It’s always fun to discover a “kindred soul” online. It’s even better when you find out that person covers a lot of the same topics as you, but clearly knows the scholarship on important issues better. I think that some of my readers may enjoy his writings as well, especially this great FAQ addressing common Christian apologetic claims (enjoy!): Counter-Apologetics FAQ
There is a verse in Mark which really bothered me when I was a Christian. That verse is in Mark 13, which I’m going to be quoting from in this post. I’m also going to present some other verses in Mark which cause many Christians discomfort, anxiety and cognitive dissonance.
One of the hallmarks of modern Evangelical belief is an expectation of and longing for “The End Times.” I would guess (just based off of my own observations) that most Evangelicals believe that this event will happen at some unknown future date, maybe soon but also maybe hundreds or thousands of years in the future. Nearly all Evangelicals would agree that “the End Times,” however imagined in their details, will be a series of major supernatural events that will right the wrongs of the world and involve the physical return of Jesus, the eventual judgement of all humankind, and the final conquest over death and Satan. Some specific sects look forward to these events (or at least the clear beginning of these events) occurring within their own lifetimes and they point to prophetic “signs” of the End such as global conflicts, the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, and activity at the UN and other multi-national political organizations. In my own lifetime there have been many failed predictions for the return of Jesus and for the “rapture” (many modern Evangelicals believe that at the rapture God will rescue believers to heaven and allow dark forces to dominate the planet for a period of seven years afterwards). Still, despite all of the failed predictions, many believers still fervently hope for coming of The End and try to discern the signs that point to this.
In Jesus’s own day this type of thinking was not uncommon. Scholars who study this period of time even have a name for it: apocalyptic. An apocalypse is something hidden to the general public, a mystery revealed to God’s elect group or to a prophet before dramatic changes occur. The book of Daniel is an example of a relatively early apocalyptic writing, while Revelations is an example of a relatively late, Christian apocalyptic writing. Many scholars who study the life of Jesus believe that he promoted an apocalyptic message of sorts. He did not necessarily preach the coming “end of the world.” Apocalypse doesn’t always refer to the end of the physical world; it can also point to a dramatic, world-changing intervention by God. We see evidence of Jesus’s apocalyptic preaching in the earliest gospel, Mark, where both Jesus and John the Baptist proclaim “the Kingdom of God” and urge their Jewish audience to repent in view of this impending event.
All of this so far is pretty uncontroversial to most modern believers. Where things get more interesting is the fact that Mark preserves sayings of Jesus which indicate that Jesus and his earliest followers (the disciples and the generation which came after them and produced the Gospel of Mark) sincerely believed that God’s Kingdom was at their doorstep. A believer can certainly choose to downplay or ignore these troublesome passages, but the fact remains that they are there. I myself for a long time clung to hope that there was some way to resolve Jesus’s ideas about the “end of the age” and the Kingdom of God with what we know actually happened in history. But now I admit the simple truth that Jesus, like many who came after him, simply made false predictions. He was wrong. God did not intervene miraculously to bring in the Kingdom. The early Church and Paul were also wrong in expecting the imminent return of Jesus, but this post is going to focus on passages which clearly show that Jesus (at least according to one of our earliest sources) predicted that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon. As usual, the verses below are from the NRSV.
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ – Mark 8:38-9:1
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ – Mark 13
In this “little apocalypse” Jesus links the destruction of the Temple with the return of the Son of Man, an apocalyptic figure who will be God’s judge and representative. It is quite probable that in Mark’s time the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem had already occurred and that this increased the expectation among the church that God was judging Israel and would soon return. If that is so then the “wars and rumors of wars” spoken of here would be the Jewish war of rebellion from 66-70 AD. That war did end with the destruction of the temple, but the hope of the early Christian community for that to be followed-up by the return of the Son of Man (which Mark’s community identified as Jesus) obviously went unfulfilled. Mainstream scholars judge the saying above in bold to be one of the most probable sayings of the historical Jesus, based both on context (Jewish apocalyptic hope was not new or surprising) and the criteria of embarrassment; it is unlikely to be a later invention since by the time the Gospel of Mark was written many of Jesus’s contemporaries had already died off and the hope that “this generation” would still be around was already quickly fading away. Later gospels and Christian writings downplay the immediacy of the “coming of the Son of Man” that stands out when one reads the Gospel of Mark.
