June 24, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
"Love never ends."
1 Corinthians 13:8a
What do a 17th-century Jesuit priest and a 21st-century bioethicist have in common? More than you might think.
In Roland Joffe’s, The Mission, Jesuit priests journey to South America to evangelize a tribal people known as the Guarani, who live embedded in the high tropical forests of what is now Brazil. Father Gabriel, the leader of the missionary team and played by Jeremy Irons, makes his first overture to the tribe, not with words or supplies but with the lilting sounds of an oboe. The tribe soon comes to trust the courageous but gentle priest. In time he and his order establish a thriving mission.
Fr. Gabriel’s efforts take place amid the colonial wrangling of Spain and Portugal. When Spain cedes to Portugal the territory in which the mission exists, the Portuguese see the missions as impediments to the development of their economic interests; the peoples now organized into fledgling Christian communities would serve well as slaves.
A fierce debate emerges among the priesthood in how best to protect the mission and the people who comprise it. While many of Fr. Gabriel's men opt for resistance by force, Fr. Gabriel himself insists that violence only compromises the very convictions they're trying to protect. He summarizes his position in a succinct, impassioned phrase: “If might is right, then love has no place in this world.”
Peter Singer is a renowned and outspoken bioethicist at Princeton University. He holds to a naturalistic worldview in which reality is comprised of only the material. To him the soul and the spiritual dimension are only human inventions. He proceeds from the ranks of those who consider themselves, as Richard Dawkins put it, “intellectually fulfilled atheists.” In that, Singer is unremarkable.
What distinguishes him is the extent to which he fleshes out his atheism and naturalism into the social sphere. In the absence of a transcendent authority, one’s evolutionary advantage becomes determinative in the assigning of rights. From a cognitive-development standpoint, some animals demonstrate much earlier awareness than humans. That’s why Singer thinks it reasonable to suspend so-called rights to infants until they are at least a month old. Parents ought to be given the right, he argues, to dispense with their infant child on the basis of their minimal fortitude and extensive dependence—characteristics that deem their survival advantage comparatively low. Singer's world considers the concept of might—in the sense of the ability to survive and outlast—as more valuable than love as a foundation for society.
As haunting as that vision might be for many, observers like Dinesh D'Souza note that at least Singer is being an “intellectually honest atheist.” If there is no rational basis for being disadvantaged for the sake of another, which could be one definition of love, then might carries the day. Love becomes another human invention whose place in this world would be established on purely arbitrary grounds.
What Fr. Gabriel and Peter Singer have in common is the belief that a single concept foundational to the ordering of a society. But that’s the extent of their agreement. They articulate radically different visions for that society, the implications of which could not be more disparate.
Mark has led us through [Sunday's sermon] a patient review of Paul’s vision for society, the one based on love—not just any love though, the love articulated and demonstrated by no less than Jesus. Rather than trying to vanquish, love bears all things. Instead of dismissing what is ostensibly unfruitful, love hopes and believes all things. Love endures all things rather than cratering, faltering, or retaliating. It’s that vision for society, Jesus argues, that bodes well for its flourishing.
Now, descending from the lofty heights of cinema and academia, why consider such dramatic and provocative ideas? Because, perhaps more than we’d like to admit, our hearts are ordered more toward Singer’s vision for society than Father Gabriel’s. We tend to be more about self-preservation than self-abnegation. We think, speak, and act with designs toward supremacy instead of servitude. We regard one another more often as means to our ends, rather than as those with a dignity conferred them by God. It’s not just society that hangs in the balance of whether love or might reigns; our own little societies do, too—our marriages and families, our friendships and neighborhoods, our churches and small groups.
If love never ends—if it is intended and destined to endure—you and I have to check our hearts often for when love recedes into the background of our preference for asserting our own importance. Our self-interest may not lead us to follow Singer’s outlandish proposal, but it can still incur regrettable loss and damage.
And that’s why we have to keep in view the One who asserted love’s supremacy most supremely. He exercised His might in the cause of love. We must dwell often on Him who kept love’s vision firmly in place and then depend on His Spirit to strengthen such love in us. Then love, whose place Jesus firmly established in this world, will have its place in us.