Monday, March 30, 2020

Is the coronavirus a bioweapon?

There's a conspiracy theory floating around that claims the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19) was a bioweapon engineered by China.

I don't know how or when it started. Tom Cotton broached the theory back in January:

I would add: BSL-4 labs represent the highest level of containment for deadly pathogens. There are only about 50 BSL-4 labs in the world.

My thoughts:

Dividing Up Early Christianity Is More Difficult Than Often Suggested

It's common for people commenting on Easter issues, as well as issues in other contexts, to put one strand of early Christianity against another. They'll claim that a particular belief is found in one gospel, but not another. The Pauline letters have one view of a subject, but a contrary view is found in the gospels. And so on. In the context of Easter, we'll be told that Paul had no concept of the empty tomb or that some portions of early Christianity believed in a form of resurrection that didn't involve the transformation of the body that died, for example.

One of the points that ought to be made in these contexts is that the alleged differing strands of early Christianity often express agreement with one another. On the resurrection, Paul refers to how he and the rest of the apostles were in agreement (1 Corinthians 15:11). To cite another example, see here regarding the likely reference to Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18. Paul's letters are referred to as scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16. An example cited less often, but which has a lot of significance, is the early patristic attestation of how highly John viewed the Synoptic gospels. See here concerning what Papias tells us about John's view of the gospel of Mark. (And for more about Papias and his relationship with the apostle John, see here.) Clement of Alexandria cited some elders who commented on John's view of the Synoptics. See here for more about that passage.

Notice, too, that much of what I'm saying here holds up even if the traditional authorship attributions of the New Testament documents are rejected. I explain some of the reasons why in my article on 1 Timothy 5:18 linked above, and those principles apply to other documents as well, not just 1 Timothy. Similarly, even if you think the elder Papias referred to was somebody other than the apostle John, the fact would remain that Papias was highly influenced by the Johannine documents (as I argue in my material linked above), and he held a high view of the Synoptics. Furthermore, saying that the elder Papias refers to wasn't the apostle John doesn't change the fact that he was some sort of prominent early church leader who didn't write the gospel of Mark and seems to have operated largely outside of the circles that gospel's author is usually associated with, yet he held a high view of that gospel. Rejecting something like Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy or the identification of Papias' elder as the apostle John would weaken my argument, but the argument would still carry some weight.

Drugs against coronavirus

I see a lot of people strongly urging doctors to use the drug hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin as a remedy against the coronavirus or Covid-19. I guess that's in large part because Pres. Trump has been pushing the same drug quite a bit. However:

1. The evidence for the drug in human beings - not in vitro ("test tubes"), nor in vivo in animals (e.g. mice), but in human beings - is still predominantly anecdotal or low quality studies (e.g. here).

Sure, there may seem to be hundreds of coronavirus sufferers who have dramatically improved thanks to this drug combination, but one could say similar things for homeopathy, Chinese medicines, chiropractic manipulation, and so on.

At best, at this point, hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin may indeed be promising, and perhaps it will be proven to be safe and effective in treating Covid-19 in the near future, but there remains much work to be done in order to demonstrate these hypotheses.

2. I realize people are demanding a fix stat. It looks like governments have fast-tracked a lot of the trials. Indeed, it seems to me like we're moving about as fast as we can. However, there are limits to how fast trials can move. We can't time travel.

3. Suppose we have several friends who are badly injured and need to go to the emergency department. So we get them into a car and drive them to the ED as quickly as we can. Suppose we speed, run red lights, and zigzag through traffic to do all we can to get our friends to the ED as soon as possible.

Nevertheless if we're decent people then I presume we wouldn't attempt to run over pedestrians or drive through stores with people shopping or anything like that. As much as we wish to save our friends, all things equal, we wouldn't necessarily want to endanger other people's lives in order to do so.

I realize the analogy is not entirely analogous, but dropping the analogy my point is simply that we may believe this drug will save our friends and family. However, in this case, we wouldn't (or shouldn't) wish to endanger the lives of others in case it doesn't work in other coronavirus patients even if it works in the ones we happen to know.

(Of course, I'm sure we could concoct hypotheticals where it might be morally licit to risk the lives of others in order to save our loved ones.)

4. Finally, as I mentioned in a previous post, there are about 40 other coronavirus therapies doctors and scientists are currently working on spread out across approximately 200 trials. So I don't understand why the focus on this one particular drug when we have about 40 other coronavirus drugs or therapies we are trying. It's not as if this drug hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin is head and shoulders better proven than several of the other drugs or therapies (e.g. here).

Iacta alea est

I know that the Virus Which YouTube Will Not Let You Name Without Demonitizing You has been written about extensively on this blog, but I’ve largely stayed out of it.  This is in part because I largely feel no fear or concern about whether or not I will get the virus myself.  I don’t fear death in general, so dying from the “scary” virus is little different from dying any other way.  I wish I could say that it was more my strong faith in Christ and His plan that made me not fear death, but it’s primarily because I don’t have any strong attachments to anything in this life so don’t have anything to really lose.

Because I don’t have any strong fear of death, it’s put me in an interesting position to evaluate the panicked response to the virus as a whole, and that dispassion has led me to conclude that on the whole our reaction to the virus is almost certainly going to be far worse for us than the virus ever could have been.  Of course, by saying this, I have to immediately say, “I’m not claiming COVID-19 isn’t a big deal, or that the regular flu is worse than COVID-19”—although seriously people need to actually look up how bad the regular flu is; it’s no picnic and is a massive problem that ought to be dealt with.  Our culture has a knee-jerk reaction, however, in that if you point out A is more dangerous than B, then the vast majority of people irrationally hear that as a claim that B is not dangerous at all.

But let me first illustrate the concept via an analogy.  If I said, “While a knife wound to an extremity may indeed be fatal depending on where it is located and the disposition of the person who has the injury, depriving a person of food and water for an extended period of time is far more dangerous because without proper nutrition and fluid the healthiest individuals will become sick and die” it should be easy to see that this is not an argument that knife wounds are trivial and do not require medical assistance.  It is, however, pointing out that if you wish to treat knife wounds, you probably should do so in a manner that does not induce deprivation of food and water for extended periods of time. 

