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Friday, December 29th, 2006


The Gospel in the Stars

This will be one of my more esoteric posts. And what I'm posting is not a conclusion. It isn't even a definitive complaint against the received opinion. It is more the registering of a dissatisfaction with the received view.

I grew up with my nose rubbed into the exclusivism of Christianity at an early point. One of the first verses I ever memorized was John 14:6, "Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man cometh unto the father but by me." I believe I memorized this on a morning when my parents were church hunting and stopped at Calvary Chapel. I'll just say their Sunday School was overall pretty decent back then. (They did Pilgrim's Progress on flannelgraph another time I visited. It took two weeks. I dragged my parents to church there the second week so I wouldn't miss it.) I was innoculated against many forms of foolishness by this verse. But I also wonder if the bounds of orthodoxy were not given an odd shape by this being put to memory so early.

I ran into problems with the received view in another passage. In Romans chapter ten, St. Paul asks of Israel, "How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? and how shall the believe in Him of Whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). This has long been taken as a reason to send missionaries. If people have not heard, they cannot believe, and so call upon the Lord and be saved. Clear enough.

Clear enough, except that Paul keeps arguing. He asks if Israel has not heard. And he answers that yes, they have. "their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world." This is a quotation from Psalm 19. And the odd thing is that the "preacher" in Psalm 19 is the heavens. Now the received understanding of this passage of Romans is that Paul is just making a comparison. Just as the heavens preach to the ends of the earth, so also, the preachers of Israel preached the length and breadth of the land. But I wonder. When I read, it seems that Psalm 19 is a prooftext, not an illustration. And I was taught in seminary not to expect the "right doctrine to be taught from the wrong text." I don't expect that St. Paul is "hijacking" Psalm 19 to teach something it does not teach.

I'm at a point where I'm not satisfied with any way of resolving this. St. Paul is clear that there is a content to what is to be believed. It involves Jesus. Calling upon him involves confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). So I don't think that we can say that the heathen read of God's eternal power in the stars (Romans 1:19-20), and this saves them.

It seems that the claim that the Gospel itself is written in the stars might be one solution here. Either that or Psalm 19 really is being hijacked as others suggest. I'm not sure which is the better solution. I'll just say that the idea of the Gospel in the stars offers a more robust Pauline reading of the Old Testament. There are potential problems either way. But if you want to entertain the notion of the Gospel in the stars your problem will be rationalism, not bad theology. The wise men from the East found the child by means of a star. If the stars are for signs (Genesis 1:14), and this was a sign that the wise men could read, there were likely others who could read it as well. I'm inclined to think that the loss of original knowledge was not evenly distributed. Certain tribes may have kept what they needed to know to make use of this knowledge. I like to think that in a few odd languages, in various parts of the world, when Jesus was born, some people knew about it, perhaps being saved through faith in the promise of Genesis 3:15. We still need to take the gospel out, as many tribes did not retain this knowledge. But I would expect that some did. If in the vast multitude at the end of time, people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are saved (Revelation 5:9), then how else is there salvation for tribes that went extinct before missionaries reached them? As odd as my reading here is, I think pressing the received reading too hard involves other doctrinal difficulties that may be more problematic.

12:44 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Saturday, December 23rd, 2006


Older Traditions

I knew little family history when I was young. Then a genealogist in the family sent us a 200 page book she had been compiling for years. On one page I find a recollection by my dad's aunt which included their Christmases in Topeka before and around the turn of the century.

A German family across the street from us were the only people I knew who put up a big Christmas tree with ornaments and candles. We never had a tree, and how I did love to look at theirs. Christmas was not observed, among our friends at least, in such excess as it has been in later years. We children hung our stockings, usually from a door knob in the sitting room, as our fireplace was in the "front" room which was only used for company. Our base-burner was in the sitting room which we used until Dad installed a furnace.

Mother gave us gifts, but my father always gave us money and it would be found under our plates on the dining room table. The table was always set the night before with the plates left upside down. There was always plenty of candy and nuts. One Christmas morning I arose early to see what I had received and discovered Ollie [that's the blogger's grandfather] trying to read Huck Finn by moonlight. He received a little steam engine about this time and I was as thrilled as he was. I was given a rocking chair one Christmas and kept it until after I was married. I remember my china doll with black hair, and when she was broken I buried her in the backyard. When I was about ten years old my parents gave me a piano called the Wing that I kept until it was ruined in the 1951 flood. It had two extra pedals, one of them the 'mandolin'. I was given music lessons from a Professor Worral who came to the house in a long-tailed coat and a high hat.
[from Ritchie-Shelledy Family History, by Mary Ritchie Jarboe, (1984) p. 171.]

I love accounts like this. If Great Aunt Mary Margaret hadn't written this down, who would know? I'm sure I have lived through Christmases that will not be remembered like these.

I love the description of the customs, too. Apparently in my dad's family they followed his mother's lead and gave presents. His first memory was when he was four and waking up to see a wagon with a light wheeled out under the tree. That was in the early 1930's.

I have caught several documentaries this year which contradicted each other on the matter of when Christmas trees became popular. Both dealt with England, not America. One said that it was when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Albert was German. He introduced the tree and it became universal quickly, with people describing the custom as if they had always had it. Then another documentary on the 1914 Christmas Truce said that the English soldiers were unfamiliar with the tree. Anyway, I like primary source material. It appears that at least in Topeka, Kansas, you didn't have one in 1900, unless you were German.

12:28 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Friday, December 22nd, 2006


Under Care of the Wolves

I have Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia in my volume The Portable Thomas Jefferson. It looked a lot like Life on the Mississippi when I glanced it over before, so I wasn't too tempted to read it. But I'm reconsidering. I just found this gem in his chapter on the Aboringines [Native Americans]:

Very possibly there may have been anciently three different stocks, each of which multiplying in a long course o ftime, had separated into so many little societies. This practice results from the circumstance of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government. Their only controuls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature. An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them: insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The Savages therefore break them into small ones.
[Thomas Jefferson, The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Penguin, 1975), pp. 133-134.]

