Saturday, October 10, 2015

Eyewitness to history

A cliche of critical Bible scholarshio is to treat history and theology as antithetical categories. For instance, they may regard John as the least historical of the Gospels because it contains the most theological interpretation. 

Conservative scholars have, of course, made the banal observation that critical scholars are guilty of erecting a false dichotomy. But I'd like to put a sharper point on that observation.

It's true that the Gospels are more than a record of events. They are interpreted events. But not only is that consistent with their historicity, but that's to be expected if they are based on eyewitness testimony. 

Most everyone is a historian. I'm a historian with respect to my own time and place. What I myself have seen. People I personally knew. 

When historians and biographers write about public figures or events in the recent past, they try to interview close acquaintances. That's because a close acquaintance can be an invaluable source of information. Parents know a lot about their kids, and vice versa. Siblings know a lot about each other. Childhood friends know a lot about each other. And this involves two types of information:

i) What the subject thought, said, did. 

A close acquaintance may have a detailed knowledge of part, most, or even all of the subject's life. In many cases he has firsthand knowledge of what the subject said and did. He was there when it happened. He saw it or heard it. 

Likewise, that subject may have told him about things he did in the past. So the close acquaintance is getting that straight from the horse's mouth.

ii) Why the subject thought, said, did what he did.

In addition to knowing what he thought, said, and did, a close acquaintance may know why that's the case. And these typically go together. There are several factors that may motivate people to think, say, and believe in certain ways:

a) If you know a person well enough to know their character traits. Their temperament. Their values. Their likes and dislikes. If you've been around them often enough and long enough to observe a pattern. That makes them predictable. You usually know what to expect. We are creatures of habit. We have formative influences. We rarely act out of character.

b) They may tell a close acquaintance why they did something, why they like or dislike sometime. They will explain their actions.

c) If you know the events leading up to a particular decision in his life. Circumstances constrain our field of action. We choose from the available options. 

One thing leads to another. What we think, said, or did is in response to prior events. It has a context in a larger chain of events. 

As a result, a close acquaintance is in privileged position to interpret the subject's action. Give a reason for why the subject thought what he thought, said what he said, and did what he did. This isn't the fictional omniscient narrator; rather, this is realistic. 

This is why a good historian or biographer will seek out people who knew the subject well, and question them, not only on the facts, but on the motivations. A close acquaintance has that interpretive frame of reference.  

Poor Benjamin's Almanack

Dr. Ben Carson is full of plain-spoken wisdom and common sense. For example, see this article.

(I'm not necessarily suggesting this means he'd make for a good president though. I think that remains to be seen.)

Friday, October 09, 2015

Told you so!

Because no one could possibly see that coming:

The cosmography of Revelation

i) Dante is famous for his landscape of hell. Although he wrote a trilogy, it suffers from the dubious distinction that most readers find his imaginative depiction of hell to be far and away the most compelling section. The raw materials for Purgatory and heaven were less promising. He did the best he could, but what ought to be a climax is more of a letdown. 

Likewise, scholars have popularized a notion of Gen 1 as a three-story universe. As I've discussed on many occasions, I think that reflects a deskbound interpretation that's out of touch with the world which an anciet audience would actually experience. They spent lots of time out of doors. The details of the three-story universe don't comport with what they were in a position to know, as a matter of common observation.

Despite scholarly preoccupation with the alleged cosmography of Genesis, I'm struck by scholarly neglect in reference to Revelation. For centuries, this book has captivated readers. It has produced an immense body of exegetical literature.

Yet in spite of that, there is, to my knowledge, no monograph on the cosmography of Revelation. Yet based on various literary notices in the Apocalypse, you can piece together a picture of the world in Revelation. It would be interesting if somebody produced a mock-up or simulation. 

This post is not intended to be exhaustive. I'm just going to highlight some elements:

ii) In Revelation, "heaven" is largely a vast divine throneroom or temple. It even has a door (4:1; 11:19). 

Inside the throneroom there's an artificial rainbow. I say it's artificial because there's no rain or sunshine inside the throneroom. 

You also have lightning. From an ancient perspective, lightning might be interesting in part because it's a natural light source that's independent of sunlight. And, of course, it's especially dramatic after dark, when it momentarily lights up the night sky. 

You also have the "sea of glass." That might suggest a reflective floor that mirrors the ceiling. 

ii) In 8:8-9 you have what we'd describe in modern terms as a giant astroid plunging into the sea. Its rapid descent through the atmosphere would make it white hot. The result is to make the ocean boil on contact. 

This is reminiscent, both of doomsday science fiction scenarios as well as craters that bear witness to actual impact events in earth history.  

iii) 8:12 might be a case of occultation or transit, where one celestial body temporarily obscures another, without covering it completely. 

iv) In 9:1 you have an angel depicted as a shooting star. The abyss seems to be the prison for fallen angels. It is distinct from Hades (in Revelation).

v) In 12, the Devil is depicted as an ancient constellation. Candidates include Draco, Scorpio, Hydra, and Serpens. I doubt John intended a precise astronomical identification in mind. I suspect the terminology is impressionistic. 

