On Monday, 13 August 2007, in an article titled “Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims’ abortion rights”, The Independent newspaper reported some very good news. Amnesty International had declared that the human rights of women should include access to abortion if they have been raped or if their lives are in danger.

Inevitably, many in the anti-abortion lobby were unable to appreciate the careful consideration given to supporting the rights of women without taking a moral position on abortion. Some asserted that Amnesty had now abandoned its support for human rights, apparently implying that the unborn are human, while women are not.

This assumption also underlies the selective inference of the “Pro-life” label that the unborn have a right to life no matter how much this compromises the life of the mother. The unborn, of course, might be male, whereas the mother’s femaleness is incontrovertible, so there is a further implication that men are human, while women are not. This illogical thinking is similar in nature to the theological assumptions underlying anti-abortion positions.

Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denied the organisation had become “pro-abortion”, insisting the organisation took as its guide legal, not theological, imperatives. “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations,” she said.

“Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God.”

The organisation is to be applauded for distancing itself from theology and focusing on human rights. However, the theological position that, because the child has been conceived, God intends for it to live at all costs, is illogical. It suggests that God intended the rape. This position allows people to continue to downplay society’s responsibility to protect women, because if God sanctions violence against them, there is no reason for society to do any better.

The woman must then “live” (for many it is a living death) with the physical, psychological and emotional trauma of having been raped, with the physical discomfort and risks of a pregnancy when she is in this weakened state, with the rejection of her partner and the ostracism of her society both of whom illogically blame her for the dishonour she had no power to prevent, with the burden of responsibility for a child she does not want and whose presence reminds her every day of the violation she experienced, with the need to find alternative sources of income and sustenance for herself and the child now that her normal sources are denied her and the likely worsening of her health and material circumstances as a result, and with the further punishments of an unforgiving society if she is not a good enough mother to this unwanted child. Her human rights, her right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or to “liberty, fraternity and equality” are effectively annihilated, in an instant, at the whim of a man. The child of such a mother is also similarly disadvantaged.

The conception of a child is no longer a “mystery”. We know that it occurs when a suitable sperm meets a suitable egg in a conducive physical environment. We also know that this meeting occurs after intercourse, i.e. after a man penetrates a woman. While this action does not always result in a child, we know that without it a child cannot be conceived. When it is conceived, it is not a “miracle”. It is a function of calculable odds. Our feeling that each new life is a miracle proceeds from either our ignorance of, or our inability to hold in mind, all the factors involved, due to their complexity, but they are in fact identifiable and quantifiable. A child is a possible consequence of man exercising his free will, and, as the mainstream interpretation of the Eden story suggests, these consequences are not always desirable.

Quite frankly, God has nothing to do with it. Whether one defines God as a personal being who created the universe or simply as the force that holds the universe together, God’s provision of the materials does not constitute a sanction for every use that humans make of those materials. Otherwise, one is left with the logical conclusion that God intends and approves every evil action as much as every good action that occurs in the universe. This mocks any conception of free will and therefore any concept of wrong action, effectively making it impossible for anyone to do wrong (or, in theological terms, to sin).

Until the world sanctions the compulsory sterilisation of men (which it is already possible to do, and which is not an illogical option as it is simple, inexpensive, and reversible), there is a strong argument for allowing abortion when men force themselves on women. This would not yet put women on an equal footing with men, because the rape and the abortion would still be traumatic in ways that men can never begin to imagine or experience, but it would prevent much of the consequential abuse that women and their unwanted children suffer.

Hmmm… it’s happened again. I start to make a teeny tiny comment on someone else’s blog and suddenly it becomes an essay. Well, this time I’m resisting the temptation to reprint it here as a post, because I think it’s actually better if you go to the original blog to see what I’m responding to and read the other comments. This one is on religion’s role in creating or facilitating morality.

See http://de-conversion.com/2007/07/04/humans-do-not-need-religion-to-be-moral/#comment-5651. In brief, I agree with the writer’s assertion that religion isn’t necessary for morality, and support this with reference to Erich Fromm, but also call to mind M. Scott Peck’s assertion that religion may be a useful transitional tool in the movement toward maturity.

Some of my previous posts that are relevant to this topic (and which also began life as Comments on other people’s blogs) are:

Love as yardstick of truth
What do I believe?

During my ongoing review of ancient scribblings by myself, I came across another essay that I very much enjoyed writing. Its subject matter, George Herbert’s 17th century anthology The Temple, is a wonderful example of “fine energies” being examined and released by “fine reasoning”, albeit inside a worldview that is entirely circumscribed by a belief in received interpretation of Christian scripture. Rereading it, I feel myself again seduced by the beautiful internal consistency of Herbert’s argument, won over by his sincerity, awed by his skill and respectful of his courage and his humility in facing his God.