3:10 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Monday, December 18th, 2006


Christmas Questionnaire

Theresa at Katie's Beer posted, and John Halton at Confessing Evangelical continued it. Anyway, this is not a meme where you get tagged, but do let us know if you decided to answer.

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate?
Egg Nog. (Though mulled cider will please me more times through the season.)

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just set them under the tree?

Santa puts the coal right into my stocking. He doesn't bother to wrap it. But boy do I have a fun time being bad! It's seriously worth it! Some of us have a coal club. We go to a bar on Christmas, skipping out on family activities. The price of admission is a lump of real coal from Santa. Not a barbecue briquette, mind you. People who bring those are trying to fake it. They get beatings. But you'd be surprised how hard it is to find bad guys in a bar who believe in Santa. It's a very specialized club.

3. Colored or white lights on the tree and/or house?

Colored on tree. White on house.

4. Do you hang mistletoe?

Yes. But there's a trap door underneath.

5. When do you put your decorations up?

January 15th. Just to piss off the neighbors.

6. What is your favorite Christmas dish (excluding dessert)?

The bar serves a pretty good Reuben sandwich. And the sausage popovers with Coleman's mustard. Mmmmm. This beats a turkey or a prime rib any day.

7. Favorite Christmas memory as a child.

After I first got the coal, and I had cried my eyes out, the thought came to me that I didn't have to be good the next year. In fact, this could still be my best Christmas ever. I got a dozen eggs out of the fridge, and went over to a friend's house and asked if he wanted to come with. He did. He got some eggs from his fridge and we went out egging houses. (It was an unseasonably warm winter day in Southern California. That stuff baked on and didn't scrub off some houses for years. Rough stucco was a bad idea.) Anyway, my friend was careless and he got caught. His folks were so mad they told him they were taking all his presents back. He told them they couldn't take his Big Wheel back because it was from Santa. They told him there was no Santa, and returned the Big Wheel. I can't believe that they lied like that just to make a point. But I noticed they didn't hang stockings. The were sneaky. Nobody knew they had been bad because they didn't get coal. You know there's honest bad like me. And then there's dishonest bad. They must have taken the Big Wheel back to a store with a generous return policy. I finally figured out why stores do that. They know! If you do returns without receipts, you can take back all the Santa gifts you never sold, and those are special because they're magic.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa?

When the coal started coming. Before that, I thought he really did check his list twice. But no. There was another Rick Ritchie in the world. (I don't know if it was the Reverend Rick Ritchie or the lawyer. Or another one altogether.) He had been bad all year, and I had been good. But through some accounting glitch I got coal and the little bastard got my motocross bike. Well, you can imagine how that went over. Was I extra good so that he would make it up to me the next year? Hell, no! I was bad. Bad on purpose. If you're gonna get coal anyway, you might as well have a fun time earning it.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve?

Yes. Thankfully I do get family gifts. I get those on Christmas Eve at my sister's house. My brother-in-law is Swedish, so we follow Scandinavian custom. It helps, as Christmas is a sore spot where gifts are concerned. And at my age, egging houses has lost some of its fun. I still do it now and then. But it's so hard to tear someone away from the bar just to relive childhood.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree?

As nicely as possible. Martha Stewart has some great tips. But we take off all the decorations by midnight so Santa doesn't get to see them. Hah!

11. Snow! Love it or dread it?

I'm convinced that I have hundreds of generations of ancestors who were reindeer herders in Finnmark. I might even have some Sámi blood in me. I see snow and I feel like I'm in my natural element. I'm guessing that my whole feud with Santa may be generations old, and may really be about some herding dispute from long ago. Man, some people just can't forgive and forget!

12. Can you ice skate?

Yes. First place I ever tried was Switzerland. Switzerland is cool because the Italian-speaking cantons are served by Befana rather than St. Nicholas, so if you're on Santa's bad list, you might still get gifts. At least until they get the universal database up and running. But stay away from the German-speaking cantons. Schmutzli will cane you for being bad. This is worse than America. You've heard of the spike in deaths during the holidays? It isn't depression. It's German Christmas customs!

13. Do you remember your favorite gift?

Somebody gave me a dozen ostrich eggs one Christmas Eve. Do you know how huge those are? You should see them splat on the side of a house!

14. What's the most important thing about Christmas for you?

Justice.

15. What is your favorite holiday dessert?

Revenge. A dish best served cold. And I serve it in the form of Ex-Lax Brownies. I leave these out with milk for Santa. You thought his journey was long before! Sometimes, though, I feel sorry for the people below. Poor San Diego. Anyway, if you see blue ice out on your lawn, stay away from it.

16. What is your favorite Christmas tradition?

Egging houses, though it has fallen on hard times.

17. What tops your tree?

A Voodoo Santa.

18. Which do you prefer, giving or receiving?

It's fun to receive eggs, and even more fun to pass them on.

19. What is your favorite Christmas song?

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. (Only at the bar we switch out Grandma for Santa.)

20. Candy Canes! Yuck or yum?

Yuck. You know the elves who invented them had an ulterior motive. It's all a thinly veiled attempt to make people get over a natural aversion to something unpleasant. You do this in one area, and you can later do it more easily in another. I've heard that Santa's Village was populated when the Finnish Army discharged a lot of gay soldiers all at once at the North Pole. They formed a community dedicated to handicrafts and decorating. But this was before homosexuality was openly discussed, so few people know this. But duh!

12:27 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Thursday, December 14th, 2006


Biocapitalism and Biostatism

In modern political discussions, it seems to me even when I'm reading the brightest and the best, dimensions get left out of the discussion, allowing what is possibly a clear view of some of the problems to lead to what is almost surely a narrow view of the possible solutions.

I have been looking again at Peter Augustine Lawler's writings. I haven't yet seen an essay that did not contain much good insight. In fact, probably every time I read or hear him (say, on Mars Hill Audio), I come away with an altered perspective on the subject. When I single him out for treatment it isn't because I think he is dead wrong. I do so because I think he is almost right.

