Friday, August 01, 2008

Check Your Premises

I'm told that Ayn Rand was wont to tell people to check their premises. With this in mind, I recently read this essay. The essayist angrily accuses a large group of people of being irrational in their response to the mishandling of a cracker. I agree that it is irrational for people to get upset about a cracker.

However, there's more to this story than just a cracker. I do not believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. But I do understand the doctrine. In short, it claims that the elements of the Lord's Supper, bread and whine, are transformed by the priest's recitation of the rite into the body and blood of Christ.

It is one thing to mishandle a cracker. It is another thing to mishandle the body of Christ. Whereas the essayist signifies the flap as concerning a cracker, millions of Catholics and Orthodox Christians would claim what was once a cracker is no longer a cracker. To them, the flap is over desecration of the body of Christ. If you desecrate a cracker it is one thing, but if you desecrate the body of Christ that is another thing entirely.

Catholic ire is premised upon the mishandling of the body of Christ. The essayist chooses not to recognize the significance of Christ in the elements of the Lord's Supper.

A Catholic friend who pointed this essay out to me is greatly exercised at the essayist's insensitivity. And I sympathize with him. He also made dark hints that violence might be directed against the desecration.

I don't believe in transubstantiation. But if I did, I would not be as ired as the Catholics seem to be. Christ is either living or dead; either capable of taking care of himself or powerless beyond the activism of his Church. I happen to believe in the former.

In Old Testament times, the prophets of Ba'al contested with the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel. The contest was simple: Here's an altar with a sacrifice upon it, let the deity that really exists set it afire. As you may recall, the prophets of Ba'al got themselves into a lather to no effect, whereas Elijah poured water on the altar and made sure that only God could get the credit. And then fire came from heaven and burnt everything up. In this we see contrasted the religion of dead idols and the religion of a living God.

Thus, I see Christ as more than capable of protecting himself from, or responding forcefully to, any desecration. I think members of the Roman church are responsible to take every reasonable measure to maintain the integrity of their rites and relics. But this stops short of unethical measures. Islam is the religion of riots and murders over a rumored desecration.

This reminds me of another situation where people attach different significances objects. Consider a cluster of a few thousand cells. I've a pro-abortion friend who considers this cluster of a few thousand cells "a bit of goo." Conversely, when this cluster of cells is a fetus I regard it as constituting a human being with rights. I was pro-choice until I signified the fertilized ovum as a distinct human life whereupon I became pro-life.

I think that people who think that fetuses are humans with rights are obligated to take every reasonable measure to secure the rights of such powerless individuals. But this stops short of bombing abortion clinics or shooting abortionists. Such actions are not pro-life.

Partisan arguments about the cracker and the bit of goo are so bitter because each side starts with different premises and reasons from there to conclusions that the other side is populated by demons or madmen. For this reason, we each have to acknowledge our own premises and those of our interlocutors. Humans are by-and-large reasonable creatures. We have the ability to reason from the other fellow's premises. I think we should do so periodically to remind ourselves that the fellows on the other side are not demons.

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