To spell it out, the analogy is that COVID-19 is equivalent to the knife wound and our world-wide response in shutting down the entire global economy is equivalent to depriving everyone of food and water for an extended period of time.  The first question might be whether or not this analogy is representative.  I think most would agree that that COVID-19 would best be represented by some kind of acute trauma—something that is intense and immediate, but not expected to be long term.  Even in our experience with recurring pandemics, they come in waves.  It’s not a continual threat at full pressure.  Ebola has outbreaks that kill lots of people then sputter and die out.  Influenza does the same thing.  Historically, the Bubonic Plague acted in an identical manner—peaking out over the course of a few years and then only having smaller, more localized outbreaks afterward.  We don’t have the experience of very dangerous diseases serving a constant yearly threat, even if some (like Influenza again) have had several outbreaks through the centuries.

So that may fit the analogy nicely, but what of linking our economic shutdown to deprivation of food and water?  In one sense, this is actually far more literal than it is an analogy, because we are dealing with poverty.  I daresay the vast majority of the readership of this blog has never stepped foot outside of a First World country, or if so it was only for a week to a month on a mission trip, so it may be difficult for us to actually understand exactly how bad poverty truly is.  If you make around $32,000 per year, you’re in the top 1% of the world.  Indeed, the poverty line for the United States currently sits at an income of less than or equal to $12,490 per year.  That means on a Global Scale, everyone above the poverty line in the US is in the top 13% of income earnings for the world.

The upshot of these figures is that when I say, “Poverty kills” I have been met with skepticism from the largely American audience.  Yes, when your poverty line still is better than 87% of the what the world earns, it’s not going to be “that bad” when you look at your numbers.  But you don’t have to go far to see how bad it really is.  Visit any third world country without money and try to get sufficient food.  Try to get sufficient medical care.  Try to get sufficient anything.

At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, poverty is bad.  But how can the economic shutdown that we’ve put into place cause poverty?  Wouldn’t us not shutting everything down mean more people would die, and obviously dead people can’t help out the economy any.”

True, deaths to COVID-19 would have an impact on our economy too, which we are theoretically sparing us from due to our current response.  However, if we go that route, the first thing I would need to point out is that this virus is primarily fatal for the older population—a set of individuals who have largely already left the workforce due to retirement.  Not to sound crass, but if the vast majority of fatalities from COVID-19 were from this set of individuals, it would have a fairly low impact on the economy since they are not going to be producers, only consumers.  This impact is actually how it goes with most viruses—they predominately attack the elderly and the very young, both of which are not part of the working class.  Stating these facts does not mean I’m advocating for us to do a cutthroat policy of sacrificing grandma since she can’t help out the economy much anyway.  But we could, instead, focus our social distancing and quarantining on the elderly and young instead of the entire workforce.  Because shutting the economy down by quarantining the entire workforce is objectively bad and will necessarily lead to an increase in poverty for all, whereas quarantining the young and old would have a targeted effect (albeit there will of course still be some individuals in between those extremes who will pass away too).

Of course, it’s also incumbent upon me to demonstrate how shuttering the entire working class will necessarily lead to increased poverty.  To illustrate that, let’s start by just examining the facts of where we are right now.  Large swaths of the Earth—not just the US, the entire globe—have shut down all “non-essential” businesses.  What does that mean?  It means anyone who is employed in a “non-essential” position is now no longer doing work.  Businesses cannot afford to pay employees who are not doing work.  The result is that millions of people worldwide have already been laid off, and those not specifically fired are not getting a paycheck.  Those few companies that can weather the storm thus far do not have infinite reserves, so those who have managed to dodge the termination/no paycheck bullet so far have less and less of a chance to continue to dodge it the longer this goes on.  The upshot of all this is that unemployment has already risen catastrophically in every country, including the US, who has closed all their “non-essential” businesses.

Nor are these workers easily able to find new jobs, because only “essential” jobs remain (which, for whatever reason, includes cannabis shops in Colorado).  If your only skills have been in “non-essential” areas, you will most likely not be able to find a new job in an “essential” field because there are more qualified workers—and a surplus of them to boot—to take any openings already there.

But how long will these “essential” businesses remain open?  To answer that question, we need to look no further than one such “essential” aspect right now: shelter.  Everyone needs a place to live.  Many (most?) American do not actually own their own shelter.  Their landlord owns it and they pay an agreed upon rate to have the right to stay there.  If your “non-essential” job is terminated, how can you pay for the “essential” need of shelter?  You cannot.

That alone is sufficient to cause problems for the landlord.  He cannot collect rent from people who literally have no money to pay rent, and thus in order for him to make money he can only rent to people who work in an “essential” job.  Except that the government has already stepped in.  The county I live in (in Colorado) has already had the court say that they will not process any eviction notices while we are in a state of emergency.  In other words, rent is coming due for millions of people who cannot pay it, and the landlord cannot evict anyone who cannot pay it.

What this means is that the “essential” business of renting out shelter has now become one in which landlords cannot legally make any money.  And yes it’s easy to see on humanitarian grounds that we cannot evict and make homeless millions of people.  Yet at the same time, we have just devalued the entire rent market to such an extent that anyone currently holding land that they would have rented out to others will no longer do so, because it’s the same thing as giving it away and getting nothing in return.  This will necessarily cause all real estate to tumble into chaos as the implications set in.

But it won’t end there.  If it’s logical and humanitarian for us to declare that shelter is so essential that we cannot process evictions during this time, essentially making rent free, how is it any less logical or less humanitarian to decree that all food must be free for whoever needs it too?  Those who cannot pay rent clearly cannot pay for food either.  And therefore, the “essential” job of running a supermarket will soon fall under this same cloud: you cannot deprive those who have no money of their food, so you must give it to them for free.  The medical establishments will fall under the same problems: how can you deny medication to those who clearly need it, solely because they have no money, solely because the government shut down their job as being “non-essential”?

