She called it a “selective reduction.” Describing to me years of failed infertility treatments, my friend relived the grief of barrenness. Even after she and her husband began attempting in vitro fertilization, she bled disappointment and shed hope with every new month.
The desire for children became more urgent; the doctor, more reckless. After several failed attempts, he assured my friend and her husband that their chance of multiples was quite low and implanted a handful of fertilized eggs. Four “took.” Four babies with pulsing hearts began growing in that once-hostile womb.
Seeds to become saplings to become trees.
When the doctor delivered the news, it was not the scene of Gabriel’s annunciation. The doctor insisted that my friend either “selectively reduce” two of the fetuses or face the possibility that none survived. Though she had spent a childhood of Sundays on kneelers, a lifetime praying the “Our Father,” my friend was not prepared for the collision of wills: the divine will to sanctify life, the human will to manage the odds.
My friend’s twins are beautiful, healthy children.
New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot remembers her own abortion as a college freshmen at U.C. Berkeley, but without my friend’s palpable regret. Writing to counter the guilt women feel in seeking a “safe, legal medical procedure,” Talbot calls her decision to “end a pregnancy” one of the most consequential decisions of her young life. “It allowed me to claim the future I imagined for myself.” At 18, she describes having neither the wisdom for motherhood nor the fortitude for adoption, although later in her 30s she did begin a family with a supportive husband. “In some foundational way,” Talbot muses with gratitude, “I have my abortion to thank for that.”
To further the idea of abortion as “social and moral good” (emphasis mine), Talbot cites the work of Willie Parker, an abortion provider and “follower of Jesus.” Parker believes abortion to be a deeply ethical choice made by parent(s) whose desire for a child is the only thing to imbue it with sacredness. Parker explains, “As a free human being, you are allowed to change your mind, to find yourself in different circumstances, to make mistakes. You are allowed to want your own future.” Parker sees dignity in his patients’ desire to exercise their freedom, holiness in his call to grant their choice.
As he writes in his book, Life’s Work, “The procedure room in an abortion clinic is as sacred as any other space to me. . . . In this moment, where you need something that I am trained to give you, God is meeting both of us where we are.”
My Will Be Done
These stories do not represent a singular experience of abortion. My friend ultimately followed her doctor’s advice, but her tears bore witness to moral injury and regret. Margaret Talbot triumphantly invoked the “all-trumping argument” to defend her abortion: choice. (As Charles Taylor would note, she fails to mention the “sacrificed alternatives in a dilemmatic situation, and the real moral weight of the situation,” A Secular Age, 479). Of the three, Willie Parker is the most enigmatic. We understand abortion as regret, abortion as choice.
But abortion as worship?
It is tempting, like Chicken Little, to decry the abasement of morality in contemporary culture, especially when compared (however naively) to an idyllic yesteryear. The sky is falling! Defense of abortion and headlines like, “Bestselling Female Author Divorces Husband and Marries Woman!” reinforce the perception of our age as being driven by a newer, crasser breed of self-interest.
My will be done.
But as Taylor argues, it is not that the secular age has no spiritual or moral shape, no spiritual or moral aspiration. Godlessness does not inevitably produce moral fecklessness. In fact, in the 21st century, we’re asking the same urgent questions people have always asked: “What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for?” (16) Unbelievers, like believers, want to live well—and not simply for the temporary, tickling pleasures of base desires. “We strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practicing a vocation we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare” (7). According to Taylor, the fundamental shift of the secular age isn’t declining belief in God or waning ethical commitments. It lies in our definition of “fullness.”
If death is coming for us all, how do we make this “one wild and precious life” count?
The fundamental shift of the secular age isn’t declining belief in God or waning ethical commitments. It lies in our definition of ‘fullness.’
Let Humans Flourish
In primitive tribal societies, “gods” were a given feature of the landscape. While they might have been alternatively benevolent or hostile, they did not necessarily demand self-renunciation for the sake of otherworldly devotion. One offered sacrifices to the gods, yes. But the sacrifices sought temporal benefit. “What the people ask for when they invoke or placate divinities and powers is prosperity, health, long life, fertility; what they ask to be preserved from is disease, dearth, sterility, premature death” (A Secular Age, 150). The desires and aspirations of “early religion” were deeply rooted in a vision of the good life, here and now.
Let humans flourish.
By contrast, later religions, like Christianity, invoke higher goals for human flourishing than good harvests and healthy babies. “There is a notion of our good which goes beyond human flourishing, which we may gain even while failing utterly on the scales of human flourishing, even through failing (like dying young on a cross). . . . [Christianity] redefines our ends so as to take us beyond flourishing” (A Secular Age, 151).
In the example of Christianity, when God entered history, clothing himself with flesh to die a humiliating, degrading death by crucifixion, we have a shift in the sense of divine demand. God might not only purpose my happiness—he actually might, mysteriously, will that I suffer. As Taylor aptly notes, at the cross of Jesus Christ there stands an irreducible difference between the injunction “Thy will be done” and “Let humans flourish.”
At the cross of Jesus Christ there stands an irreducible difference between ‘Thy will be done’ and ‘Let humans flourish.’
Modern exclusive humanism returns us to the mode of early religion (if also taking us a step further by eliminating the notion of “god”). “A way of putting our present condition,” Taylor writes, “is to say that many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent” (143). In the secular age, “cross-pressured” as we are between doubt and belief, we can’t know for certain if God exists. But if he does, surely he wills our good.
Which betrays the real problem: secularism is not the problem “out there.” Instead, every Sunday morning, it is “secular” people filling our pews. They attest to loving Jesus—but accept “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing” (18). They pray for God’s kingdom to come—and imagine the advent of their own happiness.
In the secular age, God becomes the guarantor of our best life now.
Read the full chapter, “Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.