Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Philosopher's Unexpected Journey

I linked to this before, but the full article was behind a paywall. Here's the article in full. BTW, the above is the original title:

Liam, my 10-year-old friend, recently asked me if I was a philosopher.
“Yes,” I replied.
“What do philosophers do?”
“We think a lot about arguments,” I said.
That seemed to satisfy him, and it satisfied me. But philosophy is deeper than arguments. It also summons reflection on the grisly vicissitudes of life—what breaks the heart and binds it back together. Philosophy originally was a discipline for finding out not just how to think, but how to live.
I am that rare person who has found my vocation and avocation to be one. I don’t need to escape into hobbies to compensate for my day job. As Robert Frost put it in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
I do what I love, and it usually benefits others. Research and teaching and mentoring is where I flourish. The gifts given to me have been confirmed, as the late seminary professor Howard Hendricks would say, by finding people with the gift of benefiting from my teaching and writing.
For years I’ve pondered the topic of lament. This is partially due to my melancholic nature; I once read a book called Against Happiness—and enjoyed it. But my wife, Becky, is the main reason for my scrutiny of this topic. A gifted writer and editor, Becky had been bedeviled by a bevy of chronic illnesses, each year worse than the year before. None were fatal. All were miserable. They handed down not a death sentence, but a life sentence. It was ailment upon ailment without respite. We lamented as we sought relief.
The losses compounded and gathered into a pattern of a life absent of common enjoyments such as vacations, sufficient sleep, church attendance, days and even hours free from pain, serendipitous activities, and more. In their place came doctors’ visits, medical tests, prescriptions, expensive supplements, counseling, prayer sessions, experiments with unorthodox medical practitioners, and more. Our searches for respite did not do much good. I often thought of Freud’s statement that at its best, psychoanalysis could bring “an acceptable level of misery.” That was about all we had.
The Book of Ecclesiastes became my lamp of lament, although it offered little to my wife. But in those well-thumbed pages, I found a light to shine on the path of pain.
The strain upon our marriage was heavy, sometimes crushing. But we took our vows to each other and before God seriously, and we soldiered on. I could find the solid ground of meaning in my writing and teaching. But for Becky, the sicker she became, the more these islands of meaning sank beneath her.

The Lamp of Lament

Neither Becky nor I could dodge the disappointments or counteract the bitterness that crept into our souls. The Book of Ecclesiastes became my lamp of lament, although it offered little to my wife. But in those well-thumbed pages, I found a light to shine on the path of pain. For most of the summer of 1999, it was the only book of the Bible I could read, because it speaks truth to the brokenness of this world and my own.
The categories of Creation, Fall, and Redemption aptly capture the Christian worldview. As a Christian philosopher, I consider the rationality of the Christian worldview often and from many angles. Now, though, I was forced to see myself as living “under the sun”—a scorching sun that dries up hopes and turns forests into deserts. The author of Ecclesiastes was neither a nihilist nor a fatalist, but saw life as raw and unfair:
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)
Through these trials, Becky struggled to write and edit. As her health declined, each work became more difficult than the previous one. After writing two books, she labored for four years co-editing a major work on the theology of gender, contributing a long and carefully argued chapter. That was the last thing she wrote for publication. But page after page of my writing—books, reviews, essays, and academic papers—were marked by her corrections, questions, and deletions. We seldom argued over any of it. She made my work better, and we both knew it. Only God, Becky, and I know how much of her wisdom is woven into my work.
But she did not edit this essay.