And what are you left with at this point?  All “non-essential” jobs are shuttered already.  All “essential” goods are going to be forced to be given away for free.  Those who worked “non-essential” jobs cannot work, and those who are working “essential” jobs cannot make money for what they work.  If you’re a supermarket, you’re not going to pay to restock your shelves when you have to give away your product, so either farms will be forced to give food to stores for free, or the stores will shut down completely.  Farmers will not grow their crops if they cannot get anything in return for doing so, so they will shut down as well.

At this point, money is completely worthless.  Again, you can’t use it to buy any “non-essentials”—those stores aren’t even open!—and you don’t need to use it to buy “essentials” because it would be inhumane to deprive those without money of those goods.  More economic “stimulus” packages will be pointless because money is now pointless.  And there are many historical precedents of what happens when money becomes worthless.  Just look up the pictures of German toddlers playing with millions and millions of Marks post World War I, when a wheelbarrow load of cash couldn’t buy a loaf of bread.

If a farmer cannot get compensated for his food, if a landlord cannot get compensated for use of his property, if a doctor cannot be compensated for his skill, if a pharmacist cannot be compensated for his medications—only a fool continues to work in any field then.  The end result is necessary: those who have, hoard; those who don’t, starve.

Again, this is not a hypothetical situation.  This has happened multiple times in history.  When the economy collapses, people die.  Just as depriving someone of food and water necessarily results in illness, depriving a nation of an economy results in people dying.  It’s not an immediate and acute process, like a knife wound, but it is arguably worse because it will hurt everyone, not just those most susceptible to the acute problem.

Again, I’m not saying COVID-19 isn’t an enormous problem.  It may very well be one of the worst diseases our planet has ever faced (although thus far evidence does not bear that out).  But one thing is certain throughout all history: economic collapse is a horrific thing that necessarily leads to more suffering and death.  Our governments have collectively decided to shut down our world’s economy, which they know necessarily will result in an increase in deaths due to poverty, because COVID-19…might…cause more deaths than the shutdown will.  Never mind that there were ways in which we could have protected the most at-risk population from COVID-19 without shuttering the economy for as long as it must now be shuttered.

Because, see, at the end of the day, there’s going to be a list of fatalities with “COVID-19” listed as the cause of death, but there will never be a list of people with “global shutdown of economy” listed as their cause of death.  Instead, it will say things like “complications from diabetes”, because they couldn’t afford insulin after they lost their job; or “exposure”, because they died in the blizzard while living on the streets; or “murder” because their neighbor was so desperate for the food they had that they were shot in the back.  A few statisticians will notice “Hey, when the poverty rate goes up, the death and crime rates go up too” but politicians will still say, “All those poor people could have made better decisions and they wouldn’t be suffering now.  And furthermore, we kept the numbers who died from COVID-19 far lower than expected due to our actions.  Vote for me again!”

At this point, complaining about it doesn't really matter, I suppose.  Iacta alea est. The die has been cast.  Now we just get to wait and see what the consequences will be.

Living backwards

Time's arrow is one of the most pervasive features of human experience. It completely conditions our outlook. Moment by moment we move from the past into the future. That's the direction of cause and effect. 

But suppose we were dropped into a world where the next day was the day before. We wouldn't remember it because we hadn't experienced it yet. So memory wouldn't be a clue that we were moving into the past. If we went from March 15 to March 14, we'd remember March 15. Psychologically, March 15 would be indistinguishable from the past while March 14 would be indistinguishable from the present or future. 

So at what point would we catch onto to the fact that we were moving backwards in time? Things would age down, so that could be a clue, although that might not be immediately apparent, depending on the rate of change. 

That's assuming we were dropped into a backwards world from a world where time's arrow moves from the past into the future, so that we'd have that prior basis of comparison. But suppose we were never in a world where time's arrow moves from past into the future. Suppose we woke up as adults in a backwoods world. That's where our experience begins. That's where our memories begin. That's our only frame of reference. 

Would anything seem incongruous about our experience of time? In that case it might seem natural for things to age down. It might seem natural for cherries to turn into cherry blossoms, then buds. It might seem natural for dead things to come back to life. It might seem natural for flesh wounds to seal up in minutes. It might seem natural for hair to grow shorter. It might seem natural for a broken glass to recombine. It might seem natural for a melted snowman to reconstitute. 

In that respect, certain kinds of miracles are like temporal reversions, by turning back the clock in that particular instance. Not necessarily everything, but a localized effect. Say restoring sight to someone who became blind from an accident or disease. Like going back to a time before the accident or disease took place. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The advent of the Antichrist

Cats are the devil's familiars. They sense that the pandemic presages the advent of the Antichrist. They are waiting for their Master's imminent return!

Image may contain: cat and indoor

Citizen snitches

Your vocation

The plot of the journey may be the most popular and fundamental plot in literature. Presumably, the metaphor of life as a journey is based on the human lifecycle. Were it not for human mortality, this might not be a universal metaphor and central literary plot.

By contrast, a neglected comparison is a plot based on a divine calling. This, of course, figures prominently in the Bible. Paradigm examples include Abraham, Moses, OT prophets, and the apostles.

You might say Jesus had a calling although it would be more accurate to say he had a mission. On the divine side he was an architect of his own vocation, so that's not a calling in the usual sense.

However, the larger point is that every human being has a calling. It's just that most men and women are unaware of their calling. They fulfill their vocation without knowing they have one.

That's because world history is like a drama in which everyone has a divinely assigned role to play. Unbelievers don't realize they are actors in God's drama, but nonetheless they play their part. Ironically, atheists have a divine vocation. Their calling is to play the foil and fall guy. 

Even bit players may have a deceptively significant role to play. No one remembers who Abraham's great-grandfather was. He's a long-forgotten nobody. Yet without him, Abraham would never exist. Little events in the past can become increasingly significant due to their long-range impact. 

Not only is everyone on a journey, everyone has a calling. Vocation and journey are conterminous. 

Slamming the door in the face of the unchurched

With tens of millions of Americans under house arrest, this would be an ideal time for unchurched Americans who are bored out of their wits to check out a church. Unfortunately, most of them will find locked church doors. One of the great, unrepeatable lost opportunities in Christian history to reach out to the unsaved. 

