Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Toasts Ideologue

Some Christian Criticism of ID

“In The Blind Watchmaker, [Dawkins] provided a sustained and effective critique of the arguments of the nineteenth- century writer William Paley for the existence of God on biological grounds. It is Dawkins’s home territory, and he knows what he is talking about. ^This book remains the finest critique of this argument in print. The only criticism I would direct against this aspect of The Blind Watchmaker is that Paley’s ideas were typical of his age, not of Christianity as a whole, and that many Christian writers of the age were alarmed at his approach, seeing it as a surefire recipe for the triumph of atheism. There is no doubt in my mind that Paley saw himself as in some way ‘proving’ the existence of God, and Dawkin’s extended critique of Paley in that book is fair, gracious and accurate.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins turns his attention to such other ‘arguments’ based on the philosophy of religion. I am not sure that this was entirely wise. He is clearly out of his depth, and achieve little by his brief and superficial engagement with these great perennial debates, which often simply cannot be resolved empirically. His attitude seems to be ‘here’s how a scientist would sort out this philosophical nonsense.’ [Examples follow in the book.]…

In The God Delusion Dawkins criticizes ‘the worship of the gaps.’ This is a reference to an approach to Christian apologetics that came to prominence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- the so-called God of the gaps approach. In its simplest form it asserted that there were necessarily ‘gaps’ in a naturalistic or scientific understanding of reality. At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God needs to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding.

It was a foolish move and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century. Oxford’s firs professor of theoretical chemistry, the noted Methodist lay preacher Charles A. Coulson, damned it with the telling phrase ‘the God of the gaps.’ In its place he urged a comprehensive account of reality, which stressed the explanatory capacity of the Christian faith as a whole rather than a retreat into ever-diminishing gaps. Dawkins’s criticism of those who ‘worship the gaps,’ despite its overstatements, is clearly appropriate and valid…Unfortunately, having made such a good point, Dawkins then weakens his argument by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps…[Despite my desire to further quote criticism of Dawkins I will stay on topic here. It is interesting to me to note here how the 'God of the gaps' is a term coined by a Christian preacher in the porcess of criticizing a specific apologetic strategy, a preacher who was by no means alone in his rejection of this new development in modern times in some Christians' thought.]

It is hardly surprising that the ‘all too limited’ human mind should encounter severe difficulties when dealing with anything beyond the world of everyday experience. The idea of ‘mystery’ arises constantly as the human mind struggles to grasp some ideas. That’s certainly true of science; it’s also true of religion.

The real problem here, however, is the forced relocation of God by doubtless well-intentioned Christian apologists into the hidden recesses of the universe, beyond evaluation or investigation. Now that’s a real concern. For this strategy is still used by the intelligent design movement- a movement, based primarily in North America, that argues for the ‘intelligent Designer’ based on gaps in scientific explanation, such as ‘irreducible complexity’ of the world. It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply- and needlessly- vulnerable to scientific progress.

But the ‘God of the gaps’ approach is only one of many Christian approaches to the question of how the God hypothesis makes sense of things. In my view it was misguided; it was a failed apologetic strategy from an earlier period in history that has now been rendered obsolete. This point has been taken on board by Christian theologians and philosophers of religion throughout the twentieth century who have now reverted to older, more appropriate ways of dealing with this question. For instance, the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne is one of many writers to argue that the capacity of science to explain itself requires explanation- and that the most economical and reliable account of this explanatory capacity lies in the notion of a Creator God.

Swinburne argues that the intelligibility of the universe itself needs explanation. It is therefore not the gaps in our understanding of the world which point to God but rather the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires an explanation.” –Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? : Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (2007), p. 24-25, 29-31.

“When philosophy textbooks gather under the same heading a range of texts from the Middle Ages to today, from Anselm and Aquinas through Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant to contemporary writers, as if all these folks were doing the same thing- offering ‘proofs for the existence of God’- they mislead the students who read them. In fact the medieval texts so cited were usually doing something like the opposite- giving an account of God that would render anything like a ‘proof’ altogether inappropriate. Those who seek to reduce Christian faith to the arena of rational proof- whether liberal Deists trying to eliminate Christianity’s ‘irrational’ elements or conservative advocates of ‘intelligent design’ trying to make religion fir their own version of the ‘scientific’- are not preserving traditional Christianity but engaging in a particular and characteristically modern project that has diverged from the Christian tradition. “ –William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, (2007), p. 10.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

God's Story: As For The Story the Tyrants Try to Write

“Throughout the centuries, the blood of the righteous has been spilled on the earth: the blood of Abel and the blood of countless innocents who died during the violent times before the flood; the blood of nameless infants of Israel slaughtered by Pharoah and the blood of the innocents shed during the reign of Manasseh; the blood of the prophets sent to Ahab and Jezebel and the blood of the infants surrounding Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod; the blood of Stephen and James and Peter and Paul; the blood of Thecla and Polycarp and Lawrence and Ignatius and Agnes and Hippolytus. They have been crucified, skinned, torn in pieces, and fed to lions.