There’s one more passage which I want to highlight here. It’s pretty specific and much harder (in my view) to wriggle out of with apologetic claims (such as the idea that “generation” doesn’t mean what it normally means throughout the rest of the Bible). It’s a bit of dialogue between Jesus and the High Priest. Whether the scene of Jesus’s trial actually occurred this way, or whether the author of the gospel is adding his own flourishes to the tradition, this scene still shows that the early Christians were convinced that the return of the Son of Man would be very soon. It is quite probable to suppose that they expected an imminent return since this is what Jesus himself preached (though whether Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man during his life-time is unclear).
But he [Jesus] was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you [the High Priest] will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power”, and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’ – Mark 14:61-62
When I began blogging about the problems I saw in the Bible, I wrote a post explaining the notion of contradictions. In this post I contrasted external contradictions with internal contradictions. Many people are familiar with the external contradictions between evolutionary theory, the age of the Earth, and the creation account in Genesis. In my view the failed prediction about the imminent coming of Jesus/The Son of Man is the most serious external contradiction in the New Testament. As I said above, true believers can certainly attempt to ignore these passages. They can also try to creatively reinterpret them, as happens with many other problem passages. For myself, once I fully opened up to the possibility that the Bible and the Christian religion could indeed be man-made artifacts, passages like this actually made a lot more sense. I no longer felt that I had to ignore them or feel anxious about my doubts. I realized that it wasn’t I who was “wrong” for lacking faith in “God’s Word,” but rather it was the belief that the Bible is the perfect, inspired word of God which was itself wrong. Jesus isn’t coming back. Not 2000 years ago and not today. And that’s OK.
or why CS Lewis’s “Trilemma” asks the wrong question
Jesus is incredibly important to modern Christianity. Among Christians, those who call themselves “evangelical” boast a very high Christology; for these believers the divinity of Christ is an incredibly important fact and a central part of God’s revelation in the New Testament. But, what happens when this belief in the full divinity of Christ (“the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal” as one creed puts it) is read back into the gospel accounts? Instead of merely proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the believer will end up insisting that Jesus taught this doctrine himself.
C.S. Lewis is beloved by Christians for his devotional books and religiously inspired fiction. I do not deny his talent as a writer or as an insightful critic of his times. When I was a young college student I felt that I could feel Lewis speaking back through time, directly to me, strengthening my faith and challenging my mind through books like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. But when Lewis makes an argument for Jesus’ divinity in Mere Christianity (his famous apologetic work) he falls into the same trap as many Christians today still do. In his argument Lewis insists that we must accept Jesus as either a liar, a lunatic, or lord (and by “lord” Lewis means the divine being, God). Lewis treats the gospel texts as authoritative, historical accounts of what Jesus actually said and did. His argument also relies upon an understanding of these accounts which blends them together with later theological developments.
Why is Lewis’s argument so popular among Christians?
Since most people, even non-believers, admit to a high degree of respect for Jesus’s teaching and character the religious apologist advancing Lewis’s argument (or a similar one) can help score points for their side. When presented with the trilemma, very few are willing to argue that Jesus was a mad-man. To call him a liar would be even more offensive and this is also not a popular response to the challenge. An apologist can easily build on this “victory” and go further. Why would Jesus’s closest followers choose to remain so devoted to a liar or a lunatic? Why would they ever choose to die and be martyred for someone who they knew was a fraud? Surely their sacrifice validates what Jesus says about himself in the gospels, that he is the Messiah and “God’s only Son”? The claims that the gospels make are written out in black and white, and the most obvious answer to the trilemma is that Jesus, consistent with his admirable character, spoke the truth about his divinity, just as he spoke the truth about his inspiring moral principles.