Livestream services are fine as a complement to public worship, but livestream services cater to church members, not the unchurched. 

In the groove

A candid video. Several related issues:

1. It's much easier to convince yourself that you believe certain things if you're in a like-minded group. As social creatures we crave acceptance. We aim to please. So everyone plays their part. Doing what's expected of them.

I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing. Sometimes it's a good thing to have that positive social reinforcement. In the abstract, it's neutral. 

But it's a very thin foundation. And there are times in life when that's not enough. 

2. Many people are believers or unbelievers because they're in a particular groove and the groove keeps them moving in that direction. Many people are unbelievers not so much because they've given any deep thought to Christianity but because all their activities are secular. They're carried along by the inertia. 

Conversely, many people are believers because they move in a religious groove, in terms of their friends and activities. The routine keeps them in that lane. The routine keeps them going in that direction. 

3. There's also the pressure to live up to the expectations of others. We can also make career choices that put us in a particular lane. It's easier to stay in that lane and keep moving forward. In a way we don't have to do anything. It's already set up for us. We just carry on with our assigned duties. Like coasting down hill. It can become mechanical. 

However, that can also lead to a midlife crisis where we question whether we made a wrong turn. Would we make the same choice if we could go back in time? Or is it too late to start all over from scratch?

There are no right or wrong answers in the abstract. It depends on where the truth lies. 

Theistic conceptual realism update

For those of you who take an interest in modal metaphysics:

Philosophia Christi
Vol 21 Num. 2 - Winter 2019
The Winter 2019 issue features a lead discussion centered on William Lane Craig's argument in God Over All, with contributions from Greg Welty, Peter van Inwagen, and a response by Craig. The discussion addresses issues of "divine conceptualism" and abstract objects and their implications for the nominalism-realism debate.

Greg Welty is slated to publish an updated version of  “The Conceptualist Argument,” in Colin Ruloff (ed.), Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology (Bloomsbury Press, forthcoming). 

He had to cut it down to meet the word count, so he will publish the outtakes in journal articles. 

The course of coronavirus

It doesn't look like the numbers or percentages are entirely accurate. However it's still useful as a generic schema for how the coronavirus seems to be playing out.

Summary of clinical trials for coronavirus

There are several different treatment options that physicians and scientists are looking into for the coronavirus. Such as antivirals and vaccines. These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

I've posted on a few of these in the past (e.g. convalescent plasma therapy, remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin).

Here's a more comprehensive list so people can see what's being worked on around the world to combat the coronavirus:


Kowtowing to China

I believe the person interviewed is Bruce Aylward. Of course, everyone knows China is a communist regime led by autocrats who have no problem using heavy-handed, draconian, and even bloody measures against their own people. By contrast, Taiwan is a free and democratic nation like South Korea and like Hong Kong should be.

Also, the role of conservative media in this story:

Confirmation bias

Coram Deo asks a good question here:

I don't know if either Hawk or steve (or another active T-blogger) would be willing to take up the question, but both here and elsewhere I'm seeing what I perceive as rampant confirmation bias swirling amidst the current coronavirus pandemic and I'm wondering if it's possible to implement guards or filters in our critical thinking to avoid this to some extent.

This assumes of course that folks wish to avoid or mitigate this feature, indeed many seem to rush to pick out this or that expert, model, or theory which bolsters their preconceived notions.

Thanks, CD. That's a good point and a good question! What you've said is important to keep in mind. If I can offer my random thoughts:

Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Calvinist Philosopher Responds to Critics

Staying Connected While Staying In

For the second time I got this Facebook notification:

Staying Connected While Staying In
People on Facebook are showing how they're helping to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Add a frame to your profile picture to increase awareness.
As a nonconformist who rejects the policy, the propaganda, and the social coercion, I decline. 

Philosophical survey

Questions from a survey of philosophers:

I'll give my own answers. I don't have considered opinions on every question. I'm not equally interested in every philosophical issue. I find metaphysics more interesting than epistemology, while theology is my paramount interest. 

The dominion of death and the devil

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb 2:14-15).

Fear of death exerts enormous coercive power over unbelievers. It's a key weapon in the Devil's arsenal. The coronavirus has illustrated the coercive power of death. 

Part of that lies in the element of uncertainly. The virus is like a stalker. You don't know when, where, or how hard it will hit a particular region. 

Fear of death can easily cause normally friendly, trustworthy people to turn on each other if they feel that you pose a threat to their safety. Competitive survival dissolves the glue of civilization.

The coronavirus generates a dilemma. On the one hand, it may be the kind of pathogen you need to get ahead of. You may need to take preemptive measures, even drastic measures, to contain it and control it. If you procrastinate, it's too late to undo the damage. One side blames the other side for dragging its heals. 

On the other hand, we don't know enough about the coronavirus to know the scale of the threat or what's most effective. As a result, public officials are enacting uninformed policies. Policies that are wrecking the economy. So there's the perceived need to act early, combined with the danger of acting prematurely. 

There's a comparison between knows and unknowns. The dire projections might be accurate or widely exaggerated. But we do know the damage it's wreaking on the economy. That has lethal consequences, too. 

Moreover, it's not clear that preemptive measures are what's required. One proposed solution is based on social isolation, but another proposed solution is based on herd immunity. Let it naturally spread to stimulate the immune system and trigger the development of antibodies in the population (while we feverishly work on next-generation vaccines). Don't these two solutions tug in opposite directions? 

What if you can't afford to be wrong, but you don't know what's the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do? What if one cup contains the antidote while the other cup contains poison? You can't tell which is which. 

It's striking how the fear of death causes so many humans not only to surrender basic freedoms, but their livelihood. Their current and future financial security. 

Christians should take reasonable precautions against gratuitous harm–assuming we know what precautions are reasonable. But we're not paralyzed by the prospect of death. The devil can't usage that as leverage to make us follow his orders. Betray each other. The devil is like an SS officer who gives you a choice: you can shoot one of your comrades to save the life of another comrade; if you refuse, he will shoot both. Christianity frees us from that morally corrupting coercion. 