Lawler complains of the results of a "creeping libertarianism" in society, saying it is often very creepy. When he explains how it is creepy, I find myself in agreement. The commodification of the body begins as an experiment in individual liberty by some. Later, when the majority do such things, there is not so subtle pressure for everyone to do them. Even employers get into the act. Do we want a world in which mood brighteners and plastic surgery are necessary for employment?

The question is a good one. My discomfort is with the implied answer. We shouldn't allow it! And the perhaps more mildly implied means: legislation. Which means, we solve with guns a problem that might be solved in another fashion through social sanctions. Or perhaps through deeper deregulation.

Lawler quotes Gilbert Meilander on the problematic nature of allowing our bodies to become commodities: "It puts every individual in the imaginary and genuinely alienating position of understanding the 'self' as existing apart from the body, as wholly sovereign over the body, as a 'spiritual overlord' free to use the body as one pleases." Now, there is a lot to this. But even if we think it is bad for the individual to see himself as his or her own 'spiritual overlord', what can we do about it? Statist solutions replace the individual as overlord with the state as overlord.

In place of monetary power, Meilander and Lawler think political power is a good solution. Except what does this imply? They say, for example, that I don't own my kidney. So if a law against kidney sales is made, can people be jailed for engaging in such sales? This gives the government ownership of those they incarcerate. What happened to dignity?

The substitution of one principle in the Declaration with another principle is also a statement of politics. It says that other members of the Republic get to vote on what rights we have. This creeping statism has gone quite far over the years. If Lawler can see a Brave New World where rich people can buy organs at will, I can see one in which the populace votes out all rights altogether on the pretext of securing higher moral values, only to see their rights gone and no values advanced.

John Taylor Gatto describes how one purpose of compulsory schooling was to make children into human resources. They are brought up to expect to work for corporations rather than becoming enterpreneurs. This doesn't sound so shocking until you realize that at the time this scheme was hatched, most Americans did work for themselves. Now, think about it. To term people as "human resources" is the commodification of the individual. If mood brighteners are becoming necessary to get hired, it is in part due to having corporations provide so many jobs. The more enterpreneurs out there, the fewer people face these pressures.

And when you think about it, just what are the people in poorer countries doing when they sell a kidney? They are getting goods they could otherwise only get at an astronomical output of their labor. Instead of acting as human resources in the sense of wage slaves, they take a medical risk. Is this worth it? I think they have the right to decide that. The individual who faces the question has a greater interest in determining what promotes his dignity than any legislator does. Even on the category in question, dignity, I think autonomy will do a better job of solving problems. If some of the solutions are creepy, I think the creepiness is endemic to the lives of those who make the choices. It is terrible to think that someone on this planet would have to resort to selling a kidney to get their children out of servitude or to buy a new dwelling place. But what is dignified about their children working long hours outside the home, or continuing to live in a hovel?

To call for using political solutions to prevent a creepy future ignores the fact that so many present forms of creepiness are the result of statism. To fault the Declaration of Independence and suggest that voters can replace one of its principles appears plain foolish to me. If it weren't for John Locke, I'm sure many more of us would be rotting in jail right now—for the best reasons I 'm sure. Autonomy sounds like a bad idea until you face the prospect of losing it. Without it there is no dignity.

Lawler says that "For those of us who aim to limit the spirit of biocapitalism in our time, the task ahead is very daunting indeed." Biocapitalism is creepy in part because of the power of the engine. But much of the engine is itself constructed artificially. Medicare is one factor that Lawler mentions. The power of corporations is another factor that must be factored in. Except that they exist as privileged entities created through legislations. True libertarianism would cut these aspects of the engine way down. And it is these things that make the prospect of our Brave New World so scary. People will end up in a system they can scarcely get out of. This is true. But the machinery was built on statism. To suggest that we fix it with yet more statism will in the long run probably mean swapping biocapitalism for biostatism.

If the state gets to define dignity and control organ donations, what is to prevent it from some day requiring donations for some higher social good? Meilander suggests that the state allow people to make a gift of a kidney but not sell one. If the state can do this, then why can it not require an individual to give a kidney as a gift? For what Meilander sees as the evil is the autonomy of the individual who would sell a kidney. And the commodification of the kidney. But if political power is no problem, since it may be used to prevent such a sale, and if transfer of a kidney is no problem, since the individual can give one as a gift, then why can't the state require this benevolence from its citizens? I fear that attacking autonomy in the name of dignity leads to conclusions that are chilling in another direction.

Some years back, there was a revolution that brought about the Soviet Union, a place where the problem of commodification was solved politically. Lots of people died with the dignity that came from not being able to sell their labor. Of course their inability to freely contract their labor didn't mean they didn't have to work. Likewise, I think here we're seeing a veiled attempt to socialize humanity. If the state can prevent you from acting as owner of your body, the state will act as that owner when you violate its laws.

The account is truly odd when it gets most elegaic: "The idea that selling one’s body is a right depends, says Meilaender, on an understanding of bodily ownership that 'sever[s] the person from the body.' It puts every individual in the imaginary and genuinely alienating position of understanding the 'self' as existing apart from the body, as wholly sovereign over the body, as a 'spiritual overlord' free to use the body as one pleases. Yet this view is misguided: I delude myself when I think of my allegedly surplus kidney as no different from, say, my land—that is, as part of my net worth, to be disposed of at will. If I think of myself truly as a whole or embodied human being, who is more than the sum of my mental, willful, and physical parts, then my 'bodily integrity' continues 'to be a very great good', inseparable from my integrity as a living person."