The Beginning of Sorrows

Becky was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 25 years ago. One of the many symptoms of this cruel disease is cognitive impairment, or “fibro-fog.” These symptoms became pronounced about 5 years ago. Paperwork took longer. Names would not come to mind. She stuttered.
One day Becky got lost on her way home from the hairdresser on a route she had driven for years. For several hours, I did not know where she was because she had forgotten to take her cell phone. She eventually called and stayed put until a friend and I arrived. I was slated to preach an apologetics message the next day at a local church. My anger at God and panic over my wife had, I thought, incapacitated and disqualified me. Upon calling the pastor to cancel, I found out that he thought otherwise. I delivered the message that Sunday—somehow. This was the beginning of sorrows.
One day Becky got lost on her way home from the hairdresser on a route she had driven for years. For several hours, I did not know where she was.
This episode shifted my concern to something more serious than fibro-fog. We consulted a neurologist, who thought Becky’s depression was mimicking dementia. He treated her month after month throughout most of 2013. The depression and cognitive impairment did not budge.
The day before Valentine’s Day 2014, Becky could not leave her bed. She did not respond to my solicitations. A friend came over to help me take Becky to the emergency room. After a 12-hour stay, she was transferred to a behavioral health unit some 30 miles from our home. I left the hospital with my friend, drove home, greeted my upset dog, and then listened to Dark Side of the Moon. Somehow this was what I had to do. The iconic Pink Floyd album reminds me of Ecclesiastes—except without God. That was how I felt.
The next day I taught a class on C. S. Lewis at Denver Seminary. I opened the class by telling my students what had happened the long day before. (I have never been good at hiding my personal life from students.) Since I had been re-reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I spoke of trying to find meaning within suffering. If Frankl could resist the nihilism and despair of a concentration camp, then I could endure this. And, as a Christian, I knew that crucibles can shape us into the image of Christ. Frankl observed that those in the camps who lived for something beyond themselves never lost their will to live. He often quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.” Religious faith could be this something, but so could other concerns. Frankl noted that many of the skeletal, chronically exhausted, and endlessly abused Jews persevered through their love for others, particularly for family members. They kept going for them.
Applying Frankl’s insight to myself, I told my students that I wanted to honor God and love my wife. But who made up my greater family? Besides Becky, I have almost no living relations. Because of her health, we have no children. I am an only child. My parents are dead. My relatives are distant geographically and not that close emotionally.
Every gaze in the class was on me, and no one seemed to be blinking. “I am going to find meaning in this for you—my students,” I told them. The weight of Becky’s illness already seemed overwhelming, so I resisted this role. Now I had no choice but to model virtuous Christian suffering. Later, one of my students told me that sitting in this class, he had “never felt more loved as a student.” Love remained as happiness fled and dread approached.
After Becky spent a few weeks in the hospital, a psychiatrist told me that she had primary progressive aphasia: a rare and cruel form of dementia that attacks the front of the brain before moving to the back. It is incurable, fatal, and horrible. The timetable was uncertain, but the outcome was not. She would lose her mind and know what was happening.
Embracing Ignorance
Becky has been home for over a year. We have someone living with us to help her. Once an avid reader, writer, and editor, Becky now wonders how to use her time. I often hear her drumming her fingers on the dining room table as I study in the basement. There are many unbidden adjustments for both of us to make. It seems unbearable, but we get up for another day. She is still Becky. She is still my wife. We have had 30 years of life together, and can draw from that deep well.
This narrative presents the beginning of our sorrows. Far more sorrows have since invaded our lives. But this should suffice. Life under the sun is just what the philosopher of Ecclesiastes said:
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it. (8:16–17)
As a philosopher, I yearn to hold and commend rational beliefs about the great and perennial issues of life. These are well summarized by Immanuel Kant: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” I am confident that Kant’s queries need not disarm us. They can be answered with intellectual satisfaction through Christian apologetics, theology, and the living of the Christian life. More specifically: 1. We can know God and his plan in the Bible. 2. We should love God and our neighbor. 3. The hope of the gospel does not disappoint us. The world will be remade in the Resurrection, so our labor is not in vain. We have reason to suffer without despair. I made that case in Christian Apologetics (2011). It’s the last book of mine that my wife will ever edit.
When I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping. Even as the disease progresses, she will still be made in God’s image
Yet when I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping. Even as the disease progresses, she will still be made in God’s image; she will still be in covenant with me; she will still be living out the vicissitudes of Providence. And yet, and yet: “Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day.
Ecclesiastes tells me to embrace my ignorance within the larger circle of knowledge—to mine meaning where I can and to look ahead with hope. Other Scripture, such the Psalms of Lament (i.e., 22, 88, and 90), recognize and ratify my anger, confusion, and fatigue, while placing them in the grand story of Scripture and before the presence of God. Still, I lament before God and man, trying to find a sure footing where I will not sink into self-pity and where I can smelt meaning out of misery—a footing from which I can offer up to God and to the world a hope worth hoping, because there is a God worth knowing.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press).

Broken water main

i) Why is the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion such a big deal, anyway? That's a bit complicated to answer. 

From an outsider perspective, most Protestants don't think marriage is indissoluble. There is clearly one, and arguably two grounds for divorce in the NT. And some Protestants think there are probably more.

In addition, even if the second marriage was sinful, Protestants generally think that effectively dissolved the first marriage. So it becomes a question of contrition. 

ii) On paper, there are huge differences between Catholicism and classical Protestantism. Just consider Trent or the Marian dogmas. Yet modernism has eroded the foundation for traditional Catholic dogmas. Like a broken water main that washes out the foundation of a road, the road may still look solid on top, but that's deceptive. 