The role of atheism in the pandemic

1. What does atheism have to do with the pandemic? I thought you'd never ask!

The regime in Red China takes the lion's share of the blame for the pandemic. It has systematically bungled the crisis. Part of this is due to a fanatical, paranoid concern to maintain total social control. 

2 But there's a theological element has well. It cuts against the grain of human nature to admit error, much less wrongdoing. You lose face when you do that. In fact, it can be hard for people to admit to themselves that they are morally flawed and guilty of moral failure, much less admit that to others. 

As I've noted in the past, one of the liberating side-effects of Christianity is that it free us to admit error and wrongdoing. If everyone is a sinner, if Christ redeemed you, if God forgave you, then it's safe to admit error and wrongdoing. That lowers our natural defensiveness. We have nothing much to lose by coming clean. 

But atheists in the Communist regime don't have that insulation. Saving face is all-important, no matter the harm to others.

3. There's also the fact that if you're a consistent atheist, life is cheap. You may value your own life, but other human beings are disposable. What does the death toll amount to in a nation with a population the size of China? Unless you have reason to believe each human life is important, why should the regime care about the death of so many Chinese? Individual lives are so expendable and replaceable. Like weeds. 

Tomorrow never comes

For three years, with increasing alarm, astronomers had been tracking an astroid. From far out in space, the trajectory was indeterminate: would it be a near miss or direct hit? But as it got closer it became clear that this would be a cataclysmic event. Human life would become extinct.

Most folks planned to die with their families. But Xavier had an ace up his sleeve. That's because Xavier had a time machine. He could elude doomsday by escaping into the past. 

But that was complicated. For one thing, you couldn't travel back to a time before you existed. Your conception was the terminus ad quo for time travel. So the timeframe was limited to the span between your present and you personal past. 

Another problem was keeping the time machine a secret. Who could he trust to tell? People would kill for the time machine. If the authorities found out about it, the government would confiscate the machine. How could Xavier use the time machine to save himself and his loved ones from encroaching oblivion? 

If he told his parents or his brother Damien or his best friend, they'd tell their other loved ones, so that knowledge of the time machine would become widely known. But there was only one time machine. It had to be a closely-guarded secret for Xavier to use it. 

The question was who to leave behind to. They had no future. Only a past. And some of them didn't have much of a past to retreat into. His older brother Damien had little kids. Damien couldn't take them with him if he went too far back into his own past. His kids didn't exist when he was young. Xavier knew that Damien would rather die with them than leave them behind.

When you traveled from the present to the past, you aged down. Your age corresponded when you were alive. So you had to decide where you wanted to reset the lifecycle. Xavier didn't wish to be a little boy again. It would have to be when he was a teenager, maybe in junior high or high school.  

The machine could be programmed to repeat one day from the past, or the same week, or the same month, or the same year. When it came to the end of programmed interval, it would repeat the process. Xavier had a happy childhood. He was raised on a ranch in Montana. He loved the out of doors. The seasons, fields and streams, mountain views, and horseback riding. That was his preference. It also gave him a chance to be reunited with his late grandparents. 

In a sense, his loved ones didn't have to use the time machine to avert the future. They'd die in the near-future, but exist in the past. If he didn't tell them, he wasn't really leaving them behind. He hadn't abandoned them. Because he'd find them in the past, as if they were waiting for him. They'd still be there, just like before. 

If you traveled from the present to the past, you remembered the future you came from. But if you didn't reenter the past from the future, you didn't know the future, since you hadn't experienced the future as of yet. Living in the past, you didn't exist in that future. 

In a way, Xavier couldn't save his loved ones from the future.  They had no future. It was sufficient for him alone to use the time machine. To program it for a particular period. To be repeated. That way they'd be reunited in the past. And only he'd remember the ill-fated future. He was conferring immortality on his loved ones through a temporal loop. And they wouldn't know the difference. Every time it reached the end, it would revert to the beginning. A process that reset their memories. Only Xavier would recollect the whole story. Not just the timeloop but the impact event. 

Yet there were tradeoffs. For his loved ones, it was always like experiencing that year for the very first time, no matter how often it repeated. But Xavier's memory transcended the temporal loop. He was consciously revisiting the same year every time, day after day. To stave off tedium, he didn't simply relive his past. He did different things. It gave him a chance to do a lot of reading and thinking. To explore. To spend more time with Damien and their grandparents. 

Xavier had never been very religious, but with so much time on his hands, and the need to do something new to stave off the deadening repetition, he began to read the Bible. That opened up a whole new world for him. A future beyond the future cataclysm. An afterlife beyond extinction. 

He began to wonder if, by delaying death indefinitely, he wasn't cheating death. Was he missing out on something better? Were his loved ones missing out on something better?

At first there was no sense of urgency. He was safe in the past. He couldn't die in the past. 

Or could he? Did the fact that he survived right up to the brink of doosmday mean he was immortal so long as he remained in the past? The fact that he originally made it that far meant he hadn't died in the past. 

But as he thought more about it, maybe he could die in the past. Originally, he lived to a certain age because he did certain things. He avoided fatal accidents. 

But by consciously returning to the past, over and over again, he wasn't simply retracing his steps. For the sake of variety, he was doing different things in the past than the first time around. He wasn't reliving his past, but revisiting an particular time and place. And he was free to vary his routine, to avoid tedium. Indeed, it became increasingly hard even to remember what his original past was like. It became a blur with each new iteration of the time-loop. 

So perhaps he could die in the past by doing something different. Suffer a fatal accident. Snakebite. Breaking his neck falling off a horse. Shot to death in a barroom brawl. His current past wasn't the same past that led up to his original future. Every time he did something different, that was a pathway to an alternate future–a future in which he didn't originally exist. That raised time-travel paradoxes, and he wasn't sure how seriously to take it. Too much to lose by finding out the hard way.

It's not as if he couldn't die no matter how recklessly he behaved. He wasn't indestructible. Not that he was reckless, but the prospect spooked him. Traveling back into the past, he initially lost his fear of death. But it now occurred to him that his confidence might be misplaced, because he was changing variables. 

