Commonplace - Week Beginning 25 August 2019

Placenta, microchimerism and a theology of motherhood

Kristin M Collier introduces readers to the miracle of placentas and the phenomenon of microchimerism, and offers a reflection on the theological significance of these observations. Naturally, a discussion of pregnancy and motherhood lends itself to a reflection on the Mother, the Virgin Mary, Theotokos. The entire article is worth quoting, but I will restrict myself to this meditation on the interconnectedness of mother and child, and the interconnectedness of Christ and Man:

The existence of the placenta and fetomaternal microchimerism provide glimpses into the cooperation and interconnectedness that exists at the cellular level between mother and child in the relational biology of mankind, which God has magnificently designed. The mother-child symbiosis serves as a beautiful example of God’s relational creation in a way that speaks to interconnectedness, mystery, and beauty. The ultimate mystery and beauty is seeing this process as having taken place through our Lord Jesus Christ who was conceived through this same biological process in the womb of his mother, Mary. What amazing love God has for mankind that he would come to earth in the flesh through the conception of Jesus the Son in the womb of a woman, to join himself to man at the cellular level in order to physically redeem and reconcile mankind to himself through his Son’s birth, death and resurrection.

On a methodological note, this musing on the theological significance of the biology of pregnancy represents a wonderful synthesis of areas of knowledge that are often, unfortunately, sundered in educational institutions. But truly, a philosophy that is not grounded in the specific facts about the world is a philosophy that will continue to build castles in the air. We have much to learn from the Creator who has given us an embarrassment of riches to savour and grow from.

Kierkegaard the Christian

In this archive article from First Things, the late Fr Neuhaus exposits Kierkegaard with due respect for his theological background and mission. The fundamental critique is articulated by Fr Neuhaus as:

Christendom is the enemy of Christianity—it is, Kierkegaard says repeatedly, the “blasphemy”—that stands in the way of encountering Christ as our contemporary.

No discussion of how far Christendom can turn away from Christ is complete with reference to the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. But it is useful here to situate Kierkegaard’s critique not primarily as a critique of the church, but something broader:

Kierkegaard’s relentless polemic is not, in the first place, against what is today called “institutional religion.” It is, in the first place, a polemic against the deifying of the social order, which can happen with or without Hegelian philosophy. It is, in the second place, a polemic against the church for letting itself become party to this blasphemous fraud and thus betraying Christianity for the sake of Christendom.

It is the tendency to elevate the social order as a saviour that is the “first sin”. This critique so clearly echoes the writings of many science fiction writers that I have read recently, perhaps most clearly in Benson’s The Lord of the World. The most worrying thing about this tendency is that it is so close to the truth — yes, there will be a true, perfect social order in the future, yes, there will be peace — but the distortion comes in the means and the time.

Fr Neuhaus compares Kierkegaard with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and notes a slight difference in emphasis. For Kierkegaard, the aesthetic is on a different order and should not be mixed with the religious. But for Bonhoeffer, aesthetics may be a necessary field in which the religious expresses itself:

An editorial footnote in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics cites a 1944 letter from prison in which he writes, “Perhaps, then, what Kierkegaard calls the ‘aesthetic existence,’ far from being excluded from the domain of the Church, should be given a new foundation within the Church … . Who, for example, in our time can still with an easy mind cultivate music or friendship, play games and enjoy himself? Certainly not the ‘ethical’ man, but only the Christian.”

He observes (and I think, correctly), that the different contexts in which these two thinkers wrote informs their view on how these fields interact. In a context of “cultural Christianity”, the line, perhaps, needs to be drawn more absolutely. In the context of a culture that is falling apart, that denies even the possibility of the transcendent, perhaps the reach of religion must be broader. What assumptions Kierkegaard could make no longer held water in Bonhoeffer’s day. This sensitivity to context is important and enables theological reflection to rightly address the people of God as they try to make sense of the world.