There are more than a few problems with this popular approach to Christian apologetics but I want to tackle what I feel is a rather obvious problem, a problem which demonstrates that many Christians really don’t take their holy book as seriously as they claim to. The problem I have in view here can be summarized in two words: Which Jesus?
In my experience, most believers see the New Testament as part of one unified religious and historical tradition. Within this tradition the gospels supposedly narrate the life of Jesus and explain, through teaching, parable and storytelling, the importance of his life, death and resurrection. The gospels are viewed either as eyewitness accounts (Matthew and John), or as faithful historical biographies based on eyewitness testimony (Mark and Luke). The problem with this view is that while the gospels are written as a sort of history (they do purport to represent facts about Jesus, not pure allegories or fiction) these accounts are not in fact eyewitness reports or even close to it, and the accounts themselves contradict each other in key areas. Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman, does a great job of introducing lay readers to the problem of reconciling the various New Testament portraits of Jesus. When one compares events and details between the gospels, one notices that there are differences. Furthermore, these differences of accounts and quotations, even though sometimes “small” individually, add up into different images of Jesus and hence different understandings of who he is and exactly what his role is. A more detailed treatment of this issue can be found in Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. Fredriksen explains how various oral traditions about Jesus, which were originally based in a Jewish Palestinian context, underwent change and revision as the church’s gentile members became the majority. Alongside of gradual developments, major political events in Palestine (especially the destruction of the Temple in AD 70) affected the perception of Jews by the early Christian communities and together these changes colored how the gospel writers wrote about the Jesus traditions they had inherited.
I won’t go into detail on this topic here, but I do want to make a few important points. For scholars who study the New Testament documents critically (that is, not assuming that they are divinely inspired, but instead seeing them as historical records whose claims and sources must be evaluated like any other part of the historical record–see “What is history?“) it is not at all uncontroversial to say that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present diverse, evolving pictures of Jesus which are informed by circumstances many decades after the execution of Jesus (from roughly 70 AD to 100 AD). It is also not controversial to state that the titles of the gospels were almost certainly added to the documents much later and that the gospels in their original distribution (before they became canonical), were anonymous. The gospels were not meant to be read together or to be seen as “eyewitness” accounts in the sense that we might think of eyewitnesses in a modern courtroom or news reporting. Rather, the gospels offered comfort and ideological support to their diverse communities, communities which had already formulated very different ideas about the life and nature of Jesus. The easiest way to see this contrast is by comparing the gospel of Mark, our earliest witness, with the gospel of John, our latest witness. In Mark and John, Jesus has different teachings. Even major events in his life, such as the cleansing of the temple, happen in different sequences (in John this event is at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry while in the Mark and the other synoptic gospels it occurs near the end, when Jesus visits Jerusalem before his crucifixion)*. If you want to learn more about these topics and how the four canonical gospels differ (and explanations for why) I heartily recommend the two books mentioned above.
Did Jesus claim to be God?
