Opinion

May 23, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Nearly three thousand years ago, an Egyptian mother lost her unborn child, and out of love wrapped his body in linen cloths and buried him in a miniature sarcophagus, made of plaster and painted with a haunting portrait. The child was buried in the Egyptian manner of the 26th Dynasty, and had been lost to human memory since perhaps as long ago as 660-900 B.C.

Its curators do not know when it was excavated, but in 1971 “mummy W1013” came into the possession of the Egyptian collection of Swansea University in Wales, though the contents of the artifact were a mystery until this year.

In 1998, X-rays had failed to discover the casket’s contents but this year it was subjected to a CT scan at the university’s Clinical Imaging College of Medicine. Inside, the curators were astonished to discover that the mummified remains were not those of an infant, but of a preterm fetus, between 12 and 16 weeks gestation, about 10cm long and lying in the fetal position.

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Curator Carolyn Graves-Brown said that although she would hesitate to guess the sex of the child, markings and colors on the sarcophagus hint that it was a boy. Past Horizons website of archeology news said that the care taken over this tiny child puts the lie to the claim that “because there were so many miscarriages and infant death in the ancient world, that somehow people became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies.” The author notes that fetal remains have been found in even more ancient Egyptian tombs, including that of the famous Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

Graves-Brown concludes, “We can imagine that the probable fetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss; an occasion of great grief and public mourning.”

For some reason, the story of this little lost child’s coffin, sailing through the centuries and beaching up in so unlikely a place as Wales, caught me off guard with a puzzling sense of joy. Here was an enduring sign indeed of a mother’s love, and so removed from our absurd talk of “clumps of cells” and “products of conception,” our modern callousness. It made me wonder, when did we become so?

It reminded me of a conversation with an old friend who had known me since we were teenagers, and before I had shed my hard secular armor. This is someone who has known me, and been close to my family, since I was a teenager and lived a very different sort of life, with a very different sort of worldview. He had called to say how happy he was at how well I’d done in life, against all expectations when we were 16. I was in the process of moving to Italy to start as LifeSiteNews’ Rome and European correspondent.

“It’s just a shame that the object of it all is something so retrograde,” my atheist friend concluded rather sadly. At the time I laughed it off and said something about “retrograde” being a matter of perspective. But it was a comment that stuck with me, and has helped to shape some of my thoughts.

When did the desire to protect children become “retrograde”? How did our society tip over from knowing that children are a good thing, a blessing, to looking upon them as a threat and an imposition? And if this old idea is retrograde, how far back do we have to go to find it in the world before Christianity?

I know that one of the great accomplishments of Christian civilization was the overthrow of the corruption, the brutality and inhumanity of the old Empire it replaced and re-shaped. Christians from the start fought against the Roman practice of infanticide. I was taken on a tour of the Catacombs of St. Sylvester a few years ago and was moved by the tiny niches for infant burials, many of which were created for children found by Christians after abandonment and exposure by their parents.

Christianity finally defeated a whole panoply of Roman indignities: gladiatorial combat, the discarding of spouses in easy divorce, “sacred” temple prostitution, child-killing and, in the end, slavery. Christendom developed the notion of the rule of law and created the idea of legal personhood. My friend, a scientist educated in the modern way, perhaps knew little about the struggle of Christian philosophers over centuries to overcome the old Roman legal paradigm that allowed chattel slavery and gave the paterfamilias the right of life and death over his children and wife.

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He probably did not know that the men who created these structures of civilization he can’t help but take for granted were Popes, Christian emperors, Church Fathers and Doctors. In our time, the people like us, “retrograde” pro-lifers and “Christian conservatives,” are attempting to restore a way of thinking about life, a way of living life, that had preserved human dignity and rights from the 5th century to about 1967.

This civilization established all our modern legal and philosophical concepts, which have recently been stripped down to mere “fairness” and “equality,” shadowy remnants of the ancient jurisprudence of Christendom, and without which we will slide back into what we were.

I wondered later whether my friend understood the irony, if I could convince him that this “retrograde” pro-life idea is, in the perspective of the whole history of human civilizations, still new and radical. It is simply the notion that neither the state nor an individual can take a life without due process of law; or that a poor man with no social status, or a child, or a woman, have the same legal value and rights in law as a rich man, a general or a politician. It is these things that the “new” Christian civilization created, and which an ancient and resurgent barbarism is threatening to overthrow.

My friend, like so many of our contemporaries, is an adherent to the “progressive” theory, the idea that “mankind” or “human society” is inexorably progressing from a more ignorant and primitive condition towards ever-increasing enlightenment, destined ultimately to create a world of technological and social magnificence and freedom that our poor, primitive ancestors could not have dreamed of. While historians have long since abandoned this notion this has not stopped its popularity among laymen. It is brandished like a weapon against people like me, and the worst thing it can think of to call its enemies is “retrograde.”

I have studied Ancient Rome, but I know very little about the far older and more powerful and immensely more grand civilization that dominated so much of the ancient world for thousands of years. Egypt was for all ancient Near-Eastern peoples the last word in what civilization was supposed to look like. With the translation of its languages, we have learned a little about its splendor, not only in architecture, but in science, geometry, music, agriculture, law and literature.

So huge and so ancient was it that we still know very little, but there are hints, despite being mainly cast as the villains in the Old Testament, that Egyptians held an immense reverence for life that was not found later in Rome or among their more violent neighbors. While evidence was recently found to support the old accusations of child sacrifice in Carthage, there has never been any record of Egyptian religion involving it or even of temple prostitution, which was common throughout the ancient world. Egyptian pharaohs of the First Dynasty (c. 3100-2900 B.C.) would sometimes sacrifice their servants and have them included in the tombs to continue to serve them in the afterlife, but the evidence shows this practice dying out.

Egyptian culture seemed to be a deeply domestic and homely culture, and one which upheld the value of family and children. They preserved the remains of all sorts of animals, flowers, and plants, of food and household goods in their graves. They wrote lilting love poetry to pretty girls, and took great care in educating and raising their children. And they preserved with great care the bodies of their beloved deceased children, of any age, in hopes that the children could continue to experience that love and parental care in a joyous afterlife.

This little mummy has reminded me that we know that the “progressive” theory is simply wrong. We humans have not been on a steady rise in civilization from “primitive” times to our wonderful advanced and enlightened selves. Human civilizations have come and gone, have endorsed the rule of law and human dignity at one time, and have justified callous violence at others. Christian civilization was the first to base its entire jurisprudence on the equal moral status of all human beings, “made in the image and likeness of God,” but we have not been the first to imagine a higher eternal destiny.

It shows that we can pick and choose which “retrograde” cultural artifacts and works and ideas we want to preserve. We don’t have to revert to Roman civilized barbarism; we can choose to return to what is evidently an even earlier, and greater, cultural sanity.

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