It seems amazing that I wrote a 3000-word essay on a poem of just eight simple lines! Well, it was on The Temple as a whole, but as Dr. Ron Hall’s original question indicates, the themes of this great work are succinctly encapsulated in the tiny Bitter-sweet. This shows how powerful a good poem can be in stimulating and feeding meditation on huge life-changing subjects, and thus it should be no surprise, if one views the Bible as a poetic work (as argued in my previous posts Fine energies and fine (if erroneous) thoughts and Poetry and creativity in the press and in the Bible), that it has had the power to mould and move individuals and nations both to heights of achievement and, sadly, to depths of repression, as they reach for the perfection at which it hints.

I think that, as in the best poems, some of its power comes from its universality. Although I do not believe the Bible to be an accurate historical or empirical record of, nor a blueprint for, human development, I do believe that, along with many other writings of similar poetic power, it contains universal truths which attract those who experience their lives as a meaning-making journey, whether their medium be primarily that of the emotions or that of the intellect.

So… here’s my encounter with Bitter-sweet and The Temple:

Taking the poem Bitter-sweet as your point of departure, discuss the methods used in, and the effects achieved by, Herbert’s blending of “complaint” and “praise” in The Temple. (Dr R. Hall)


Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

George Herbert

After an oppressively didactic introduction in The Church-porch, Herbert opens the heart of his work with a series on the Passion of Christ. Despite the Judaeo-Catholic legalism of the preceding section, it is clearly these poems, with their Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace, that are intended to set the context for the major part of The Templei. The remainder of The Church is a meditation on the nature of the relationship with God exemplified in, and made possible by, Christ’s Passion. When Herbert imitates his God, as suggested in Bitter-sweet, he clearly has in mind the Christ who could complain to his Father, “…take away this cup”, yet in the next breath say, “…not my will, but thine be done”ii.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oh happy days! Not one, but two poetry-relevant articles amongst all the bad news in the past few days.

First, I was interested to see this ancient debate revived: John Walsh asks “Is there a link between madness and creativity?” in The Independent. See http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/health_medical/article2361028.ece for the full article. The sentence “The idea of creativity as divine afflatus, the breath of God, turns easily into the divine fire, that ignites the imagination but consumes the thinker” particularly caught my eye, because it refers to the mad wonder of creativity and creation that I tried to express in my poem Primeval Watercolour, which is about my surprised discovery in my first watercolour painting lesson of how unpredictable and how intense the colours could be (I had previously thought that watercolour painting was all about delicate, faded, impressionistic landscapes!).

As my poem reflects, the experience made me think of the Judaeo-Christian myth of creation out of formlessness, in particular Genesis 1:1-2: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

By the way, while thinking about this again today, I found this beautifully written exegesis, “Making sense of Genesis 1” by Rikki E. Watts ( http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/6-02Watts.html), which urges the reader to be conscious not only of the worldview brought to the text by its original, Hebrew-speaking, hearers and readers, but also of the writer-reader “contract” that requires the reader to recognise the conventions of genre in determining what kind of truth is being conveyed. The writer asserts that Genesis 1 is poetic and refers to Blake’s burning tiger to suggest a possible approach for interpretation. There is also a good brief overview of other creation myths to support the general argument. One to bookmark, I’d say.

Secondly, I was excited to read “The lost joy of ‘difficult’ poetry” by Roy Hattersley in the Mail&Guardian here:
http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2007/2007mar/070316-poetry.html which contains thoughts related to those expressed in my post Poetry’s Potential and my Comment on my poem On deciding not to marry a priest. Unfortunately, I don’t have time today to summarise any more, but I’m noting the link here for future reference.

{Thu 22 February 2007}   What do I believe?
Well, I was going to post another poem today, but I’m having trouble with the scansion so it’s not ready yet. In the mean time, I went to visit the blog of a very dear friend of mine, started to write a brief comment and looked up from a steaming keyboard several paragraphs later, realising that I’d begun for the first time to make a coherent statement of my (current) creed.

The post I responded to is on the subject of Universal Restoration (my friend gives a pretty good overview of this if you want to check it out at soundandsilence.wordpress.com), but that’s not strictly necessary in order to understand what follows. Our conversation there is a part of the much larger 25 years or so of shared and disparate experiences that have created our relationship, which is very precious to me. However, I realised that my response can largely stand on its own as a statement of my belief, given a couple of contextual nudges.

First, I responded to the suggestion that I am a “closet believer”.