Why would bishops still believe in the Assumption of Mary if they doubt the historicity of Christ's Ascension? Why would they still believe in the Immaculate Conception or perpetual virginity of Mary if they doubt the historicity of the Virgin Birth? Why would they still believe in Marian apparitions if they doubt the historicity of the post-Resurrection appearances? And so on and so forth. They can't erect a wall between their skepticism regarding the Bible and traditional Catholic dogmas. 

iii) So that throws emphasis on externals that demarcate Catholicism from its rivals. Unless there's something distinctive about a denomination, what's the justification for its separate existence? Why not consolidate or go out of business?

iv) Apropos (iii), the Mass is the central sacrament of Roman Catholicism. Although Rome has seven sacraments, the Mass is the most corporate of her sacraments, 

[by which communicants] participate with the whole community (1322). 
1324 The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life."136 "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch." 
1327 In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith.

As the showcase of Catholicism, who's permitted to participate becomes all-important. That's a defining sign of Catholic identity, in contrast to Protestant bodies. 

Of course, enforcement has been slack for decades. So the real question is whether to make the practical status quo official.  

The transubstantiated church

Catholic apologists allege that Protestants have no visible church. The charge is ironic when you consider the dichotomized church of Catholic apologists. For them, the real church isn't located in people. It isn't to be found in monks, nuns, priests, bishops or even popes–much less the laity.

Rather, the real church is located in documents. The idea of the church. 

Consider their reaction to the last two synods on marriage and family. By now it's unambiguously clear that this pope wants to change church policy on the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. And it's clear that bishops and priests can get away with that. 

But so long as the policy isn't reversed on paper, Catholic apologists breathe a sigh of relief. That's because their church is contained on slips of paper.

It's like they believe in the transubstantiation of the church. The laity, monks, nuns, priests, bishops, and popes are the visible accidents. But the true church, the substance of the church, consists of invisible, intangible, inaudible, tasteless, odorless ideas. Formal definitions and dogmas. 

In that respect, even "mainstream" Catholic apologists are functional sedevacantists. Their practical position is indistinguishable from sedevacantists. Archbishop Lefebvre never doubted the continued existence of the One True Church. But that wasn't to be confused with living, breathing church of popes, bishops, and priests. 

For Catholic apologists, just like sedevacantists, the church isn't a physical, organic entity, but a set of transcendent ideas. It doesn't discredit Rome when popes appoint known modernists to influential positions. Apologists stand on the deck of the Titanic, waving their little Union Jacks and belting out another refrain of "Rule Britannia" while the ship takes on more water, because –for them, the true church isn't the concrete church under their feet, but a beautiful abstraction: a timeless, spaceless theological construct. 

There is, of course, a point at which this dichotomy becomes untenable. For it's popes and bishops who produce the documents, popes and bishops who interpret the documents. 

Hurry up and die!

I will comment on this article:

I don’t buy the argument that suicide is a selfish act. 

i) The implication is that suicide would be wrong if it were a selfish act. That suggests proponents like Tod Robberson are conflicted about suicide. To justify suicide, he must deny that suicide is a selfish act. That would be an impure motive. 

But why not defend suicide by admitting that even if it were a selfish act, people have a right to be selfish? Wouldn't that be more consistent? Surely some proponents defend a right to suicide on grounds of personal autonomy. That's how some secular ethicists argue. 

ii) Since different people have different motivations for suicide, it would be a hasty generalization to claim that suicide is a selfish act. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

There are people who commit suicide because no one will miss them. They leave no loved ones behind. That's why they are so depressed. So there's a sense in which suicide is not a selfish act in their case. A lonely act of lonely people. 

That's not a moral characterization but a descriptive characterization. Of course, one might still object to suicide on other grounds–even if it's not invariably selfish. 

Especially when the person committing suicide is considering all of the variables regarding rapidly declining health and the burdens that prolonging life will place on loved ones. Sometimes, suicide is an act of courage and self-sacrifice.

Is suicide courageous? To the degree that you must overcome a natural fear of death to commit suicide, there's a sense in which that can be courageous. However, "courage" has virtuous connotations. Suicide may not be courageous in that sense. Indeed, it may rarely be courageous in that sense (e.g. a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades). 

I hold Robin Williams as the primary exhibit. He killed himself at by hanging on Aug. 11, 2014. I recall reading critiques from conservative writers calling him a liberal coward.

He doesn't name names. the only person I'm aware of who said that was Shepard Smith, and he's hardly a conservative. If anything, he's a flaming liberal–in more ways that one. 

Other armchair psychiatrists…

Tod's entire article is premised on his armchair diagnosis of Robin's motivation. 

