What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.


How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.