From all appearances these martyrs are forgotten forever. There are no warcrimes tribunals; there are few monuments, few memorials, few memories. Hundreds and thousands remain forgotten, nameless, faceless. By one estimate, seventy million martyrs have been killed in the history of the church, as many as forty-five in the past century. They have been killed in Russia and in Nazi Germany, in Turkey and in Algeria, in Nigeria and Sudan and Pakistan…Who even knows? Their blood is soaked into the ground and is silent forever.

That is what Ahab and Jezebel think, and that is what all the cruel powers who prey on the innocent have always thought- and hoped. As [Rene] Girard argues in book after book, all religions and cultures outside of Christianity are premised on this perverse hope, that blood is only blood, the hope that innocent blood can be silenced. When imitative desires fracture a society into war of all against all, harmony is restored by uniting all energies and hostilities against a scapegoat. The scapegoat does not cause the descent into social anarchy, but suffers as if she or he had and restores the social order…In all these systems, the gods underwrite the powers, the scapegoating majority, instead of defending the scapegoat. Girard argues that the Bible is unique in proclaiming the innocence of scapegoats and in revealing a God who hears the cry of innocent blood.

The innocent scapegoat is not some peripheral issue in Scripture but its central message: the gospel is the story of a man whose enemies conspire against him, a man falsely accused of blasphemy, a man taken outside the city to endure an unjust execution (Heb. 13:10-13). Naboth’s body [See 1 Kings 21 for the story of how Ahab and Jezebel murdered Naboth in order to take possession of his vineyard] like the flesh of a purification offering, is taken outside the camp to be destroyed (Lev. 4:11-12, 20-21), foreshadowing the greater purification offered by Jesus. In one sense the blood spilled from the cross speaks a word of mercy for the world, a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24). Yet the Lord remains an avenger of blood, even after the cross (Rev. 17-19), and the blood of martyrs cries out for vengeance against the persecutors of Christ, his bride, his gospel. That cry will be heard; that blood will be avenged.” –Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary, (2006), p. 156-57.

“Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea and said: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again… “ The following verses describe how the music and the commerce and the social events will be silenced forever. The reason: “By your magic spell all the nations were led astray. In her was found the blood of the prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth” (Revelation 18:21, 23-24).

The movie Cry Freedom (with Denzel Washington) recounts the story of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid leader in South Africa who was savagely tortured and murdered by the South African police for his outspokenness. I know little about Biko beyond this movie. I do not even know if he was a Christian, a “saint”, let alone a prophet-saint. But he was murdered for standing up for justice and God hears the cry of innocent blood. He is in solidarity with the poor, whether they call on Jesus name or not. The judgment of Babylon referred to in the passage quoted from Revelation is not merely for the blood of Christian martyrs.

Stephen Biko


Though Biko’s murder gathered media attention and helped to break the back of apartheid, many died unjustly and only a few knew, and official slanders and absurdities became their capstones. In Russia, many who profited during Soviet communism from the slander and torture and murder of the innocent still enjoy the loot of their corruption and the country suffers for not having had a public reckoning, which makes the demoralization more intense. Many believe in the existence of wickedness but as for goodess... But there is a new and living way and a vantage point has been opened to us: The wicked may prosper for a season, but let us sing with Rich Mullins, “Jesus, write me into your story!” We are a people who believe in the resurrection and a people who believe the story is ultimately one of justice for the innocent, The grave does not end the story. The case is not like Epicurus thought- that we should not sin, unless we can get away with it. The blood is remembered and there is a reckoning. Tyrants, big and small, observe the wind over the naturalistically silent graves of their victims and dream and hope and therapeutically remind themselves that after we die there is only annihilation. Though Lady Macbeth may wring her hands sleepwalking, with the apparition of the blood of her victims on them, when she wakes it is to a mundane, sealed existence safe from seeming unreality of guilt's claims on her. "Guilt" is only the threat of being caught in this lifetime. But God hears the blood, even if it is only Him alone who knows, and this ultimately will determine the end of the story.

