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Problematic Honor

[Ancient Faith Radio, September 27, 2007]

Last May, Father Thomas Hopko gave the commencement speech at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Somebody forwarded me the text of this, and it’s so terrific. I sent it on to the members of my family, and the subject line I used was, ‘A Hopko scorcher!’ because he can really be pretty scorching, when he gets going.

One thing that particularly interested me toward the end of this speech was he started talking about a book by CS Lewis. He says, ‘I think all thinking Christians, surely all seminary students and graduates, should be required to read it, the most incisive analysis of what has happened to humanity in the last fifty years.’ CS Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man, 1944. It is rather a short book; I think it’s a series of three or four lectures that Lewis gave.

Fr. Tom Hopko says, ‘Parts of it, which I have read more than ten times, are still unclear to me. But its main point is crystal clear: Lewis says that human beings do see, know, love, and offer fitting thanksgiving for all that is good, true, and beautiful in human life. To remain fully and truly human, they must possess and cultivate the uniquely human faculty that differentiates us from animals and beasts and so forth. Lewis calls this faculty the Tao.’ Tao, Dao—I can never pronounce it exactly right; it’s one of those in-between consonants that English-speakers don’t know how to say.

So I pulled it off the shelf; I started reading The Abolition of Man. It’s the kind of length that you could read in a half hour, if you didn’t have to keep stopping and putting it down and taking a deep breath and trying to incorporate it all. It’s quite intense, and his observation has a lot to do with education, about the way that our culture in the last hundred years or more has been calling all values subjective, and trying to stand somehow outside the whole world of virtues and values and just say, ‘All of that’s arbitrary; human beings make this up.’

Lewis correctly notes that once you stand outside of that and presume to judge the virtues and the values of the ages, when you become suspicious of or critical of that, then nothing will control you except your passions and your impulses and your emotions. It doesn’t mean that you’re free, it means, rather, that you become enslaved to a baser part of the human being.

So he proposes that there are certain values that – this is the thing I wanted to talk about – Lewis proposes there are certain values that persist throughout all cultures, throughout all good or beneficial cultures. And the whole last part of the book is his record of quotations from a number of different sources, which he ascribes as, for example, old Norse from the Volospa, ancient Egyptian, Confessions of a Righteous Soul , Hindu, Roman Juvenile, Roman Terrence, Babylonian Hymn to Samas, and of course the Scriptures and just about every other source you could think of, showing that there are these common beliefs.

And I have begun to have a little bit of question about that, mostly due to several other things that I have read this year. I just wonder if we who live at the summit of this development of western culture, are we seeing everything through the lens of assuming we know what all the common values must be, and then we go out and find them, because it matches the grid we already have in mind.

The book I read that was so disturbing to me was titled Honor: A History . The author’s James Bowman. And what he was intending to do was to talk about the concept of honor. And it turns out that what I thought of as honor, like chivalry or medieval honor, Victorian honor, that that is not really what honor means at a more primitive or more natural level in the human race. The kind of honor that he calls wild or primitive has a lot to do with pride, has a lot to do with saving face and not allowing anybody to make fun of you or to shame you. It’s more concerned with externals; it’s more about shame, that is, how actions are perceived, rather than guilt, which would be an inner sense of responsibility for wrong actions. In fact the whole idea of sincerity and honesty is something Bowman traces back to the 17th century; it’s not something that goes that deep in the human race.

Honor basically means fame, and this is why, I’d never understood why, Plato said he would not allow poets to reside in the ideal democracy. It’s because the poet’s job was to make up these flattering songs so that people would be famous. It’s a very class-based thing; common people cannot have any honor. Only the exalted and the powerful are capable of honor, and especially only men.

Women—you know, I had to admit, women really are pretty much treated as property under conditions of wild or primitive honor. And one of Bowman’s purposes is to point out that this is what we’re grappling with when we deal with Islamic fanaticism: that what is going on may not be so much a part of Islam, as it is a part of certain kinds of cultures where Islam has taken root. Cultures in which saving face, not being ashamed, submitting everything to the purpose of retaining dignity and power is more important than some of the things we’ve come to value in western society.