At the same time, he's alluding to the primordial "snake" in the garden. That raises the question of whether the original audience for Genesis would associate the "snake" with constellations and shooting stars. How far back in time does that thinking go?  Obviously, that stellar symbolism dovetails nicely with the identification of the tempter as a fallen angel, where it is named after constellations with reptilian designations. 

vi) In 13 you have the beast from the sea. This isn't the normal ocean, but an ocean that's been contaminated by natural disasters. So if this were science fiction, the beast would be a mutant sea monster.

vii) In 16:20, the islands disappear. In theory, that could be caused by an astroid raising the sea level. I'm not stating for a fact that that's what John intends. But there is a potential narrative connection between 8:8-9 and 16:20, where the latter might be a side effect of the former. The islands were submerged by rising oceans, caused by the astroid impact. 

viii) In general, Revelation depicts an ecological disaster on a global and even cosmic scale. The flora is firebombed. The natural freshwater sources are poisoned. Marine life is destroyed by boiling water and contaminants. The sun ceases to shine. Record meteor showers empty the sky.

Recast in modern terms, the sky is reduced to white dwarves, supernovae, and neutron stars. 

The earth in general is rendered uninhabitable. The only "natural" source of heat and light is the lake of fire, which is reminiscent of magma or lava.

The earth in general is not restored to its pristine, Edenic condition. Just the opposite: it is made inhospitable to natural lifeforms.

ix) There is a singular exception: the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven.

It's like the domed city in science fiction. A residential greenhouse. A self-contained, self-sufficient ecosystem; 

Because there is no sunlight, the New Jerusalem is illuminated by artificial (supernatural) lighting (21:23,25; 22:5), evoking the Shekinah and the pillar of fire. 

It has its own fresh water supply: a stream that's fed from a spring under the divine throne (22:1). This, in turn, waters the "tree of life" (22:2). Possibly a bank of fruit-trees on either side of the river. In principle, the river might have fish (Cf. Ezk 47). 

x) The only other source of heat and light is the lake of fire (19:20; 20:10), beyond the confines of the domed city. 

The damned exist outside the domed city (21:27; 22:14:15). In John's cosmography, hell isn't under the earth, but on the surface of the earth. The distinction is horizontal, not vertical. Inside the city or outside the city. 

The damned are like zombies. Alive, but with nothing to live on. No sunlight. No vegetation. No livestock, fish, or game. 

xi) Finally, we might ask how realistic this is. Three options:

a) Symbolic

b) Literal

A problem with (b) is that unless you suppose John thought angels were literally dumping buckets of brimstone over the railing of the celestial city, it's hard to treat the imagine as consistently realistic.

c) Lifelike

If you take Bible history seriously, then some natural disasters are divine judgments. Although John is using stock imagery, this could be analogous to a future cataclysm. 

It's possible that the earth will be a worldwide ecological disaster zone. The damned will survive, but linger on. Supernaturally sustained, like immortal zombies. Life will only flourish inside the New Jerusalem, where the saints reside forever.

Of course, this is visionary literature. Some things that are physically impossible can happen in a dream-like vision, where natural laws don't apply. 

The mythical solid dome

Here's a challenge to conventional wisdom:

The author has a doctorate from Hebrew Union college. 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Manual of church discipline

Recently I've done a number of occasional pieces on church discipline. I'll take the occasion in this post to systematize that. This is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. By "church," I mean a generic Bible-believing church.

I. Church attendance

As a rule, the church has an open door policy on attendance. We welcome just about anybody who wants to attend. About the only condition is that you not be disruptive. There are roughly two reasons for that:

1. Christianity is a missionary religion. We welcome strangers. We welcome seekers. Church attendance is a way for some unbelievers to become evangelized. 

2. Churches typically consist of families. And families typically consist of one or more believers along with one or more undecided. Due to the familial structure of the church, the average church is bound to have some unbelievers. 

II. Church membership

1. Formal church membership is an ecclesiastical tradition rather than a Biblical mandate. In the NT, baptism was the basic rite of church membership. In a missionary setting, that was typically administered to adults. There were no denominations back then, so you didn't join a denomination. 

2. However, formal church membership has some potential value:

i) If, say, you have a congregational polity, then it's important for those who vote on church policy, hiring and firing, &c., to be Christian. That's important for maintaining the Christian identity of the fellowship. Without a distinction between voting members (who are Christian) and attendees, unbelievers might have too much sway in setting policy. Lacking that distinction dilutes the spiritual integrity of the fellowship. 

ii) Likewise, membership simplifies excommunication. There are basic standards, and identifiable men or women who violate the standards.

That's important for distinguishing beween the professing Christians, who are held to a Christian standard, from non-Christian attendees, who are not.

And excommunication is necessary to maintain the fidelity of the fellowship. To be a church is not just to be something, but to not be something else. There must be boundaries. 

iii) The condition for membership is a credible profession of faith. That includes both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It's not enough to say you believe the right things. You must make a good faith effort to live according to Christian ethics. That rules out flagrant hypocrites. It's not sufficient believe the truth, you must "do the truth" (as St. John puts it).

iv) Of course, there are kids who are born into the church. Raised in the faith. But to become "communicant members," there comes a point where they must personally reaffirm what they've been taught. Communicant members must be believers. 

v) The doctrinal standard is higher for church officers. 

vi) It is understood that many men and women had a checkered past before they came to the faith. Likewise, some cradle Christians backslide before returning to the faith.