Friday, January 11, 2008

C.S. Lewis

"One who has been instructed by the pagan examples"

The following section comes from a short work by the early church father, Basil the Great, addressed to young Christian men on the study of the classics of Greek Literature, , "Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature". Although there are things in the work as a whole which one clearly need not agree with, much of what Basil writes is quite helpul and valuable food for thought, it seems to me, and illuminative of the consonance and continuity with Christian teaching through the centuries. I found little that I disagreed with in the following section (though I suspect Alexander's scorn of the women was for purely noble reasons) in which he discusses specific instances of ways in which Christians can benefit from heathen literature:

"VII. After this wise, then, are we to receive those words from the pagan authors which contain suggestions of the virtues. But since also the renowned deeds of the men of old either are preserved for us by tradition, or are cherished in the pages of poet or historian, we must not fail to profit by them. A fellow of the street rabble once kept taunting Pericles, but he, meanwhile, gave no heed; and they held out all day, the fellow deluging him with reproaches, but he, for his part, not caring. Then when it was evening and dusk, and the fellow still clung to him, Pericles escorted him with a light, in order that he might not fail in the 110 practice of philosophy.27 Again, a man in a passion threatened and vowed death to Euclid of Megara,28 but he in turn vowed that the man should surely be appeased, and cease from his hostility to him. How invaluable it is to have such examples in mind when a man is seized with anger! On the other hand, one must altogether ignore the tragedy which says in so many words : 'Anger arms the hand against the enemy;' 29 for it is much better not to give way to anger at all. But if such restraint is not easy, we shall at least curb our anger by reflection, so as not to give it too much rein. But let us bring our discussion back again to the examples of noble deeds. A certain man once kept striking Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, in the face, yet he did not resent it, but allowed full play to the ruffian's anger, so that his face was swollen and bruised from the blows. Then when he stopped striking him, Socrates did nothing more than write on his forehead, as an artisan on a statue, who did it, and thus took out his revenge. Since these examples almost coincide with our teachings, I hold that such men are worthy of emulation. For this conduct of Socrates is akin to the precept that to him who smites you upon the one cheek, you shall turn the other also 30 — thus much may you be avenged; the conduct of Pericles and of Euclid also conforms to the precept: 'Submit to those who persecute you, and endure their wrath with meekness;' 31 and to the other: 'Pray for your enemies and curse them not.' 32 One who has been instructed in the pagan examples will no longer hold the Christian precepts impracticable. But I will not overlook the conduct of Alexander, who, on taking captive the daughters of Darius, who were reputed to be of surpassing beauty, would not even look at them, for he deemed it unworthy of one who was a conqueror of men 111 to be a slave to women.33 This is of a piece with the statement that he who looks upon a woman to lust after her, even though he does not commit the act of adultery, is not free from its guilt, since he has entertained impure thoughts.34 It is hard to believe that the action of Cleinias,35 one of the disciples of Pythagoras, was in accidental conformity to our teachings, and not designed imitation of them. What, then, was this act of his? By taking an oath he could have avoided a fine of three talents, yet rather than do so he paid the fine, though he could have sworn truthfully. I am inclined to think that he had heard of the precept which forbids us to swear.36"

Plato on Articulation of One's Beliefs

“ATHENIAN: So it looks as if have to compel the guardians of our divine foundations to get an exact idea of the common element in all four virtues- that factor which, though single, is to be found in courage, restraint, justice and wisdom, and this in our view deserves the general title ‘virtue.’ This element, my friends, if only we have the will, is what we must now cling to like leeches, and we must not relax our grip until we can explain adequately the essence of what we have to contemplate… ATHENIAN: Well, then, do we have the same line about goodness and beauty? Should the guardians know no more than that these terms are a plurality, or should they understand the senses in which they are unities? CLEINIAS: It looks as if they are more or less obliged to comprehend that too- how they are unities. ATHENIAN: But what if they understood the point, but couldn’t find the words to demonstrate it? CLEINIAS: How absurd! That’s the condition of a slave. ATHENIAN: Well, then, isn’t our doctrine going to be the same about all serious questions? If our guardians are going to be genuine guardians of the laws they must have genuine knowledge of their real nature; they must be articulate enough to explain the real difference between good actions and bad, and capable of sticking to the distinction in practice. CLEINIAS: Naturally. ATHENIAN: And surely one of the finest fields of knowledge is theology, on which we’ve already lavished a great deal of attention. It’s supremely important to appreciate- so far as it’s given to man to know these things- the existence of the gods and the obvious extent of their power. The man in the street may be forgiven if he simply follows the letter of the law, but if any intended guardian fails to work hard to master every theological proof there is, we must certainly not grant him the same indulgence; in other words, we must never choose as a Guardian of the Laws anyone who is not preternaturally gifted or has not worked hard at theology, or allow him to be awarded distinctions for virtue.” –Plato, The Laws, Trans. By Trevor J. Saunders, Penguin Books, 1970, (Reprinted 1975), pgs. 525-526.