…labeled his death the act of a depression-addled Parkinson’s victim who couldn’t handle the challenges he faced ahead.

Surely there's nothing antecedently implausible in the suggestion that when confronted with a devastating prognosis, Robin couldn't face the prospect of incapacitation or losing his mind. That's a terrifying scenario. It's not a putdown to suggest that he killed himself to head off that eventuality because he was unable to cope with such a grim future. 

There's a distinction between the ethics of suicide and honestly stating why some people take their own lives. Even if you think suicide is intrinsically wrong, it isn't derogatory to point out that many people commit suicide out of fear or despair. Indeed, recognizing the causes of suicide can facilitate intervention. 

The reason Tod labors to discredit that motive is because it conflicts with his own social agenda. 

Is it possible that he didn’t take the selfish way out, as some describe suicide? Is it possible that he acted rationally…

Indeed, you don't have to be out of your mind to commit suicide. Take Nazi officials who killed themselves to avoid capture, trial, and punishment. That was a rational, calculated act. To say they were in their right minds doesn't mean they acted rightly. 

(And I'm not drawing a moral comparison with Robin Williams.) 

…and decided that he simply didn’t want to put his family through the agony of watching his mental capacities steadily decline to the point that he would become an overwhelming burden on them?

Robin was a very wealthy man. If he became incapacitated, he could well afford professional round-the-clock homecare. In that respect, his condition was nothing like the "burden" it would be to the average family. So that's one less reason he had to end his life. 

Rather than impose that awful experience on others, Williams decided to cut his losses and end it quickly. 

That's pure speculation. Tod presents no evidence that this is what prompted Robin to end his life. And other motivations are readily available–not to mention more likely.

Since we don't know for sure why Robin killed himself, it's improper to use his case to illustrate a larger point. Moreover, the example itself doesn't make something morally licit or illicit. Rather, examples are used to illustrate or explicate moral principles. 

Yes, there would be pain and anger and tears. But those feelings would be relatively short lived. 

How the hell does Tod know that? He doesn't. He's not a hospice nurse. He doesn't work with the sick and dying, or see family members at their bedside. As one bioethicist has noted:

But the exact opposite is often true. I know so many people who deeply treasure [the] experience of caring for those they loved through physical decline and death. Suicide, rather than receiving care, would rob them of an essential part of an intimate human relationship.

It is unethical for Tod to propound ignorant, dangerous generalities. 

The suffering of family and friends as they watched him waste away promised to be prolonged and agonizing. Plus, when he eventually would die, there would be all the normal pain and tears of death anyway. Williams simply saved everyone else the trouble of watching it play out over months or years.

What this overlooks is that we have a duty to care for ailing, failing friends and family members. That's not something we are entitled to be spared. 

Moreover, that experience develops soul-building virtues. But, of course, this reflects a profound difference between secularism and Christianity. It was Christians who founded hospitals and orphanages. 

Problem is, ethical reasoning depends on our ability to appeal to someone's conscience. But in the case of people like Tod, there's nothing to work with. They are too corrupt. 

His experience adds a lot of weight to those who argue for legalization of assisted suicide, at least in cases where the prognosis is similar to his. It takes a lot of courage to make this decision and go out on your own terms. It is the exact opposite of selfishness.

And there you have Tod's ulterior agenda. The entire article was structured to arrive at that foregone conclusion. 

Once again, this goes to a fundamental difference between secularism and Christianity. I remember that nursing home in New Orleans. When Katrina was forecast to hit New Orleans, where were the family members? Why didn't they come back for their stranded mothers and fathers, to rescue them ahead of the storm? They just left them behind. Left them there to take their chances. Left them there to die. 

The consistent alternative to Christian ethics is Nietzschean nihilism. And many people will get a dose of their own medicine. Having supported abortion, they will be abandoned by their fair-weather friends when they become weak in mind or body. Poetic justice. 

Can liars be trusted?

1. This post is not about the morality of lying. Rather, it's about the relationship between truthfulness and trustworthiness. This is an issue that crops up in many walks of life. Dating, voting, parenting, marriage, friendship, business partnerships. For instance, it's sometimes said that because all politicians lie, the fact that a particular candidate is a pathological liar is no reason not to vote for him (or her). 

2. Some folks never lie. Some folks are chronic liars. And most folks lie some of the time. 

For people who lie some of the time, lying tends to be compartmentalized. It depends on the situation or the relationship. Offhand, I'd say people lie for the following reasons:

i) To hurt others

ii) To gain unfair advantage

Someone who lies for (i) or (ii) is untrustworthy. 

iii) To protect themselves. 

