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Dueling ideas of reality

Carl R. Trueman | American disunity goes much deeper than politics


Activists rally in Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons

Dueling ideas of reality

Given the very real possibility of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, progressives in California are already lobbying to make the state a safe-haven for women wanting to terminate their pregnancies.

California rarely disappoints when it comes to radical progressive overreaction, but on this matter the state is in one sense representative of the United States as a whole. Yes, the proposal is extreme and divisive; but as such it simply indicates what is going to happen when the Supreme Court decision on the Dobbs case is announced—the country will be radically divided in its response.

It is common today to hear that the United States is politically divided in a way that it has not been for many generations. Yet that claim, while arguably true, is also remarkably superficial. And responses to the Dobbs decision will demonstrate that fact.

To say we are politically divided is to miss the real problem: We have no agreed-upon understanding of reality upon which we can sustain a unified society.

The division in the United States may manifest itself politically, but it is much deeper than politics. And abortion exposes this division like nothing else in our contemporary context. Abortion is a debate about human personhood and that is, in turn, a debate about the nature of reality or, to use the philosophical jargon, metaphysics. Metaphysics is an opaque word but, to translate it into simple terms, it comes down to this: Does the world have a meaning that transcends the individual and which we as individuals must discover to know who we are? Or is the world just raw material from which we, as individuals, create our own meaning by acts of will and unconstrained choice?

When it comes to abortion, the question might be posed like this: Is the baby in the womb a person with meaning and reality, or is the baby in the womb just “stuff”? And if it is just “stuff,” then does it enhance my happiness (in which case I keep it) or inhibit my happiness (in which case I kill it)?

These are not simply political questions, such as those about basic rates of tax or those of state versus federal rights. These are questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. And abortion is just the most obvious of these issues. When we think of how the matters of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ rights are currently tearing the country apart politically, we see again how the question of what it means to be human—a question of metaphysics, not politics—lies at the heart of so many of our political problems. To say we are politically divided is to miss the real problem: We have no agreed-upon understanding of reality upon which we can sustain a unified society.

America has always been a nation with a novel view of humanity and a distinctive, if often unconsciously assumed, philosophy of reality. As Michael Hanby has recently argued, it is a nation that created itself, that defined itself not so much by continuity with a past but by overcoming and breaking with the past. Its identity lay in freedom, and freedom defined by that historical break and by the pushing forward of the western frontier. Now, as the most technologically sophisticated nation on the planet, its pioneer imagination is fueled with visions of the crossing of new frontiers and of breaking even more radically with the past. After all, what is abortion if not a shattering of the authority of past actions? What is transgenderism if not the crossing of that most imperious boundary, the biologically determined body?

Notice how the language of “dehumanization” is used today. To raise questions about gay marriage is to dehumanize gay couples. To query the wisdom of transgender hormone treatment for young children is to dehumanize trans people. The logic at work here is obvious: to tell people that what they might be thinking or doing is wrong denies that they are human. That assumes a definition of humanity tied to the unbridled freedom of the individual to do or be whatever they choose.

This is the divide that is devouring the social coherence of the West in general and America in particular. We don’t simply disagree on tax policy; we no longer agree on what it means to be human. As Peter Singer, the radical Princeton ethicist, makes clear in his arguments for infanticide: The question of whether human beings are made in the image of God or not is decisive for the question of what it means to be human and for all ethical questions that are implied by that. The political divide over abortion rests upon a much deeper philosophical divide over what it means to be human. And that divide has significance well beyond the status of the child in the womb.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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Carey Morgan

You've identified something very powerful and true about where the factions in America diverge: the definition of humanity, or more importantly the source of truth on which we base our definition of humanity. Apparently, we do not all hold the original Truths to be Self-evident, so now we are simply in a nationwide shouting match to see whose definition of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" will win in the court of public opinion.

LCLA8918Carey Morgan

Look, I think it is important and I also think from what you said you would agree that to say something in a certain way conveys either what is intended or inadvertently what is not. To say “ the source of truth on which WE base our definition of humanity” is again only capitulating to man defining himself and as such is open to interpretation of what the WE wants. Rather we are defined by our Creator as His creatures, He defines us as the Transcendent must by definition. Whether humanity agrees or not is irrelevant to what is true. Of course with the Godless the debate will rage and continue, for the christian grateful reception of that truth is the language to use, with a call to be reconciled to God in Christ to those who are without the truth as it is in Christ. This distinction is not really hair splitting so much as accuracy of language.

plumbbetter

Was the baby in Mary’s womb just stuff? Was the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, when it leapt in the presence of Jesus, just stuff?

Janet B

Great article. Very insightful. And truthful.

I never thought about how our country was created by a break from the traditional understanding of government (kings), and that republicanism was considered "new" because it had not been tried before in this form of constitutional government. Interesting note. Most people today would not realize that the idea of government by the consent of the governed was not made up out of whole cloth, but was something that had been being debated for a long time. Our founders were bold enough to try it.

But it does make me wonder about an underlying "spirit" of rebellion in the country.
Or perhaps we are here, in this division about what it means to be human, because those who have been teachers have failed to understand, let alone teach, the responsibility toward others that comes with freedom/liberty. When we think that everything in the past is inferior to what man has developed as he has progressed from a speck to the great being he is now, we are lost. The past is the anchor, and we have been taught to cut the line. No wonder we are adrift.