When it comes to the trilemma, it is important to evaluate whether or not Jesus claimed to be God. For Lewis this is an open and shut case. In Mere Christianity Lewis doesn’t waste much time defending the viewpoint that Jesus actually claimed to be God. He quotes a few passages from John and the other gospels (which he interprets through a Trinitarian lens), reiterates the common evangelical understanding of Jesus, and that’s that. But when we actually look at the content of the gospels closely there is a big problem: all four gospels present us with a different Jesus. He teaches different things, he does different activities, his genealogy and the explanation for how “Jesus of Nazareth” actually came from Bethlehem (as the Old Testament prophecy demanded of the Messiah) differs between our accounts. Of our accounts only the latest one (the one that critical scholars consider the least reliable as a source of information about the historical Jesus) contains statements that can be construed as equating Jesus with God himself. What if Jesus never claimed to be God? What are we to make of Lewis’s famous trilemma then? What if Jesus was just another Jewish apocalyptic preacher who prematurely declared that The End was nigh? What if he was another failed Messiah who was put down before his movement could become dangerous to the Romans and the other ruling elites? An honest look at the source materials that describe Jesus’s teachings require us to add a fourth option to Lewis’s trilemma: legend. It is quite possible that the Jesus modern Christians worship is a legend, an amalgam of real, historical bits mixed in with later theological developments. Some of those developments were provided by the gospel writers and their communities, and some were the product of much later controversies that arose after Christianity became a major force in Roman society (for a good treatment of theological development before and after the gospels, see Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God).
The Wrong Question…and the Right One
The famous trilemma really asks the wrong question. Instead of asking doubters and wavering Christians “do you believe what Jesus said about himself?” we should be asking “what did Jesus really say, and how can we be reasonably certain that he said it?”
*For many Christians this is where that pesky “No Contradictions Allowed” bias comes into play and prevents them from accepting the texts for what they are. Jesus, Interrupted does a great job of debunking this naive approach to the gospels and is a fairly easy read for those who are new to the historical-critical approach to the Bible.
Like many Evangelical Christians, I was raised in an environment where being staunchly pro-life was the norm. I considered it quite bizarre that any self-professed Christian would consider abortion to be morally acceptable. I never picketed an abortion clinic but I did try to spread the pro-life message and I attended a few meetings among very serious activists in the Twin Cities as I considered further involvement in that cause. I never quite knew how to reconcile this personal religious belief of mine with my increasingly libertarian political views, though I did hope that a strong appeal to “states’ rights” would allow for the issue to be fought on a local (rather than national) stage where “right-to-life” amendments and pro-life legislation had a far higher chance of passage. Since leaving behind my familiar Christian moral framework I’ve had time and space to reconsider my views on many important issues. Abortion is one of those issues. The thoughts below are my own and are the product of many hours of sincere reflection.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding what food she puts into her body*.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding what drugs (legal or illegal) she puts into her body.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding for herself whether or not she wants to be vaccinated**.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to take pre-natal vitamins.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to take birth control pills, use a condom, use an IUD, or practice any other form of clinically tested and reliable birth control.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether she wants to practice abstinence or to have an active sex-life.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to be a sex-worker.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to practice Natural Family Planning, the Fertility Awareness Method, or even the Rhythm Method (though it would be good for her to be aware of the failure rate and the difficulties of these methods).
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to have her tubes tied or undergo any other procedure which results in infertility.
I’m in favor of a woman who is born biologically female deciding whether or not she wants to undergo gender reassignment using hormones and/or surgery.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether she wants to marry a man, marry a woman, or remain unmarried.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to divorce her partner.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not she wants to end her life via medically assisted suicide.
I’m in favor of a woman opting for a home birth, a “water birth,” or a traditional hospital birth.
I’m in favor of a woman opting for a vaginal birth or a C-section, even if the C-section is planned out ahead of time and not a “last resort” due to complications during labor.
I’m in favor of a woman choosing to use medication to ease the difficulty of labor and delivery or of choosing to forgo painkillers during this event.
I’m in favor of a woman using IVF, a sperm donor, a one-night stand, or a life-long male partner in order to conceive a child***.
I’m in favor of a woman choosing to adopt already born children, or choosing to have frozen embryos implanted so that she can carry them to term, or choosing to remain childless.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding whether or not to take “Plan B” as a form of emergency contraception, in order to prevent a pregnancy from occurring. I would prefer that “Plan B” be broadly available, off the shelf, with clear, scientifically accurate warning labels.