They lie to get out of trouble or avoid getting into trouble. 

a) They may lie because they are guilty of wrongdoing

b) They may lie because they are innocent of wrongdoing 

Apropos (b), person can be unjustly punished for doing the right thing. There's a significant difference in these two motivations. I'd say a person who lies because he did something wrong is less trustworthy than someone who lies because he is innocent (to evade unjust punishment). 

iv) To protect others. 

As with (i), a person might cover for someone who's guilty of wrongdoing, or cover for someone who's innocent of wrongdoing, but liable to unjust punishment. I'd say a person who covers for someone's wrongdoing is less trustworthy than a person who covers for the innocent. 

Even if you think lying is intrinsically wrong, you can distinguish between good motives and bad motives for lying. If, for instance, you put someone on the spot, that may place him in a dilemma. If it's unfair to put him in that situation, and if he lies to extricate himself, that's an extenuating circumstance. 

Likewise, lying to save Jews from Nazis is well-intentioned in a way that lying to cheat a working-class student out of a football scholarship is not, even if you think lying is unjustifiable in both cases. 

v) Some people lie to themselves, to bolster self-esteem. Convince themselves that they are better, more deserving, or more talented than is the case. 

3. Humans tend to be loyal to an inner circle of friends and family. Some people will lie for the in-group, but not lie to the in-group. They will lie to members of the out-group, but not to members of the in-group. But this may also depend on the situation. 

4. On a related note, some partisans or ideologues will lie for the cause. This creates a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, you can't believe anything they say on that topic. On the other hand, they can be trusted to defend and promote their cause, whatever it takes. In that sense, they are reliable liars. You always know what to expect from them–at least when it comes to their agenda. 

These people are chronic liars in a specialized sense. Unlike habitual liars, they don't reflexively lie. Rather, they always lie in the service of their cause, whenever the agenda requires it. To the extent, however, that the cause dominates their life, they will lie most of the time.

5. The upshot is that lying tends to be compartmentalized. Most folks are apt to lie in certain situations; conversely, most folks are apt to be truthful with significant others. To the degree that lying is predictable, people who lie some of the time can still be trustworthy most of the time. But unless you're prepared to be disappointed, it's prudent not to test their limits. 

So the fact that most folks lie some of the time doesn't make them generally untrustworthy. The social fabric would quickly unravel in that were the case. 

6. There's a complex relationship between friendship and deceit. 

i) On the one hand, a friend will act in the best interests of another friend. That's a defining feature of friendship. And that typically includes the unspoken expectation that friends cover for each other. That makes them dependable. He has my back. 

ii) Mind you, that goes to the distinction between lying for the innocent and lying for the guilty. Suppose my friend and I go to a store, but I catch him shoplifting. That creates a dilemma. On the one hand, I wish to act in my friend's best interests. But that's in tension with the best interests of the proprietor. So I have conflicting duties. Moreover, my friend is in the wrong.

Suppose I wait until we leave the store, then I talk to my friend about what he did. He should treat others the way he wants others to treat him. If he'd resent someone stealing his stuff, then he shouldn't steal their stuff. Moreover, shoplifting makes products more expensive, which isn't fair to consumers. 

Finally, he put me in a compromising situation. By shoplifting in my presence, he put me on the spot. If I catch him doing that again, I will either turn him in orbreak off the friendship, because I don't wish to be put in a situation where I have to make that decision. 

A similar example might be if I catch a student athlete juicing up on steroids. I could report him. But that's not my preferred option. Rather, I'd talk to him about cheating, as well as the health hazards. Why is a completive advantage that important to him?

Keep in mind that in both cases, I have less responsibility for the conduct of others than for my own conduct. Letting them get away with something isn't the same thing as my doing it. 

iii) Those are situations where my friend (or acquaintance) was in the wrong. Let's take a different situation:

Suppose our high school has a politically correct speech code. A student will get into trouble for violating the speech code, even though it's the speech code that's wrong, and not infractions thereof. 

Suppose I have a straight arrow classmate. He doesn't believe in the code, but if someone reported me for violating the code, and this student was questioned, as a witness to the incident, he'd confirm that I was in violation. He's not malicious. To the contrary, he's a well-meaning guy. 

But I can't afford to have him as a friend. I can't afford to be around him. Paradoxically, the fact that he's so honest makes him simultaneous trustworthy and untrustworthy. I can't count on him to cover for me, even if I'm innocent of wrongdoing. His honesty makes him an undependable if I'm caught in a situation like that. He doesn't have what it takes to be a friend. 

iv) Let's consider another example: my roommate comes home late at night with alcohol on his breath. Next morning, on the local news, there's a report of a deadly hit-and-run in the vicinity. And I notice blood on the fender of his car. 

