May 27, 2018

Ireland, Abortion and the iWorld

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The resounding vote in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland is as much a final rejection of the traditional world in which Ireland has been steeped, as it is a triumph of the individualistic world into which Ireland wishes to step.

In his book “Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism”, Dale Kuehne uses the label “tWorld” to describe the traditional, often religious, but always tribally bonded world in which relationships of obligation sit at the centre.

Every decision, individually (whatever that means in such a world), and corporately, are centred around the question “To whom and for what I am responsible in my duty?”  That’s the  narrative of the “tWorld”.

The vote in Ireland did not sweep that “tWorld” away, it merely exposed the fact that it already had been swept away – by the “iWorld”.

The “iWorld” is the world, the culture, the narrative, that has replaced the “tWorld” and its relationships of obligation.  And it’s a feature of late modernity.

The question at the centre of the “iWorld” is around relationships of personal fulfilment. Hence the question being asked of any decision is “How does this affect my rights as an individual  and my goal of attaining happiness and self-actualisation?”

The “tWorld” and the “iWorld” are not simply two different worlds – they are two different universes built upon vastly different, often opposing assumptions about happiness, human flourishing and the goal or telos of life.

Which means you can argue until the Irish cows come home about the intrinsic worth of a human life, but if the framework merely recognised extrinsic worth, there’s no common ground to present your case.

Indeed if extrinsic worth is all we have, then the rights of a fully grown woman with a life, a family, a career, or whatever, clearly overrides any speculation about the value or otherwise of a non-present, non-functioning member of the society.  (To which I would add the caveat, that an unborn baby is more present and more functioning in our society at a deeper and more imaginative way than we can even recognise.)

It’s instructive that the under 25s voted 95 % in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland.  For them there is no “tWorld” to consider.  All they know is the “iWorld”. At one time Ireland’s greatest export was her youth, a youth escaping the strictures of a “tWorld” they had rejected.

Hence the “tWorld” does not merely look like an oddity to such young people, or even a genteel anachronism, but a dangerous throwback to a world in which the Roman Catholic Church captured the social imaginary and priests were Gods who held your salvation in their hands.

And those same priests had also abused children with impunity. The church and the culture it bred forced gay people, artists and revolutionaries to flee the country or live in the closet. And that’s a pretty hard narrative to argue against in Ireland.

In other words we cannot argue the case against abortion as if it were a discrete unit; an ethical dilemma hermetically sealed off from all other decisions and realities. Abortion rights are part of the “iWorld” package, and the Irish vote proved it.

To argue against abortion rights in Ireland was to argue for the historic abuses of the “tWorld”, for as Kuehne admits, there were abuses.  No one really wants to go back to the “tWorld” do they?

Some conservatives think they do, but the nostalgia is far glossier than the reality. Besides they are wedded to the “iWorld” themselves.

I know this because as a church pastor I often find the most vocally conservative people in church are often the most loosely wedded to the local congregation.  They all have projects that take up their time and attention – mostly good and zealous ones that need constant attention – and they view the church as a place to help them realise their dreams.

So like everyone else they shop around for the church that will do for them what the last one failed to do – to take their personal project more seriously than the church’s communal project –  to glory God in Christ as a gathered people, and then be sent out in peace to love and serve God and the world.

It’s as if they feel such mundanities are beneath them, which of course is exactly what they do feel. Such types have simply drunk too much of the “iWorld” Kool Aid without even realising it, yet espouse temperance – indeed abstinence – for everyone else.

This rejection of the “tWorld” abuses came through strikingly in the Irish vote on same sex marriage. As many a religious observer in Ireland pointed out, you could hardly campaign as an Irish priest against same sex marriage on the message “It will be bad for our children.”

What’s most astonishing about Ireland’s decision is how it rides on the back of a number of other major changes in the Emerald Isle in recent decades.

Divorce was only legalised in 1995, but once that change occurred, the rest fell in to place pretty quickly.  Same sex marriage was voted in earlier than the far-less religious Australia managed it, the Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar is openly gay, and now this: An overwhelming vote in favour of abortion in a country that was staunchly Roman Catholic for so long.