I’m in favor of a woman deciding to continue with her pregnancy and support the growing child with extra nutrients and medical attention, or deciding to intervene to end her pregnancy and thus end the life of the child growing inside of her. I would prefer that all women have access to quality medical care so they can make that determination at the earliest stage possible. I would prefer that women be accurately informed about the risks of any medical procedure that they assent to. I would prefer that women be given accurate information about any medical risks particular to them (especially as those relate to pregnancy and labor). I strongly believe that a situation in which a woman can receive professional medical help to terminate a pregnancy is preferable to a situation in which a woman uses a coat-hanger or a home-made abortifacient. If it appears that there is a medical need to end a pregnancy, I am in favor of that determination being made solely by a woman and her doctor; I do not believe that the decision to choose abortion in that case should be screened or pre-evaluated by any outside body or over-ridden by any overly restrictive local policies. I do not believe that a woman should have to claim that she was raped in order to be eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that a woman must demonstrate financial, emotional or psychological hardship before being eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that only wealthy women should have the option to seek out a legal abortion. I do not believe that a minor should be required to obtain the consent of her parents/guardians before being eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that a minor should be required to testify in front of a judge before being eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that a woman should require the consent or knowledge of her spouse before being eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that females should be required by law to undergo an invasive medical exam or receive state-approved “educational materials” before being eligible for an abortion. I do not believe that abortion providers should have onerous restrictions placed upon them by hostile state governments.
* (and yes, even though I think the mass consumption of animal products necessarily leads to acts which are cruel and unnecessary, I believe that the choice of what to put into one’s stomach is best left to the individual and I do not advocate that someone paying for a hamburger be charged as an accomplice to murder or cruelty)
** (even though the benefits of vaccination have been demonstrated objectively to outweigh the negatives, I’d rather women were educated and swayed be reason, rather than being forced into taking any vaccinations against their will)
*** (I’m not trying to suggest that these options are somehow equivalent in any way except that they are all means of allowing for a woman to conceive a child. Certain options may carry greater health risks, legal challenges and/or social stigma than other options. For all other options on the list, I am not affirming that the two options are always strictly equivalent or that they carry the same outcomes.)
I want to live in a society where abortion is rare.
I want to live in a society where accurate information about reproductive health (for both men and women) is widespread.
I want to live in a society where all forms of birth control are legal and easily available.
I want to live in a society which values family planning but offers a myriad of options for how to achieve this ideal.
I want to live in a society where women who choose to have many children are not verbally harassed, physically assaulted, or locked in a cage.
I want to live in a society where women who choose to visit an abortion clinic are not verbally harassed, physically assaulted, or locked in a cage.
I want to live in a society that values women and sees them as independent, intelligent beings capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies.
I want to live in a society where women feel free to share their own experiences with miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion and infertility, even though these events are associated with pain and loss. If we only focus on the positive events in life, we are denying a huge part of the human experience. It is also important to realize that pain can coexist with hope and joy, and that we do not all process events in the same way; nor do we all derive the same conclusions from shared experiences.
I want to live in a society that values education over force, empathy over hate, reasoned debate over heated rhetoric, and scientific fact over superstition.
I want to live in a society that is open and tolerant of a wide variety of perspectives.
I want to live in a society where individuals learn to work towards the benefit of all conscious beings.