Do I cover for him? Obviously not. Unlike (ii), he's in far too deep. Not only would I refuse to lie for him in that situation, but I'd turn him into the authorities. 

To vary the example, suppose my roommate has a drinking problem, which I've warned him about. I've put him on notice that I won't cover for him in a situation like that. There's a sense in which that makes me a dependable friend. One duty of a friend is to deter another friend from destructive or self-destructive behavior. To act on his behalf even when–or especially when–he can't be trusted to act in his own best interests. It's good for him to know that I have limits. 

v) Take a final case. Wanda Holloway was an ambitious mother who tried to advance the career of her daughter (a junior high school cheerleader) by hiring a contract killer to murder the mother of her daughter's rival. Now, in one sense, that's a very dependable mother. She can be relied on to do anything and everything to protect and promote her daughter. 

But ironically, that makes her a bad mother. She's amorally trustworthy. 

“Pope Francis” is the new Miley Cyrus

This article from The Spectator of London appeared yesterday, with the “wrecking ball” cover of the pope: “Pope vs Church – the anatomy of a Catholic Civil War”. Of course, “Pope Francis” is doing for the Roman Catholic Church what Miley Cyrus does for bad men everywhere.

Here are some choice quotes:

Last Sunday, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica carried an article by Eugenio Scalfari, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists, in which he claimed that Pope Francis had just told him that ‘at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask [to receive Holy Communion] will be admitted’.

Catholic opinion was stunned. The Pope had just presided over a three-week synod of bishops at the Vatican that was sharply divided over whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacrament. In the end, it voted to say nothing much.

On Monday, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Scalfari’s report was ‘in no way reliable’ and ‘cannot be considered the Pope’s thinking’.

Fair enough, you may think. Scalfari is 91 years old. Also, he doesn’t take notes during his interviews or use a tape recorder. Of course he’s not ‘reliable’.

But that didn’t satisfy the media. They pointed out that the Pope knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. This is the fourth time he has chosen to give an interview to a man who relies on his nonagenarian memory. In their last encounter, Scalfari quoted the Pope as saying that two per cent of Catholic priests were paedophiles, including bishops and cardinals. Poor Lombardi had to clean up after that one, too. Last time round, Catholics gave Francis the benefit of the doubt. This time many of them are saying: never mind Scalfari, how can you trust what the Pope says?

We’re two and a half years into this pontificate. But it’s only in the past month that ordinary conservative Catholics, as opposed to hardline traditionalists, have started saying that Pope Francis is out of control.

Out of control, note. Not ‘losing control’, which isn’t such a big deal.

John Chrysostom Condemns Neglect Of Apologetics

In a culture like the United States, in which people have such significant advantages and responsibilities that Chrysostom's audience didn't have, every pastor should be speaking this way. So should other people in positions of influence. Notice that Chrysostom includes the poor in his criticism. Even they should be involved in apologetics and should be criticized when they neglect it. In societies like the United States, we often classify people as poor when they aren't poor by historical and global standards. But even when Chrysostom was addressing people poorer than the average allegedly poor person in America, he held those individuals accountable for being involved in apologetics. If pastors, parents, teachers, and other people in positions of influence would speak this way, we'd have a much better culture. Read through to the end, as the focus moves more and more to apologetics. Notice how the faults and excuses Chrysostom demolishes are so similar to the ones we see in our day:

Friday, November 06, 2015

Render to Caesar

The Bible contains some classic passages on civil obedience (Mt 22:21; Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-25). Conversely, the Bible contains some classic passages on civil disobedience (Exod 1:15-22; Acts 5:29). Likewise, the Book of Revelation is politically seditious. 

That raises the question where to draw the line. One answer I've heard is that civil disobedience is justified when the state commands us to do what God forbids or forbids us to do what God commands. But although that's a good answer, those are very narrow grounds for civil disobedience. Are those the limits of permissible disobedience?

Mt 22:21 offers no concrete guidance. Beyond the issue at hand, it doesn't list our duties to Caesar in contrast to our duties to God. In that respect it's an empty norm.

Moreover, this may well be a trick answer to a trick question. Jesus' enemies try to box him into a dilemma, but he traps them in their own ruse. 

Rom 13 is framed in ethical categories of justice and moral wrongdoing. As such, it doesn't address civic duties in reference to laws and regulations that fall outside that purview. I will mention a few examples:

i) Many years ago I went into a cutlery shop and asked about switchblades. The owner told me they were illegal. 