All of this indicates the laws of physics – or metaphysics perhaps. However hard in one direction the pendulum swings, it will swing just as hard the other way.

This helps explain why nations with state churches or heavy-handed Catholicism, have embraced a hard secularism more enthusiastically and quickly than others that have no state church.

Hence the Scandinavian countries saw the church’s structure and influence collapse fare quicker than many other nations.

Countries such as Finland, with an 80 per cent membership of the Lutheran Church have seen church attendance plummet in recent years, to the point where up to 60 per cent of the population claims to be agnostic, atheistic, or non-believers.

The UK, with its pomp and circumstance and Church of England, is a far more secular place than Australia.  Its numerous ancient church buildings are now a Disney-esque tourism industry.

And the US?  The most religious of the Western nations where there was no state church and abortion rights were enshrined through the Supreme Court back in 1973? Still highly religious and still strongly divided on abortion. The pendulum swing is crucial.

My Christian framework tells me that abortion is the unlawful taking of a human life – a human life made in the image of his or her Creator, and I use the terms “human”, “his” and “her” deliberately – to personalise the unborn, and to separate their being out from their bearer.

And that’s despite the fact that many an abortionist readily admits to an unborn child being fully human, but balances their rights against the rights of the mother and decides in the mother’s favour – every time.

Yet I’m encouraged that there is a growing ambivalence towards abortion among younger people in Australia.  Much of that is due to the celebrated science and technology that was supposedly going to sweep away the dark art of religious superstition, and make abortion a no-brainer.

Science and technology has done the opposite, especially when one sees the wonder of human life in glorious Technicolor, all thanks to modern imaging.  So there’s a long game being played at the moment.

But I understand the flush of euphoria in Ireland, although I think longterm it is a pyrrhic victory.  I understand the euphoria because I remember sitting on the bus travelling between my staunchly Protestant home town of Portadown in Northern Ireland, heading to the equally staunchly Catholic town of Lurgan just six miles away, and watching the Catholic working class women on the bus as we passed the numerous chapels on the route.

What did those women do?  As the bus bounced along the potted road, they bowed their heads and made the sign of the cross, furtively in front of the Protestants, but with a slight look of awe and fear nonetheless.  Time and time again. And it struck me; this means everything to them, or at least it means something to them that I, as a Protestant  born there, but whose homeland was now Australia, could never fathom. It was the “tWorld” keeping these women in check, and not through love.

Well that “tWorld” was officially swept away in Ireland on Friday.

But amidst the euphoria, or the anguish for those who hold that human life made in the image of God, should not be dispensed with, and not without accountability before Him, it’s worth hearing what Kuehne says about the “iWorld” that has rushed to fill the vacuum.

Kuehne says this:

Despite the promises, the culture is not delivering. Two of the primary difficulties facing people in our culture are loneliness and insecurity.

By “the culture” Kuehne means the “iWorld” – a world which Ireland has been voting for with great elan these past two decades in a crazy game of catch up.

And catch up they will.  It will take time, but they will catch up.

Kuehne doesn’t leave us hanging on the edge of the “iWorld”.  Instead his book proffers an “rWorld”, a relational world built upon Christian community, in which the church takes its place as a creative minority on the edge of the culture offering hope and meaning to the lonely and insecure; to those who have found that the dreams of the “iWorld” never fully delivered.

The “rWorld” will offer some of the stability of the “tWorld”, while recognising the good – and the bad – of the “iWorld”, and it will do so in a humbler, gentler, and dare I say it, weirder way.

What might that “weird” look like?  Stanley Hauerwas’s observation that the primary things Christians may be known for in the West in the future will be their passionate care for their unborn and their elderly.

What? No megachurches?  No Christian albums in the Top Ten on iTunes? No Christian conventions?  No religious politicians enshrining faith-based laws?  Just a way of living towards the weakest and most vulnerable in our culture that confounds the hard edges of the “iWorld”?

Doesn’t sound like a lot does it? But given that this secular experiment hasn’t bottomed out yet, those small goals might – in time – stand out like beacons in a cold, dark “iWorld” that has promised its children so much, yet will end up delivering them so little.




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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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