Rending the Seamless Garment: Introduction


Nor will this Earth serve him [Death]; he sinkes the deepe

where harmless fish monastique silence keepe,

who (were death dead) by roes of living sand

might spunge that element and make it land.

John Donne, “Elegie on Mistris Bulstrode

John Donne reminds us of a natural fact that most of us would rather forget: the necessity of death.  On this earth, life without death would be poetry without rhythm: limitless and therefore pointless.  Without sex and death, life might have evolved into one great superorganism, immortal as well as immoral, resembling the modern pantheists’ conception of Gaia, the vast living eco-system and planetary consciousness of which each human individual makes an infinitesimal part.

Donne was no pantheist but a Christian whose respect for harmless fish would have been limited to their edibility and their symbolic utility as an anagram for Iesous Christos Theos Soter.  The proliferation of fish qua  fish (or condors qua condors) has little appeal for any Christian less tender-hearted than St. Francis, who preached sermons to birds and addressed the fire that burned his flesh as “brother.”  

“Mere existence” of any kind, for the Christian, is never the issue, though a fearful Samuel Johnson once declared that it was “so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain than not exist.”  Death is central to the Christian creed: it is punishment for sin.  Christ himself endured the torments of death in order to redeem mankind, and each of us must die in order to gain eternal life.

 “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.  He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”  [John 12:24-25]

It is death that makes life so precious.  Even Adam and Eve, without knowing it, lived under the shadow of the death that might come to them if they rebelled against their creator, and some protoplasmic earth-blob that were to go on growing throughout eternity would endure an existence without moral significance.  It is the moral dimension of life that makes it sacred to the Christian.  St. Thomas speaks of man’s rational life or soul as the quality distinguishing him from the beasts, and some libertarian philosophers (e.g. Tibor Machan) have concluded that it is reason that must be protected.  Since unborn babies and the mentally defective are no more rational than fish, their lives would not necessarily be covered by prohibitions against murder, while computers (if one accepts the fiction of artificial intelligence) might some day possess a higher right to life than human beings of ordinary intelligence.  

But for Christians, reason is significant only because it enables people to make moral choices.  Birds and beasts--one is tempted to throw in certain professors of philosophy--are not moral creatures, even potentially; the fact of their low intelligence is incidental, and if we are occasionally obliged to preserve their lives or protect them from suffering, it is an obligation we owe not to them but to ourselves and to the God who created birds and beasts and immoral sophists.  

Up to a certain age (somewhere between 12 and 20) children, whether born or unborn, are not capable of moral reasoning.  However, strangling a  fifth-grader for impudence or aborting an unborn baby on the grounds of inconvenience are not moral options, because as human beings our children have the potential capacity for making moral choices.  Computers, on other the hand, whatever analytical “skills” have been injected into them by their inventors,  are not moral beings; indeed, they are not beings at all, and when science fiction writers endow them with human qualities, it is only to diminish our sense of the human.  The diminishing border-line between man and machine was one of the themes of 20th century fiction, from Karl Capek’s RUR to Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

There is no unqualified right to life, even to human life.  Human life per se is precious and is to be preserved but within certain limits and not “at all costs.”  By committing sins we earn, once again, the wages of sin that our original parents passed down to us, and whatever a Christian might think about the inhumanity of the death penalty, no philanthropic illusion should blind him to what the cold-blooded murderer has deserved by carrying out his decision to take an innocent life.

Next:  The highly unchristian opposition to capital punishment from Catholic theologians in rebellion against the traditions of their own Church.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

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