I suppose that goes back to the 50s (or so), when switchblades were the weapon of choice for gangbangers; likewise, they were used in knifefights at inner city schools. Of course, the law is dumb, since that law has no deterrent effect on the criminal class. 

ii) I had relatives who used to own a view property. Had a commanding, scenic view of a lake. But trees on the property were beginning to encroach on the view. Problem is, fanatical environmentalists made it illegal for homeowners to cut down trees on their property. Yet much of the resale value of the property lay in the fact that it was a view property, which was threatened by the growing trees. My relative considered poisoning the trees. 

iii) Pundit David French has proudly admitted that he defied trash sorting regulations where he used to live.

Are Christians obligated to submit to every law and regulation unless it conflicts with moral and religious duties? I doubt it. The Bible is not an encyclopedia. It doesn't give detailed answers to every conceivable question. In this case, the Bible sets certain outer boundaries on the limits of civil obedience, but it doesn't say how far in those extend. Where Scripture is silent, we must fall back on reason. General principles. 

The question is whether the state has the right to micromanage the details of our lives. Is that the proper role of the state? This can eat up a lot of our time. Does the state have that totalitarian claim on our time? Likewise, it erodes personal responsibility. Life becomes increasingly constricted as we must navigate a minefield of petty, intrusive, onerous laws and regulations. Moreover, it's becoming impossible not to break some arbitrary law, given the unabridged scope of the regulatory state.

I doubt that Christians have a moral or religious obligation to submit to every law and regulation, even if those don't conflict with our moral and religious duties. Of course, civil disobedience carries a risk. So you need to take that into account. But it's important to resist the suffocating restrictions of the regulatory state. Allowed to go unchecked, that will become totalitarian. 

The state exists for the benefit of the public; the public doesn't exist for the benefit of the state. Our purpose in life is not to be wind-up toy soldiers for bureaucrats. For the most part, adults are entitled to decide what to do with their lives–with their time, means, and opportunities. We are creatures of God, not creatures of government. Servants of God, not chattel of the state. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The religious demography of Middle-earth

As I was rummaging through the unpublished papers of Bilbo Baggins, I ran across his "Religious Demography of Middle-earth," in which he classifies the denizens of Middle-earth according to their religious affiliations. 

Hobbits: Earnest little English Methodist countryfolk.

Frodo: Holy fool. Ought to be a conventional Methodist, but the monkish ways of Gandalf rubbed off on him, making him a holy fool, in the tradition of Eastern Orthodox hagiography. 

Elves: A syncretistic cult. Their quaint speech and aristocratic airs are indebted to Anglicans; their hairdo is indebted to Jesus Freaks, while their archery is indebted to a DC comic book superhero. 

Dwarves: Hard Shell Baptists, given their working-class values and clannishness. 

Wizards: Catholic prelates, redolent with priestcraft: bachelors, vestments, temples, crosiers, incantations in dead languages. 

Sauron: The Pope

Saruman: The Grand Inquisitor 

Gandalf: Sedevacantist. The Archbishop Lefebvre of Middle-Earth. On a mission to defeat the Antipope.

Aragorn: Presbyterian. The John Knox of Middle-Earth. 

Ringwraiths: Mormons, vibrant and substantial on the outside, hollow and dead on the inside. 

Orcs: As apostate elves, they are militant atheists–which accounts for their intolerant and brutish behavior. 

Back to the future


Today, Pres. Marco Rubio signed a treaty with Cuban Pres. Raul Castro conferring dual citizenship on Mormons. This was in exchange for Mitt Romney's endorsement during Rubio's campaign. 

Romney lamented the fact that Mormons feel out of place in the 21C. They are caught in an Eisenhower era timewarp. Just look at the average Mormon missionary.

Since Cuba is like trapped in the 1950s, Mormons feel right at home there. For Mormon retirees, it's the next best thing to heaven this side of planet Kolob. 

Let there be space

OT scholars and Hebraists disagree on the meaning of raqia in Gen 1. John Walton used to think it denoted a solid dome, but changed his mind. Nicholas Petersen has his own theory. Some versions render it as an "expanse." But what, exactly, does that mean–or refer to?  

One reason for the disagreement is that we don't have enough occurrences of the word to nail down the meaning. In addition, the meaning is contextual. How does it function in relation to the other elements (e.g. sky, heavens)? 