As a rule, the church is quite tolerant in that regard. In the nature of the case, Christianity is a very forgiving religion. The past is past,, so long as you are contrite. So long as you "turn from your wicked ways." 

III. Preemptive discipline

1. Psycho/sociopaths

i) By "sociopath," I mean a person who has a compulsion to commit heinous deeds. That includes serial killers, serial rapists, serial pedophiles, &c. People with an irrepressible urge to harm others. 

These are dangerous people. Antisocial in the extreme. Antithetical to the communal ethos of the church. They don't belong in church. They don't belong is society. 

Now, there are people who struggle with addiction, viz. gambling, pornography, substance abuse. They may fall off the wagon. But they aren't generally a threat to others. 

Someone might object that this denies the transformative power of the Gospels. By way of response:

a) The Gospel has transformative power for those whom the Gospel empowers. Born-again Christians.

But there's no presumption that a sociopath is genuine in his profession of faith. Indeed, manipulating others is a common feature of sociopathology. 

Normally, we can accept a credible profession of faith at face value, but in the case of known sociopaths or psychopaths, the stakes are too high if you are wrong. It is too risky to admit them into the fellowship. 

b) People can be morally or psychologically damaged in this life in a way that can't be repaired in this life. Sanctification doesn't cure all pathologies. In this life, sanctification has limitations. Some people are twisted to a degree that can't be straightened out in the here and now. Some of them may sincerely wish to do better, but they lack self-restraint.

An alcoholic may swear off the bottle today, but be right back in the bar tomorrow. He meant what he said today, but he lacks the willpower to stay true to his resolve.

I'm not saying alcoholics can't come to church or be part of the church. I'm just using that to illustrate the fact that even those who mean well, who struggle with temptation, may fail. 

To some degree, that's true for every Christian. But every Christian isn't dangerous. I'm referring to people who just aren't safe to be around. These are extreme cases, but they do exist. 

(For convenience, I'm using sociopathology and psychopathology interchangeably. Whether we count them as one or two makes no difference for my purposes.) 

2. Excons

i) Excons can be church members and church officers. They can be pastors. However, depending on what they did and how long ago, they made need to earn the trust of the church. "Fruits of repentance."

ii) It would be imprudent to hire a convicted arsonist to be the church custodian. It would be imprudent to hire a convicted embezzler to be the church treasurer. That's asking for trouble. Tempting fate. 

Constitutional resistance

Courting the court of public opinion

I'm going to comment on a provocative post by Peter Leithart:

Leithart's arguments are not all of a piece. 

i) I think complaints like this are useless, in part because it's about something that you can't say is generally right or generally wrong. It all depends on the particular case.

Yes, some people are unjustly convicted in the court of public opinion. And that antedates the Internet by generations. However, other people are unjustly acquitted in civil courts or church courts but justly convicted in the court of public opinion.

ii) Nowadays, a trial is not about getting at the truth, but checking all the boxes on the defendant's due process rights. Oftentimes, probative evidence is excluded because that would be "prejudicial" or "inflammatory." Likewise, incriminating evidence is excluded because it was obtained without a search warrant. Oftentimes, jurors don't ever get to hear crucial evidence. 

Right now I'm not saying if that's good or bad. That's an argument for another day. Certainly the police should face some official sanction to deter them from violating 4th amendment rights. My point, though, is that a trial is not about getting to the bottom of things. 

iii) Likewise, the media and internet sometimes do the investigative spadework that official channels ignore. And sometimes that attention then inspires an official investigation.

iv) Survivor blogs are a mixed bag. Some raise legitimate grievances. Others are by disgruntled former church members who have no right to be disgruntled. So you can't say in general that these are either good or bad. It varies. You can't render a broad, fact-free value judgment. It depends on the actual content. Where the truth lies. 

Finally, there's Leithart's appeal to 1 Cor 6. That's the most significant part of his post. It's a neglected text. Most Western Christians don't know what to do with it, so they ignore it.

iv) As scholars like Winter, Garnsey, Keener, Clarke, Rapske, and Ciampa/Rosner have documented, Paul's discussion is embedded in the context of Roman law and socioeconomic structures, so we need to take into account the discontinuities as well as continuities when we apply this to our own situation. We must untangle the culturebound elements from the transcultural elements. 

v) The discussion presupposes an honor/shame culture. In the Corinthian context, slighted honor could become the basis for a lawsuit. Analogous to defamation suits, only what was actionable in the Roman legal system was far broader. 

Likewise, only the rich could afford litigation. So there's the subtext of upperclass Christians oppressing lower class Christians. Wealthy Christians throwing their weight around.

Added to that, the system was heavily stacked against lower class litigants. So there was enormous potential for abuse of power. 

