the ways it actually is: solid, round, red, and bouncy. These are different aspects of its ‘being’” (Feser 10). Potency is the way a thing potentially is. To continue Feser’s example a ball is potentially green or black if you were to paint it and it is potentially “gooey (if you melt it)” (Feser 10).

But potency just doesn’t mean a thing in actuality can possibly do anything or become anything. For something to be potential it means that the substance has these potencies built into it. Edward Feser explains it this way, “The potentialities Aristotle and Aquinas have in mind are ones rooted in a thing’s nature as it actually exists” ( Feser 11). So, while I have the potential to grow another 5 feet tall, I don’t have the potential to become a werewolf. The latter is not a potency that is a part of my nature. So potential is always inherent in the thing that is.

To take another example, a piece of chopped up wood cannot potentially be a steel ship. Why? First because the steel is an entirely different substance. The wood cannot change or become something that it does not have. To use a common sense example, I cannot give you what I do not have. The wood, however, has the potential to become a house, or an axe handle, or a wall, or even part of the steel ship in terms of the ship having wooden floors or doors. These things are potentialities that the wood can fulfill since its nature allows it to do so. But the wood cannot become the steel.

Now with these distinctions in place, I turn to the personhood issue and the properties that go along with it, the properties such as rationality, consciousness, self-awareness, volition, will, etc.

I’ve heard it said that a fetus might be biologically human, but it doesn’t have rationally or self-consciousness and thus doesn’t count as human. Already we have a problem here. The metaphysic is off and the assumption is that a human organism becomes a human being when it acquires some property such as rationality or self-consciousness (the common ones that are appealed to). First, I think we have plausible grounds to accept the metaphysic I’ve proposed. Scientifically we see that a human organism, from conception, if nourished properly and if it develops normally, it becomes a fully grown human organism with fully functional mental capacities. I think the substance view of human beings is quite possible. A thing or substance(human organism) contains a nature (human nature) that allows it to grow and develop into a fully functional thing (human being).

When a fetus grows into a baby, and a baby into a toddler, and the toddler into a child, why doesn’t the child gain some other property like non-rationality? Why does the child gain the property of rationality? This seems like a dull question to ask but I think it’s one that must be asked. Why doesn’t the child develop into a log cabin? Why not the property of having a butterfly mind? I think it’s very plausible to posit the answer to this as being because rationality moves from potential to actual, and potentiality can only exist in the thing itself, that is a human substance or organism.  These properties that were named earlier (rationality, self-awareness, consciousness, etc.) are actualized or gained precisely because they are potential in the substance itself. The human organism contains these properties in a state of potency, and thus they are always in the substance just waiting to be actualized. So it’s wrongheaded to try and divorce these states and say that the fetus is not human because it doesn’t have these properties actualized when the fact of the matter is these properties can only be actualized if the substance is human in the first place!

Personhood doesn’t even become an issue because, as I said earlier, personhood is inherent in the nature of a human, and during development, its properties of rationality, consciousness, and awareness is in a state of potency. Given enough time and the proper nourishment, this fetus would continue its natural development and these properties will inevitably be actualized. It’s like me grabbing the bag of popcorn kernels form my cupboard and throwing them all away. “What in the world are you doing?!” My mother screams. “This isn’t popcorn so what’s the point of having it?” I respond. “You have to heat them up. It is popcorn, you just have to let them fully develop. They’re popcorn kernels. Not apple seeds or orange seeds. But popcorn kernels.” I think a more telling action would be for me to grab the kernels out of the microwave while it’s heating up and just to throw them away since they’re not “fully popcorn”. My actions would be plain stupid and absurd. Similarly, to just abort the fetus because it hasn’t developed its rationality (or any of the other properties) is equally stupid and absurd.

The rationalization that a fetus can be aborted because it doesn’t contain personhood is completely off chart and I’ll go as far as say it’s utterly absurd. We accept our humanity yet we deny our humanity on the basis that some do not have the properties we have simply because they weren’t given the time of day to develop them. I fail to see any intellectual viability with those who are in favor of abortion. So far my arguments have gone to show premise 2 to be more plausibly true than false, and I’ve simply assumed that we all are moral realists and agree with premise 1 in that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being. I welcome any dialogue and I look forward to it. In the mean time, popcorn anyone?

Work Cited

[1] Oderberg, David. Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach. Blackwell, 2005. Print.

[2] Feser, Edward. Aquinas: a beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. Print.