This sounds rather good until you consider how it will work out in reality. Let us imagine a South American worker who has to work 17 hour days in the mines. He never gets to see his family. His boys are fatherless. Meilander says we must not allow him to sell his kidney so that he might live a life where he has more contact with his children. No. Instead he must shovel in the dark, comforting himself with the fact that his bodily integrity is a very great good. He must further ignore the fact that a very real chance exists that a mining accident might disrupt that bodily integrity any day. Allowing him to sell his kidney would turn him into an irresponsible person. He'll probably blow the money in Rio on expensive hotels and showgirls. Someone might object that this was not argued. Except the conclusion seems to have been drawn for the man that there is no possibility that he could have sacrificed his kidney with a sober estimation of how his body could best be used. For use his body he must. For many people in the world, their lives are more enslaved to economics than we can imagine. Allowing free choices allows the individuals to decide when one kind of bodily enslavement has done more to create alienation than the removal of a kidney. Some might prefer to risk being buried early to continuing to bury themselves alive.

To suggest a political solution to alienation is itself bizarre. Our current political environment is the result of much discrimination. It is the application of abstract principle to create a large machinery that did not exist in nature. We have moved away from nature in creating this superstructure. The larger the thing becomes in scale, the further removed we are from nature. In the distant past, even if you were arrested or jailed, there was a sense of community with those who made the arrest. This is largely gone. To try to make an inhuman state the tool for humanizing our world is to fail to see what the modern state is. If you believe in bodily integrity, use your own body to persuade your neighbors not to sell their kidneys. And then be prepared to listen to them as they explain why they wish to do what they plan to do. Their "creepy libertarianism" might turn out to be their best human choice. And your "creepy statism" won't be adding to their alienation.

3:56 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Tuesday, December 12th, 2006


The Sweet Mystery of Life

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has a wicked sense of humor. Whether or not a reader agrees with his positive understanding of the Law, his negative critiques of bad law are often devastating—and funny, too. In one case from recent years, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court made a sweeping statement that almost seemed to call into question any ability of the state to make any law whatsoever. Scalia named one of the most questionable passages the "sweet mystery of life" passage: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." This is funny because for many of us it brings to mind Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein singing "Oh, sweet mystery of life, I've found you!" while she's in the throes of passion with the monster. (Some of us are even naughtier and remember that the monster had an "enormous Schwanstucker.") Scalia's label for this passage tells us that what comedy tells us. Left to themselves, people will deify their sex drive. In the words of Steve Martin in The Jerk, "I have finally found my special purpose!"

The tough thing here is that as ripe as "the mystery of human life" is as a target, there is some conceptual overlap with language that goes far back into our history. As "postmodern" as some term the "sweet mystery of life" passage, it is also very 18th century up to a point. It harkens back to the Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness" concept. That concept was not incompatible with all legislation. Yet it did have a ruling place in jettisoning certain types of legislation. I'd like to discuss what it did and did not mean, and perhaps find what an understanding of the Declaration will bring to our reading of Casey.

First of all, what is the "pursuit of happiness" stated in opposition to? This is an important question, as I have heard some discussions that got the matter all wrong. I have heard one theorist, Peter Augustine Lawler, suggest that this goes back to John Locke, and that for Lockean man, he pursues happiness but happiness is never guaranteed for him. This sounds like a damning criticism. For isn't a guarantee better than freedom to pursue something you never achieve? That all depends. First we have to ask what it would mean to take as the government's job the guaranteeing of human happiness.

The government may define happiness in broader or narrower terms. In the eighteenth century, the broader understanding was probably more common. Ultimate happiness might be seen in religious terms. It might be the salvation of the human soul. Here it would be odd if the government could claim it could guarantee happiness. At best it could work to make happiness more likely. Make laws to promote religion. The government could determine the true religion and then force people to attend. John Locke did attack this idea with what I think is a very reasonable argument. The individual is the one who is at risk here. If the individual adheres to the wrong religion, then the individual pays. The state is not in the position of risk. Suppose the state makes the wrong religious choice for all its citizens. Can it pay them back for their losing their souls? Not if Jesus is correct. Locke saw that each individual had a much greater incentive to find religious truth than the state did. Some might squander their chance, but they would get what they deserved. The point was not to put a barrier in the way of those who truly cared and would be willing to pursue the truth at great cost.

But let's consider what would be more likely to happen in modern times. The state might define happiness in more concrete terms: housing, healthcare, vacations. The government will then decide to intrude into the economy in an attempt to ensure that it produces happiness for everyone. Only, through long experience, we have discovered that this does not work. Milton Friedman was one of the best at arguing what tended to happen. The regulation that was meant to help the economy hurt the economy. Further, more and more of the life of the individual came under the control of the state. High taxes would mean more time at work. But if we step back, we have to wonder whether this really makes people happy. This whole endeavor was meant to guarantee happiness which was defined in material terms. Only the state cannot know even at the level of material satisfaction what will make people truly happy.

Whether the state defines happiness in broader or narrower terms, it is in a poor position to guarantee it. There is the further question of whether part of the happiness is in the pursuit itself. Is happiness ONLY found in the afterlife? Is it ONLY found after receiving the paycheck? When the state says "Yes", happiness is deferred. In the psychology of the individual, delayed gratification is a mark of maturity. But in the machinations of the state, it's likely to be a false promise. How many five year plans did the Russians have to endure on their way to socialist utopia? Not only was the journey dismal, but it only took the country to squalor.

The philosophical reasons for allowing individuals to decide what constitutes their happiness are worked out pretty well. The assumption seems to be that the burden of proof is on the one who thinks that some larger body should decide this for the individual. And many of us are skeptical that the power that the larger body wishes to amass to make its guarantees will be sought for its own sake. It has happened time after time.

I have little to say about the actual case in question. It was an abortion case. I am pro life. I don't make exceptions. Were I on a jury I tend to be a pushover for emotional arguments. But I think the law should be strict here, since the law is there to protect life. Codifying the exceptions doesn't seem to be the best way to handle things.