Much of this falls under what today we'd term "frivolous" lawsuits. Petty, spiteful, vindictive litigation that can be financially ruinous to the defendant. 

To suggest that Paul rules out Christians ever seeking legal remedies is likely an overextension of what he had in mind. Rather, Christians should be prepared to lose face, even when they are wronged. Don't get even. Don't avenge your slighted honor by resorting to the courts. From a theological perspective, saving face is worldly and trivial. Get your priorities straight. 

vi) There is, though, the remaining issue of scandalizing unbelievers. Giving Christianity a bad reputation by very public, very acrimonious infighting. Should all that be kept behind closed doors?

One question involves the potential distinction between small-town pastors and prominent Christian leaders or Christian institutions. Are these disputes which would become a matter of public record anyway if the participants are sufficiently high-profile figures or institutions? 

There's a difference between unbelievers learning about a dispute that would remain private unless Christians publicized it, and Christians publicly commenting on a dispute that has already become a matter of notoriety. 

vii) Apropos (vi), public Christian commentary can put a dispute into perspective. Offset scandal by correcting secular misrepresentations of the dispute. Or distancing themselves from ecclesiastical misconduct to demonstrate that it's unfair to tar all Christians with the same brush. There's no Christian omertà.

viii) The official channels of church discipline are sometimes a mechanism to coverup misconduct. Sometimes the Internet functions as an independent accountability system: an external check when official channels are derelict.

ix) That said, this can be a pretext for malicious gossip, character assassination, and scurrilous rumor-mongering. Some people just want a forum in which to vent, to unload.

However, Leithart's admonition will fall on deaf ears where they are concerned. So it's a familiar conundrum, where the people who need to hear it won't listen while those who listen don't need to hear it. Responsible people don't need lectures on responsibility while irresponsible people won't heed it. 

x) The Internet is a megaphone that amplifies the good and the bad alike. It's a form of self-publishing. In the past, you needed a publisher to do what anyone can now do with a computer and internet access. Nothing is new in principle: it's a difference in scale.

Feeding time at the herpetarium

A carryover from this post:

Andrew W:

"So do unrecognised pedophiles. At what point do you want to shoot on sight?"

You're moving the goalpost. The question at issue is how the church should deal with known pedophiles.

One of your sophistries is to shift the discussion from the actual issue at hand to borderline cases. But you can't extrapolate from borderline cases to clearcut cases, precisely because the latter lack the same conditions as the former. We could spend time finessing hypothetical borderline cases, but that's a diversionary tactic. 

I don't need to answer every hypothetical case before I'm allowed to address a specific concrete example. That's a recipe for moral paralysis. Chasing an infinite regress of hypothetical examples and counterexamples, while ignoring the actual case at hand. 

"Yes, that's a reduction-ad-absurdum."

No, that's trivializing a grave moral issue. 

"It's also a completely logical consequence of saying 'prevention at all costs.'"

Which is not what I said.

"And if you're not saying 'prevention at all costs', then you need a metric to decide how to balance a risk of recidivism versus genuine protection."

I need no metric inasmuch as there are no competing rights to be balanced. The pedophile has no right to be in church in the first place. 

"Note that an unrecognised pedophile actually poses a far greater risk to your child than a recognised one; you just have much less information to evaluate the risk."

A red herring. The issue is how to deal with someone with a rap sheet. In particular, a serial pedophile. Naturally we can't act on purely unknowns. That's a distraction. 

"Would I let a once-pedophile near my child? Sure."

Then you're a fool who's derelict in your paternal duties.

"Would I leave them alone? Most likely not."

"Most likely?

"Would I let them father a child of their own given a willing wife? Well, that's the tricky question, isn't it?"

That's not the question. The question is whether a pastor should marry them. Likewise, whether a pastor should recommend to a single women in his church that she marry a pedophile. 

"Except at this point I'm not discussing what *I* think."

In which case both of us reject your premise. 

"The argument that known pedophiles pose a greater risk to children than unknown pedophiles falls prey to the same poor reasoning…"

That wasn't the argument. 

"The offence in rape is against the woman, not the child. Where the child becomes an issue is when it is subsequently killed because it was conceived in the wrong way."

I answered you on your own terms. Now you change the subject. Your original objection was about preempting their existence. After that argument failed, you rewrite your objection.

"Let me make one final remark on the case involving Wilson before I turn to the general case. A majority - but not all - of the supervisory board agreed that marriage was a positive move towards the man's rehabilitation. Assuming the subsequent crime, was that decision wrong, or was there a failure of supervision? If so, is this based on the benefit of hindsight, or was the evidence there already?"

It's wrong to enable a known serial pedophile, then wait and see what happens. 

"(1) Imagine that some number of pedophiles are rehabilitated post-incarceration and go on to be good fathers, and some do not."

"Imagine"? So let's just make up some fake statistics to becloud the issue?

"What statistical likelihood of reoffense would one be willing to tolerate if the situation was generally good? If your answer is zero, how do you reconcile that with the knowledge that some proportion of (non-criminal) parents will end up abusing their offspring?"

This isn't about comparative stats. And my argument was always much broader than the particular case you've fixated on.