For example, he talks about the ‘bemusement and hilarity’, his words, the western media felt in 2003 when the Iraqi minister kept insisting that there were no American troops in Baghdad, and he kept saying this right up until the moment that he had to flee. Bowman says we didn’t understand what was going on there. He says, ‘Within the honor culture, he was simply saying what it is incumbent on a man of honor to say’ that is, to keep denying that this thing was going on that would bring you shame.

Another face of primitive honor is those horrible honor killings you hear about where, if a woman in the community has been raped, that her parents kill her. It makes no sense to us, it’s horrifying, but to them the evidence of this ruined woman is proof that they were not able to protect their own family. Her existence is a spot on their honor, so they just erase her; they just get rid of her.

Bowman is saying that what happened in Christian culture is that these tenets of primitive honor kept running into sayings of Jesus about loving your enemy, do not resist one who is evil, turn the other cheek, all of these things are profoundly contrary to this thing that he calls primitive honor. And after one collision after another between the two forces, different forms of working it out appear, like medieval chivalry, or like 19th century Victorian propriety and so forth.

So I think the thing that has intrigued me most, as I’m trying to think this through, is there a basic human level of morality or virtue? And I keep running into is this one about, how are women treated? Are women incapable of honor? Are they seen as property? Is there really nothing a woman is supposed to do except just be chaste, and that’s her only value?

My friend, reporter Julia Duin, who writes for the Washington Times, wrote a terrific article earlier this year; she went to India because she wanted to investigate why are there so many fewer baby girls being born in India. Why has the rate of male birth gotten so out of line with what it should naturally be? And the reason is that they are using sonograms to determine before birth if it’s a boy or a girl, and the girls are being aborted. This is illegal, but they’re having a lot of trouble, and maybe there isn’t a lot of energy behind, preventing it, or prosecuting those who do this.

And it was dispiriting to me to read in Julia’s article that this is only the most recent way of wiping out baby girls. That historically, traditionally, these little girls were killed after they were born. You picture all the generations and generations and centuries of women giving birth, not knowing until the moment of birth if it was a boy or a girl, and then having the little girl snatched away from her, and strangled, or left out in the hills for animals to kill and eat.

The world has not been nice to girls over the years, and that one little bit of what we might think of as the Tao, as the code of virtue that Lewis would say is imbued in every human being, at least that piece doesn’t seem to be consistently there.

The thing that give me hope, I guess a kind of a bittersweet joy, is to reflect on the stories that were told about the Virgin Mary in the early, early history of Christianity. We know about the feast on November 21st, when the Virgin Mary went into the temple as a little three year old girl, went to live in the temple. We know about that because the whole story of her childhood was written down in a document about the year 150. And in this document, which—if you read it, it is very clearly not something that was crafted by a fiction writer, it has a very humble, you know, ‘tales told around the campfire’ feeling to it. It’s obviously a story that was just passed along by word of mouth, perhaps right from the time the Virgin Mary was born.

In it we see that when she was born, her parents rejoiced. The early Christians could believe that; they could believe that the birth of a little girl was not a tragedy. When she had her first birthday, her father, Joachim, who was wealthy, gave her this magnificent party and everyone was invited, and the priests gave her blessings at this party, and again, the early Christians believed that that could happen. That alone says something about how they looked at the life, the value, of a little girl.

Somebody, I don’t know where I ever heard this quote, but it was that the test of the humanity of any culture is how a newborn girl is treated. I’m glad to see that it seemed natural and appropriate, even, to the very earliest Christians that a little girl deserves protection.

I kind of went off on an angle there, but thinking about Fr. Tom’s commencement address, and that leading me back to The Abolition of Man , CS Lewis’ article, set in motion a lot of troubling thoughts I’ve had lately about whether there is a consistent moral or ethical system planted in human beings, and why if there is one, it seems that it doesn’t always include the protection of our girls.

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