And there were worse things than death. Damnation was incomparably worse than death. Of course, death was often portal to hell, but in his case that was self-fulfilling. He hadn't prepared himself for death. He thought he could keep it at bay indefinitely. So there was no pressing need to repent, to think about God, to be worshipful or engage in spiritual examination. Yet maybe he was just lucky up to this point, and his luck might run out. 

And not just for himself, but for his loved ones. Could he actually protect them by keeping them sequestered in the past? Because he did different things, they did different things in response. So maybe they, too, were now at risk. Were they heavenbound or hellbound? Having read the Bible so often during the timeloops, and attending church, he began to share the Gospel with his parents, grandparents, and brother. 

He then decided if he should destroy the time machine. If he did that, it would restore the status quo ante. They'd all die in the impact event. But maybe the solution was to move forward, not backward. Not hide in the past, but accept death as a portal to heaven and the world to come.   

Friday, March 27, 2020

Chinese Christian fiction

From a 2004 article. It would be interested to see an up-to-date list:

Among writers in China, whose Marxist grand narrative has also stuttered to a stop, many contemporary novelists have identified openly with religious story, now not only Confucian or Buddhist but also the Christian grand narrative. (Among the prominent Christian novelists are Lao She, Xu Dishan, Bing Xing, and Mu Dan.) There is even a new literary style called sheng jing ti ("biblical"), whose characteristics are described as "objective, truthful, terse" (Aikman 254).

Muslim etiquette

A Muslim objection to Christianity is that it means God Incarnate has an excretory system. That offends their sense of divine etiquette. 

But in Christian theology, matter isn't evil. The body isn't evil. The body processes energy. And waste products are a byproduct of energy processing. That's true for energy processing in general. Like burning wood produces smoke and ash. Is that bad manners? The body is like a machine.

Muslims have peculiar notions about etiquette. For instance, many Muslim couples practice anal sex. Why do they have dainty hangups about the Incarnation but their delicate sensibilities aren't offended by anal sex? 

Noah's Flood: Global or Regional?

first installment of 6-part series:

Is it always wrong to violate a confidence?

A friend asked me whether it's always wrong to violate a confidence. Sharing a confidence involves a two-way trust. It carries the implicit condition that the individual sharing a confidence not abuse the trust or take advantage of the person he confides in. 

There's a prima facie obligation not to divulge information shared in confidence. But that's not absolute. For one thing, you don't know in advance what someone will confide in you, so you can't render informed consent to keep it secret. A person can't unilaterally obligate you to keep their secret. They don't have that coercive moral authority over you. You can't reasonably be expected to make a commitment when you're in the dark. Indeed, open-ended commitments can be unethical. 

There may be other the concerned parties who also have rights. Keeping a secret may unjustly harm them. So we have to balance competing duties. In case of conflict, some duties override other duties. 

To take a hypothetical case, suppose I know the pastor's son is a closet homosexual. I suspect that, and at some point he confides in me.

Normally I'd protect his identity. I'd cover for him (without lying), because he has a struggle, and he needs a straight friend to talk to, where he's free to let down his guard. To out him would be gratuitously harmful to his reputation and his faith. 

If, however, he decides to follow his dad's career path by going into the family business, as a youth pastor (say), that changes things. Now he's inserting himself into a situation which will, at the very least, expose him to unnecessary temptation, and at the worst he's deliberately exploiting the situation to seduce vulnerable young men. At that point, all bets are off. 

Minimally, I'd warn him to stay clear of Christian ministry and other venues where he works with other young men. I'll also tell him that if he doesn't heed the warning, I will be obligated to out him for the protection of the innocent. At that point he forced my hand. 

Just to clarify, there are situations in which I'd lie for someone to cover for them, but in the hypothetical situation I raised, I don't owe him that. All other things being equal, I'm prepared to cover for him short of lying for him. There's a difference between concealing and deceiving. Sometimes both are justified, but sometimes concealing is justified while deceiving is not. 

Suppose I know a classmate cheated on an exam. Suppose he knows I know. But he's now remorseful about his action. 

I'm not going to rat him out, in part because I'm not personally responsible for what he did, and he's contrite about his wrongdoing. At this stage it would be more harmful to rat him out. In that sense I'll cover for him. I'd keep it between us. 

If, however, his action was exposed by someone else, I'm not going to lie for him. He did wrong. It's not my duty to lie to coverup his wrongdoing. He can't reasonable expect that from me. Having taken a risk, he must be prepared to face the consequences. 

Don't sacrifice your prejudice to defend the Bible

Your visceral response is telling you that that kind of action is wrong, intrinsically wrong.

That's hardly a reliable guide. Amputating a gangrenous limb evokes a visceral response, but it's not telling me that this kind of action is intrinsically wrong. To the contrary, it's intrinsically right. 

It just means an observer can imagine what it would be like to have that done to him. That's a basis for compassion. 

If you agree with Pickett that capital punishment is a brutalizing practice…

There's nothing essentially brutalizing about the practice, although it can be conducted in gratuitously brutal ways.

…and if you agree with that daughter that it just gives you one more dead person

That equivalence is amoral. It obliterates the distinction between innocent death and just deserts. 

Rauser then inveighs about stoning, juvenile delinquents, concluding that:

That suggestion offends me to my core. I hope it does for you as well.

What passes for Rauser's moral core isn't my arbiter for right and wrong. Rauser is oblivious to his progressive social conditioning.

Mr. Merrill is here defending honor killing. It’s the same logic by which a Muslim father will kill his daughter after she defies him by going out with her western boyfriend. In short, it’s the same twisted logic to which blood-spattered murderers appeal when they are led away in handcuffs.

That's a malicious and scurrilous misrepresentation of Merrill's position. An honor killing is where a relative is executed because, in the eyes of the community, what happened to them brought shame on the family or clan. It's not based on anything the relative did wrong. To the contrary, they may be the innocent party. They were wronged. A classic example in Islam is the treatment of rape victims. 

The OT doesn't have honor killings in that sense. Rauser's antipathy towards Biblical revelation is so truculent that he can't bring himself to honestly represent what it says. 