From what I've read, pedophiles range along a continuum. They fantasize about harming children. The stimulus may involve watching kiddy porn or watching kids at a playground. That sort of thing. Not all pedophiles act out their fantasies.

However, a percentage of pedophiles take it to the next level. This can involve abduction, molestation, mutilation, torture, and/or murder. 

We don't know in advance what the propensity of any particular pedophile is. And that, of itself, is a huge risk factor. It is wrong to test the propensity of a known pedophile by giving him access to kids, then waiting to find out how dangerous he is. It is inexcusable to put children in that situation.

A church has no obligation to give a known pedophile a chance to reoffend or not. Indeed, it has an obligation not to give him that chance. He should be nowhere near their kids. He should not be allowed to come to church. He should not be in physical proximity with kids.

A church can't control what he does on his own. That's up to the authorities. But a church is responsible for events that fall within its purview. 

It's like asking how you know when it's time to feed a reticulated python. Well, one way to find out is to put a child in the snakepit and see if the python eats the child. If he doesn't, then you know he wasn't hungry. But that would be amorally impermissible way to answer the question.

In the situation under consideration, on the one hand you have a known pedophile. On the other hand you don't know in advance the extent of his propensities. You know what he did in the past (or at least what's a matter of public record), but you don't know what he will do in the future. Is it proper to discover his full propensities by exposing him to children, then observing what happens next? That would be inexcusably reckless and evil. 

This shouldn't be a difficult issue. There's no reason for professing Christians to tie themselves into knots regarding the right policy. It isn't complicated–at all. It is evil to treat children as bait to sort out the "safe" pedophiles from the dangerous pedophiles. Who in their right mind thought the church should give him that opportunity? 

"Or does this have nothing to do with rehabilitation and is purely a matter of justice?"

It's a matter of prudence. 

Finally, you're someone who likes to argue for the sake of arguing. You take a morally grave, clearcut concerning the protection of defenseless children, then try to fuzz it up. That's an evil tactic. Don't come back. 

Talent's temptations

I'd like to make one last observation on the Wilson affair. I'm using this occasion to make a larger point. 

From what I've read, Wilson acts as if he's the victim, he's the one who was wronged in this whole dispute. 

In my observation, most pastors are pretty ordinary people. They aren't especially gifted. They don't have any great knack for what they do. And I don't say that as a criticism or putdown.

Because most pastors don't have a deep well of natural talent to dip into, they can't rely on their personal facility in the way a truly gifted person can. To be a good shepherd, the average pastor must rely one things which aren't based on his special endowments, because he never had all that to draw upon. Instead, he must simply be studious, faithful, prayerful conscientious, know his parishioners, visit the sick, &c. Plodding, mundane things that anyone dutiful person can do. 

However, Doug Wilson is a big talent. Talented people rely on their outsized abilities. And there's nothing wrong with that. Make the most of it. Put it to good use.

However, talented people are prone to a danger that average people are not: pride. Egotism. 

Because they have talent, because they rely on their natural talent, it is easy for a gifted person to be self-centered. And this is reinforced by the fact that charisma is a drawing card. People come to hear and see you. They read you for style as much as substance. You have starpower. You become the sun of that solar system. 

It's easier for a talented person to see himself in his work, because he did put more of himself into his own work. He's less dependent on the work of others. He has a personal flair for doing things. He plunges the big dipper into the well of his own overflowing talent. 

Hence, gifted people, including–or especially–gifted Christians, must make an extra effort to guard against vainglory.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs

A follow-up post to this:

Among other things, pastors have a duty to protect the flock. That's not a question of forgiveness, but wisdom. A prudential question.

In risk-assessment you have paired factors:

i) What are the odds that x will happen?

ii) What's the harm if x happens?

Take this anecdote:

He became even more of a distraction when he produced equations that showed the possibility that a fission weapon could ignite the world's atmosphere. It was later discovered his calculations were wrong -- and a dozen other men made similar mistakes later -- but work stopped until the flaw was found.

Suppose there'd been a tiny risk of that eventuality? Even so, if global annihilation had been a live possibility, that's an unacceptable risk, even if the chances are very low. 


i) What's the risk of doing x?

ii) What's the risk of not doing x? 

Take vaccination. That carries a low risk of harm. But it's generally riskier not to vaccinate. As a rule, not to vaccinate does more harm. The benefit outweighs the risk. 


Many pundits, both left and right, find Pope Francis difficult to pigeonhole. I don't know what makes him tick, but here's a distinction that may be useful:

There are two kinds of liberals. Some people are liberal ideologues. For them, it's a philosophical position. They approach the issue from an intellectual standpoint. Cardinal Kaspar is a current, prominent example. 

Ratzinger is another case-book ideologue, although he's conservative by contemporary Catholic standards. A thinker, first and foremost. Tough-minded.

Then you have temperamental liberals. Bleeding-heart liberals. They may be fairly conservative on paper, but they begin with people rather than ideas. Sentiment is driving their policy and practice.

They don't set out to repudiate certain ideas. Rather, that's the side-effect and end-result of a whole different orientation.