Since I no longer believe that zygotes and embryos are given souls, or that moral decisions are tied to a specific holy book (which ironically does not equate abortion to murder and does not even prohibit infanticide), I’ve felt much more free to explore other ways of looking at the issue of abortion. The issue of what is a “person” is certainly important. My current view is that “person” is a socially constructed status. There is no hard biological line where one goes from being “bunch of cells” to being “living breathing human.” Rather there is a continuum as our biological growth progresses. At some point we humans arbitrarily draw a line (often many conflicting lines) and say “that’s a person.” I now believe that there are compelling reasons to draw that line at birth, and to recognize someone as having “inherent worth and dignity” as well as their own bodily rights, after they have left the comfort and support of the womb. Others insist on granting full rights (the right to life and freedom from harm) to even single-celled zygotes. Some people place the line somewhere in the middle, possibly at the point at which the embryo has a measurable heartbeat, or the point at which it can react to external stimuli, or the point at which it can “feel” pain (though how exactly to classify the perceptions of fetuses and embryos in utero is contested turf). While I think that the pain experienced by any sentient (that is thinking and feeling) organism does matter, I think that there can be overriding concerns. An organism that feels genuinely threatened by another may choose to inflict injury and pain in order to defend itself (ie, a zebra fighting off a lion). Or, sometimes, the needs and desires of one organism directly conflict with another (mosquitos, ticks and leeches certainly don’t benefit their hosts, despite relying upon them). Thus, even if we can recognize some sense of developing “personhood” in an embryo or fetus, and even if we could pin-point exactly when a clump of cells gains a sense of pain and self-awareness, we would still have to wrestle with how the perceived rights of such a sentient organism (and remember, for all of its wondrous complexity and the joy which it brings us, a fetus in the womb is still not as advanced as many animals) coincides with and sometimes conflict with the rights of a woman over her own body. The fetus takes nourishment at her expense. It exposes her to numerous dangers both immediate and future. After witnessing my wife go through multiple pregnancies I know that raising a child in the womb is no passive experience; in the best circumstances a healthy pregnancy requires active cooperation on the part of the mother, the “host” to the young life within her. When it comes to the conflict between a mother’s right to do as she chooses with her own body (including expelling any organisms within it) and the right of a fetus to naturally pursue life and existence inside and then outside of the womb, I would rather have the mother’s rights be given preeminence. The choice is hers. Outsiders may sometimes regret her decision or see it as hasty, but I am convinced that if we take away control of her own body from her, we are doing her a great harm and this harm appears to me (and many others) to be a far worse evil than the brief suffering endured by even a very aware fetus.
Some further reading:
On being a pro-choice vegan – mounts several arguments against the contemporary pro-life movement and focuses on the bodily autonomy of the woman. This author uses much stronger language than I would prefer to use, but I do appreciate her perspective and how strongly she advocates for her rights as well as the rights of animals.
It’s So Personal – Heartbreaking stories of late-term abortions and considered abortions.
Since deconverting from Christianity, I’ve felt new freedom to explore other faith traditions. My quest isn’t to find a replacement for Christianity, or to exhaust all of the possible supernatural and theistic views one-by-one to see if any of their truth claims are valid (if that was my goal I would never finish!). Instead, my goal is to enrich myself and to learn more about my global neighbors. I want to broaden my perspective of the world and the people in it while applying my critical eye to the religious and philosophical texts that hold deep meaning and comfort for millions.
This is the attitude with which I have approached Taoism since I began studying this ancient philosophical and religious system in 2013. I wasn’t expecting to find anything life-changing, but if I could glean some practical wisdom then all the better.
Here are some basic ideas that reading the Tao Te Ching (two times through) and Chuang Tzu (just once) have instilled in me. This isn’t a comprehensive list of Taoist beliefs, by any stretch. And, it should be noted that my observations and understandings of ancient Taoist philosophy are colored by my Western upbringing; someone raised in a home that practiced Taoism as a religious discipline would likely have a very different perspective. There are also dozens of important Taoist texts which I haven’t read due to their limited availability and translation in the West.
Gleanings from Taoism:
- Don’t be concerned with fame, fortune and influence over others. Focus on developing yourself and meeting your needs before seeking to benefit others with your “wisdom” and leadership. This theme is prevalent in both the Tao Te Ching (TTC) and Chuang Tzu (ZS from here on out, “Zhuangzi” is closer to the actual pronunciation). From my brief research it seems that aristocrats and rulers were the main audience for these works. This makes them similar to the book of Proverbs and it makes sense that in a bronze-age/iron-age society the those few people who were literate, the ones with wealth and power, would have works written for their benefit. Despite being written to people in power, these works emphasize humility when it comes to the pursuit and exercise of power.