Don’t be like Mr. Merrill. Don’t sacrifice your conscience in your reading of the Bible. Instead, recognize the gift of your God-given moral intuitions and let them offer chastening guides as you wrestle with the Biblical text.

Rauser never allows biblical revelation to form or inform his conscience. Problem is, he has no criterion to distinguish his conscience from social conditioning and cultural relativism. 

As I've said on more than one occasion, it's possible to be both a moral realist and a moral skeptic. We can believe in moral facts, objective moral norms, but be skeptical about our ability to isolate these from the power of social conditioning and cultural relativism. For Christians, divine revelation helps to sort them out. But Rauser doesn't have that winnowing process. It's just his seat-of-the-pants reaction, which just so happens to echo his education and peer group. 

He sacrifices divine revelation to his prejudice rather than sacrificing his prejudice to divine revelation. Rauser constantly labors to strike a balance between atheism and Christianity, and his center of gravity is secular humanism. His position is an unstable compromise between secularism and residual Christianity. It isn't consistently one or the other, which is why it's so hard for him to get others to take his position seriously. He's the atheist's favorite "Christian" because he's a useful tool.  His position is no threat to atheism, but he can be counted on to attack evangelical theology. The contrast between his sympathy for atheism and antipathy towards evangelicalism is striking and stark. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Nolan and Jordan were childhood friends. Best friends from preschool upwards. Came of age together. Now on the verge of high school graduation.

Nolan's dad as a highly successful, hard-driving businessman. Very competitive with his son. Nolan could never please his dad. It's like every day was a performance evaluation. Every day he had to prove himself to his father. And he never measured up. This instilled in him a deep sense of self-loathing. 

Nolan was an only-child, and his mother walked out on the marriage, after she got fed up with a philandering husband. All the affection and attention came from Jordan. Their friendship was the only thing that kept Jordan from sliding into suicidal depression and drug addiction. But when he was at his dad's house he used to get drunk.

Indeed, their friendship is what probably kept him straight. With a dad like that he was a higher risk of becoming gay, but Jordan offset that risk factor.

Nolan's dad envied and resented their friendship. Resented the amount of time Nolan spent with Jordan. And the resentment showed. The more he resented the friendship, the more time Nolan spent with Jordan. He virtually moved in with Jordan.

But Nolan was always torn between his indispensable friendship with Jordan and his instinctive hunger for his father's approval. Nolan's dad sensed that and used that as a wedge. He plotted to break up the friendship.

Nolan's dad arranged to have Jordan framed for a crime he didn't commit. He offered to make Nolan a junior partner in his business–on condition that Noland testify against Jordan. At first, Nolan's dad treated his son the way Noland always longed to be treated. Praise. Demonstrative affection. Gone was the usual judgmentalism. He manipulated Nolan's vulnerability. And it worked. Nolan testified against Jordan. But he hated himself for doing it. It made him nauseous. And afterwards he was plagued by guilt. It plunged him into suicidal depression.

In addition, the charm offensive wore thin as the natural impatience of Nolan's dad resurfaced. He reverted to berating his son as a loser who could never do anything right. In his father's eye, Noland would always be a failure.

Nolan was in despair. He contemplated suicide. He lost his one indispensable friend through an unforgivable act of betrayal, and got nothing in return. What was he to do? The thought crossed his mind to recant his perjury, but he couldn't afford to lose both of them. He burned his bridges with Jordan when he falsely accused him on the stand. If he recanted his testimony, that would burn his bridges with his dad. And he had no guarantee that Jordan would take him back. A gamble he couldn't afford to lose.

He finally decided to do the right thing. He recanted his testimony. Jordan's expression was inscrutable.

Jordan understood the extenuating circumstances of the original perjury, but that didn't excuse it. Recanting his testimony was a mitigating factor. He redeemed himself on the stand. Jordan knew Nolan better than anyone. Knew how hard it was for Noland to do that. Knew the cost. It was the bravest thing Noland had ever done. Indeed, it was the only brave thing Nolan had ever done.

By contrast, the expression on the face of Nolan's dad was anything but inscrutable. A sentence of banishment.

Jordan's lawyer motioned to have the charges dismissed. The judge agreed.

Nolan was still in unbearable suspense. But Jordan took him back. They never talked about the trial.

After high school graduation, they moved out of state together. Married girlfriends a few years later, and remained best of friends until Nolan died of liver cancer at 33. Nolan's dad always blamed Jordan. After Nolan died, his father shot himself.

A vine with two branches

Zach first met Jeremy during Zach's freshman year of junior high. Jeremy was a year ahead of him. They were complete strangers–or so it seemed. But they took a liking to each other and began to hang out a lot. There was a certain affinity that drew them to each other, even though they couldn't quite put their finger on it. It went deeper than natural rapport between best friends. The more time they spent together, the stronger the sense of affinity. They could anticipate each other's thoughts. They could anticipate what the other was going to say next. It was uncanny, as if they had overlapping minds. 

Zach always suspected that he was adopted, but he never asked his parents. A part of him didn't want to know that his own parents rejected him. 

But the dynamic with Jeremy made him wonder if they might be related. What were the odds? Under what circumstances could they have been separated? It seemed so far-fetched. And yet they appeared to have built-in bond. 

So Zach asked Jeremy if he thought they might be related. Jeremy didn't think that was possible. Still, when he got home, he posed the question. 

The expression on his mother's face was a dead giveaway. Turns out she had Zach and Jeremy out-of-wedlock by the same boyfriend, but at the time she couldn't afford to raise both as a single mom, so she put Zach up for adoption. They were too young to remember each other.

Jeremy was shocked. All these years he had a brother he never knew about. Never suspected the existence of a younger brother. He felt betrayed. All the lost years. 

So that explained it. Their minds were indeed linked. A part of each other, not just genetically but psychologically, like two branches of the same vine. 

It took Jeremy months to forgive his mother, and even then a part of him held it against her. As for Zach, when the situation was explained, he understood his mother's motivations. She was in a desperate situation at the time. It wasn't malicious. It wasn't intentional rejection. 

But he just couldn't get over it. He couldn't bring himself to meet her. It cut too deep. It was too awkward. How as he supposed to act? She both was and wasn't his mother. She hadn't raised him, so he didn't know how to act around her. 