But neither am I happy in seeing 18th Century language degraded like this. There is a sense in which American citizens are free to define their own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. The problem is, you don't get to define whether or not your neighbor is alive or not as a private matter. That is a public matter. If you decide to redefine the universe such that your car doesn't need brakes, you will be held liable when it smashes through the front wall of the neighbor's house. A certain amount of reality we do insist on public agreement over. Usually those aspects of concrete everyday life where disagreement leads to time in the hospital. But having said that, we are free to disagree on some pretty major stuff. I wish the other justices had been a little more careful when they wrote what they did. Scalia is right that such an expression has no place in determining whether or not an abortion is legal. But not because it is false. It is true in large part. It's just irrelevant to the issue at hand. As irrelevant as "the pursuit of happiness" is in a discussion of abortion. The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. That is, the government cannot tell us what ends we pursue. But the life or liberty of other citizens may require us to alter our course a bit in the pursuit of our ends.

8:28 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Sunday, December 10th, 2006


Getting into the Spirit



This picture is probably my favorite from childhood. It was Christmastime. I had heard of Santa coming down the chimney, so I decided to play Santa myself. I climbed into the chimney. I dimly remember standing there saying, "Ho, ho, ho!" My mom and the woman up the hill (Jeff's mom) caught me. I don't remember the middle part, but I do remember them slapping my arms (to get the soot off). I didn't like that a bit. Apparently when they snapped the picture, I was happy again.

I also dimly remember that in general, when I would hear my mom and Jeff's mom talking together, it sounded like "Wa wa wa wa wa wa wa." That was how I would imitate it, too. (I'm much older now, but my mom still sounds like that a lot of the time.)

11:46 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Friday, December 8th, 2006


No New Creation without Creation

I decided to weigh in on the "Third Use of the Law" discussion that began at Cyberberthren.

First off, I hate the terminology. I am okay with abstract titles when they bring things together for discussion that can be conveniently discussed together. "Sanctification" doesn't seem to be one of them, however. In this discussion, and in many others, it seems to lump together many questions that could be given very different answers. "Should the Law Continue to be Preached to the Christian?" "Should a Sermon be Law & Gospel, or Law/Gospel/Law?" "Do we Have to Do Anything?" (That is itself asked in a murky fashion. Before I answer, I want to know "for what".) "Is Speaking About Sanctification a Way to Promote it?" "Should a sermon have the same structure as an Epistle? A pericope?" "How do we determine what is appropriate to preach?"

I will begin with some autobiography. I didn't grow up Lutheran. I grew up evangelical. Relatively conservative PC(USA), with porous boundaries toward other conservative evangelicals. My pastor did not preach Law and Gospel sermons most of the time, but his theology had a pretty good distinction between Law and Gospel. But youth leaders and others had varying degrees of clarity on the issue. When I became Lutheran, I found that I could systematically offer a clearer answer to questions, but the answers were not unfamiliar to me. They were the answers that the saner adults seemed to offer. Only there were clearer boundary edges to them.

I have a couple of frustrations when I hear Lutherans start to muddle the categories. First, this is one of the few places where Lutheranism can really offer something you can't find elsewhere. But second, when I hear Lutherans try to do the evangelical thing, they do it terribly. I've seen it done so much better. Let me take an issue to illustrate.

In sexual ethics, my Presbyterian church did two things. First, it taught Biblical ethics as the norm. People were not left wondering where the church stood on the issue. There was an ethic and we didn't get to reformulate it at will. Second, there was an environment of graciousness over the issue. This was not a congregation with a lot of visible church discipline. But there were lots of discussions. There was lots of person-to-person counsel. What I saw over time was that it seemed as if as an ideal, the Biblical ethic was adhered to by a larger number of people than I have since seen in other churches.

When I came to the Lutheran church, I found it was different. On the one hand, there was a sharp distinction made between Law and Gospel. It also seemed that people were very reticent to jump on each other over ethical failures because they knew they could be charged with an uneven application of the Law. Their own foibles were also apparent and might come up for discussion. Well, so far, so good.

What bothered me, though, was that pastors would then get all itchy when people began to misbehave too much. Suddenly they would go into harranguing. They would address the congregations in a very scolding parental tone of voice. Only this was done in a bad parenting manner. It was like the scolding by parents who had never really made an effort to shape behavior in the first place. (Ever notice how inept parents end up yelling more?) Ethical instruction had had little place for a long time, and so the counterreaction was a retrenchment.

What was usually missing was teaching more on the doctrine of Creation. What were we created to be? How is it all supposed to work? Without this as background, I don't want to hear a word about Sanctification. It's just blather. God becomes an intrusive parental figure who Himself has no idea what we were created to be, because He was never presented as our Creator. His ability to judge came out of nowhere. I don't mean that this was taught in an overt manner. But the pattern of doctrine allowed this to emerge as a picture from the teaching.

When I was in youth group, I remember some of the illustrations used to describe what infidelity was. The youth pastor used the illustration of taking two pieces of paper and gluing them together. Then pulling them apart and gluing them to other pieces of paper. You end up with shredded paper. I had the temerity to press the illustration. "But don't you sometimes manage to pull a couple pieces apart effectively?" The youth pastor answered, "Yes. Sometimes." The impression left was that his illustration DID match reality. In reality you get away with a lot of things. But you don't know when you won't. That stuck with me.

But without discussions like that, all you have is the command coming out of nowhere. Now, sure. God in his majesty should be listened to. He has a right to command even things that don't make sense. But I have to wonder. When nothing was ever discussed as if it did make sense, just what kind of traction did pastors think their preaching commandments to have? I think they end up putting all the emphasis on tone. Growl. Yell. Thunder. I'm sorry, but did they never read Exodus? God thundered at Sinai, and shortly thereafter the people were rioting before a golden calf. If God's thundering was of limited effectiveness, will our thundering do better?

The irony here is that their avoidance of teaching creation seems to be rooted in adherence to Law and Gospel. "Creation? Don't know where that fits. Wasn't in the morning's text. Anyway, that's God's alien work. Let's focus on the New Creation." They preach Law and Gospel. Some people decide to just go out and sin. Pastors get itchy. What can they do? I know. Law/Gospel/Law. So instead of teaching Creation in an "out of place" fashion that would scare their homilitics professors, they have to resort to putting a note of Law on the end of a sermon. Great.

