Saturday, January 20, 2007

Body Worlds and Respect for the Dead

I remember once reading a Dorothy Sayers mystery where there was a sculptor noted for his lifelike sculptures. It turned out that he wasn't a sculptor at all, but was killing people and preserving their bodies inside of his sculptures. So, you can see, I was already predisposed not to like Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds 2" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Nevertheless, I went--it was a free ticket gotten through my wife's work.

Before I went in, as I was commiserating with another husband who didn't want to see it, a woman who was a personal trainer insisted that we go, and also insisted that we should like it, because it shows the glory of the human body. I tried to argue, first, that I was more interested in the works of the human soul than of the human body, and, second, that those were corpses in the exhibit, which made it problematic for me. She said,"But they gave consent! They donated their bodies." Well, never mind whether one can actually donate one's body as if it is merely an object. Perhaps she was right, and I was merely squeamish.

Upon entry to the exhibit, there were several large banners with quotes from philosophers. I saw one from Nietzsche, one from Epicurus, and one from Seneca. All three had in common the argument that the body is merely a body, and that death is the ceasing of existence. You can apparently buy the posters here. "Death is the release from all pain, and complete cessation," Seneca tells us. Why should an anatomical exhibit have philosophical quotes, and especially these quotes? Perhaps it is to disarm people like me, for whom the "artistic" display of human corpses is distasteful.

In addition to the philosophical quotes, there is a large placard declaring that all the bodies were donated. So, what's my complaint? There are two reasons why I think this exhibit is gruesome, and morally repugnant:

1) The way in which the corpses are displayed. As you go through the exhibit, you can't help thinking that von Hagens and his people are playing with the bodies. They are posed in athletic stances, which could perhaps be construed as educational, but there were several curious poses. A female body was in a yoga pose, leaning back with her skinless breasts pointed upward, topped with obviously fake nipples. It seemed as if they were attempting to be erotic. A male body had been eviscerated in a pattern mimicking a chest of drawers. It's one thing to make use of dissection to teach anatomy; it is another thing to play with the remains of living men and women.

2) I doubt the claims of consent. In fact, I am positively sure that many of the people whose bodies are in the exhibit did not consent. For, as we walked through the exhibit, there was a group of skeletons posed in a family group. Did the child consent? Furthermore, there was an exhibit of embryos in various stages of development: Did they consent? There was a room (which we didn't enter, as we were sick to our stomachs at this point) with fetuses and babies. Did they consent? Clearly not.

Whatever the benefits of anatomical displays, I think Dr. von Hagens' work is seriously morally problematic.

Monday, January 08, 2007

On Free Will and Determinism

The fundamental fact of Christian moral teaching is this: sin is the opposite of free will. We are only free when we are able to do the good. We are free when we can do the true good despite any passions or habits we have leading us to lesser, apparent goods. Get this fact down, and the rest of moral theology makes sense.

I was thinking today how this affects the question of free will versus determinism. If freedom is the opposite of sin, then to be determined is to be enslaved to sin. The question "Is man free?" is wrongly formulated; the question should be "Are you free?" To which I answer, "Kind of. Sort of. Well, not really. I am not free--I do the wrong even when I know what is right. I must admit that I am not free, but I hope to be free someday."

Freedom is not ours by nature, at least not anymore, but it can be, through the grace of God. We aren't free, but we are free to be free; we can ask for help.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Six Weird Things About Me

I've been tagged by Eric, so here goes:

1. I've sung with a big band, for money.
2. I hate ballpoint pens. Hate hate hate. Fountain pens are the way God intended us to write. In fact, if you were taught penmanship by nuns, you have probably been disappointed all these years to have been give instructions that just don't work with ball points. But try a fountain pen; all they said works!
3. I like Bach better than Mozart, and think Beethoven's music tries too hard. Music should court the listener, not overpower him.
4. I never really liked the rosary that much. Shhh! Don't tell my sister-in-law! The Jesus Prayer, on the other hand, rocks.
5. I used to play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.
6. I often wear a stocking cap to bed. It has to do with my lack of hair.

There you go, 6 weird things.

Friday, January 05, 2007

God is unchanging--isn't that boring?

I came across a wonderful passage in Gabriel Marcel's Creative Fidelity concerning the traditional metaphysical predicates applied to God, that he is one, unchanging, eternal, that God does not suffer or need anything, etc. Sometimes when people hear these descriptions, they think that it seems rather limiting. How could God be unchanging? If I were unchanging, and eternal, I think I would be bored out of my mind. Surely it is better to think of a god who can change, who can experience passionate love as we do, or who can suffer with us, isn't it?

In fact there is a flaw in this sort of thinking. We think that what the theologians are doing by applying these predicates is to limit God, to say that God cannot do things. But what is actually going on is that the predicates are negative--they are denying that something limiting applies to God. To say that God is unchanging is not to say that God can't change, but that he need not change, since he is already perfect. To say that God is eternal is not to say that he endures throughout an endless duration of time, but that he is beyond time. Time doesn't even apply. To say that God does not suffer does not make God heartless, it makes him perfectly joyful.

Marcel's passage is worth quoting:
I cannot overstress the fact that theological affirmations as such are a snare; for the "properties" I have just mentioned, if construed as predicates, seem to be the most impoverished that exist; if they are construed as principles of understanding it must be conceded that they are in a sense more inadequate than those which are conferred on the humblest and most ephemeral creature in our world. To achieve that conversion of our outlook which is indispensable, and to reveal what seems an infinite deficiency as the infinite plenitude that it really is, consciousness must, by an act of decisive conversion, sacrifice itself to the One whom it must alone invoke as its Principle, End, and only Resort.

God is plenitude, so much so that to our meager conceptual apparatus, it looks like poverty.