He did track down his biological father, but out of curiosity, not reconciliation. After meeting his father, he could tell he didn't miss out on not having a father like that. 

However, Zach and Jeremy now had each other, and made up for lost time. 

Criminalizing church attendance


In the modern west, coming-of-age is generally associated with adolescence. The physiological transition from childhood to adulthood. Sexual maturation, greater emotional independence from parents, developing alternative social relationships with age-mates (friends, boyfriends, girlfriends). Coming-of-age involves the assumption of adult risks and responsibilities, adult moral responsibility, and life-choices. 

The coming-of-age story is a stock genre, going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh (friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the Odyssey (Telemachus). It's a topic of endless novels, short stories, movies, and teen dramas.  

There's distinction between chronological/physiological coming-of-age and moral/psychological/sociological coming-of-age. Some adults suffer from arrested development because they never experienced challenges that forced them to mature morally, emotionally, or socially. 

In his monograph on A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, Leland Ryken's has an entry under coming-of-age story (p47), where he lists the following examples:

• Jacob fleeing from his ancestral home and going to Haran (Gen 28)

• Joseph sold into slavery (Gen 37)

• David and Goliath(1 Sam 17)

• Daniel going into exile (Dan 1:1-3)

• Esther as a harem girl

One preliminary question this raises is the age of the individuals when they came of age. Roughly what would have been their ages at the time? I asked an OT scholar who gave the following ages or estimates:

Jacob: 76
Joseph: 17 (Gen 37:2)
David: about 20
Daniel: unknown–probably late teens/early 20s???
Esther: unknown–perhaps late teens???

In some cases these are somewhat beyond the chronological range we associate with coming-of-age in the modern west. Most dramatically in the case of Jacob. The larger point is that all of them underwent a maturing experience. In a sense, they were forced to grow up fast, thrust into a situation where they had to make momentous decisions beyond their years inasmuch as that they didn't have the wisdom of seasoned experience. Jacob is something of an anomaly in this group.  

In distinction to chronological coming-of-age, marriage and children or the death of a parent are social and psychological coming-of-age experiences. Other examples include adolescents or even preadolescents who are forced to leave home and make it on their own. Take the dislocations of war. Or forced to assume a parental role if a mother or father dies. They must step into their place to take up the slack, raising younger siblings and helping out the surviving parent. 

Christian conversion is a coming-of-age experience, at whatever age. A maturing experience. 

Are there silver bullets for the coronavirus?

I've been critical of the official policies to address the pandemic, but I haven't offered an alternative. That's in part because I'm not an expert, and even the experts disagree. But here's my general impression:

These seem to be the basic strategies. And in some respects these present conflicting strategies:

i) Mass isolation. Impose curfews/lockdowns to bend the growth curve/transmission rate. Social distancing is key.

ii) Mass testing. Test the population to find out who's infected. Quarantine the infected. Treat the infected with promising preexisting drugs while developing new antivirals. Let the uninfected continue business as usual (more or less).

iii) Let the virus naturally spread to cultivate herd immunity in the population. While the virus is highly contagious, it isn't life-threatening to humans in general. High-risk groups are vulnerable, and the virus will kill some healthy individuals in the prime of life, but most folks develop mild symptoms and have the natural ability to recover. 

I may have oversimplified the options. There may be no silver bullet. 

Is baptism necessary for salvation?

From a Facebook exchange:

What's the symbolism in Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, John 3:5, and Acts 8:36-39?

i) The long ending of Mark is probably a scribal interpolation, so it doesn't even figure in the discussion. 

ii) It's unlikely that Jn 3:5 even refers to the Christian rite of baptism. For one thing, that's anachronistic. It would be incomprehensible to Nicodemus, since Christian baptism hadn't be instituted at that point. The imagery evokes OT passages about water as a spiritual metaphor, and it's an emblem for the renewal by the Spirit. Jn 4 & 7 provide other examples where water is a spiritual metaphor. 

iii) Regarding the passages in Acts, I think you failed to grasp my point. If A is a symbol of B, then what is said of B can be said of A, even though it's not literally the case.

A classic example is how the NT talks about salvation through the cross of Christ. But literally speaking, the cross is just a piece of wood. It doesn't actually save anyone. Rather, to say people are saved by the cross is shorthand for people are saved by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. The cross is being used as a verbal substitute.

Oh yeah, let's just discredit entire parts of the scriptures because we don't like them.
John 3 being anachronistic does not change that it is very explicitly about baptism. Very explicitly.
No one is claiming that baptism saves. Grace saves, through faith. True Faith always leads to baptism. The apostles believed and practiced this, Paul believed and practiced this, and the early church believed and practiced this. You think you understand the commands of Jesus better than they did?

i) Your first statement is nonsense. Have you studied textual criticism in reference to the long ending of Mark? 

ii) The fact that the baptismal interpretation is anachronistic is quite germane to the correct interpretation. Jesus upbraids Nicodemus for failing to understand what he's referring to, but if he's referring to the Christian rite of baptism, then it's impossible for Nicodemus to catch the reference since that would depend on knowledge of the future, which Nicodemus isn't privy to.

I gave reasons why it's not about baptism. You did nothing to refute my reason. You just reasserted your indefensible claim.

iii) Your third statement ignores the OP. The question raised by the OP is whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation. 

You then change the issue by talking about the command/practice of baptism. But that wasn't the question.

iv) Christians can't just shrug off textual criticism. The Bible you use, the translation you use, is based on a critical edition of the Hebrew text and the Greek text. Scholars make text-critical decisions for you. The Bible you hold in your had is the product of decisions they made regarding the best MSS and variant readings. So you're trusting in their scholarly judgment calls. The edition/translation you use didn't just come straight from Bible writers, but from scribes. And there are different critical editions, based on different MSS and different textual variants. Absolutizing the edition that comes down to you, one which, say, contains the long ending of Mark, is an arbitrary sample.

That doesn't require sheer trust in scholarship. A Christian can learn the rudiments of textual criticism, so that he knows the general lay of the land, and how these decisions are arrived at.