By the same token, their emotional spontaneity makes them impulsive and inconsistent. Tender-minded. 

Persona non grata

This is a sequel to my previous post:

How should the church deal with sex offenders? 

i) Sin ranges along a continuum. Some sins are dangerous to others. Some sins are highly addictive.

The church is generally composed of normal sinners. The church can absorb normal sinners. But the church is not equipped to deal with the extremes of the spectrum. That falls outside the social life and resources of the church.

ii) Let's take a couple of examples that don't involve sinners. Suppose Typhoid Mary wants to go to church. Should she? No. She's dangerous. Even though she's dangerous through no fault of her own, that doesn't change the fact that physical contact with her is hazardous.

That doesn't mean the church can't have any ministry to someone like Typhoid marriage. You could have a visitation ministry with quarantine protocols. 

Likewise, suppose someone is psychotic. In that condition, he is dangerous. Can he come to church? No. He's too unstable. 

iii) To take another example that does involve sin, Ted Bundy claimed to become a Christian in prison. But even if he were paroled, or had weekend furloughs, no church should take the risk of having him in attendance. 

People do things that make them social pariahs. They endanger others. In some cases they may no longer be a threat to others, but that's a risk assessment which we're incompetent to make. We can't read their minds. We can't see into the future. 

And even if they are sincere, that doesn't mean they have the self-restraint to avoid repeat offenses. 

I think the church has to treat some people as persona non grata. It's not our responsibility to take extra precautions to accommodate them. And we can't take adequate precautions on site even if we tried. The situation is too unpredictable, too uncontrollable. 

I'm not responsible for the consequences of choices you made in the past. It's not incumbent on me to deal with the aftermath. People can do things that place themselves beyond the pale. It's not my duty to fix that. Some broken things stay broken. 

iv) I'd hasten to add that people can be falsely accused of sex crimes. In addition, the definition of sexual offenses has become very rubbery. I'm addressing extreme cases where guilt is not in doubt. 

v) There are men who may commit atrocities if you put them in a certain situation, but they aren't inclined to commit atrocities outside that situation. And experience doesn't create an inclination to do so. I'm thinking of war crimes which some soldiers commit on the battlefield. Some people are very compartmentalized. What they do in wartime is no predictor for what they'd do in peacetime, or vice versa.

I'm discussing a different kind of sin. A sin where, for all you know, the individual is a timebomb. Maybe that's all in the past, but maybe the timer is ticking away.

vi) I'd add that not all harms can be fixed in this life. Some harms can only be fixed in the afterlife (heaven). 

Pope Francis: hiding in plain sight

Pope Francis is selectively inscrutable. He can be unmistakably clear when he wants to be. When it comes to capitalism, global warming, illegal immigration, and the death penalty, you don't have to read the tea leaves to divine his position. It's only on certain social issues that he's muted or equivocal. 

And that, of itself, tips his hand. It's easy to see why a pope with liberal tendencies would send mixed signals. Far less easy to see why a conservative pope would do so.

Take one illustration of his modus operandi. When he spoke to Congress, he sounded like a candidate for the Green Party. The Catholic faithful were deflated.

A few days later, word leaked out that he had a private meeting with Kim Davis. The Catholic faithful momentarily rallied. At least he was supporting their cause behind-the-scene.

But then the Vatican began to minimize the significance of that meeting. It did not connote agreement with her position.

And on top of that, the next leak involved how Francis went out of his way to arrange a meeting with a "gay couple." In fact, the story has a transgender element, to add eye of newt to the witch's brew.

Every time he makes a conservative gesture, that's diluted by a liberal gesture. 

Likewise, some of the faithful took comfort when the Vatican fired Monsignor Charamsa. Color me underwhelmed. 

To begin with, this isn't the only high profile critic the Vatican demoted. Consider the twice-demoted Cardinal Burke. And that's because Burke is to the right of Francis. 

Moreover, although he lost his job at the Vatican, Charamsa is still a priest. Compare that to the treatment of Padre Cutié. 

If a priest is caught with a boyfriend, he's given a demotion; if a priest is caught with a girlfriend, he's given an ultimatum. 

If you sodomize an altarboy, you will be transferred; if you have a girlfriend, you must either dump her or be defrocked. The priorities are very revealing. 

Indeed, in the official Vatican statement, Charamsa wasn't fired because he's an active homosexual; rather, his public statement "subjected the Synod assembly to undue media pressure."

And even then, the Vatican expressed sympathy for Charamsa's plight: "notwithstanding the respect due to the events and personal situations, and reflections on the issue."

How limp-wristed (pun intended) can you get? Charamsa's behavior was intolerable, not because of what he did, but what he said. He was indiscreet. Once he spoke to the press, it was too late to be hushed up. 

Are we to suppose his coworkers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were unaware of his extracurricular activities? It's also striking that he began working there when Ratzinger was still the Prefect for that Congregation. Was he just out of the loop? 

According to reports, the synod is window-dressing anyway, because a special task force began drafting the official findings before the synod fathers ever arrived. And they don't have a vote. So the synod seems to be a way to retroactively legitimate a fait accompli. 