[Plato here is articulating a principle about articulation which I have heard before from C.S. Lewis and which I think is generally true: If one cannot articulate an understanding then chances are they do not fully understand the subject matter, so we should aim in our educational endeavors to be able to articulate as well as to understand. There are some things which cannot be spoken- the ineffable- which nevertheless can be articulately evoked at times. Nevertheless, many subject matters can be. I find for instance in talking with Alex and Megan and many others of you that I am confronted with a challenge to articulate my understanding on a subject, and it does not always come easily, and the temptation sometimes is to slough off the effort. I think there are many instances where I have said something in response to a question which was in effect a settling for a more or less insufficient articulation of a buried understanding or view point of mine. But when I have made a ‘straight up’ and proper reply, with some pepper, it is valuable, either for having given form to and having conveyed my understanding, or having given a full articulation of my viewpoint which then exposed it to criticism and so possible correction, whereas if I had not fully expressed my understanding or viewpoint, it have remained insulated from either benefitting others or my being benefitted by its correction. Often when I seek to express some understanding or insight the endeavor allows me to self-correct the otherwise dormant mistaken thinking.

Thinking of and putting into practice ways by which we can together challenge each other to articulate fully our understandings and develop our views, especially on what we think are the most important things, and to cultivate among us articulateness and receptiveness and understanding, is surely a fruitful goal.

Plato’s Gaurdians are the rulers of his imagined colony and they are to understand above all others the whys of the Laws of the colony as well as what the Laws are. They must be able to articulate for instance to a lawbreaker the virtues of the Laws and why they are good to embrace and why it is bad to not follow them. Similarly, elders and leaders in a church should be able to articulate the reasons why they believe, and there should be a general culture in the church in which this articulation is grown and fostered.]

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Demographic Descent of Russia