Go ahead and quote the Confessions all you want. But remember. We are living in a different world. The doctrine of Creation has taken some hits since the 16th century. Ever heard of Darwin? Freud? People are under intellectual temptations that no 16th century Christian faced. At different times, different doctrines need defense before any progress can be made. I say that without a robust sense of Creation, we're sunk. And we should be. If anyone WANTS to be around scolding where there is no real sense that the values are rooted in created reality, I don't want to share a pew with them.

The Pauline Epistles are brought in here. Paul's "paranetic teaching" as it is termed. Only they miss paying attention to what Paul is really doing. He's taking Old Testament teaching and adapting it to the new reality in Christ. This needs to be done, surely. But to follow him, we have to ourselves hook in to the Old Testament. In a certain sense, none of this is new. How can I put this? The way this is done when it is done badly is to present this all as if it came from nowhere. Again, it's almost like the inept parenting. No. This stuff is structured. You have to "get" creation for it to make sense. You don't just harrangue and expect it to work on the sheer force of will.

When the pastors take such a parental tone with their parishioners, they make a grave mistake. If that's the kind of relationship they want with their people, they had better be clear on what they're signing up for. Yes, perhaps they will be able to use parental disappointment as an effective motivational tool. But as with parents, children know they can avoid unpleasantness if they are good enough at hiding things. Out of sight, out of mind. When you watch this from the outside, it's pretty laughable. Especially when your youth group leaders knew this better with kids than pastors of adult parishioners seem to know it. The only way to get a real improvement is to see that teaching becomes internalized. It will only be internalized if it makes sense to people. Where they continue to sin, it either does not make sense to them, or no rationale would likely do any good anyway.

A friend of mine once made the whole problem with "results-based" preaching clear to me. Some Catholic friends complained that taking away fear of hell was a bad idea because then what will keep people from sinning? His response was, "Well, if you're going to decide it on that basis, why not just tell people that they'll be struck by lightning the first time they sin?" The answer that immediately came to mind was, "But they'll see it isn't true." Only that answer proved too much. First, that truth matters. Second, if we're conscious of the fact that what we are doing is tricking people, we shouldn't expect them to listen anyway. No. We have to know what is actually true, and see that that gets taught. Let the chips fall where they may.

2:17 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Thursday, December 7th, 2006


Junk Debunking

Like many people, I enjoy debunking. Last night, I watched a holiday episode of Mythbusters where among other things, they busted the idea that you could cook a turkey on a radio tower. But I had some of C.S. Lewis's warnings against easy debunking ingrained into my soul early on. There is a great difference between, say, a page on Snopes.com where each phase of an urban legend is laid out and laid to rest with careful fact-checking, and the broader kind of argument that dismisses an unusual idea with a cold shower of, "Well, we know that probably didn't happen because that kind of thing doesn't happen."

One early example of wet-blanket reasoning came when I was about eight years old. On a summer visit to Minnesota, I saw The Sound of Music, intermission and all, with cousins on its ten year re-release to the movie theater. Well, I was in love with the movie. (Remember. This was pre Star Wars. This was a giant of a movie compared to others I had seen.) My favorite part was the puppet show. We had a four day drive home from Minnesota afterwards, and for the rest of the way home, my flip-flops were the goats. My sister wouldn't tell me the words of the song because she knew she would never hear the end of it. So I tortured her with my half-baked memory of the song.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I heard it was based on a true story. This really caught my interest. My mom had to attempt to bring a note of reality to the discussion. "Yes, those were real people. But they probably didn't have the puppet show." Many years later I was in the high school library and found a book on the Trapp family. What I found was absolutely hilarious. The story took place in a different time period. Maria and the captain were married in 1927. She was brought in to teach one daughter music. (The captain was not forbidding music as in the movie.) Even the children were different. Eventually there were ten of them, and they had different names from those in the movie. (Here is a link where you can find more.) Oh, but most important, they did have a puppet theater. So all the details that you would imagine were taken from life were fabrications, and the one item that appeared to be an embellishment was true. It just goes to show that guesswork has no place in debunking. Perhaps in coming up with an hypothesis. But a guess will not tell you what did or did not happen.

I was thinking how funny it would be if we got to heaven and found out that at Jesus' birth, there were exactly three wise men and their names were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar as in church tradition. I remember my first wrestling with some of this occurred when I was travelling in Europe when I graduated high school. We were in St. Peter in Chains church in Rome, and I thought of how unlikely it probably was that they had the real chains. But then I realized that there was no law of the universe that physical objects from Bible times all popped out of existence within one year of the events. We'll probably never know whether we have any true relics. But I like to think that some of them are real, even if I'll never be certain of any of them.

One night my cage was rattled again when my roommate at the time, Eric Casteel, read from a book by Stephen Toulmin on a certain period of the eighteenth century when for the first time in history, physical evidence was taken more seriously than human testimony. Wow! I had never considered how this involved a change at a certain point in time. It made me wonder just how different the past way of looking at these things might have been. Our historians have particular standards of evidence that they use when they sift through history to determine what happened. And in large part, I find their judgments plausible. But I wonder how much of this is accidental. When we leave the past method of discovery behind, we forget how it worked. When we forget how it worked, we are in a position where we can only picture it being done badly.

Imagine a doctor of the future. She will see our medical instruments, and they will look to her as medieval instruments do to us. She will only be able to imagine butchery. Even if standards of care increase greatly over time, I fear that the present standard of care, when it actually heals people, will be forgotten. The discipline, the long period of education, the way the physician becomes one with the tool, all that will be forgotten. Especially if the future tools require less education to learn, and economies of scale push further in the direction of specialized care. Even to imagine how the people of the past used other systems to come to their knowledge requires us to enter into their world at a level of depth that few of us have the time to devote to the endeavor. That alone should keep us from accepting debunking so easily.

Anybody else have a "puppet show" story where something that was debunked turned out to be true?