The Catholic clergy looks like an organization in which aging queens are policing young queens–with predictable results. 

The divine video game

I'd like to elaborate a previous post:

Some pop freewill theists act as though, if humans are predestined, then we aren't real agents. Then we are merely projections of God's mind. What we think is reducible to God thinking about himself. 

Let's take a stock distinction in philosophy of mind. The hard problem of consciousness includes the unique, first-person experience of every self-aware human. Suppose I was born blind. In that event, I can't know what it's like to be sighted. I can try to imagine what it's like. I can try to extrapolate from a sighted person's description of vision. But even in that case, my own experience remains the frame of reference. 

To recur to my previous analogy, suppose God is like a video game designer who programs artificially intelligent virtual characters. Everything they think, feel, and do was programed. 

Suppose the plot includes a teenage boy (Nate) who has a crush on a teenage girl (Angie). The fact that the Nate has a crush on Angie doesn't mean the programmer has a crush on Angie. Angie is simply a character that he created. He doesn't have the same feelings for her as Nate. He may like her as a character. A novelist may have a favorite character. But the programmer is not a teenage boy to fell in love with Angie. Rather, she's just a character in his story. The programmer doesn't experience the story from the inside out, from the viewpoint of a virtual character within the story. Nate has a unique, first-person perspective about Angie which the programmer does not and cannot share. 

Dropping the analogy, creation has its own objective existence. It has a different and distinct mode of subsistence. God is timeless and spaceless. The world is temporal and spatial. Finite.

Humans have minds. That's not reducible to God's mind. Each normal adult has a particular, intransmissible perspective. That's not equivalent to divine self-reflection. 

In addition, our mental states, unlike God's, are mutable and temporally successive. We change. We learn. God doesn't.

Humans can form intentions and act on their intentions. That's because God has made a world with cause/effect connections. I will my hand to turn a key. My mind caused the hand to move, which caused the key to turn.

"God alone" didn't make that happen. God created the initial conditions to make that possible. But the transaction is not reducible to divine agency. God doesn't have hands–I do. 

That's all consistent with absolute predestination and meticulous providence. There are other objections you can attempt to raise against Calvinism, but this isn't one of them. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Violent crime

Some comments I left over at Denny Burk's blog:

i) To begin with, mass shootings in the US have gone up over the past few decades. That doesn’t correlate with access to firearms.

ii) By definition, if you confiscate enough guns, you may have fewer shootings. But that’s a deceptive comparison. That doesn’t mean you have less violent crime.

Gun bans and gun confiscation can lead to a spike in crime. There’s a loss of deterrence. In addition, citizens can no longer defend themselves or their property. That gives crooks a green light.

It’s not enough to compare a drop in gun violence with a drop in gun ownership. You need to compare that with overall crime stats .

iii) I don’t know where you’re getting your stats. For instance:

“Many people don’t have the connections to get illegal firearms. You’re looking at these folks as if they were ‘rational’ murderers who’d have the presence of mind to make the necessary connections to procure one illegally (if they were illegal).”

Mass shootings are typically premeditated.

“Consider the kid in Newton. Do we think a borderline autistic home-schooled high school kid would have the connections (and money) to illegally procure the kind of weapons he used (if they were illegal)?”

i) Your objection is circular. Because private gun ownership is currently legal, there are restrictions on minors. If, however, guns were banned, you’d have an unregulated black market giving everyone, including minors, unrestricted access to guns.

ii) Likewise, because private gun ownership is currently legal, you don’t need special connections to procure firearms. If, however, guns were banned, then a black market would open up. You wouldn’t need spacial connections to get the gun of your choice under that scenario. If it was against the law to obtain any gun whatsoever, then all types of guns would be available on the black market.

iii) Yes, access to guns means some people die by guns who otherwise wouldn’t die that way. That, however, overlooks the fact that guns are both offensive and defensive weapons. Just as guns take lives, guns save lives. Access to guns means some people, who’d otherwise die, are not killed because they are in a position to protect themselves. There are tradeoffs. 

God, goodness, and experience

Experience has little to do with it

Roger Olson
However...if monergism is true AND there is an eternal hell, I always say, God is a moral monster (because he could save everyone and doesn't). My reason for believing in synergism has little to do with experience; it is all about the character of God.

It's all comes down to experience

Roger Olson
However, I do not think there is any rational proof of God's goodness. I agree with Pascal, Kierkegaard and Coleridge (not exactly intellectual slouches) who all said (in their own ways) that the only proof of Christianity is in the experience of it

Civil war

I've discussed this before, but I'll elaborate on a few points:

i) It wouldn't surprise me if, at some point, Democrats try to confiscate guns. There's an incremental strategy. You can see Obama attempting to build a case. 

If there was an attempt to confiscate guns, that could trigger a civil war. At the very least it would lead to massive civil disobedience.

In addition, I think many liberals would welcome a civil war. With the gov't on their side, they think their side would win. That would be an opportunity to stamp out the "rightwing" once and for all time. 

ii) I've seen liberals mock the idea that an armed citizenry is any check on gov't. Surely an armed citizens are no match for the US military. 

iii) That, however, overlooks a number of complications.  There's the question of which side our soldiers would take in an American civil war. 