“…The forces that have shaped this path of depopulation and debilitation are powerful and by now deeply rooted in Russian soil. Altering this demographic trajectory would be a formidable task under any circumstances. Unfortunately, neither Russia's political leadership nor its voting public have begun to face up to this enormous challenge…
…For example, in Italy--the prime example in many current discussions of a possible depopulation of Europe--there are today about 103 deaths for every one hundred live births. Russia, by contrast, reports more than 170 deaths for every one hundred births….
…Russia's current depopulation bears all the trappings of a "demographic shock," reflecting abrupt and violent changes in the nation's vital rates in the immediate wake of a momentous, system-shattering, historic event. This shock is probably not just a temporary disturbance: there are good reasons to believe that Russia's population trends define a new norm for that country….
…First: Russia's poor and declining overall health patterns extend into the realm of reproductive health, meaning that involuntary infertility is a more significant problem for Russia than for Western countries, and possibly a worsening one. According to some recent reports, 13 percent of Russia's married couples of childbearing age are infertile--nearly twice the figure for the United States in 1995. Other Russian sources point to an even greater prevalence of infertility today. Russian womanhood has been scarred by the country's extraordinary popular reliance upon abortion as a primary means of contraception--with the abortions in question conducted under the less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine. As one expert (Murray Feshbach) has noted, "approximately 10 to 20 percent of [Russian] women become infertile after abortions, according to numerous reports." Add to this the explosive spread of potentially curable sexually transmitted infections. According to official figures, the incidence of syphilis in 2001 was one hundred times higher in Russia than in Germany. Second: Russian patterns of family formation have been evolving markedly over the past generation-and not in a direction conducive to larger families. Simply put, young Russians are now much less likely to marry--and ever more likely to divorce if they do. In 2001 Russia recorded three divorces for every four new marriages. Third, and perhaps most important: With the end of the Soviet system, Russia has in some real sense commenced a rejoining with the rest of Europe--and in present-day Europe, Russian fertility rates are by no means aberrant. While Russia's levels tilt toward the lower end of the European spectrum, they are actually higher than for some other post-Communist areas whose "transitions" to democracy and market order look rather more complete (Slovenia, 1.21; Czech Republic, 1.14)--and are comparable to the current levels in a number of the established market democracies of the European Union (Austria, 1.31; Greece, 1.29; Spain, 1.26; Italy, 1.24). Viewed over a longer horizon, Russia's postwar fertility levels and trends look altogether "European." But Russia's death rates do not look European at all. Over the four decades between 1961-1962 and 2002, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for males; it also declined for females, though just slightly. Desperately poor health conditions are distributed with a wretched evenness across the land….
…As for mortality attributed to injury--murder, suicide, traffic, poisoning, and other violent causes--age-adjusted levels for men and women alike more than doubled between 1965 and 2001. Among contemporary societies at peace, Russia's level of violent deaths places the country practically in a category of its own. For men under sixty-five, the death rate from injury and poisoning is more than four times that of Finland, the nation with the worst rate in the European Union…
…As for the effect of population decline on daily life and affairs of state: in the decades immediately ahead, Russia seems likely to contend with a sharp falloff in its youth population. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of young men ages fifteen to twenty-four ranged between ten million and thirteen million. By 2025, on current UN projections, the total will be barely six million. Apart from the obvious military implications of this decline, there would be economic and social reverberations. With fewer young people rising to replace the older retirees graduating from the Russian workforce, the question of improving (or perhaps maintaining) the average level of skills and qualifications in the economically active population would become that much more pressing. And since younger people the world over tend to be disposed toward and associated with certain kinds of discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking, a pronounced choking off of younger blood could have real consequences for Russia's social capabilities and economic responsiveness…”

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Feeling Burdened by Others Expectations of You?

Donkey: "Idiots!"

This reminds me of a story from the life of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. When he was a slave of a bodygaurd of Nero, one day his master was torturing him by twisting his leg. He calmly and characteristically told the man, "Master, if you twist my leg further it will break." The man continued twisting and his leg broke. Epictetus responded, "I told you it would break."

The Demographic Descent of Europe: What Does It Mean?

“Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest ‘sustained reduction in European population since the black Death of the 14th century’?

  • Why do eighteen European countries report ‘negative natural increase’ (i.e., more deaths than births)?
  • Why does no western European country have a replacement-level birthrate? (The replacement level, according to demographers, is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2004, Germany’s birthrate was 1.3; Italy’s 1.2, Spain’s 1.1, and France’s 1.7; the higher French rate is due to Muslim immigration).
    [Footnote: "As demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has noted, the difference between a replacement-level birthrate and a birthrate of 1.5 or 1.4, other things being equal, is the difference between a stable population over time and a population that decreases by one-third as each generation passes."]
  • Why is Germany likely to lose the equivalent of the former East Germany in the first half of the 21st century?
  • Why will Spain’s population decline from 40 million to 31.3 million by the middle of the century?
  • Why will 42 percent of Italians be over sixty by 2050- at which point, on present trends, almost 60 percent of the Italian people will have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles?
  • Why will Europe’s retired population increase by 55 percent in the next twenty-five years, while its working population will shrink by 8 percent- and, to repeat, why can’t Europeans, either politicians or the public, draw the obvious conclusions from these figures about the impending bankruptcy of their social welfare, health care, and pension systems? Why, to cite Niall Ferguson again, is Europe’s ‘fundamental problem… senescence’?
  • What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?
  • Why do many Europeans deny that these demographics- which are without parallel in human history, absent wars, plagues, or natural catastrophes- are the defining reality of their twenty-first century?

These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily by reference only to Europe’s distinct experience of the twentieth century and what Europe learned from it. Nor can they be answered by appeals to European shame. A deeper question has to be raised: Why did Europe have the twentieth century that it did? Why did a century that began with confident predictions about a maturing humanity reaching new heights of civilizational accomplishment produce in Europe, within four decades, two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War threatening global catastrophe, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, Auschwitz and the Gulag? What happened? Why?”

-George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral, (2005), p. 21-23.

Weigel goes on in this slender and fascinating volume to gather and assess anaylses of the contemporary European scene in the context of its historical trajectories.