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When I first heard about Hansen’s Kneeling With Giants, I was excited to get my hands on a copy. My own prayer life had become monotonous, and I was in need of something that would help invigorate it. But the main problem for me was I was never really taught how to pray. I wasn’t looking for a simply a devotion book, but for something that would lead me and show me how, and Hansen’s book does just that and more.

Hansen’s goal in the book is to teach other Christians how to pray by using some of Christianity’s giants as a model. Right off the bat, I can already note one major benefit of this book—namely, that Hansen is not quick to mark off other traditions of the Christian faith simply because they are from the Roman Catholic side or the Eastern Orthodox side (Hansen—and myself included—is a Protestant). He rightly explains that Christians can learn much from the different traditions of Christianity given that each offers its own uniquely rich approach to getting in contact with God. Before beginning, Hansen encourages readers to really give a few of the approaches developed in the book a fair shot. That means, don’t just try it once, twice, or three times, but go at it for a week or two. If one does not work, move on to a different approach. The important thing, writes Hansen, is that each person “find ways that fits his or her personality and needs” (18).

There are four parts to the book with its own directed purpose. In this review I will focus on simple one representative Giant from each section/part of the book, as opposed to going through each and every one. The overall theme in part 1 is about making use of written prayer—whether its Benedicts divine office, Martin Luther’s use of the Lord’s Prayer, or praying the Jesus prayer.

Hansen begins with St. Benedict of Nursia. Before reading this book, I have never heard of the divine “office,” nor of St. Benedict’s way of prayer, which consisted of prayer services where one would pray for multiple services that consisted of an hour. But Hansen isn’t suggesting we have to pray this much (although it wouldn’t hurt). Hansen offers his readers four reasons for why choosing St. Benedict’s method. First, it can “bring order to our busy lives” (23). If we set up prayer times, like the services of St. Benedict, we can have a special appointed time where we stop what we’re doing and head into the office of God and spend time speaking with Him. This is something I personally strive to do. I set up a time each evening, normally 15 minutes before I read the bible, to get into prayer. This keeps everything organized, while maintaining God as my priority by setting aside time for Him. Secondly, it teaches us how to pray. I personally find this to be true since the office gives me a framework which to follow once I develop my own prayer habit. Thirdly, Christians—when going through a life trial—can pray the office even when they cannot find the words and will to pray in their own way. Lastly, Hansen uses his own experience with the office to demonstrate that the office can bring peace, although there is no guarantee of any particular feelings (25).

Hansen proceeds to explain how Christians can get started with this method of prayer. Simply pick a time of the day, find a version of the divine office—which Hansen provides—and go right ahead with the prayer, keeping in mind to find the time and version of the office most appropriate for you. Hansen encourages those practices this form of prayer to not give up when attempting it for the first time. I found it difficult at first because I’m not used to reading someone else’s prayer and simply reciting it as my own. I felt it was too rehearsed at first. But as I pressed on, I began to enjoy the language that was used in the prayer, and it opened me up to so many ways of praying. This is one of the problems that Hansen addresses in the “problems and possibilities” section of the chapter. Some people may feel that it’s rehearsed or that it’s not reallt prayer. One response is that if one indeed feels uncomfortable, then don’t do it. There are plenty of methods out there and if this one just doesn’t work, move on. But give it a fair shot if you can! There was an excellent analogy that Hansen used to describe prayer when ending the chaper. He observes:

When it comes to prayer, the office is like practicing the scales when you are learning a musical instrument. You may pick up the guitar hoping to play Jimi Hendrix, or you may start the piano hoping to master Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. Whatever your goal, when you meet with your teacher, you probably find you have to play scales. The exercises seem like the farthest thing from beautiful music, but keeping at it day after day, you learn the intervals and patterns that music is made from. Do them well and you can do what you want to do most. The office is like that. Think of it as praying your scales. If you are going to pray well, you need to learn to confess, to praise, to give thanks, to lament, to make requests and many other things. (35).

The theme or goal of part two is on how to make the Bible a part of your prayer life. “Since [the Bible] is God’s words to us,” writes Hansen, “It makes sense to listen there” (74). What better way to begin part two with the Protestant reformer John Calvin. The chapter begins with a brief note on how Calvin loved praying with the Psalms of the Bible. Hansen explains how Calvin’s method of prayer always incorporated the Psalms into his prayer life by studying them and reflecting on them through writing commentaries. Hansen goes right ahead to outline the steps involved in approaching prayer as study via the psalms. First, pick a Psalm and just study it line by line. Hansen instructs readers to bring along something to write with to write down any thoughts or observations about the text. The next step is to begin making connections to our own lives. This is where the prayer really becomes lively and personal. Doing this can lead one to pray for certain things in our lives or in the lives of others depending on what Psalm we’re reading—perhaps it’s a Psalm of praise to God or it’s a Psalm describing persecution and suffering. Hansen provides readers with some outlines that contain questions to assist with the study and prayer of a Psalm. The outline can be very helpful in prodding people who might be stuck on what to do. Lastly, Hansen acknowledges that some may not enjoy writing studious commentaries. If that’s the case, why not translate your thoughts on the Psalm into a song or a poem? This is another beautiful and creative way to pray that will fit for some people better than writing commentaries. Whether we choose to pray in poetry, song, or commentary, “we must discern the message of the psalm and distill it into something new—our own prayer to God” (93).