And I don't just mean soldiers quitting to fight for the rebels. You might have a sizable percentage of soldiers (as well as police, FBI, NSA) who keep their jobs, but assist the rebels from the inside. Spies and sympathizers. 

iv) The US military has awesome firepower at its disposal. Remember, though, that we're discussing the scenario of a civil war on American soil. You don't fight that the same way you fought the Japanese in WWII, or the Viet Cong in that war. It's one thing to destroy someone else's country, it's quite another thing to destroy your own.

v) Unlike the American Civil War (1861-1865), which was a regional war with fairly clear geographical boundaries, in the scenario we're considering, the rebels would be distributed nationwide. In the American Civil War, the Union could treat the Confederate states as if they were a foreign country, like a border war. In addition, the Southern economy was largely agrarian whereas the Northern economy was largely industrial. The North was able to damage the South in a way the South was unable to damage the North. 

So, for instance, Sherman could get away with burning Atlanta. But if you had a nationwide Civil War, then the gov't can't afford to use the same scorched-earth tactics. It's not going to firebomb cities or suburbs, is it? It's not going to send cruise missiles to take out residential skyscrapers, is it?

With rebels dispersed in urban and suburban population centers all across the nation, military firepower is fairly useless. Tanks, bombs, missiles, &c., are too destructive. The battlefield isn't foreign territory, but your own cities and suburbs.  

The rebels would resort to guerilla warfare. Blend into major population centers. To combat that would require US troops going door-to-door to ferret out rebel cells. 

vi) The modern-day US economy is far more fragile than it was in the 19C. Just consider how dependent we've become on electronic communications, including mobil networks. 

In the past, cities were largely suppled by local farms. Communities were more independent. Now stuff is trucked in from out of state. If interstate commerce began to break down, if the power grid failed, cities would begin to shutdown. Just imagine what would happen nowadays if mobil networks were disrupted. 

There's no telling in advance how damaging the effort would be. The degree of popular support. Inside help. Hacktivists. 

Francis fatigue

Forget not all his benefits

Maybe God can forgive you, but I can't!

i) Doug Wilson is in a pickle over the way he handled the case of two pedophiles at church. Peter Leithart is also implicated in the mess. I'm not going to discuss all twists and turns of that controversy.  

I'll just use it to illustrate a general point: I think some Christians are confused or conflicted about how to deal with cases like this. After all, there's a sense in which Christianity is a religion of second chances. We believe in redemption. Forgiveness. So what about that?

ii) There's a sense in which God is in a position to forgive people we can't. For one thing, God knows who is truly contrite, and who is faking it. We don't. 

iii) Which brings me to a related point: even if I'm prepared to forgive you, that doesn't mean I'm prepared to trust you. Forgiveness is about the past–trust is about the future. Those aren't interchangeable concepts. 

Take a comparison: suppose I'm a pastor. We need to hire a new church treasurer. We advertise the job and get several applicants. One has an impressive resume. MBA from a top college. Experience as a CPA and investment banker. If anything, he's overqualified. Yet there's an odd gap in his resume.

I, in agreement with the church board, have criminal background checks performed on all job applicants. Turns out, this applicant was convicted of embezzlement. 

As a result, we don't hire him. Instead, we hire another applicant without the Park Avenue resume, but who has a squeaky clean reputation.

The applicant who was turned down phones me a few days later wondering why he didn't get the job. I explain. He complains that that's unchristian. He tells me that he committed embezzlement before he was saved. He converted in prison. Now he's turned over a new leaf.

Well, I wish him all the best. I hope that's true. But, honestly, it's a self-serving claim. I have no independent evidence to confirm his claim. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it would be foolhardy to do so. I have no reason to believe he's trustworthy, while I do have reason to believe he may not be trustworthy.

Moreover, it's not even a case of trusting him with my own money. As a pastor, I have a fiduciary responsibility for the money which parishioners contribute. 

In addition, the fact that he wants to go right back to the same kind of work that got him into trouble in the first place is suspicious. At best, that exposes him to temptation, at his weakest. At worst, that indicates a lack of sincerity. If I said I was a recovering gambler, would I apply for a job at a casino? 

iv) From what I've read, pedophilia has high rates of recidivism, although that's complicated by the fact that there's now a movement to mainstream pedophilia, so the evidence will be suppressed. It's just asking for trouble to give someone like that a second bite at the apple. 

I'll make two other points:

v) From what I've read, Wilson defends his conduct in part by appealing to the fact that the judge approved of the marriage. But given Wilson's disdain for the moral wisdom of public officials, he can hardly take cover in the opinion of the judge. At best, that just means there's blame to go around. It doesn't get him off the hook. It merely means additional people are at fault. 

vi) He also speaks as if pedophilia is a psychological condition to be treated by counseling. That's sadly similar to the Church of Rome, which has viewed predatory priests as a psychotherapeutic issue.

Wilson is a man who's done a lot of good. It's a pity to see him show such poor pastoral judgment. And that's aggravated by his refusal to accept legitimate criticism.