“… re the closet – I have no reason to be in one. I’m not hiding anything (other than those things that are hidden from myself, in which case you can hardly expect me to admit to them!) As to a believer, well that depends on the supposed object of belief. I am not a believer in a masculine or a feminine God. I am not a believer in the doctrine of original sin. I am not a believer in a concept of The Elect. I am not a believer in any of the heavens or hells that were described to me during my time in the church. I am not a believer in the infallible authority of any (including Christian) scripture. I am not a believer in salvation through Jesus Christ, unless “salvation” is highly qualified (what exactly are we saved from?, what does the salvation consist of?) and “Jesus Christ” is used metaphorically to designate a general principle of being-action that we can seek to incarnate ourselves and that people may incarnate without knowing the name (ask me about that one another time!).

I am a believer in a universe in which the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts, in which the beauty of the rose and the spirt of a person remain mysterious beyond any analysing of them, and in which any human statements only approach truth by degrees of approximation. I believe in the power of love and in the necessity of our taking responsibility to make meaning in our lives by loving and creating (which is an outflow of love). I also believe that any tiny expression of heaven-on-earth that we can make happen now is more important than any hope of restoration in the eschatological future.”

Secondly, I responded to this statement by another Commenter: ”…surely there can be no doubt of the psychological, spiritual and/or material “reality” that millions of people sense, of some kind of fall from perfection”.

“There may be no doubt that millions of people sense it, but millions of people also believe that HIV is a white man’s disease and that female genital mutilation is a good thing. Billions of people believe that women are inferior to men and many of them base this on scripture.

The number of adherents of a belief has never been an indicator of its truth. That it might be has been proven repeatedly to be in itself an erroneous belief. People are able to hold to not just iffy but demonstrably incorrect beliefs despite actual evidence to the contrary, when the implications of changing their minds are too much to cope with and particularly when the religious authorities in their lives oppose the change (witness how long it took for Copernicus’ ideas to gain acceptance).

It is hardly surprising that people can continue to hold to a metaphysical belief that lies beyond the realm of proof and is a determinant of the consequent logic of their entire faith and culture. The “fall from” really depends on one’s definition of perfection. If it is wholeness (a very possible option, scripturally), then this could just as well reflect a dialectical universe in which a deliverance from all evil would be a reduction to less than perfection. It also depends on one’s definition of evil. We normally define evil from an autocentric human perspective which proceeds from an extremely arrogant pre-Copernican view of the universe. Are earthquakes evil? That depends on one’s perspective as to what should and shouldn’t (be allowed to) happen in the universe graced with one’s presence.”

I realise that a lot of the above is about what I don’t believe, along with some critique of other beliefs. My questions and posits re definitions of evil and the value of a dialectical model of the universe are open-ended. I’m not sure about these and many other things, but to the extent that I can voice, and in this small way be congruent with, my own beliefs at this current point of understanding, I feel exhilarated. I wonder whether my poetry may begin to reflect some of this now?

{Sat 27 January 2007}   Primeval Watercolour
Primeval Watercolour

Primaries pounce on the primitive page,
usurping space with bizarre pizzazz:
Opposing waves squall and break,
brim-brilliant crests crash, create a jazz
of chaos!
Interference drags a screaming thread of blue
across the careful splotches;
panicking through cooling pools of sulphur,
a purple pulse breathes whirls of fire,
willing them to swirl against the caking air,
to savage expectations, flay the fair
and even strokes of intent
with edges of the depths,
fan water into flame
with split-atomic spatterings
of aquamarine and shame
and shatterings
of line, design and reason—
Oh, Image, imagine
Imagination’s breathing:

See a subsequent digital version of this poem here.


{Tue 9 January 2007}   Relativity
Relativity at Injasuti

I, corvine clutcher,
pluck at bits
of reflected sunlight;
grapple rainbow shards
that glitter and twist,
beckon and change;
always over…

streams pour ceaselessly
and the blue skies extend
and the mountains continue
and night is simple,

Dawn’s golden tongue licks over pearly teeth
to melt the half-sucked peppermint
in God’s blue and awesome jaw,
and we are small,
the mountains and I.

And the high orbs lock there, and linger
and challenge for the sky,
for an instant eternal,
but we are hurled on regardless,
the mountains and I.

{Tue 14 November 2006}   Insect Insight
Insect Insight

Elusive truth, when platitudinous,
Unclouded, blinds us to its happy light;
Its brightness then too obvious for sight,
We miss it still and moan its loss to us.
Then miserable, we seek in darker paths
Transforming myst’ries of enlightenment:
Unravelling myths, by man and heaven sent,
We pursue insight through our deepest wraths.

Until one day (by chance, not skill),
While gazing in the looking glass,
We suddenly spy a dragonfly,
Beyond our shoulder, on the hill,
Which, as it flits from pool to grass,
Gives light intensely to the sky.

et cetera