Sunday, 20 June 2010

Maternal Mortality and Deepwater Horizon

Naomi Klein wrote a brilliant article in yesterday's Guardian: 'Gulf Oil Spill: a hole in the world'. Here's a taste of what she says, in an article which acknowledges its debt to Carolyn Merchant's 1980 book, The Death of Nature:

Thankfully, many are standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us.
John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen", he observed what many had felt: "The Gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "we are haemorrhaging". Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop". And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.
And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.
When I read that, I remembered what happened when I had a sudden haemorrhage late in my fourth pregnancy, and the strange feeling of helplessness as blood pumped from my body. I often reflect on the fact that, had I not been in a modern hospital equipped to perform an emergency caesarean, I would have lain there bleeding until my baby and I were both dead. Is that how Mother Earth feels right now, I wonder?

But there's an added twist. I was living in Zimbabwe, and my life was saved because I was a relatively rich expatriate who could afford to give birth in a private hospital. Although maternal mortality rates have improved significantly in the last decade, the most recent figures released by the World Health Organisation show that 343,000 women a year still die through causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, 99% of them in the world's poorest countries. Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world in which to give birth - a statistic which reflects shamefully on our military interventionists who after so many years of violent and incompetent meddling have done nothing to improve those women's lives. But apart from Afghanistan, it is African countries which cluster near the bottom. Zimbabwe is 164 out of 181.

So what's the connection with Deepwater Horizon? A few weeks ago, The Guardian carried a bleak report about environmental damage done by oil spills around the world as a result of the poor safety standards and exploitative policies of the major oil companies. In the Niger delta, the activities of the oil company Shell are estimated to have resulted in at least 2,000 sites requiring treatment because of oil pollution. Morever, 'Independent oil and environmental experts estimate that between 9m and 13m barrels of oil have been spilt in the delta area during the past 50 years – equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster every 12 months.'

In other words, 'Mother Earth' suffers in the same way that ordinary mothers suffer, in silent and ongoing anguish in the poorer countries where nobody knows and nobody cares, although her misery far outstrips the occasional well-publicised emergency in the richer countries. And yet rich mothers still sometimes die in childbirth, and sudden haemorrhage remains a significant cause of maternal mortality even in well-equipped hospitals. Sometimes, nature outstrips our best technology. That individual mothers sometimes die giving birth may be a fact of life, even if we smooth out every economic injustice and save many more than we do today. But if we destroy the maternal body upon which we all depend, if the Earth herself bleeds to death, what then? In this case, even as the people of the Gulf despair, perhaps the one small consolation is that this maternal crisis is happening in a country rich enough and powerful enough to take action.

It may be that it's not too late, but soon it will be. We have a placental relationship to the Earth, and if we poison that life-giving body or rip open its arteries, we too are doomed.

How long until a political leader emerges who is brave enough to acknowledge that it's not Britain that's broken - it's our very way of being human, and much of that has to do with our economic system and the capitalist ideology which underpins it. We are careering downhill on an ambulance that has lost its brakes, while the mechanics are fiddling with the dashboard trying to work out how to dim the lights.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Art, Mystery and Wonder

On Monday, 7th June I gave the address at the annual Service for Artists of the Royal Academy of Arts, at St. James's Church, Piccadilly. I've pasted the text here, but for the formatted version with references and footnotes, please go to my website.

 When Christianity was an emergent religion in the Roman Empire, some of its early theologians thought that there could be no possible conversation between the Bible and Greek philosophy. In the second century, Tertullian famously asked, ‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The answer he expected was ‘nothing at all’. But he lost the argument, and as a result the Christian understanding of God owes as much to the philosophers of the ancient world as it does to the biblical authors.

This means that we in the West worship the God of reason, even when we no longer believe in God. Rationality became the defining characteristic of God and of the creature made in the image of God – the human. It’s little wonder that, when Immanuel Kant dispensed with the notion of a personal God, reason took the place of the divine as the guiding light of our being in the world.

That was the era known as the Enlightenment, when in the eighteenth century western Europe shrugged off its various religious identities – Christianity had by that time fractured into a multitude of warring parties, never having been terribly good at coalitions – and embarked upon the road of science, reason and progress. Today, many still put their faith in that dream of progress, believing that science will deliver us from evil and give us each day our daily bread, if only we can resist being led into temptation by religion with its ignorance, violence and fanaticism.

But as we count the cost of our dreams of progress, we might do well to wonder about this rational god in whose image we are made. Beneath the veneer of rationality, we are beginning to sense a terrifying madness in our way of being in the world.

Is it possible that we’ve got it all wrong? What if we are made in the image, not of the God of reason but of the God of creation? What if it’s not rationality but creativity that marks our species out as unique among the other animals with which we share this fragile and wonderful world? How might that change our understanding of humanity, and indeed of God?