Political Hypocrisy

Speaking of the absolute claim of faith, Alistair Roberts at Political Theology exposits the prophetic injunction against hypocrisy in ritual. Alistair identifies the temptation:

The temptation to put faith in religiosity, to employ religious ceremonies and rituals as akin to compensatory ‘moral offsets’ for our godless, oppressive, and unjust behavior is a perennial one. Treated in such a manner, what we suppose to be our worship of God can be made an integral element of our oppressive and perverse societies, as if it were a valve designed to release the discomfiting pressure of uneasy consciences.

The prophetic word does not stop at Israel:

Like the people of Judah Isaiah excoriates, we can come before God with gifts rank with the stench of exploitative economic practices from which we have grown rich and hands bloodied from unjust wars. We can ignore the needy and the stranger in our neighborhoods, while expecting to receive God’s welcome when we visit his house. We can pollute our lives with all sorts of immorality and fornication, while feigning to be the spotless Bride of Christ.

One can always wonder to what extent we are responsible for the systems that we find ourselves in, but that kind of reasoning can also easily lead to a conscience that is comforted too quickly and too cheaply. If there are two extremes, one of taking on too much guilt for things that we are not responsible for and the other of taking on too little, we ought probably to aim for the extreme that is better, or at the very least, less comfortable for us.

Alistair helpfully pinpoints the pitfalls of one particular practice:

Lightly invoking the name and blessing of God upon our nations is the most dangerous folly when our societies are filled with injustice, cruelty, and wickedness. Political theology that is not alert to and resolutely opposed to the ways our nations’ performative religiosity functions to deceive ourselves and—so we may fancy—God concerning our social injustice is hardly worthy of the name.

This applies more broadly as well — we must never lightly invoke God’s name for our projects, our views, our ideas. We might be right, but we will only ever be right in part. It is sheer hubris to imagine that God is your partisan.

True ritual, by contrast, is a searching indictment of all injustice, a corrective for it, and a model for righteous behavior. Presenting ourselves before God in our ceremonies, we invite his inspection of the entirety of our lives; recognizing this fact, we must comport ourselves accordingly in all that we do. Civil religion and cultural religiosity will betray all those who put their hope in them.


O’Brien’s Critique of the New Totalitarianism

Again from the Church Life Journal (it seems like almost every other article I read comes from this brilliant source), Jessica Hooten Wilson discusses Michael O’Brien’s diagnosis of the “New Totalitarianism”. Of particular note to me was O’Brien’s suspicion of “benevolent” regimes, summarised by Wilson as follows:

If we are enjoying luxury without inconvenience, freedom without persecution, but we are living in a fallen world, then perhaps we need to look around us with more discernment to uncover who is suffering under the might of whatever regime is currently in power.

This strikes me as a sound principle, one of those that oozes common sense. In O’Brien’s own words:

The human community is never more endangered than when totalitarianism appears to be benevolent.

In concrete terms, there is a battle for our children’s minds. This totalitarianism, as all other totalising forces throughout history, necessarily seeks after the allegiance of all. And education (which has gradually been centralised and is now almost entirely under the direction of the bureaucracy) is a potent weapon at its disposal.

No matter how much the family is trying to teach children that they are made in the image of God, that they are part of the mystical body of Christ, and that they do not belong to themselves but are his; as students in public education, these kids are receiving a different message. They are being formed by a system that gives precedence to technology over reading, encourages passive responses to screen over critical thinking and discernment, and isolates kids with earbuds rather than promotes conversation with others. Prioritizing family means not only defending children against totalitarian legislation but also forming them through educational practices that cohere with the Christian knowledge of reality.

It is salutary to remember that every educational decision comes at a cost. Spending time on one thing is less time spent on another. The child’s attention and capacity are finite, too. And it is also a number’s game — the sheer amount of time a child spends cooped up in a school will mean that how that time is spent will always outweigh every other effort. Of course, we must not look down on the power of the mustard seed, but surely we should be “wise as a serpent” and be aware of the Devil’s tactics.