07 August 2008

Doctors & Mohels, Progress & Fidelity

An excerpt of Eric Cohen's new book, In the Shadow of Progress:

When my son was born, he had trouble breathing—visible to his nervous father in the bluish tint of his skin, diagnosed by the attending physician from the low percentage of oxygen in his blood. So off he went, within minutes, to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He was, truth to tell, the healthiest child in a row of babies struggling to survive. He was a giant among “preemies”—there for observation, not because only modern machines and master physicians could keep him alive. After a few days, he was released and reunited with his waiting mother. We rolled him from the third floor to the sixth, from NICU to normal, from anxiety to relief. Blessed by nature, blessed by science, we left the hospital “on schedule.” We also knew that many children did not, and that some children never left at all. Nature is not always so generous; science is not always so powerful. But for us, in those moments, we marveled at both.

A few days later, my son was circumcised in the traditional Jewish way—in our home, by a mohel, with grandparents present. The mohel’s instruments were archaic compared to the machinery of the NICU; the modern beeping of the incubators gave way to ancient blessings and rituals that have persisted from generation to generation for millennia. If the NICU exemplifies the most elevated ambitions of progress—to heal the broken body, to sustain life in the face of death, to correct nature’s mistakes—the bris is a reminder of the permanent horizons of human life—the mystery of human origins, the cycle of the generations, the eternal drama of rearing those who will one day stand in one’s place, and, in the normal course of things, at one’s graveside. The bris embodies the eternal hope that lies beyond progress; what it aims to sanctify—the welcoming of a new child—is not a novel artifact of the current age but a primordial experience of being human.

Yet, remarkably, one of the defining features of the modern era is that the most modern individuals are not having enough children to sustain their societies from one generation to the next. Communities defined by their ancient faith continue to have children in high numbers, believing they have something sacred to sustain in the flesh and rearing of their young. But those most immersed in the pleasures and possibilities of modern life seem least driven to raise up a generation to follow in their footsteps. Societies defined by the forward march of progress are failing to bring life forward in the most fundamental sense. What faith, we are left to wonder, does modern man have in the cosmic significance of modern, individualist, technological life? If procreation is the deepest form of fidelity to one’s civilization, then what does modern man’s infidelity say about the relative greatness (or goodness) of the modern age? Is progress really progress?

One might ask this question—is progress really progress?—about many domains of modern life: Is it progress to ameliorate human sadness by altering the chemical balance of the brain? Is it progress to seek cures for the sick by destroying human embryos? Is it progress to screen and select the genetic make-up of one’s offspring? Is it progress to wield the force of the split atom, or to transform the habitats of nature into oil fields?

Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis.


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