If we set aside the God of reason and turn to the God of the Bible, we encounter a very different God – a God who creates and destroys, a God who thunders and cries out, a God who weeps and grieves, a God who loves with a tender love and who desires with a passionate desire, a God who speaks not in syllogisms, arguments, premises and propositions, but in music and psalms, in the unfolding of human history, in metaphors of feasting and hunger, of eroticism and mourning. In other words, we encounter a God who looks rather more like an artist at work in her studio than a philosopher at work in the university. So, without denying the importance of reason in enabling us to steer our way through this chiaroscuro world with its choices and decisions, what happens if we expand our idea of what it means to be made in the image of a God whose creative mystery far exceeds all our powers of reason and comprehension?

The Bible opens with God creating the world, with a spirit that broods over the darkness and kindles the cosmos into being, and it was very good. When Jesus seeks to reassure his followers, he directs their attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. When he laments over Jerusalem, he likens himself to a mother hen, brooding over her chicks. When the psalmist seeks the God his heart desires, he looks to the hills and he compares himself to the deer that pants for running water. When he sees the stars and the oceans, the forests and the mountains, his heart overflows with the wonder of God. And when God challenges Job in the midst of his anguish, he speaks out of the whirlwind and points to the grandeur of creation.

The Book of Job has inspired countless writers and artists, with its contemplation on the mystery of suffering and the impossibility of searching the mind of God. It offers us a disturbing picture of Job as a good man who loses everything he cherishes most – livelihood, family, health – because it seems he is the victim of a wager between Satan and God. Job’s friends are the philosophers who try to make him see reason, offering various spectacularly unhelpful suggestions and explanations as to why Job’s life has been plunged into chaos – as friends are wont to do, sometimes. Maybe God is teaching you a lesson, Job. Maybe you’ve brought it on yourself, Job. Are you sure you haven’t screwed up, Job? But that extract we heard in the reading is God’s response to Job. Look at creation, and accept the mystery that you are part of.

Surely, that is the vocation of the artist? To gaze in wonder on the world until that transcendent mystery begins to emerge in all its anguish and glory? To release from the forms and matter of nature that enigmatic other coiled within, to allow it to speak and to reveal itself through the textures and surfaces of canvas and oil, of marble and clay, of pigment and paint? To liberate it into the space between sight and silence, touch and absence, invoking the unspeakable, unnameable other and persuading it to come forth into the space of contemplation and insight, of wonder and terror?

If you go to Binham Priory Church in Norfolk, you’ll see a medieval wall painting of Christ the Man of Sorrows, partially obscured by the biblical texts which were painted over it in the Reformation. It’s a cliché to say that a picture paints a thousand words, but clichés are sometimes only truths that we’ve used too often. Let me read you Michael Begley’s description of the Binham image:
Christ is shown standing, holding a cross. A gold cape is fastened at the neck but falls back to reveal his wounds from which blood streams. Devotion to the five wounds of Christ was a huge cult throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages. ... It was the sinfulness of human beings that had inflicted those wounds, and yet it was by the same wounds that man was saved. The bleeding wounds were seen as wells of God's grace and mercy. The wound in Christ's side was particularly venerated as it gave access to His heart.
The image gives immediate access to the deepest doctrines of the Christian faith, and even the most eloquent words can only blunder in by way of explanation. This is particularly important when we remember that most people who participated in those medieval devotions were illiterate. To paint a text over an image is an act of high cultural elitism, in a society where only the few can read.

When the reformers turned their backs on art and sacramentality, when they denied to our human senses the capacity to touch, taste, see, hear and smell the grace of God shivering and shimmering in the created world, they unwittingly set us along a path of disgrace, a path which would lead to the ruination we are now unleashing on the natural world. In his poem, The Incarnate One, Edwin Muir expresses something of what was lost:
The windless northern surge, the sea-gull's scream,
And Calvin's kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd's dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
Today, institutionalised Christianity is gaining ground only in its more extreme and dogmatic forms. It has largely lost the capacity to nurture sacramental visions of grace discovered in nature, art and creativity, although we should not underestimate how many artists, musicians and writers continue to draw water from the wells of the Christian faith. Indeed, if those wells were really to run dry, not only would much of our cultural heritage be lost, for we would lack the religious literacy to interpret it, but might the very sources of inspiration evaporate, burned off in the cold white blaze of rationality stripped of wonder, awe and mystery?