Part three of Hansen’s book deals with our end of the telephone line when we’re calling God in prayer. In this section, Hansen explores prayer as a form of simply spending time in the presence of God. One way of doing this is to follow the example of St. Teresa of Avila. Hansen explains how Teresa believed we can have a “free and open conversation with God […] because of who the Bible says God is” (119). It’s amazing and breathtaking to think that we—finite, sinful, tiny humans—can simply bow down in prayer and strike up a conversation with the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe. Hansen explains a little about St. Teresa’s spectrum of prayer in order to accurately give a description of what “recollection” is. There is “vocal prayer,” which speaks for itself; “mental prayer,” which consists of verbal prayers with an engaged mind; and then there is perfection, which is union with God via contemplation (120-122). Hansen notes that St. Teresa’s “recollection” is connected to mental prayer and contemplation. Recollection is to contemplate or think of the different roles that God takes on and to imagine the images that are associated with it.

Hansen makes note of a distinction between thinking and looking at God that St. Teresa makes when describing ones engagement with recollection (123). The former has to do with our approaching God and analyzing Him with our minds using logic. The latter has to do with contemplation; it is “about presence and relationship” (123).  When we look at God, this is when we bring to mind the various Biblical roles or portraits of God, and Hansen highlights quite a number of them. We can view God as king, father, spouse, and friend, with each of these invoking truths about scripture and, as Hansen observes, “each biblical picture puts us in a different relationship to God” (120). The chapter closes with one more biblical portrait of God as our guest and with a few approaches on how to follow St. Teresa’s example.

The final section of the book focuses on how we should ask God for things and help in prayer. Hansen explains that there is a reason why he saved this chapter for last, and that is because “if we start with prayer as asking for things, we risk nurturing a lopsided relationship with God” (173).  The first Giant is Agnes Sanford, whose focus is on prayer for healing. Hansen outlines four steps that are included in the basic process of Sanford’s approach to prayer: 1) Connect to God. Here one must get into the proper connection with God where we leave our fears behind and allow God’s healing power to touch us. 2) Making a “specific request, and move to thankfulness” (180). 3) We are to be with the person we are praying for and focus solely on God. As an example of this, Hansen recounts praying for his 19-month-old son by being right next to him, with his hand on his son’s back, and focusing solely on God through prayer. 4) We are to be joyful throughout the entire process. Hansen continues on to describe Sanford’s use of “imagination and visualization” and how some might object to this practice as incorporating some sort of New Age spirituality. For example, the technique, in Hansen’s own words, is “visualize the person you are praying for in a healthy state” (184). Some have objected that this technique endorses the idea that somehow visualizing something will make it so. In this case, visualizing a person as healthy will make them healthy. However, Hansen is quick to point out that none of this is being endorses or taught by Sanford. Rather, visualizing helps increase and build the faith of the person in prayer.

Before closing I’d like to note one minor aspect that could improve this already great book. I would have loved to see more of St. Augustine’s prayers or maybe some of St. Anselm’s. Hansen does devote a few pages to Augustine and the Confessions, but I think St. Augustine should get a chapter devoted to him! If author makes a second edition, it would be a great addition if Augustine or Anselm were also added to the mix.

Hansen’s writing is clear, fun, thoughtful and very inviting, as well as very encouraging when telling readers to try out some of the approaches for the first time.  His expertise in the fields of church history and theology are revealed through the various autobiographical descriptions and theological tie-ins with the different methods of prayer. Hansen also has a reader that accompanies the book. In it is included all of the primary source writings of the various authors. The book also contains two appendix’s that explains how to use the book in small groups, and offers a quick summary of the praying method from each chapter. Remember that I only highlighted one Giant from each part of the book for the sake of saving space and for simplicity. Hansen’s book offers a lot more for those who want a theologically enriching guide on how to pray and become spiritually mature through prayer, as well as a fun journey through the lives of some of the greatest Christian giants who have lived thus far.