Marriage Conceptions Leading to Divorce, and Same Sex Unions' Use of These Conceptions

Here is some interesting commentary. There is widespread distaste for and rejection of the views of marriage that have resulted in rampant divorce. Many of those who have grown up as the children in these families do not accept the view of the family as expendable if the romance dies between the parents. Yet same-sex unions are being based on this idea of marriage, posing a further exascerbation of this misery.

"... David Blankenhorn writes in his recent book The Future of Marriage against the idea that marriage is a private relationship based on an emotional commitment between two adults. Marriage, Blankenhorn persuasively contends, is and always has been a social institution with the primary public purpose of ensuring that children will have an emotional, moral, and legal relationship to the parents who are responsible for their existence. Blankenhorn quotes approvingly the counsel of the German theologian-martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote to a young couple getting married that it is not only their love that will sustain their marriage but also their marriage that will sustain their love. Blankenhorn argues in a very civil manner free of polemics that the idea of same-sex marriage is a further and potentially fatal deinstitutionalizing of marriage….

As Blankenhorn argues in The Future of Marriage, the crucial factor is not the number who deviate from the norm, although that is not unimportant, but the effectiveness with which the norm is defended. The idea that marriage is a private relationship based on an emotional commitment between two adults has no doubt gained ground in recent decades. More important than its impact on agitation for same-sex marriage is the impact of that idea on the prevalence of divorce. Many millions of children have been subjected to the wrenching experience of the divorce of their parents, and studies suggest that young people today have little patience with the notion that the family is expendable if the adults responsible for holding the family together do not find their relationship emotionally satisfying. That is a hard-earned wisdom born of much sorrow, but it is wisdom, and it enhances the persuasiveness of David Blankenhorn’s argument in The Future of Marriage….There is nothing speculative about the millions of children of divorce who have a deep personal interest in not further destabilizing what is meant by marriage and family. "

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Civilization cannot survive the repetition of these crimes.

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

–Justice Robert H. Jackson in the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi doctors, qtd. in the documentary In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine.

Your Grandmother Extremely Lively, You A Paralytic

"A 6000-year-old Egyptian tomb bears this inscription: 'We live in a decadent age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They inhabit taverns and have no self-control.'"

-Robert J. Morgan in Then Sings My Soul, p. 151.

Sound familiar? The cliche "Somethings never change" comes to mind, but it seems to me the more nuanced understanding brings to mind that civilizations and societies go through different stages and phases. The Egyptian may be quite right in his observation.

This brings to mind the following:

"Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked.... It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.
-G.K. Chesterton, As I Was Saying.

"How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom the spreading laurel tree."
-W.B. Yeats, "A Prayer For My Daughter"

(Quotes taken from Robert Kimball's splendid essay, "The Fortunes of Permanence", available on the web.)

William Wilberforce in a pivotal night of prayer, wrote that Almighty God had laid on his heart the goals of abolishing the slave trade and of reforming English manners, and he then devoted the next fifty some years of his life to these ends, effectively. Manners in the sense of civility and humane and humble deference are essential for civil discourse and fruitful dialogue. The "New Atheists" of late have been distinguishing themselves by their willingness to forgo the "ceremonies" of civil dialogue, Sam Hall, for instance, suggesting that people should be killed for holding certain beliefs. This is the kind of thing Yeats decried when he wrote "The center can not hold. Things fall apart..." The theme of humaneness and honoring of parents and faithfulness to friends was huge for Confucius and other wisemen like Plato who, whatever their faults, both helped to establish civilizations which had admirable and noble aspects to them as well as the blameworthy. Tongues of disorder in ascendance and pervasive shock trooper mentalities don't bode well for a particular society or civilization.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Biotechnology Raises Unavoidable Theological Questions

“When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease. In liberal societies, they reach first for the language of autonomy, fairness, and individual rights. But this part of our moral vocabulary does not equip us to address the hardest questions posed by cloning, designer children, and genetic engineering. That is why the genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo. To grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern world- questions about the moral status of nature, and about the proper stance of human beings toward the given world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make them unavoidable…It is commonly said that enhancement, cloning and genetic engineering pose a threat to human dignity. This is true enough. But the challenge is to say how these practices diminish our humanity. What aspects of human freedom or human flourishing do they threaten?” –Michael Sandel, The Case Against Perfection, p. 9, 24.


