Jesus v. Abortion

They Know Not What They Do

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Charles K. Bellinger
Theopolitical Visions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2016.
     352 pages.
     $41.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498235051.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Theologian and violence theorist Charles K. Bellinger’s book engages Jesus epigraphically rather than exegetically. Reading French philosopher of social science René Girard’s theories alongside Søren Kierkegaard, he argues that the abortion debate has disintegrated on all sides into an unwinnable contest of secular rights claims that masks a more basic problem: how deeply violence is ingrained in individuals and societies. In particular, he holds that people are fundamentally immature and individualistic, resistant to accepting the challenge of personal spiritual growth (he deploys “dimensional anthropology” to argue that mature persons balance attention to God vertically, to others horizontally, and to self). He argues that people attempt to fill the resulting inner emptiness by imitating others’ desires and quests. This effort puts them in jealous competition with others, which leads them to anger and a desire for violence. Especially when they are in groups, they focus this anger and desire on external scapegoats whom they can blame for their internal dissatisfaction. Nazism and Stalinism are two grand examples of this phenomenon, but according to Bellinger the pattern repeats in abortion (135).

Bellinger builds his argument on a double foundation: (1) a strict moral realism inspired by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas; and (2) a theological anthropology of fundamental human sinfulness (113, 234-36). This combination, yoked with the idea of spiritual maturation mentioned above, allows Christian moral standards to develop by becoming more inclusive (i.e., more mature and less selfish) over time, but it also implies that there are no true gray areas in ethics. For instance, there are “contending worlds” (6): either one is a realist, responding to the world and the moral guidance given by God in creation, or one is a nominalist, inventing moral values and interpretive schemes at will. Similarly, any experience of moral regret indicates that one’s action was fundamentally wrong (137); he implies that all good actions leave agents regret-free. Historians of thought will see many foundational moves that resemble the thought of Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (1993). In addition, engaging with contemporary questions of rights and the law, Bellinger embraces the political theological point that Western political concepts like rights arise from Christian theology. He adds an evangelical claim that this origin makes Jesus the true, ongoing “core of the social imaginary” (84). Western secular understandings of rights will implode, he suggests, if severed from the spiritual, theological substrate in which they originally grew.

Along the way Bellinger raises several important critiques of both pro-choice and pro-life arguments. From his pro-life perspective, he worries about the apparent pro-choice reduction of freedom to absolute individual autonomy; the contradiction of supporting abortion while affirming the otherwise-widening circle of human rights (he sees no feminist way to argue that the fetus is not yet a human life worthy of protection); the limitations and liabilities of rights language; and individualism generally. He also worries about typical pro-life arguments: the contradiction of embracing the violence of capital punishment and war while protecting unborn life from violence, as well as too-facile comparisons between the Holocaust and American slavery on the one hand, and abortion on the other (he argues that equating the victims is sloppy, but the perpetrators’ dynamic is similar). 

Bellinger’s book would be more accessible if it interacted more succinctly and selectively with its expansive bibliography. It is also chaotically organized. Several chapters are assemblages of short pieces that are only implicitly connected, many of them summarizing other works. The book frequently loops back to repeat previous arguments without deepening them. The lack of a topical index (there is a name index) makes it difficult to retrace these multiple appearances of related arguments. These qualities, together with its “dear reader” tone (e.g., 129), limit its usefulness for graduate and undergraduate teaching. 

Methodologically, placement of Pilate’s trial of Jesus at the fulcrum of Western history (178) and his embrace of Girard’s theological theory of the stages of history (308-309) blur the distinctions between theology and history just as his discussion of rights blurs the boundaries between theology and law. Male scholars whose positions can be discerned in the arguments of the contemporary sexual justice movement are cited but not truly engaged (214-15); neither is that movement. Finally, despite Bellinger’s argument that individualism lies at the root of pro-choice violence, he seeks an equally individualistic solution: personal conversion. 

Bellinger identifies genuine problems with both US pro-choice and pro-life arguments. Unfortunately he does not deliver a coherent alternative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cristina Traina is Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
October 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil (2001), The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence (2008), and The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: And Other Essays on Violence and Christian Faith (2010).

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