11:38 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Wednesday, December 6th, 2006


I Swear on the Book that Forbids Swearing to Uphold the Constutution which is Now Being Violated

Kobra and I have been discussing America and Christian Ethics lately, and he alerted me to the discussion of Congressman Ellison's refusal to swear on the Bible. I think this is quite an interesting discussion. I agree with Prager on a few points, but I disagree with him on others. I think that this is a great case to bring up the way symbolism works in politics, and how symbolism and ethical thought don't always take us in the same direction.

My first question, though, will be what an oath is for. When someone takes an oath of office, or an oath in a courtroom, it has long been understood that the idea is that God is being called in as a witness to the proceedings. A higher level of seriousness is brought into play. People who would otherwise feel little compunction about telling a white lie will agonize, feeling that purjury on the witness stand is a deeper stain on the conscience. This has been my understanding of why we make people take oaths. So that they will think twice about breaking their word.

Dennis Prager is taking the Bible as a symbol of the values that the person taking the oath of office is meant to uphold. I think this is false. Though I can see how given this view, Prager would find taking the oath of office on the Koran a step in the Islamicization of America. I would suggest that the words of the oath tell us what will be defended. The book that the oath is taken on suggest what deity will be enforcing the oath on the oath-taker's conscience.

If we want our office-holder to uphold our values, we want those values stated clearly in the oath, but we want the person's hand on the book that calls his deity as a witness. In the case of the Koran, I would say that the oath-taker is mistaken as to who rules heaven and earth. But I expect this mistake is so ingrained in conscience that he or she will feel a greater compunction to tell the truth based upon an oath on the Koran than on the Bible. If we wish this person to uphold Biblical values, it would be best to state what those are in the oath, the one the individual takes on the Koran.

I also found Prager's use of the term "favorite book" to be ill-considered. This puts the discussion in the realm of personal preference. I agree with Prager's deeper assumption that personal preference should not be the basis of our approach on such matters. But if a person is a public adherent of a religion, it would seem that the "favorite" book was chosen for him or her when the choice of religion was made. I think an argument could be made that to make a Muslim swear by the Bible suggests that the choice of oaths is as alterable as a personal preference that is out of favor with the majority. You don't like chocolate? Sorry. We only have one cake for the group, so love it or lump it. We can do that with mere preferences. Religions are different. If a public official can treat his religion as if it were a mere private preference for the sake of his office, will we be able to trust him with other weighty matters of conscience?

Prager's view here is even un-Jewish, at least if the Old Testament can be considered. The prophets railed against the idea that public ceremony had a higher value than basic morality. "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies" says God to Israel when it has failed to take care of the poor (Amos 5:21). God cares about justice more than ceremonies—even those ceremonies He has commanded. So will He not the more value justice over ceremonies He has given no commands concerning? Surely asking a public official to swear against his conscience makes no sense, especially in order to maintain a ceremony. No. Plain honesty matters more. (If someone wishes to argue that the adherent can avoid this problem by removing himself from office, this goes against the Constitution's rejection of a religious test for office. As Article VI states, "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." The language of "Oath or Affirmation" clearly refers to a Quaker compunction. And the quick follow-up with no religious test links these two ideas conceptually. The Constitution is on the side of the Muslim. The public ceremony, if argued against the Constitution, is anti-Constitutional. Is it not odd if the very oath to uphold the Constitution is a violation of it?

For the taking of the oath will then determine what kind of adherent is in office. And then which is the better Muslim, the one who will or the one who will not pass the test?) Prager worries about the Muslimization of America. This oath would be making an exception we haven't made for others. Well, we have. We made a Quaker exception early on. While I don't want to see our country Muslimized, I do want to see us consistent with our principles, however that is interpreted in other lands. I fear the making of morality a mere ceremony.

Yet this is all generic in its treatment of religions. How oaths function within a religion is also something that must be considered. Does the religion allow oaths to begin with? Quakers took the injunction from the Sermon on the Mount quite literally and forbade oaths. While I think they were wrong in thinking the injunction made it immoral to swear when asked, I do think that their witness on this point is a good one, despite what the Reformers said of the Anabaptists. If we want to think of ourselves as a Christian nation, perhaps the Sermon on the Mount should have been debated when it came to how the nation would use oaths. Some irony must be seen in swearing by a book that commands "Do not swear at all" (Matthew 5:34). I think that the New Testament was trying to bring people up out of a superstitious frame of mind on this subject.

God is the God of truth. Our words don't become serious or unserious because of a little ceremony we added to them. In fact, the ceremony might well make truth-telling on other occasions seem optional. In light of the New Testament, we are under oath every day, whether we know it or not. We may, for the sake of the neighbor, be willing to say something more in court to highlight our desire to be truthful. But this is, or should be (We don't easily live up to what we believe.), a condescension. It should not, in fact, make us more truthful than we otherwise would be, for we should always be truthful.

How are oaths regarded in other religions? This is a subject about which I know little. Most of what I've heard is hearsay. I have heard of this or that religion allowing exceptions for the furtherance of the religious community. But this is hearsay, and I have no idea how other people's religious documents are layered, or what kind of structure of authority they exist within. I have a difficult enough time tracking this kind of thing within different Christian circles. But the question still arises. Can we trust that an oath really adds to someone's desire to tell the truth? What if we were to find that it differed between sects of Islam, for example? (I don't know that it does, one way or the other.) Would we require one kind of oath of Sunnis and another of Shiites?

Some people quickly grow impatient of such discussions. "Just have them take the oath, dammit!" Well, that reaction suggests the oath is merely a symbol or formality. If we don't really need it, that is understandable. Or if we can afford to have the exceptional person who would arise to a higher level of truth-telling with a more sensitively crafted oath feel free to act with impunity. Are we really there?

Ultimately, this is a deep polity discussion. It asks of us what is a Congressman. What was one supposed to be at the founding of the country and what is one expected to be now? In the kind of looser confederation we once were, I think a single state could make choices that had a lesser impact on the whole. Now the election of a Muslim may mean a Muslim on the Armed Services Committee. I'm sure some Muslims would do a fine job there. But I'd want to know quite a bit before I saw that happen.