The documentary The Cross and the Star ascribes to the Gospel of John and Matthew in particular anti-semitic texts, but on what basis? In these texts the death of the earthly Christ is said to have occurred by the hands of the Jews. But there is something odd in charging these texts with anti-semitism. We know in hindsight how they have sometimes been used against the Jews in a long history of anti-semitism in which Jews were called “Christ-killers” and charged with deicide. But the charge of these texts with anti-semitism, while coming from an understandable emotionalism in response to the horror of the Shoah, hardly seems to make sense. The historical statement that the Jews crucified Jesus under Pontius Pilate is a mere historical assertion that is unexceptional in itself. It has taken on extra-historical connotations for many who hear it today, but these are the issue and not the simple historical content of the Gospel. Changing history because of the symbolical misuse of it is hardly the solution. Rather, any tendency to ascribe to the historical account undue meaning should be addressed from within the church by a countering theological correction. As for Jews today and those who surreptitiously support the Jews but attack religious particularity, their skepticism is understandable until clear teaching is presented that maintains the historical account of the Gospels intact but clearly counters any tendency to make the Jews the pariah. The Christian Scriptures in fact ascribe to the Jews a continuing privileged and beloved place in God’s design. They are identified as loved by God “on account of the patriarchs”. The eleventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans could not be more explicit in the acceptance of the Jews, the rebuke of the Gentiles who mistreat them, and the assertion that the Jews have an ongoing place in God’s plan. The solution of those who are supposedly the friend of the Jews of saying that any claim to particularity and superior truth in either the Christian, or by un-extrapolated implication the Jewish religion, as was advanced axiomatically in the abovementioned documentary, is the root of the problem is in fact to attack the tenants of both religions. The Jews await a Messiah and the Christians say that Christ is the Messiah. These are irreducible doctrinal differences but they should not equate to rejection and ascription of immorality by either side.

The following poem by John Donne captures for me a theological point that seems crucial to real Christianity. Although immediately offensive and anti-Semitic, according to the definition of anti-Semitism taught in the documentary, it seems to me that a thoughtful reading discovers in it a counter to anti-Seimitism that doesn’t resort to emotionalism and historicism to deal with a terrible problem:

Holy Sonnet XI
Spit in my face you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinned, and sinned, and only he
Who could do no iniquity hath died:
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews' impiety:
They killed once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
Oh let me, then, his strange love still admire:
Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment.
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire
But to supplant, and with gainful intent:
God clothed himself in vile man's flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Anyone who does not believe that Christ was crucified because of their own sins, and not because of the Jews, is not a Christian in any believing sense. Donne repeats the historical assertion of the Gospels that the documentary brands as anti-Semitic, but he is saying that for the Jews it was a mere mundane killing of an inglorious man. For those who believe, there is a greater guilt, a greater sin, repeated daily. To call Jews Christ-killers is in Christian teaching to malign the significance of Christ’s teaching for one’s own life. It is a mock piety, a show that always reveals to the discerning unbelief, lack of humility, and distortion of the Gospels and the New Testament teachings. It is in fact a killing of Christ to call Jews “Christ-killers” because the term is clearly appropriating the historical event and ascribing to it a narrowness of symbology that is anathema to the gospel of salvation. Anyone who says to his brother "Christ-killer" is in danger of the fires of hell.

The Armenian Genocide

A very valuable documentary about the Armenian Genocide:

An issue that Turkey to the present day is cavilling about and stonewalling.

The coiner of the term "genocide" had in mind the Turkish genocide of Armenians as well as the Holocaust. "Hitler sardonically asked, 'Who remembered the Armenians?'" (Qtd. in the documentary "The Cross and The Star")

When people say that life was good under the dhimmis comparative to life under Christian dominion, stop and consider this: The extermination of a million and a half Armenian Christians as a desperate expression of the Muslim Ottoman dimishment of power.

They wanted knowledge and beauty now

"The horrifying slaughter of September 11 tempts us to draw a line around that day and treat it and its immediate consequences as an exceptional case. There is a deep sense, however, in which the terrorist attacks underscore not the fragility of normality but the normality of fragility. This is a point that C. S. Lewis made with great eloquence in a sermon he preached at Oxford in 1939. “I think it important,” he said,

to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is
not panache: it is our nature."-qtd. by Roger Kimball in an excellent New Criterion article on culture with much in relation to Christianity:

Plato wrote in the wake of the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. He founded his school during a lifetime full of turmoil, and yet the school would last a thousand years before it shut its door, and his writings would continue to challenge and train to the present day.