George Steiner, literary critic and agnostic Jew, refers to ‘the one question ineradicable in man: Is there or is there not God? Is there or is there not meaning to being?’ He writes of great art being ‘touched by the fire and the ice of God’, even in our own era of ‘vexed modernity’ when
it is not a forgetting which is instrumental, but a negative theism, a peculiarly vivid sense of God’s absence or, to be precise, of His recession. The ‘other’ has withdrawn from the incarnate, leaving either uncertain secular spoors or an emptiness which echoes still with the vibrance of departure.’
Peter Fuller, the atheist art critic who acknowledged a debt to Steiner, similarly insisted that art is only possible before an open horizon of transcendent possibility. He wrote of the ‘palpable and yet mysterious presence of art itself’ and of the crisis created for art and cultural life by the experience described in Matthew Arnold’s poem of ‘“the long-withdrawing roar” of “the Sea of Faith” and the exposure of the naked shingles of the world’.

In this wilderness of contemporary faith, might we seek a revival of meaning in art? As a society, we have lost our appetite for church-going, and yet religious art and music still attract vast crowds. One need only think of the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery, or last year’s Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. Can we discern the shadowy contours of an emergent artistic sensibility, capable of opening the postmodern mind to the mystery which is woven into the fabric of creation and expresses itself through the creativity of the artist open to the creative otherness of God? In asking this, I am suggesting that great art is sacramental in its capacity to overcome the dualism between spirit and body, creator and creation, by weaving a sense of transcendent and unknowable otherness into the materiality of the world, thus rendering opaque the density of objects and bodies so that a luminous eternity glistens within them.

Art has no power to change the world, for great art exerts a different kind of power – not the power of violence and revolution, but the potent vulnerability of imagination and memory, of mourning and of hope. To quote John Updike, ‘The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. ... That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy.’ Art is powerless in itself, and yet it stands as an obstacle in the path of every destructive and oppressive force. That is why every tyrant and ideologue has sought to silence or to control the artistic imagination.

Art is a form of expression in which the quest for truth breaks free of the struggle for domination. It opens up spaces for the exploration of truth in a different idiom, in which many visions and voices co-exist. The Czech writer Milan Kundera suggests that, ‘Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them.’

In these imaginary journeys to chart unknown lands, we can all be seekers after truth along the pathways of art. Of course, art alone will not feed the hungry nor clothe the naked, but it may answer to a deeper need than our basic physical needs. It may be of the very essence of our humanity that we hunger for beauty as much as we hunger for food, and those who seek to do good in the world must be providers of beauty as well as of food to those in need.

There is an extract from a diary in London’s Imperial War Museum, written by one of the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen:
It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived ... that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick.
I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and in her hand was a piece of lipstick.

At last someone had done something to make them individuals again; they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. ...

That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
Today, our humanity is under threat from many directions, as we are squeezed between the encroaching pressures of an inhumane technocracy on the one hand, and a looming natural catastrophe on the other. Religion becomes part of this dehumanising process, when it privileges dogma over mystery, truth over wonder, law over love. But the Christian religion, like many others, has always found its most expressive and eloquent voice, not through philosophy and theology but through art and music, poetry and literature. Perhaps it’s the vocation of the artist today to give us back our humanity, by reminding us that we are creatures of beauty and transcendence, capable of discerning the eternal within the ephemeral, the infinite within the finite, if only we know how to look.

Let me end with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem to the grandeur of God, which has a prophetic poignancy for those of us who watch in helpless sorrow as nature drowns in torrents of oil:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Abortion, Tradition and Compassion

The following article written by me appeared in today's Tablet, which carried three pieces on the controversy surrounding the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for her part in the decision to abort an eleven week foetus to save a mother's life:

The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride has embroiled the Catholic Church in yet another scandal, at least in the American media. Sister Margaret, a senior administrator in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Phoenix, Arizona, was on a committee that agreed to the termination of an eleven week pregnancy to save the life of the mother. The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, announced that Sister Margaret was automatically excommunicated for agreeing to an abortion. His Communications Office subsequently explained that ‘The mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s’, and added that not only Sister Margaret but all those involved in the decision were automatically excommunicated.

Some would argue that these teachings are the necessary rigours of a Church which must oppose any deliberate ending of innocent human life. The ethical reasoning behind this is that one may not do evil that good might result, and it has its roots in the belief that the moral value of an action lies in its intention. That is why the Church’s teaching also supports the doctrine of double effect. An action with a good intention might have an unintended but unavoidable negative side effect, in which case it might be morally justified. So, a procedure could be performed with the intention of saving a mother’s life which indirectly caused the death of the foetus (for example, by removing the cancerous womb of a pregnant woman), but the direct, intentional killing of the foetus can never be condoned, even to save the mother’s life.

This kind of argument may appeal to those who value moral absolutes over ambiguity, but many of us regard dilemmas such as the one confronting Sister Margaret and her colleagues as being too complex for formulaic judgements. The intention in this case was not to kill the child but to save the mother, and some may regard the distinction between directly and indirectly destroying the foetus as of little ethical relevance in situations of such tragic complexity. Moreover, many of us are astounded that a hierarchy which has shown such incompetence and moral ambivalence in its handling of the sex abuse crisis, and which has shown greater concern for its own members than for the lives of young people in its care, can act with such ruthless decisiveness with regard to abortion.