We are at a time when polity will have to be rethought on a deep level. If we are to live in this giant nation under a consolidated government, we cannot pretend that we are living under our original polity. And the stakes are getting higher and higher for everyone.

I'd like to suggest that when people speak of our country as a Christian nation, they harken back to Plymouth colony. Well, that was a small polity. Our best chance at seeing a flourishing of Christianity would be if such colonies were allowed within our nation. Most people would feel safer with a vaguely Protestant secularism ruling the whole. Where neither Protestantism nor Islam nor any other position really had to be understood. I am thankful, however, that those days are receding quickly. Either we must see the larger consolidated government secularize more deeply, or we will see it try to continue to represent the majority through some committee concocted civil religion that truly binds no conscience. Such values are not worth fighting for.

12:33 pm Pacific Standard Time

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Saturday, December 2nd, 2006


Crichton on Chesterton

I picked up Michael Crichton's new book Next tonight. I've read several chapters and am loving it. Turning to the back of the book to see how long it was, I ran into the bibliography. I love his bibliographies, though they can have a deleterious effect on my wallet. What I was surprised to see was a couple entries by G.K. Chesterton in this book on genetic engineering. I'm including one of them here:

Chesterton, G.K. Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized Society. Edited by Michael W. Perry. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2000. Originally publiched in 1922, this astonishingly prescient text has much to say about our understanding of genetics then (and now), and about the mass seduction of pseudoscience. Chesterton's was one of the few voices to oppose eugenics in the early twentieth century. He saw rightly through it as fraudulent on every level, and he predicted where it would lead, with great accuracy. His critics were legion; the reviled him as reactionary, ridiculous, ignorant, hysterical, incoherent, and blindly prejudiced, noting with dismay that "his influence in leading people in the wrong direction is considerable." Yet Chesterton was right, and the concensus of scientists, political leaders, and the intelligentsia was wrong. Chesterton lived to see the horrors of Nazi Germany. This book is worth reading because, in retrospect, it is clear that Chesterton's arguments were perfectly sensible and deserving of an answer, and yet he was simply shouted down. And because the most repellent ideas of eugenics are being promoted again in the twenty-first century, under various guises. The editor of this edition has included many quotations from eugenicists of the 1920's, which read astonishingly like the words of contemporary prophets of doom. Some things never change—including, unfortunately, the gullibility of press and public. We human beings don't like to look back at our past mistakes. But we should.
[Michael Crichton, Next, (New York: Harper Collins, 2006) 426-7.]

1:25 am Pacific Standard Time

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Friday, December 1st, 2006


The Kernel in the Kennel

CPA's post "A garden not a jungle" got me thinking. This is material about which I've done a bit of pondering. I find the human relationship to dogs to be an uncanny one. It is not like our relationship to the rest of creation. People who can lump dogs and cats together have probably known neither. Even someone who prefers cats to dogs loves cats for very different reasons than dog lovers love dogs. (As a rule I love dogs. As a rule I mildly like cats, though there are exceptions.)

I was once sitting across from a friend from church who worked at the Christian Resaerch Institute (CRI). He referred to some Christian who held to "liberal" views like "animals having emotions." Oh, my. I was sitting across from someone who either lived in a very different world from my own, or used words in an idiosyncratic way.

To me it is not only clear that animals have emotions. It is clear that having less reason, they are more thoroughly emotional than we are. This is to use emotion in a fairly rigorous sense. A brain researcher like Joseph LeDoux would be able to list the emotional systems in the human brain and find their analogues in the animal kingdom. It is conceivable that someone is using the word "emotion" for something higher. Some combination of reason and emotion where the individual has a verbally articulate grasp of an emotional relationship that can be explored through metaphor, etc. But this is not how the word is generally used.

Dogs are very raw in their emotion. This is what I like about them. Their feelings are immediately visible. The moreso if you don't bother to try to come up with an appropriate label for them. You just imagine yourself into their bodies in their stance and think of what it feels like.

I think of dogs in such personal fashion that I speak of having "met" a certain dog if I've been introduced. I found an older piece of my own writing and found I did this in childhood as well, where I spoke of meeting my cousin's dog, Dutch.

Temple Grandin says that while most animals recognize individual humans by their size and gait, dogs have been shown to recognize humans by their faces. This was something that was selected for over thousands of years. The most human-friendly of the dogs survived.

As with Stephen Webb whose meditations spurred Atwood's post, I find the theology of the species boundary interesting. One of the earlier times I heard it mentioned was in the odd but fascinating movie "My Dinner with Andre" about a dinner conversation between a man and his New Age friend. Andre spoke of the way at Findhorn, humans and the natural world arranged a truce and the natural world would act very different towards us. I later realized that C.S. Lewis had spoken of this in That Hideous Strength. His character Ransom had such a relationship. Lewis himself seemed to be happy with the mice in his room. Yet Lewis's view goes back at least to St. Francis of Assisi, who was said to have made a truce with Brother Wolf.

I tend to agree with Webb that dogs point to a different possibility for how humans can relate to nature. I want to throw in that we are fallen in that relationship, too. (I can think of Temple Grandin's example of how collies get bred for their pointy noses, but how when that is taken too far, they end up stupid because of the narrow heads that go along with them.) Yet there is more of a cooperation between man and dog than man and other creatures. Could there be some other categories between wild and domestic? Some area that best fits each animal? Maybe we'll know in a few hundred generations, should the Lord tarry.

As to the main metaphor, a garden not a jungle, it is interesting. That is where we begin. But we end in a New Jerusalem. I don't tend to take that vision literally. That is, I think it stands for a true reality that we will consciously experience. But I think a city is a metaphor for it. I don't know what kind of relationship we may have to the rest of creation there. But I think that somehow, even if what we know of ourselves is a mere kernel of what will be revealed at the end, the kernel loves dogs. There is likely something corresponding to them on the other side, even if they are unimaginable, now. What a mystery is the Resurrection of the flesh.

3:43 pm Pacific Standard Time

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