A telos means what something is for, the ultimate end at which it aims. The telos of an acorn is to be an oak tree. The telos of a human community is to enable the flourishing of its members, and ultimately of the whole human family. Christianity maintains that the telos of a human being is to share forever in the divine life of the triune God, who is the primordial community of Love. By definition, a telos must be a positive goal.
It is fine for a movement to express its telos negatively—that is, to stand against something—as long as that negative corresponds to a clear and uncontroversial positive. For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) obviously has the positive goal of safety on the roads. While there may be some disagreement about implementation and some pushback in practice, no decent person nowadays can seriously be for drunk driving.
A negative telos becomes problematic, however, when it is perceived to conflict with powerful competing aims. The failure to recognize this systemic problem with negative telē is one of the major causes of our present political dysfunction. After exploring this idea in general and showing how it applies to the polarizing issue of abortion, I will imagine instead a telos of YES.
Problems with Negative Telē
The problems with negative telē are rooted deep in the nature of reality and of the human soul.
First, there is the metaphysical problem that any negative telos can be accomplished most completely through an atrocity. One can effectively stop people from acting in a certain way by imposing forcible restrictions on their behavior, such as mass incarceration or other forms of immobilization. In the most extreme case, human evils can be eradicated by eradicating the humans who perpetrate them; one can eliminate any “ism” by eliminating all the “ists.” This is the mindset that leads to genocide, the Gulag, and the bombing of abortion clinics.
Second, being told NO inspires instinctive feelings of rebellion in all of us children of Eve. Anyone who has seen a toddler or teenager in action, or who has heard, thought, or uttered the sentence, “Don’t you tell me what to do,” can verify this. While maturity often involves overcoming these feelings by subjecting our passions to reason, the perennial battle between our will and our members will probably continue, as one insightful observer has noted, until about fifteen minutes after our death. This is true even if we accept in principle the reasonableness of the NO. When we feel we are being scolded by someone whose goals or authority we do not accept, the rebellion becomes fierce. If the scolders are themselves guilty of any transgressions, the rebellion is fueled by righteous anger as well.
Finally, there is the insidious psychological phenomenon that causes the manifold divisions in the human family: though the similarities between any two humans may outnumber the differences by a million to one, we always manage to zero in on and define ourselves by the differences. This dynamic becomes especially toxic where negative telē are involved. If I am against X, I see myself as opposing the evils I believe X represents. But those who are for X see me as opposing the goods they believe X represents. We might, in fact, be in favor of most of the same goods, but our disagreements cause us to see one another as enemies. So, we spend our time and energy fighting one another rather than identifying and pursuing the aims we have in common.
This syndrome has been playing itself out with particular ferocity in the war over abortion. When people who have not already accepted the pro-life position hear the phrase “end abortion,” their minds automatically go to the goods that are sought by having abortion as an available option. The good of sexual pleasure and intimacy. Of making choices about one’s own body and life path. Of women’s ability to participate fully in public and professional life. Of saving a woman’s life in cases where a pregnancy truly endangers it. Of parents who already feel stretched to the breaking point stewarding their limited resources in the way they see best for their families. Of preserving our planet, where anthropogenic climate change is taking an ever more devastating toll, especially on the poor. All defenses I have seen of the pro-choice position name these or similar goods.
I noted above that no decent person can seriously be for drunk driving. But is it not equally clear that decent people can and should be for these positive goods? To change people’s minds and hearts, pro-lifers need to build trust, which is helped by acknowledging that these goals are extremely important and making a sincere effort to work together to achieve them. If we instead disparage the intentions of our “enemies”—that is, if we speak in the voice of The Accuser rather than The Advocate—we only harden their resistance and prime them to reject anything we have to say.
The Palace of YES: A Parable
Let us now try to imagine what presenting a positive telos might look like.
There once was a Palace of YES, the dwelling place of the King. Inside, every desire would be fulfilled, every wound be healed, and every loss be gloriously restored. Here was the joy of finding that the lost library book had just fallen behind the dryer; that what you thought was a betrayal was actually the planning for your surprise party; that the child you thought was swept out to sea was waiting for you on the shore. Here the arrows of accusation whizzing toward you—tipped with poisonous guilt and shame—would at the last second turn into roses. Here you would taste the food that made sweetness sweet, hear the voice that made music musical, and see the face that made beauty beautiful. All earthly delights, from ice cream sundaes to solving inscrutable math problems to intimate friendship and love, were merely previews and signposts to point us toward this Palace.
There was a road leading to the Palace. An evil Wizard had placed horrors and dangers on either side: venomous snakes and scorpions, fetid pools full of crocodiles, withered trees bearing fruit that reeked of poison and decay. Fortunately, the Palace was clearly visible, and the road was short, wide, well paved, and brilliantly lit. Everyone zipped straight to the Palace, where they all lived happily ever after. The End.
You’re right, that’s not how it goes. One of the most precious gifts we humans have been given is our craving for a real story. We instinctively know, in the depths of our being, that we are made for a transcendent “happily ever after,” but that we cannot get there without struggle and sacrifice. Let’s try again.
There was a Road leading to the Palace. On either side were the earthly delights described above. Since the evil Wizard could not destroy any good thing made by the King, he employed instead a cunning enchantment: he sprinkled everything with an addictive narcotic. People still enjoyed the many pleasures; but though their appetites were quelled for a little while, they were never fully satisfied. They increasingly found themselves bored and hungover, and the more they consumed, the greedier and more quarrelsome they became. They sensed that something was wrong, but they couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
One day, a Messenger came. He reminded them that they were on a journey—that the Road was leading to the Palace of YES. He showed them that the pleasures along the way were meant to refresh them and whet their appetites for the real thing but could never satisfy when treated as ends in themselves. A few people believed the Messenger, and they helped one another to struggle back to the Road and continue the journey. As they gradually recovered from their addictions, they became stronger. The people on the side of the Road began to notice something about them—a merriment in their eyes, a determination in their step, a willingness to endure suffering on one another’s behalf—that stirred a longing to be on the journey again.
I’ll stop there; you can fill in the rest. The point of the story is that contrary to the fundamental assumption of postmodernity, there is a story, and that story has a point. The earliest Christians were called “the ones of the Road,” (h)odos (Acts 9:2). When the Israelites on the Ex-odos, “Road out,” complained about their desert victuals and pined for the fleshpots of Egypt, Moses kept reminding them that they were heading to the Promised Land. As Pope Benedict XVI observes in his introduction to Saved in Hope, “[T]he present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” Moral rules can be baffling unless we realize that the purpose of every NO is simply to help keep us on that Road toward God’s supreme, glorious, perfectly satisfying YES.
We should also remember that the story is compelling precisely because God is pro-choice, in the real sense of that word. The Incarnation did not begin with a display of force, but with a game of “Mother, May I?” As all Creation held its breath, a Jewish girl answered, “YES, you may!” God in his infinite courtesy gifted her, as he gifts each one of us, with the dignity of causality, the dignity of choice. Our lives in Christ should be aimed at making it attractive for people to choose to follow her lead.
Author’s note: This essay is based on a speech delivered to the pro-life group at the St. Peter Catholic Student Center at Baylor University in March 2023. The title alludes to an observation by Eve Tushnet, “You can’t have a vocation of No.”