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January 28, 2009
Thoughts on a ‘new beginning,’ and an old truth
A friend of mine begins each new day by praying briefly over the Ten Commandments—and not just each Commandment individually, but also the way in which our tradition structures them.
The first three Commandments outline our relationship with God. The remaining seven proceed from the first three. They establish our duties to one another. There’s a very good reason for this. The First Commandment—I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me—is the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity. All of our Western beliefs about the sanctity of life, human dignity and human rights ultimately depend on a Creator who guarantees them. In other words, we have infinite value because God made us, and no other human being or political authority can revoke that infinite value. Only God is God, and there is no other God but the God of Israel and Jesus. Every other little godling that poses as an answer to human suffering and hope—from Wicca to fortune telling to pop psychology to political messianism to cult spirituality—is finally an impostor and a road away from God’s light. Only God is God. There is no other.
I mention this because we live in an age that sees itself as scientific, reasonable and enlightened. In a sense it is. It’s certainly true that science and technology have improved the quality of life for millions of people. But as C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man” and his novel “That Hideous Strength,” science doesn’t necessarily kill off superstition or barbarism. In fact, the three can get along quite comfortably. As the Christian moral consensus has declined over the past century, and science has made spectacular strides, people haven’t become more logical or morally mature. The opposite has happened. The 20th century was the bloodiest in history, and today the occult is flourishing in developed nations—especially among young people who’ve lost the vocabulary to understand the gravity of the forces they play with. Knowledge is merely knowledge. Power is merely power. Nothing inherent to knowledge or power guarantees that it will translate to wisdom or justice or mercy.
I remembered these things as I read, and reread, some lines from President Obama’s inauguration speech:
“We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.”
I then compared them to the opening words of another text, “Dignitatis Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions,” issued last month by the Holy See:
“The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life, and must be at the center of ethical reflections on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
The world sees our new president as a man of intelligence, confidence and promise. He needs our prayers. He arrives at, and he helped create, an important moment in American history. But what he does with it remains to be seen; and what exactly he means by “[restoring] science to its rightful place” when it comes to embryonic stem cell research and other troubling bioethical issues will help define the moral character of his presidency—or the lack of it.
Only God is God. There is no other. The rightful place of science, like all human activity, is in the service of human dignity, and under the judgment of God’s justice.
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