- Wu Wei – This is a very deep concept in Taoist thought. I don’t know if I have a good grasp on it, but it is related to the ideals above. Instead of rulers being bossy, tyrannical or moral busy-bodies, rulers are encouraged to practice “wu wei” or “action through inaction.” In the Western world of thought we might call this policy “laissez-faire” though I don’t think the main concern of Taoist sages was economics . The Taoist sages, especially ZS, wanted people to live according to their “inborn nature” and not be forced into habits which were unnatural to them. Sometimes this means that rulers should ignore bad behavior. This concept can be applied more broadly to one’s personal actions and life. Sometimes exerting tons of effort to reach a goal is very fruitless and one would be better off following this principle. Sometimes it’s more productive to act, than not to act.
- Limiting desire – like some other important ancient philosophies, Taoism advises followers of the Way to limit their desires. Fewer desires means less angst and anxiety when those desires are unmet due to factors outside of one’s control. Fewer desires also means less ambition and a life which is able to be preserved more easily. Some of the justification for this is tied up in ancient medicinal knowledge about the yin and yang in one’s body needing to be balanced. I think the principle of not stressing out too much over acquiring new things and new positions is worthy even if the “science” cited by the Taoist sages is no longer valid. Taoism seems to take this concept very far, into a sort of supreme ideal. The “Perfect Man” in Taoism is one who cares very little for their own desires or even their own comfort and this, paradoxically, allows them to gain incredible power and mastery over other men and nature. [Side note – I say men here, because as far as I can tell, ancient Taoism is concerned with male rulers and sages. There are many dialogues in ZS and I can’t recall any dialogue spoken by a woman, though they are occasionally referenced (as wives or concubines) by other characters. I don’t know how much agency women had in ancient China, but I would wager it was not much.]
- Everything is One – Though they are written in very different styles, one of the unifying features of the TTC and ZS is their focus on what they call The Way (the “Tao” in Taoism). What seems to make the Tao special is that it encompasses all of reality. Is it divine? It seems to be, since out of it springs forth creation and a myriad of gods and spirits. But, it is also present in humble things, even “the piss and shit” as ZS says in a rather startling and (to my ears) poetic passage. In the TTC various allusions and illustrations are given to attempt to define the Tao, but ultimately the sage reminds us over and over again that the true nature of the Tao cannot be grasped. It’s an ineffable reality, something more to be experienced than spoken about in long treatises. You can’t buy it or sell it. What I like about The Way in Taoist thought is that it reminds us to pay attention to the little things…don’t scorn the bugs and the dirt and the poor things of the world. Don’t see some things as “beneath” and others as “above” when we all share the same Universe together as living beings. I don’t accept Taoist cosmology because it is tied up with ancient myth and makes many unsupported assertions. In my view what the Tao actually does is indiscernable. It is functionally supernatural and outside of objective perception, though in the texts I read it is not described as a being, a “who” like Thor, Zeus, Yahweh, Baal and the other ancient tribal gods. The “Tao” is more like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or even Plato’s perfect realm of forms. It’s an inaccessible, un-circumscribable thing…or quite possibly everything. The Tao is described as both bringing forth and sustaining all things. There is no requirement to worship it or offer it sacrifices, but rather the expectation is to simply be aware of it and to seek to live one’s life in such a way that finding balance within the Tao becomes natural. Finding balance in this way should lead to inner peace. ZS offers few guarantees though. Some of the “heroes” of his story end up dying tragic deaths despite their humility, their wisdom and their separation from vain pursuits. Loss is inevitable and it seems that the role of the Taoist sage is more to prepare for loss, rather than to try to vainly prevent it.
Photo credit: Jasper van der Meij