But there are grounds for reconsidering the Catholic Church’s present position on abortion by appealing to the wisdom of its own tradition, which is less rigid than the present hierarchy would have us believe. The claim that all abortion is tantamount to murder finds little support in pre-modern theology. Until the late nineteenth century there was widespread debate as to the morality of early and late abortion, with a widespread consensus that early abortion was a less grave sin than late abortion. This was informed by the belief that ‘ensoulment’ was not simultaneous with conception, but that the early foetus went through various stages of pre-human development before it acquired a soul and became fully human. Moreover, while debates about the sinfulness of early abortion were sometimes concerned with the unborn child, they often focused more on the sexual morality of the pregnant woman.

The idea of ensoulment serves as a reminder that the coming into being of a human person is not an instantaneous event but a gradual process, not only in terms of the biological process of fertilisation, implantation and cellular division, but also in terms of the developing consciousness of the mother and her relationship to the child. Given that in Christian theology the understanding of personhood is fundamentally relational because it bears the image of the triune God, it is hard to see how an embryo can be deemed a person before even the mother enters into a rudimentary relationship with it. As many as one in four pregnancies may spontaneously abort during the first eight weeks of pregnancy, often without the woman knowing that she was pregnant. It is morally nonsensical to attribute personhood to the contents of the womb in such situations and, as some Catholic ethicists point out, the logical corollary of this position is that a woman should baptise every menstrual period – just in case.

As a result of abandoning the distinction between early and late abortion, modern Catholicism has become the most absolutist of the world’s religions on this issue. Both Islam and Judaism teach that the life of a woman always takes precedence over that of the unborn child. In less clear-cut situations, they adopt casuistic approaches in which principled opposition to abortion is weighed against particular circumstances, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. So, for example, a fatwa was issued which allowed Muslim victims of the Serbian rape camps to have early abortions. This casuistic method of moral reasoning has much in common with the pre-modern Catholic tradition.

It is right that the Church should be a voice of conscience which speaks out against the commodification of human life, and this must include a concern for abortion. Britain’s abortion rates remain unacceptably high – even although there has been a downward trend in recent years – and it is hard not to conclude that abortion is sometimes used as a form of contraception. This does not, however, lend support to those who argue that contraception is responsible for high abortion rates. Statistics show that, when women have ready access to contraception and abortion laws are liberal, as in northern and western Europe, abortion rates are lower than in the largely Catholic countries of Central and South America, despite the fact that abortion in such countries is often illegal and poses a significant risk to a woman’s life. If the Catholic hierarchy seeks to defend the dignity of all human life – including women’s lives – it would do well to pay more attention to what actually works and what does not work in terms of reducing the incidence of maternal mortality and abortion. In this respect, it is regrettable that Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, refers repeatedly to issues of reproduction and abortion but it makes no mention at all of maternal mortality, despite the fact that nearly 350,000 women die every year of childbirth-related causes, 99% of them in the world’s poorest countries. An estimated 60,000 of these are abortion-related deaths. This suggests that outlawing abortion, far from saving lives, drives desperate women to risk their own lives rather than continuing with unwanted pregnancies.

These are complex issues and they do not lend themselves to easy answers. However, not least among the many challenges facing the Catholic hierarchy is the urgent need to respect the moral authority of women themselves in these areas. It is unacceptable in today’s world that a religious hierarchy made up exclusively of celibate men should claim the right to make authoritative decisions regarding these most intimate areas of women’s lives. If it is to have any moral credibility in the modern world, the magisterium must include women theologians and ethicists in the formulation of its teachings and doctrines.

To acknowledge that there are cases when early abortion is the lesser of two evils is not to be pro-abortion, any more than to acknowledge that sometimes war may be a necessary evil means that one is pro-war. There is a pro-life position which refuses all forms of violence, including abortion and war, and it finds near-unanimous support in the very early Christian tradition. If one really believes that the intentional taking of innocent life is never permitted, then surely one must be pacifist as well as anti-abortion, given that the methods of modern warfare mean that the vast majority of casualties of war are now civilians? This pro-life position also entails a commitment to martyrdom if necessary – the martyrdom of a woman who accepts a pregnancy which poses a potentially deadly threat to her own life, or the martyrdom of a person who chooses to die rather than kill when confronted by an aggressor. But martyrdom cannot be imposed, it has to be willingly accepted, and to insist that the life of a young mother of four existing children should be sacrificed to preserve an eleven week foetus would strike many as a particularly brutal form of imposed martyrdom. There has to be greater wisdom and compassion in the ways in which the Catholic hierarchy responds to the kind of moral dilemmas faced by Sister Margaret and her colleagues.