Here's a suggestion: what if raqia is a synonym for "space." Suppose it denotes the space between rainclouds and terrestrial bodies of water (e.g. lakes, oceans, rivers)? Suppose we translate Genesis this way: 

6 And God said, “Let there be space in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the space and separated the waters that were under the space from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

If you think about it, that would make perfect sense to the original audience. After all, "space," air, is what separates rainclouds from terrestrial bodies of water. It's the spacious air in-between seems to keep them apart. And that's what the birds fly in. 

That's what ancient Hebrews saw when they went outside. That's what they experience. On the one hand there's water at ground level. Bodies of water on the surface of the earth. On the other hand, there's the water that comes down from the sky. Rain or snow from clouds up above. And in-between is empty space. 

I think we miss this if we think of the sky or atmosphere as something up above. Overhead. But that's just a part of the space. The space is up and down and all around. Birds fly through space. They fly up from a tree, shrub, grass, or bare ground. And they fly down from to a tree, shrub, grass, or bare ground. Although the sky is the limit, the space begins at ground level. That's the space we freely move through. That's our natural element, in contrast to bodies of water. 

In modern parlance, "space" refers to "outer space," but here, space refers to the airy buffer between lakes, oceans, and rainclouds.  

Sure, there's space above the clouds, but the description in Genesis is from the perspective of a ground-based observer. 

Christian ethics is liberating

You've just said a very revealing thing. Are you telling me that the only reason you don't steal and rape and murder is that you're frightened of God? (Richard Dawkins).

That's ill-conceived in many respects:

i) The contention is rather contradictory. After all, atheists routinely assert that Biblical ethics is "hateful." If so, how is that a moral restraint on Christians?

ii) It begs the question by presuming there are wrong things Christians would do unless their theology restrained them. But, of course, an atheist is not entitled to stipulate moral realism in the first place, then tut-tut Christians.

iii) Lack of moral inhibition doesn't mean you want to do anything in particular. Maybe I don't think it's wrong to pirate Barry Manilow recordings. That doesn't mean I'm tempted to pirate Barry Manilow recordings. I've never had the slightest inclination to listen to Manilow. Even if I could do so with impunity, I wouldn't. 

iv) Christian critics of secular ethics by no means concede that Christians would be more prone to rape, murder, and pillage than unbelievers if they lost their faith. Lifelong atheists have the same evil propensities as apostates. 

v) But now I'd like to turn to my main point: the contention has it backwards. It treats Christian ethics as a kind of add-on. An artificial code of conduct that's superimposed on neutral human nature–in contrast to moral intuition or inner direction. But that mischaracterizes Christian ethics. 

Oftentimes, Christian ethics liberates us to do the right thing. It is sin and society that inhibit us from doing the right thing. Christian ethics isn't so much adding moral norms, but removing impediments to moral norms. For instance, there are situations in which a person instinctively wants to do the right thing, intuitively knows the right thing to do, but his peer group or the legal system deters him. 

Take people living under the thumb of a corrupt regime. Might be a police state or a banana republic. They witness widespread injustice. There are times when they'd like to intervene, but it's too dangerous. Likewise, there are times when they may be ordered (at gunpoint) to commit evil. 

Or you can have peer pressure in high school or college that discourages people from "getting involved" because there's a social sanction for sticking your neck out.

To take a comparison, suppose a person has sociopathic impulses caused by brain cancer. If the brain cancer is treatable, he will lose his sociopathic impulses. The treatment didn't give him a conscience; rather, the treatment removed a barrier, thereby allowing his conscience to resurface.

To a great extent, Christian ethics gives us the courage to do the right thing, by corroborating our conscience, and by making the cost of bucking the system acceptable. Even if we are persecuted, God will ultimately reward those who obey him. 

It isn't just about moral restraint, but moral freedom. To be at liberty to do good or resist pressure to do evil. Christian ethics is inhibiting with respect to vice, but liberating with respect to virtue. 

When I say "instinct" or "intuition," I don't mean that in a naturalistic sense, but in a natural law sense. Absent divine creation, there is no right or wrong. 

Moreover, I'm not suggesting that intuition gives us an infallible moral blueprint. Revealed norms can be a corrective. Likewise, revealed norms can resolve moral uncertainty. 

But in many cases, Christian ethics isn't so much about giving us new information, but confirming the right course of action, and giving us an incentive to do the right thing. Due to common grace, many atheists retain some remnants of common decency. But that can be smothered by expediency. It isn't worth the risk. Likewise, why deny yourself? 

Christian ethics is at least as much about the motivation to do right as the knowledge to do right. You can afford to do the right thing, even if that will cost you dearly, because this life is not all there is. 

Only a fool would voluntarily put his head on the chopping block to save another–if there's no payoff. We need to know that God has our back.