Moral Books

Assisted suicide, which is also called “aid in dying,” is a practice that at one time was inconceivable or even taboo but is now legal in certain countries and some of our states. My readers may well know of someone who helped someone else die, or whose physician provided the lethal drugs.

In my fall theology lecture, “Rules and Personal Exceptions, With Particular Attention to Assisted Suicide,” I mentioned a study that I would recommend widely: Nigel Biggar’s 2004 book, Aiming to Kill: The Ethics of Suicide and Euthanasia. Biggar, who is Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, here lays out with great clarity and detail the arguments that are made for removing the prohibitions on assisted suicide, and he then addresses them with arguments drawn from both general human reason and also Christian principles. He concludes that there may well be cases in which “aiming to kill” could be justified, as long as we restrict our view to the case at hand. But when we consider the broader effects on our neighbors and society in general, we need to maintain the prohibition.

It is an uncommonly clear book, and if you disagree with Biggar it is at least clear why you disagree. I would recommend it for broad reading, especially if you give yourself permission to skip over any section that seems to get rather technical. It is not a long book, just four chapters and about 160 pages apart from the notes.

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While I’m at it, let me recommend another book: Law, Love, and Language by Herbert McCabe. (The same text, in earlier printings, is called What Is Ethics All About?) McCabe, an original thinker in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, had an uncommonly insightful way of communicating theological truths in sensible yet arresting language. He says that this book is “a quick look at three starting-points from which we might think about ethics,” namely, “ethics is a matter of loving, ethics is a matter of obeying the law, and ethics is a matter of talking to people.” His first chapter, “Ethics as Love,” is a compelling explication of “situation ethics” which shows the problems of thinking of ethics as a matter of always doing the most loving thing. The second chapter goes on to show problems with thinking of ethics as a matter of law, yet nonetheless both love and law have important roles in ethics!

McCabe’s rather bracing preference is to think of ethics as language, as a matter of talking with other people. I have found his thinking very exciting, for instance, when he says that ethics is a matter of being human and that to be human is to live with others as friends; that Jesus, being perfectly human, was “of course” killed by the likes of us who prefer to live rather sub-human lives. All this is a suggestion of the riches inside the conception of ethics as talking.

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Out & About. This coming week I’ll be making my annual visit as “theological visitor” of All Souls’ Church at 63rd and Penn in Oklahoma City. On Sunday, November 4, I am to preach at 8 and 10 a.m. On Mon., Tues., and Wed. following (Nov. 5-7) I’ll teach a class on the book of Esther at noon each day. And on the same days in the evening at 6 p.m. I’ll teach a class on Christian bioethics. If you’re in Oklahoma City, it would be great to see you.

Good Books & Good Talk: Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel-prize-winning novelist; his book, Never Let Me Go, is written from the point of view of a student in a British country boarding school in about the 50s. Shortly into the book, you realize all the students there never go home, that they are trained to take exceptionally good care of their health; that they are, in short, clones. Through this device of an “alternative present,” Ishiguro raises poignant questions of our humanity and capacity to use one another obliviously.

  I will lead a seminar on this book on Sunday, November 11, at Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation.

It is Hard for the Rich

It Is Hard for the Rich --or so Jesus says, to enter the kingdom of God. But why is it hard? Methinks it is because wealth—and here “wealth” means basically what we call middle-class life—protects us from many unexpected disasters. If I get ill, I have access to doctors and insurance to cover much of the cost. If I lose my job, I have savings to live on, at least for awhile. No authority, or thug, can come to my front door and order me to move out into the street. If I get arrested, I can get a lawyer, and so on. We have the rule of law, we have assets, we have social supports. That’s what it means to be rich.

Many people today don’t have it this way, and most people through most of history didn’t. They weren’t rich. Why is entering the kingdom of God easier if you aren’t able to cushion life’s random blows, hard knocks, and catastrophes?

It’s because you know: at any time, I could lose everything.

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Of course it’s an illusion, this sense that we rich middle-class folk have the means to fend off the random blows of life. In one of the recent heavy rains, I was driving home from talking with a church group in Lewisville about (ironically?) Losing Susan, my reflections on brain disease and “the God who gives and takes away.” I was not far from home on the interstate, going about 40 (most everyone was going about 40) when, at a curve and gentle dip in the road, a pickup passed me on the left at a much higher speed. As he did so, he covered my car with so much water that I could not see anything. I didn’t dare brake or try anything else, and in a couple of seconds, I guess, it cleared enough for me to see. But for a brief bit I was literally running blind, a ton or two of steel moving at 40 miles per hour (60 feet per second).

What I felt then is the truth that the poor feel regularly. We’re running through life exposed to such dangers as could abruptly change everything. And we have no defenses against them.

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To enter the kingdom of God is, in part, to let go of everything that is not God, which is to say, to recognize that God is the one who holds us in being. We have to give up everything else to follow him. To a few select people, that means selling everything now. For everyone, it means letting go at the moment of death. For most of us, it’s something we think about from time to time.

I’m grateful for that reminder in the rain on the interstate. I’m also grateful to be here to tell you about it.

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Out & About. Sunday, October 28, I will deliver my fall theology lecture. The topic is moral rules, particularly how do we know when, if ever, to make personal exceptions to rules. I will be looking particularly at assisted suicide (or aid-in-dying) as a case that’s not only interesting but something, I believe, we need to be thinking about Christianly. Free, open to the public, with a reception following: Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas, at 6:15 p.m. (You can come early at 5 p.m. for Evensong.)

Sunday, November 4, as we all are celebrating the return of Standard Time (the best kind of time is Standard Time!), I will be preaching at All Souls’ Church, Penna. Ave. and 63rd St., Oklahoma City, at 8 and 10 a.m. The week following I’ll be teaching two classes there. On Mon., Tues., and Wed. (Nov. 5-7) from noon to 1 p.m., a class on the book of Esther. And on the same days from 6 to 7 p.m., on Christian bioethics. No registration; all open to the public.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: