Thursday, December 31, 2009

Abortion ethics based on autonomy

The New American reports on an article published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology with the remarkable title, "An ethically justified practical approach to offering, recommending, performing, and referring for induced abortion and feticide."

What is the ethical justification for induced abortion of a fetus? From the journal article:
"Because of the immaturity of the fetal central nervous system, the fetus lacks the capacity to generate a perspective on its interests. The ethical principle of respect for autonomy and the concept of autonomy-based rights therefore do not apply to the fetus."
Autonomy-based rights is the key phrase. The assumption that rights are based on autonomy may be recent or it may be old, but I've become more aware of it mostly in the context of the abortion debate.

Note that the journal article spends no time defending this assumption. Perhaps we have simply been asleep while we allowed the scientific elite forged their own ethical framework for society to live by. However this ethical framework came into being, it's important we question it.

Initially it's easy to see how autonomy-based rights give us certain boundaries to make civilization work. Don't murder, don't steal, don't rape, etc. because you are taking away another person's chance to be in charge of her own life.

Conveniently, basing rights on personal autonomy provides a tidy justification for banning slavery. Slavery is a clear violation of personal autonomy. Since human beings failed to pick up on this for thousands of years, it's easy to see how autonomy-based rights have an aura of moral progress in our era.

But autonomy is a slippery idea. Awareness of your own self-interest is always limited at best, and it's clear that it takes a great deal of development to have even enough self-awareness to survive in this world.

How important is autonomy to the human experience, anyway? We come into this world totally dependent on someone else. And it's not as if that ends as we get older, though we often feed ourselves the illusion that it does. In such a complex economy as ours, we are always dependent on one another.

Autonomy-based rights is an ethical framework that seems to throw up rigid boundaries between human beings that shouldn't be there. Mutual love and personal connection is what makes civilization worth maintaining. If we established societal ethics purely for the sake of letting each person be an island, then society probably wouldn't last very long.

So the question is, what has a fetus gained when, after six months of development in the womb, she develops a complete central nervous system? The ability to be ever so slightly aware of her self-interest? Is that why we have children, to spawn other creatures with the ability to turn inward?

I think the fundamental problem with the ethical justification for abortion (along with perhaps some arguments against abortion) is that it severs the relationship between child and mother, and essentially between all human beings. As if the only thing that keeps a mother from killing her child is the idea that the child is aware of being distinct from her mother.

To be fair, there is a good principle behind autonomy-based rights, namely that of empathy. Will the child feel pain? Does the child have hopes and dreams that I would be ending? Of course these are questions we consider when abortion comes up. But that's not all we should consider.

Instead of ethics based on autonomy, ethics ought to be based on dignity and love. We don't kill people because they are valuable, not only to themselves but to all of us. We don't enslave people because that destroys their dignity.

And although there's no sense in trying to force people to love every person, what makes society worthwhile is that there is at least the potential between all human beings for love. It is wrong to commit a crime against another human being, not only because you wouldn't want that done to you, but also because all humans thrive when they live in harmony with one another. You are hurting yourself as much as the person you have wronged.

So it is not only our independence but our interdependence that constitutes a basis for ethics. The fact that the unborn inherently has a potential connection with other human beings, a connection of mutual love, means that she should not be killed, even in the womb.

This can affect not only the way we treat other human beings, but also the rest of the world. We don't just go around killing animals at random, because there is an inherent goodness to them, and a certain kind of love that can potentially exist between them and us. And you can see how this might be relevant in other areas of life.

I think this is a little more satisfying than a "leave each other alone" approach to ethics.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Moral and political conservatism

I spent some time this Christmas break with my relatives from the Midwest, most of whom are very conservative in both their Christian faith and in their politics.

There have been times when I've wondered, why are so many Christians so conservative in their politics? Conservatism historically is based largely on a secular point of view. As N. T. Wright points out on occasion, those who reject Darwinism most vehemently in America seem the most likely to support Darwinist economic policies, leaving it all to the "survival of the fittest."

Indeed, the idea that you can just do whatever you want with your money is not exactly a Christian idea. In Acts the Christians "had everything in common." There were pretty severe consequences for withholding money from the group (though to be fair, conservatives correctly point out that all giving was voluntary).

If you look at the way Catholics view politics, you often find very left-leaning economic ideas alongside conservative moral opinions (I've blogged about this here). And isn't this because at the heart of Christianity is a concern for the poor and the oppressed? Why wouldn't all Christians share this outlook on politics?

I'm sure there are some bad reasons why many Christians hold conservative economic and political views, but I think there are some good ones, as well. One thing to consider is demographics. Are most conservative Christians rich? I guess it all depends on your point of view, but the reality is that most of them aren't extravagantly wealthy.

You can see for yourself that the Democrats are actually the party of the extravagantly wealthy. In the last election, Obama got most of the votes of those in the $200,000+ income bracket. It's no longer the rich who are opposing big government and supporting keeping our markets free.

I've heard several people mention something like how it's a puzzle that voters in Kansas vote against their own economic interests. And it's really true, from a certain point of view. Many of these conservative voters would actually stand to gain from big government policies.

At one time I thought maybe it's just the fact that Democrats are so liberal on moral issues like abortion. (Honestly, that's distraction enough for me, even as I bounce around on my opinions about economics.) But I think it's much deeper than that.

There is a strong case to be made that it is morally wrong for the government to take control of industry, to over-regulate markets, and even to hand out benefits to the poor. Let's look at the politics of the bail-out packages that our government approved this year. The whole notion that a business can be "too big to fail" is a corrupt idea. Maybe the idea is that we're trying to save the little guy by saving a business, but this attitude is elitist. It implies that the "little guy" necessarily depends on some corporate giants.

From the conservative perspective, no business should be "too big to fail" precisely because no human is more valuable than another. In a free market, everyone has to compete according to the same rules; no one is favored because of special status. But when it comes to big government bail-outs, the rich receive special status because the poor depend on them. This is antithetical to the conservative idea of freedom.

Fundamentally, from a conservative point of view, government handouts tend to stunt people's moral growth. This is because personal responsibility is a high moral good, and hard work leads to moral growth. Whereas the liberal might feel a person can still be good without being productive, the conservative views productivity as a moral good, not just an economic good.

On the issue of giving to the poor, all Christians believe it is right for individuals to give charitably, but there is a good argument to be made that it is wrong for the government to do so. The reason is simple: it is wrong to buy votes. In protecting their self-interest, it is natural for people to vote for politicians that give them benefits. So government welfare can act like a political transaction, and what seems morally good becomes morally wrong. Charitable giving is charitable precisely because the giver doesn't receive any material benefits from it.

Conservatives who vote against their own economic self-interest are saying two things. One, they don't want to be a charity case, at least not the government's charity case. Two, they are willing to vote on higher principles than self-interest. And this is certainly a good thing, even if you don't agree with the result.

I don't think conservatives are right on every issue, but I do think there is a certain moral consistency in their social and economic views. There is a very bad assumption often made when liberals attack the moral credibility of conservatives--if something is a moral good, then you should want the government to provide it. So if you think giving money to the poor is good, then you should want the government to provide welfare.

But conservatives reject this assumption and insist that what I think is good and what I think the government should do are not equal. So I'm free to give money to the poor without believing the government should do so. This position can be difficult to defend. A lot of people have a gut reaction to it without even realizing they are making the assumption described above.

This remains a pretty tricky issue for me, one that I'll continue to think about. For now, I need to cut this off and go enjoy some more of my vacation.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Once again, it's Christmas. Time to celebrate with good food and lots of fun.

I've always found it easy to think about all the things that are wrong with the world, or with my own life, and think that I should be working on those things. How can I celebrate when there are people elsewhere who are starving? It puts a damper on the mood...

I don't recommend willful blindness to the problems of the world, but I do think it's a genuinely spiritual practice to set aside a time to enjoy the good things we're given in life. A little bit of excess once a year is, honestly, a good thing. It keeps us looking forward to a time when good things will be in true abundance.

I think maybe joy is itself a creative act of the human will. I've noticed that two different people can have very different reactions to the same thing: one can enjoy something that the other does not. Part of that difference is what you're used to. Whatever you take for granted, you sometimes don't enjoy.

But I think that when we look at the blessings we have, and we discipline our hearts and minds to truly understand how blessed we are by them, we are in a sense creating joy. Sometimes our enjoyment doesn't depend on how much stuff is put in front of us, but on how good an imagination we have.

I've certainly enjoyed this past year, and I'm going to very much enjoy this Christmas. Yes, there are many problems in the world that I'll continue to blog about, and there are many problems in my own life that I'll continue to deal with. But Christmas is a time to celebrate, when everything that is wrong with the world is eclipsed by the love shown to us by God.

My prayer for this Christmas is that we may all truly enjoy life. There's nothing hedonistic about this. True enjoyment is what we were made for, I'm convinced of it. So I'll be praying that we all learn to truly enjoy life, and I'll be practicing myself all day long!

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Social Conservatism and Power

Yesterday I read an interesting (but long) article about Robert P. George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and an influential conservative Christian thinker. The article got me thinking about the various ways in which Christians try to engage the culture in matters of morality.

George's approach is of the "Thomist" tradition (i.e. Thomas Aquinas), meaning that he thinks Christian moral principles can be argued on the basis of pure human reason, apart from divine revelation. This fits nicely into the secular age, in which religion is not the dominant political force.

However, even he acknowledges what other Christian thinkers say about human reason: that original sin has corrupted our ability to reason, so that we fail to see moral truths without divine revelation. Protestant tradition since Martin Luther has often stressed this.

What an interesting tension for Christians to deal with! On the one hand, if you believe in certain moral principles, you'd like to be able to convince others that those moral principles are true, hence you'd like to be able to derive those principles from pure reason.

On the other hand, the Bible does talk a lot about the "blindness" of man, the inability to see the truth without divine revelation. There is surely a lot of evidence for this in common experience, though many are stubbornly opposed to this idea as a matter of principle.

I wonder which attitude promotes a secular culture more. The second attitude encourages the separation of Church and State, does it not? If it religious truth is a matter of special revelation, then how can it be suitable for creating the laws of a nation? Leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone, that kind of thing. On the other hand, the second attitude, while it does make Christian ethics universal in scope, also makes human reason the foundation for morality, which is a highly secular idea.

If Christians are interested in winning the "culture wars," I suppose the Thomist approach makes more sense--explain to people in non-Christian terms why Christian ethics make sense. Either that or convert everyone in sight...

But I wonder, why such an interest in winning the culture "wars"?

I've been thinking a lot lately about power. There are many reasons to want power. One reason is obvious--selfish, but obvious. Power means I can do what I want.

There is, of course, a slightly more sophisticated reason to want power. If only I were in charge, with all my infinite wisdom, the world would be a better place. If people did what I say, they'd be happier. I need to save people from themselves.

It's hard not to resent this mentality. It's exactly the kind of mentality conservatives hate in liberals, and liberals hate in conservatives. Every political ideology comes with a little bit of self-righteous power-hungry arrogance that says, "Our plan will make this country better."

Awkwardly, the Christian story doesn't sound very far from this. When Jesus finally comes in judgment, then the world will be made right. It's not hard to see how someone in a modern democratic Western nation would have a problem with this.

But there's something different about this story. Christmas is a time when we celebrate the King of the Jews being born in a stable under scandalous circumstances. We celebrate the Messiah who would die the death of a criminal. "Glory to God in the highest"--how does this triumphant announcement jive with the dark scenario actually depicted in the gospels?

If Christians truly seek to "win" the "culture wars," shouldn't we first know what it means to "win"? If our Savior's life is any model, winning comes through persecution, humiliation, and death... and then finally through new life.

New life. New creation. The power of God is not found through destruction, but creation. Nor is power found through control of what limited resources this world has to offer, but through the gfit of new life, new creation.

The culture wars are fought with the noblest of intentions, I'm sure. But after all, they are wars of conquering and taking, of controlling the world's laws and institutions.

The real power is not found in controlling the world with its finite resources, but in creating something new. Jesus turned water into wine; he fed 5000 people with a few loaves and some fish; he raised his dear friend from the dead.

I realize there are battles that a Christian conservative must fight, as conscience demands. But conservatism often seems antithetical to the true meaning of Christ's birth--something new has come into this world. The kingdom of God is not about clinging to the old, but creating something new.

My heart desires something greater than winning political battles over issues like abortion or homosexuality. Oh, to actually change the world. It is creativity, not reason, that strikes me as more attractive these days. It won't do to simply be a conservative.

(Maybe this desire will lead me to do something new with this blog. I've had the same format for a long time now. I think it's time for something new. I don't know what exactly, but I can feel it.)

My prayer for Christian conservatives is that they will realize that the Kingdom of God is not about convincing the world that we have the Truth. It is about creativity, beauty, and power--perfect power expressed through love.

Instead of simply arguing that we shouldn't depend on the government for social welfare, shouldn't we instead find new creative solutions to social problems that can be implemented through local organizations?

Instead of simply arguing against abortion, shouldn't we instead find new creative ways to help mothers in need, and to celebrate life in all of its forms?

I don't know how to do these things myself; I'm just thinking out loud, as it were. And I have a feeling that my imagination is pathetically limited by my own human experiences. But imagination--that's what I think is at the core of true spirituality.

Imagine... what would it look like to truly live the way Jesus intended us to live? What did Jesus really mean when He said we would do "greater works than these"?

I guess that's a good Christmas thought to end on. Imagine... the little child of Bethlehem, actually a King. Imagine what that could really mean...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Public Funding and Freedom of Conscience

Well, the pro-life movement has been banging on recently about how this new health care bill that is about to be voted on in the Senate tomorrow (merry Christmas, America) still contains a way for public funding to be used for abortions.

Despite polling data that shows heavy opposition to the health care bill in general and abortion funding in particular, Democrats are using their political power to politely ignore the opinions of us insects.

A lot of it just comes down to misinformation and a fundamentally flawed approach to all of this legislation. Virginia Senator Mark Warner wrote the following in an e-mail:
I have also been contacted by some Virginians about the vote last week on Amendment 2962. This amendment would have prohibited any health plan participating in the insurance exchange that covers an individual who receives a federal subsidy from covering abortion. I voted to table the amendment because the current health care bill already upholds federal law, which states that no federal funds may be used for abortion unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest, or where the life of the mother is in danger.
This kind of reasoning is a little offensive. It suggests that pro-lifers are suggesting amendments just to waste time, as if we haven't actually looked at the possible implications of current legislation.

Any amendment that clarifies existing law is fine by me, especially on a subject as serious as abortion, but apparently Senate Democrats are against this. By tabling that amendment, Democrats are once again choosing to appease the radical pro-abortion groups, rather than rigorously protect the consciences of the majority of Americans.

What frustrates me is that it's impossible to make it clear just what will happen with all $800 billion that will go into this health care bill. While Democrats argue that existing law forbids it to be used for abortion, pro-lifers bring a legitimate case against this.

Just because money isn't earmarked for abortion, doesn't mean it can't be used for abortion. This health care bill, as I understand it, will subsidize many different insurance plans. If some of those plans cover abortion, even if they're not "government-owned" plans, this still constitutes public funding of abortion.

That is, if the government is going to give handouts for people to buy whatever insurance plan they want from a range of options, and some of those options cover abortion, then this constitutes public funding for abortion. When it comes down to it, I, a tax-payer, will be forced to pay into a system that does things that violate my conscience.

This is why I find the conservative argument against big government spending to be generally pretty compelling. If you let other people spend your money for you, you'd better be given an accounting of what they do with it. But that just isn't possible when it comes to the government. Their fingers are just in too many pies.

Ugh, this whole thing just makes me sick. Someone has to bang on about it. If the government is really going to take my money and then potentially let it end up in the hands of an abortionist, then that brings up serious questions about paying taxes. I've never thought about civil disobedience before, but I do occasionally wonder how bad things will get.

Maybe I'll just start eating more Domino's Pizza.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


My semester is finally over.

It's interesting how little my own grades actually meant to me this semester. Far more important were the grades I gave other people (namely my calculus students). I hate giving grades, especially for the class I taught.

Do my students know enough calculus to use in whatever profession they will choose? How in the world should I know? Do they know enough calculus to move on toward doing mathematics professionally? Not a chance--otherwise they would've taken a more advanced calculus course. The whole situation is mildly ridiculous.

Anyway, I'm glad it's over. Now I get to take a vacation. I find vacations to be highly necessary. I love what I do, but it takes a certain amount of mental energy that needs to be recharged.

Florensky talks about organizing the soul. That's definitely what I need to do. Much like my desk, my heart, soul, and mind tend to get disorganized as time goes on. Left unattended, my soul will simply collapse into chaos.

Balancing the internal and the external life is an endless struggle for human beings. The Internet makes that struggle all the more interesting. Here on this blog, the line between internal and external life is greatly blurred, isn't it? Is this a personal journal, or is it a public forum?

In search of balance, I do turn to spiritual wisdom for guidance, but I'm not always sure about what I find. For instance I read this quote today:
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door; pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matt. 6:6)

The room of the soul is the body; its doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its room when the mind does not wander here and there, roaming among the things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our hearts. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be passionately attached to external sensory things and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God our Father. (St.Gregory Palamas)
I just don't know about this. Is the way to find God to shut everything out? The world around you is created by God. Did He mean for you to stop looking at it, or stop caring what's happening in it?

Don't get me wrong, the internal life is tremendously important. After all, the internal life must be organized just like any other part of creation. But is that where God is found? Is the only way to truly pray to first cut off the senses?

All I have energy for right now is to simply muse on the subject. I've just been thinking lately how remarkably inconsistent Christian thought has been on the subject of creation. Is it good or bad? I seek a spirituality that affirms the goodness of creation in every way.

What's profound to me is that once I hit the "publish post" button on my screen, the physical world around me will be changed in such a way as to affect many other people that I may not have even seen before.

Imagine that. What a profound effect we humans with our imagination have on the creation! It is as if we are agents of creation.

With that in mind, it makes me sad to think of people piously shutting off the senses in order to get close to God. Surely I can find connection to God also in organizing the world around me, as well as inside me, perhaps as something of an offering to Him.

A simple point and click will actually make a change in this world around me, and the creativity of the soul is powerfully made manifest through digital media. What a world we live in.

As I settle down this Christmas vacation to organize my soul and re-energize my mind, I hope also to write down my thoughts for the whole world to see, because, you see, the human soul is not simply a matter of the internal life. The human soul is a powerful creative force constantly making its mark on the world around it.

My soul needs rest. Somehow writing does provide rest, even in the effort it takes to force myself to do it.

It turns out my body needs rest, too, so good night everyone. Hope you've got your Christmas shopping done.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reason and Power

For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power. --1 Corinthians 4:20

So often I have read the words of Jesus in John's gospel and thought, "This guy doesn't make any sense." In fact, the most shocking conversion stories to me are the ones in which a Christian claims to have come to believe because of John.

Just what were they smoking?

Just go right to John 3, one of the most beloved passages in the whole New Testament.
Nicodemus... came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? ..." Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."
Far from clarifying what he just said, Jesus just makes it stronger: you must be born from above. And frankly, the way he said it in the first place just came out of nowhere. What's Nicodemus to think?

Or turn over to John 6, and read
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
Once again, what are the Jews to think? Instead of clarifying, he just makes what he just said even more offensive.

In my humble opinion, the worst thing you can ever do with these passages is explain them, justify them, make them your own. I confess I get a little irritable with a person who does this, whether it's a Catholic explaining why this means transubstantiation is real or a Protestant explaining why a "born-again" experience is the only way to salvation.

Something always bothers me about John, to such an extent that I feel you have to be asleep not to be bothered by it. But it's John more than anything else that has caused me to think lately about what I call the tragedy of reason.

"Justify your answer." These words are the hallmark of reason. Justification: you have to have it to pass your final exam in mathematics, or to win the approval of your thesis committee, or to win the respect of your peers who wonder why you believe what you believe.

"Justify your answer." It might as well be "justify yourself." Reason is defense. It is a substitute for power--or a means of obtaining it.

Our entire legal system is based on a complex web of reason and logic. Why? Because reason shifts the balance of power. The weak can defend themselves against the strong by a forceful use of language. If I can prove that I have been wronged, then I can topple even the richest and most powerful corporation. Power makes an empire, but reason makes a civilization.

Just think of it: what can possibly be scarier than someone who never has to justify what he does? Someone for whom reason is an obsolete tool?

When someone utterly fails to give reasons that satisfy the rest of us, we call that person crazy. Their words don't connect logically; we fail to see an order to their behavior. Crazy people who have little power we simply medicate. Crazy people who are dangerous, we lock up. Crazy people who have power--well, we usually try to kill them.

Is this not how Jesus was received? "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" (8:48) "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" (19:10)

Why doesn't Jesus defend himself in any logical way? Why not write out a theological treatise that makes it all clear? Why not invite the whole world to see plainly and rationally that He is God incarnate?

"Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going... You judge by human standards; I judge no one" (8:14-15) For Jesus, reason is obsolete. He need not justify Himself. He knows where He is from.

John's gospel is about power, not reason. It is about empire, not civilization. Civilization works with finite resources as efficiently as it can. Jesus has limitless resources, for He speaks new things into existence.

Human empires have no power but the power of destruction; but God's empire has the power of creation. That is why God Incarnate is bold enough to drink the cup of His own destruction down to the bottom, for He has power to lay down His life and take it up again. (10:18)

Jesus does not ask that we simply admire this power in Him. He asks that we follow Him. "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (12:25) He came not only to demonstrate power, but to empower others. Those who can drink deep the cup of their own destruction with confidence--they must truly be invincible.

And yet what is the chief commandment of this man who is mad with power? "Love one another." This is the mystery of the Christian faith.

If reason is obsolete, what, then? Will we ever understand? How can we know God if He does not explain Himself? No question can better summarize the tragedy of reason.

We humans love reason because we have broken this world apart. We love reason because we hate each other. We demand explanation! What are you doing? What do you mean? How do you know that? It is a systemic hatred, not necessarily felt by all who participate in it. It is simply the human condition.

Reason is good; creation is better. For now humans use reason to justify the way we use limited resources. John urges us to enjoy God's limitless abundance without shame.

My application of all this: creativity is more fundamental than reason. Power is seen not in destruction, nor even in reason, but in creation. Reason is an act of defense; creativity is an act of love. Life is not a zero-sum game, for life can be found in eternal abundance.

Oh, that my life were already being lived this way.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A year of blogging

I haven't been blogging much recently. Shockingly enough, there are times when grad school is really busy. But I suppose that's not the real reason. Sometimes I just run out of things to say.

Not that there aren't things to say.

I could blog about the Stupak amendment (now in the form of the Nelson-Hatch-Casey amendment) which would prohibit public funds from going toward abortion. How anyone could be against this amendment is beyond me, but somehow many Democrats manage to show moral ineptitude once again.

(Fortunately my representative, Tom Perriello, a Democrat, did vote for the Stupak amendment--clearly because I bothered to pick up the phone and call his office.)

I could blog about the recent "climategate"--the discovery that scientists are people, too. The whole "climate change" controversy is an intriguging one. I think it's unique in how a purely empirical question can draw in such widespread discussion of economic, moral, and even theological questions. It's no wonder we'd start to care about scientists' personal motivations on this issue.

It's certainly not as if there's nothing going on.

But I suppose my blogging is the condensation that forms in the nebulous clouds of my day-to-day thoughts, and sometimes those clouds are scattered too quickly.

And then sometimes I just feel too tired to write, or maybe too discouraged. I can't help feeling like such a tiny blip in this universe. I don't know why that's sometimes comforting and sometimes depressing. But lately it hasn't been the greatest motivation.

I started blogging more than a year ago. I remember exactly why. While millions of people felt a wave of optimism over the election of Barack Obama, I actually felt quite the opposite. I felt, and still feel, that Obama would take us in the wrong direction on a lot of issues.

(Obama's approval rating recently dropped below 50%. I guess maybe some other people out there agree with me on a few things.)

My blog has been far from only political, though. It really is what the title says it is--whatever I'm thinking about, I blog. In many ways it's my way of publicly compiling my own search for a coherent outlook on life. Philosophy, religion, and mathematics have all been subjects on my blog. Someday I hope to find some underlying unity to all of these subjects.

But for various reasons, I just feel scattered lately, like there's not much of a unity to it at all. I guess I have to remember that I'm subject to many more forces than my own thoughts or goals. It's only natural to be scattered by forces beyond my control.

At this point I could summarize my faith in God in this way: though I might be blown away in the wind, yet there is a Oneness that is present--before all things, in all things, beyond all things, and for all things. He is in control. My scattered fate is in His loving hands.

Maybe this Christmas break will lift my spirits. God knows I could use a break.

Well, good night, cyberspace. I'll write you again when I have more to say.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A warning for Black Friday

I just a read a classic George Will column on why Christmas spending is so outrageously inefficient. Commenting on the book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, he points out:
Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for gifts is usually less than what the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on recipients' own purchases.
Oh, George, you're all about efficiency. But seriously, the author of this book, Joel Waldfogel, has estimated that about $85 billion are wasted each year because of gift-shopping. And it hurts our economy, rather than helping it.

As Will writes,
If all spending justified itself, we would pay people to dig holes and then refill them -- or build bridges to unpopulated Alaskan islands. Spending is good if the purchaser, or the recipient of a gift, values the commodity more than he does the money it costs. Otherwise, there is a subtraction from society's store of value.
(Without saying so, Will is giving a subtle lecture on politics. One can easily see how the same principle would apply to the idea of government "stimulating" the economy. The question is not how much money goes through the system, but whether net value has actually been added.)

But don't people get net value from presents? It's the thought that counts, as they say. Maybe it's not all about efficiency, as stodgy conservatives think it is.

And yet, let's be honest--the thought that supposedly counts isn't usually very deep. My own family tradition has often involved excruciatingly excessive gift-giving, and the fact is you just have no idea what to get people. It's not just inefficient in terms of cost, it's inefficient in terms of people's feelings. You have no idea whether that person is going to like it.

As Will so cleverly puts it, "Were it not for sentimentality about sentiments, which are highly overrated, we would behave rationally..." (He goes on to suggest giving cash, which I admit is a little crass... but there's always gift cards!)

I think conservative religious types probably deserve to feel vindicated about this. In constantly harping on the excessive commercialization of Christmas, they're actually condemning something that legitimately hurts our economy.

So what can we do instead of gift-giving? Well, there's nothing wrong with gift-giving--as long as it's limited (the average American currently gives 23 gifts a year!!), and as long as it's meaningful. You don't add net value to an economy unless you provide something that will actually matter to people.

(Could it be that better relationships with one another would actually help our economy? Maybe a fundamental problem with this insane gift-giving is that we don't know each other well enough to see what would actually be meaningful.)

So this year, tell your friends and relatives you're going to help the economy by making your gift-giving more efficient. Limit the number of gifts you give, and make them meaningful.

Maybe you could buy them Waldfogel's book...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Natural Religion

I was hanging out with other math graduate students last night, having dinner and a beer before going to a Live Arts presentation featuring experimental computer-generated music.

Socializing with grad students is an eclectic combination of typical small-talk, pseudo-intellectual babble, and pure nerdiness. Amidst the pseudo-intellectual babble, religion is often a topic of interest.

One of my friends said something that I've heard enough times to trigger quite a number of thoughts on it: When faced with the question of whether there is any reason for living our lives, especially in any sort of moral way, it is "natural" to look to (or create) religion for answers.

I don't know what struggles this particular friend has with these questions, but I've noticed that in general this kind of statement is used to explain religion away. The implication can either be patronizing (as in, "Oh, well, it's fine that you believe that... it's perfectly natural") or condescending (as in, "How can you still believe that in this enlightened age?").

But the obvious question is, what else should one turn to? It sometimes seems like a blasphemous question in the academy, the church of secularism. I wondered aloud what would become of society if most of the world started to believe there really is no transcendent meaning to the world.

As if annoyed, my friends responded that the world has gotten on for a long time already, and it would surely continue on the way it is. This statement is highly presumptuous, and then again it is also rather depressing.

Presumptuous, because to say such a thing is to utterly fail to acknowledge the achievements of religious worldviews. For instance, to act as if the Christian way of thinking had nothing to do with the achievements of the Western world is, I dare say, shockingly stupid, though many people who act this way are not stupid.

Depressing, because it implies that not only is there no meaning, but there really has never been. The things we have accomplished as human beings have only come about because we wanted to do something with our little blips of existence in this meaningless universe. Under this philosophy, we humans would continue to do that even if we didn't believe in God or anything else, because we just can't help it.

In light of how depressing this idea is, I suppose religion is "natural." But I was musing on that word for a while, and I realized that there are really at least two senses in which we use it.

One use of the word "natural" is when we're saying something is easy, or obvious, as in, "It's only natural that he would think only of himself." It's the way we are when we're not trying very hard. Thus my drum line coach in high school used to yell at us, "Don't just do whatever feels natural! Do it right!"

On the other hand, we sometimes use "natural" in a more positive sense to mean that something feels right. When I started doing mathematics as a young child, it felt natural to me. For others, this could've been used in the first sense, meaning it came easily to me. But for me, it was more than that. I worked hard at math because it felt right.

You don't get good at anything just by taking it easy. You have to do more than what comes "naturally" to you. That's the first sense of the word. But surely when you find something you love to work hard at doing, it feels "natural" to you. You feel you are in your element.

In this way, I think at least a few of the world's religion could be considered quite "natural," in the second sense of the word. They make sense. Once you carefully consider their deepest and most powerful teachings, you can see how someone might believe such an idea.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (for example) all have ideas that really make sense of the world. In that sense it is "natural" to turn to one of them for answers to questions about the meaning of life. It makes sense.

Atheism, on the other hand, doesn't seem natural to me at all. It doesn't feel right. Is there really no transcendent meaning? What is the point, then?

But in the first sense, atheism is very natural, in the sense that it really is the most obvious answer. Is there a God? Well, I can't really see one, so I guess not. This is a very "natural" answer.

I imagine atheists would be extremely divided about this statement. I have read many opinions (from atheists) that say much the same thing that I am saying. Atheism is the obvious answer, and it's only this irrational desire for the second kind of "natural" that leads us to develop religion.

But I imagine other atheists would be deeply frustrated with my evaluation of their beliefs. Many atheists have had to really struggle to come to the conclusions about life they now hold. Given the culture in which they live, it is often a battle to leave the faith of one's youth and embrace a life of not knowing if there's really any point to it all.

I certainly don't want to diminish that struggle; I take it seriously. Yet I wonder if atheists take seriously enough the way in which religion has created a way for society to pass on the virtue of struggling for one's beliefs. "Seek, and ye shall find."

Christianity, in particular, does not assume that it is the default belief. (Many atheists, on the other hand, claim that atheism is the default belief.) Even where it is culturally dominant, Christianity admits and even insists that it is not the "natural" thing to believe.

This is why Christianity says faith is so important. True, "faith" can become a tool that the powerful use to brainwash the weak; but in its purest form "faith" is simply a statement of belief in something that is not obvious, yet is extremely important if it's true.

What if we lived in a society where struggle for one's beliefs was not considered a virtue? Sure, atheists are typically known for struggling to seek out knowledge now, in the culture in which we find ourselves, but what if it were different? What if no one felt the slightest urge to believe something that wasn't immediately apparent to all people?

Science would utterly collapse, just as much as any religion. Indeed, science is a religion, from a certain point of view. Although it easily passes as the true universal, uniting people from all cultures and all faiths, it really isn't any such thing.

Anyone who does math or science goes through a process of initiation, in which knowledge is revealed through many, many stages. Scientific knowledge is not natural in the first sense--it is not obvious--but it is natural in the second sense, in that once you see all the evidence, it begins to feel very natural, even if it's surprising.

To me, the truly atheist worldview has nothing of this second kind of naturalness that both scientific and religious knowledge have. Atheism just doesn't explain why. Worse, it almost seems to discourage asking such questions. All we can really know, it seems, is what.

Of course, my friends may continue to disbelieve in religion because religion lacks evidence, but I think that by this they mean only a certain kind of evidence, which does not include those indescribable connections a believer has with God.

For me, knowledge of God must begin with the heart, and all reason must subordinate itself to the connection found there. Surely this connection is not admitted as evidence by everyone, and perhaps with good reason--whose heart are we to believe, after all?

That is why I hesitate to insist upon how much I really know about God. I will say I know Him, but my mind is very limited in expressing this. Faith is a matter of the heart, and it is not always natural in the first sense. Yet it is natural in the sense of being beautiful, the way it is meant to be.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Next week my students have their last exam of the semester before the Final Exam. Our Applied Calculus I course at UVA is brilliantly structured so that the first two exams are before the Withdrawal Deadline, after which they are stuck in the class for the rest of the semester! So now they're stuck taking the hardest of the three exams, and there's no way out of it. Muahahahahaha...

I am having more and more people come to office hours lately. It's almost like they're just finding out I can talk to them outside of class! Some students find this out right from the beginning of the course, and they never let go. Others are shy, and couldn't possibly imagine taking any of my precious time outside of class. Both of these traits can be detrimental--the first because it means they're not thinking for themselves, and the second because it means they're not getting help.

On the other hand, my honest assessment is that there's basically no correlation between how often a student comes to office hours and how well they do in the class. Some students don't come to office hours because they don't need to, others don't come even though they should. Some students come to office hours because they're really motivated and want to get an A or an A+, while others come to office hours because they're really not getting it.

But the main thing I realized this week is that I'm actually getting personally attached. It happened when some students ask me whether I'd be teaching Applied Calculus II next semester, so they could sign up for my section. I had to say I honestly don't know. And then it hit me. I actually would like to see these students again. I kind of like teaching them.

It was so easy back when the department sent out the class request list to write down that I just wanted to teach the same course again--that way I don't have to write new lecture notes, I don't have to work so hard to develop a course curriculum, and I can focus on my research. But now I'm realizing, oh snap, I actually do care about something more than my own goals; I actually care about my students.

Since the department has yet to assign grad students to teaching sections, I technically don't know yet whether or not I might actually get to see some of my students next semester; but the reality is, I probably won't. It's weird just being a grad student and teaching. You go into it feeling like it's mostly just a job--like I was telling one of my students the other day, we all do it to pay the bills. What I didn't count on exactly was that it might actually mean more to me than that. I guess I didn't factor that into my equation.

And I thought I was good at math.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Well, having become interested in the theological views of certain famous mathematicians recently, I decided to read Father Florensky's The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

I realize this is not the kind of everyday pleasure reading that most people would engage in. But it appeals not only to my tendency towards abstraction (hello, I'm a mathematician), but also my deep personal desire to answer those scary questions, like what is truth?

This book has had a profound impact on me. Not that everything it says is thoroughly compelling to me, but its approach is unlike anything I've seen before. I love how Florensky starts from such an intensely personal point of view, and then delves into philosophical abstraction not only with intellect, but with passion.

The (Eastern) Orthodox way of thinking is fiercely Trinitarian. This is the Ground of the Truth. There simply is no Truth without Trinity.

Already in this we see Florensky powerfully seek to dismantle Western rationalism. For him any attempt to search for the Truth based on "givens," the axioms of the human mind, is deeply flawed. Thus he strongly condemns the Law of Self-Identity:
"A = A. That is the final answer. But this tautological formula, this lifeless, thought-less, and therefore meaningless equality A = A, is, in fact, only a generalization of the self-identity that is inherent in every given. But by no means is this formula an answer to our question 'Why?'


"'I = I' turns out to be nothing more than a cry of naked egotism: 'I!'"
The Truth, on the other hand, is absolute precisely because it transcends this egotistical self-assertion. It finds its self-identity through the denial of self, receiving itself back through love.
"Instead of an empty, dead, formal self-identity A = A, in virtue of which A should selfishly, self-assertively, egotistically exclude every not-A, we get a real self-identity of A, full of content and life, a self-identity that eternally rejects itself and that eternally receives itself in its self-rejection.


"Truth is the contemplation of Oneself through Another in a Third: Father, Son, and Spirit."
So in this view, Truth is found not (as dear old Schaeffer would have it) in the Principle of Non-Contradiction, but rather in the Principle of Self-Contradiction, the principle of denying oneself in order to find self-identity through love, rather than rationality.

This view of the Truth also leads to a similarly styled view of the truth (with a lower-case "t"). If the nature of Truth is the denial of this self-identity "I = I," then it's not surprising that Florensky comes to a view of "truth" (meaning knowledge about the Truth) that relishes antinomy, or contradiction:
"A rational formula can be above the attacks of life if and only if it gathers all of life into itself, with all of life's diversity and all of its present and possible future contradictions. ... It follows that truth is a judgment that also contains the limit of all its refutations, or (in other words) that truth is a self-contradictory judgment."
But if you really hate all this abstraction, you'll thank Florensky for pointing out how concretely this idea appears in scripture. He actually gives a little list of antinomies in scripture (one or two examples omitted):
Divinity: both One and Three
Christ: both human and divine
Relation of Man to God: both predistination (Rom 9) and free will (Rom 9:30 - 10:21)
Sin: both through the fall of Adam (Rom 5:12-21) and inherent in the flesh (1 Cor 15:50)
Retribution: both retribution according to works (Rom 2:6-10, 2 Cor 5:10) and free forgiveness (Rom 4:4, 9:11, 11:6)
Final Fate: both universal restoration (Rom 8:19-23, 11:30-36) and the "double end" (Rom 2:5-12)
Works: both the necessity of works (1 Cor 9:24) and the lack thereof (Rom 9:16). See also Phil 2:12 and then 2:13 for a related antinomy
Faith: both free and depending on free will (John 3:16-28) and God's gift not found in human will but in the will of God (John 6:44)
Judgment: "For judgment I come into the world" (John 9:39) "I came not to judge the world" (John 12:47)
Florensky isn't giving skeptics a cheat-sheet for how to argue against Christianity. He's stating powerfully what he feels to be the very strength of Orthodoxy.
"Contradiction! It is always a mystery of the soul, a mystery of prayer and love. The closer one is to God, the more distinct are the contradictions. In Heavenly Jerusalem, there are no contradictions. Here, on earth, there are contradictions in everything; and they can be removed neither by social reorganization nor by philosophical argument."
In this way he disparages all rationalistic worldviews. (No doubt the Soviets didn't approve of this, as their own Marxism depended on the strength of "social reorganization" to solve the contradictions of life.)

It is with these things in mind that I read a recent article by Al Mohler disparaging the postmodernism of "emergent church" types. He writes:
"The problem is this -- [the] argument that truth is plural means that the church should both embrace and celebrate different and even contradictory understandings of these doctrinal statements and core truths."
I wonder what Florensky would have to say about this classical Protestant attitude?
"A heresy, even a mystical one, is a rational one-sidedness that claims to be everything. ... Orthodoxy has a universal nature, but heresy essentially has a sectarian nature. The spirit of a sect is the egoism that emanates from it, spiritual separateness. A one-sided proposition takes the place of absolute Truth..."
Under this view, I suppose that Protestantism is, by its very nature, heretical. At its very core is the desire to get the Bible right, to boldly affirm one interpretation to the exclusion of other contradictory interpretations.

I wonder if Florensky has a point. The empirical evidence from the Bible is almost compelling enough. Can anyone actually resolve these passages together logically? Somehow I think those who do inevitably suck the life out of one passage or another.

But if that's not enough, can't you just take a look around at the sheer number of Protestant denominations and ask, didn't these all come from a desire to be "right"? Is there maybe a hint of egoism in our Protestant tendency to split, not only from the historic Church, but even from each other?

On the other hand, Protestantism is a reaction against idolatry. Thus it always seeks to remind humanity that its conceptions of God are always too small. If only Protestants would continually apply this principle to our own rationalistic interpretations of scripture!

There are many reasons to think about this conception of truth other than to critique Protestantism, for sure. This just happens to be on my mind at the moment, as it often is.

In any case, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth is shaping my thinking in lots of ways, and this won't be the last time I mention it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Martyrdom of a Mathematician

I finished reading Naming Infinity a while ago, but I never did get a chance to wrap up my blogging on the book. The end really is quite tragic, and all the more so because it's a true story.

There is so much to say about all that Dmitri Egorov, Nikolai Luzin, and Pavel Florensky did for mathematics and science, and how their faith influenced their work. But since I have to choose what to focus on in a little blog post, I will choose to talk about how they were treated on account of their faith.

Pavel Florensky and Dmitri Egorov both died for their faith. It's a complicated story, and they both went down distinctly different paths, but in the end they both had the same problem--they were openly Christian under a militantly atheist regime.

Pavel Florensky was a Russian Orthodox priest, but he was also a scientist and inventor, and he is part of this story because he was very close friends with both Egorov and Nikolai Luzin, the other member of this "Russian trio."

I suppose it didn't help him that he insisted on wearing his white priest's cassock while delivering his scientific papers. You can kind of guess how the Soviet police eventually got to him--they "proved" that he was the leader of a counter-revolutionary organization, which of course he had never heard of. They shipped him off to a prison camp where he continued scientific research, but I guess they didn't even want him doing science as a prisoner.

In 1937, Florensky was sentenced to be shot. He was executed on December of that year. Recent evidence suggests the details of this death were not pleasant:
According to this information, in December 1937 Florensky was brought from the Solovetsk Islands to Leningrad, where for a while he was in a prison cell in the "Big House," the headquarters of the Leningrad secret police.... Then, according to this new evidence, Florensky was forced to undress, his hands and feet were bound, and he was taken along with several hundred other people in a convoy of trucks to the Rzhevsky Artillery Range, near the town of Toksovo, about 20 miles south of Leningrad. There, we are told, they were all shot.
What causes certain regimes to have such an irrational hatred of religion (or any dissenting view) so as to treat someone in this way?

Egorov didn't fare much better. What's crazy is that he simply insisted that his religious views were a private affair, and that all views should be tolerated in the university. Nevertheless, when he was arrested in 1930 the charge included "mixing mathematics and religion." Can you imagine living in a country where that's a crime?

While in prison Egorov prayed daily, including practicing the "Jesus Prayer," despite persecution from the guards. He eventually died there in prison due to digestive failure (which had already been a problem before being sent to prison, where his health only deteriorated). His last words are reported to have been, "Save me, O God, by Thy name!" from Psalm 54--which according to the authors of this book were "appropriate to his Name Worshipping creed."

Nikolai Luzin was not martyred for his faith, but he came pretty close. In the tragic "Luzin affair," he was basically put on trial for his faith--the crime was being tied to anything considered anti-Soviet, including the old monarcy and Christianity. Kind of ironic, considering Luzin at one time had been a sympathizer with the revolutionaries.

It's really depressing to see a lot of those big names of mathematics listed among the people who attacked Luzin, such as Alexandrov, Khinchin, Sobolev, Kolmogorov, Liusternik, and Pontriagin. Most of these are names I've heard at one time or another in my analysis classes.

But that's part of why I write this. Who knows what will ultimately draw us to such evil? It may be that a compelling ideology will grip our hearts so tightly that we lose all sanity. It appears as if a whole country was led into insanity by such an ideology. I don't think any amount of intelligence or wisdom can prevent it. Evil cuts through all of our hearts.

In the end Luzin was spared, thanks to the intervention of a famous physicist of the time, Peter Kapitsa. It's still not entirely clear why Stalin spared Luzin in this instance. He got rid of plenty of other people who were just as valuable as scientists. Perhaps we'll never really know.

What a change it is to think about mathematicians as people who suffered for their beliefs! All you typically hear is about how these child geniuses grew up to prove amazing theorems; but rarely is it ever mentioned that mathematicians have been people who struggled through real trials.

And it puts things into perspective. My friends in grad school were talking about this, and one of us said, "Next time we start to complain about departmental politics, I guess we should keep this in mind." We are so blessed to live in a country where freedom is a given.

But finally, this story really is an inspiration to me, in that it makes me contemplate how to integrate my faith completely with my occupation. It's interesting to read the author's of this book struggle with this idea:
"In concluding that mysticism helped Russian mathematicians in the development of descriptive set theory, we have had to overcome our own natural predispositions. Both of us are secular in our outlooks--far from being Name Worshippers ourselves. We did not start out writing this book in order to come down on the side of religion in the infamous science-religion debates that have occupied so large a place in recent public discussions."
As Jesus Christ put it, Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. There really is no need to endlessly debate over religion and science. The faithful simply ought to pursue knowledge with all their heart, and they will bear fruit.

That's my goal in life--a unified pursuit of knowledge. Incidentally, that's why I've been loving Florensky's Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Maybe I'll start blogging about that soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Bloody Sacrament

In the midst of all the recent debate on health care, I've realized that conceptually in our culture we have started to lean toward creating a new state religion. This religion has hospitals instead of churches, and doctors instead of priests.

The goal is not to inherit eternal life, but simply long, hopefully comfortable life; faithful obedience certainly has its rewards. Instead of a church treasury, we have insurance companies, and all are required to tithe regularly.

Doctors are entrusted with the salvation of our people. This is clear from the fact that no one asks for the price of health care before going to get it. If you thought you were going to the doctor just to receive goods and services, you'd want to know the price ahead of time.

No, it's not goods and services you go to your doctor to receive. You are not a customer. You are a sinner in need of baptism--you need to be made whole again. Your life is incomplete without it.

(I'm convinced this is why natural market mechanisms have failed to keep health care costs low. It is why every transaction between you and your doctor has to go through your insurance company, and for that reason costs are uncontrollable.)

(Ironically, actual religion has become more market-based, as evidenced by those obnoxious church billboards I see advertising such perks as "great worship, great fellowship." For some reason I see these mostly when I'm in Texas.)

Every Sunday I go forward to receive the Lord's supper at my church. It is "an awesome and unbloody sacrifice," a sacrament to make me whole again, to feed me with the life of Christ.

Someone once referred to abortion as a "bloody sacrament" of our culture. I can see why. Who is in greater need of being made whole than a woman who finds herself in the position of carrying in her womb a human being she cannot care for?

What I hadn't thought about was how the priests themselves, the administrators of this bloody sacrament, actually see what they're doing. A remarkable article on gave me a lot to contemplate.

The article reports on an abortionist who wants to take seriously the moral dilemmas that come with actually performing abortions, yet does not want to conclude that there should be any legal limits on abortion. In the end, both her stance on the issue and her tone become quite religious.

This excerpt caught me as particularly striking:

To answer the questions, Harris notes that the "violence" of abortion must be acknowledged, and relates a "bizarre" experience she once had of observing a premature baby struggling to survive immediately after dismembering an unborn child the same age:

The last patient I saw one day was 23 weeks pregnant. I performed an uncomplicated D&E procedure. Dutifully, I went through the task of reassembling the fetal parts in the metal tray. It is an odd ritual that abortion providers perform - required as a clinical safety measure to ensure that nothing is left behind in the uterus to cause a complication - but it also permits us in an odd way to pay respect to the fetus (feelings of awe are not uncommon when looking at miniature fingers and fingernails, heart, intestines, kidneys, adrenal glands), even as we simultaneously have complete disregard for it. Then I rushed upstairs to take overnight call on labour and delivery. The first patient that came in was prematurely delivering at 23-24 weeks. As her exact gestational age was in question, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team resuscitated the premature newborn and brought it to the NICU. Later, along with the distraught parents, I watched the neonate on the ventilator. I thought to myself how bizarre it was that I could have legally dismembered this fetus-now-newborn if it were inside its mother's uterus - but that the same kind of violence against it now would be illegal, and unspeakable.

Harris then goes on to explain that she rationalizes the bizarreness of the situation by the "location" of the baby, whether it is "inside or outside of the woman's body," and "most importantly, her [the mother's] hopes and wishes for that fetus/baby." However, she says, "this knowledge does not change the reality that there is always violence involved in a second trimester abortion, which becomes acutely apparent at certain moments, like this one. I must add, however, that I consider declining a woman's request for abortion also to be an act of unspeakable violence."

See with what reverence the abortionist treats the life she is destroying! It is like a priest handling the very body and blood of Our Lord, carefully consecrating it and feeding it to his congregation, who eat gratefully (sometimes ungratefully).

Does the priest ever wonder how he could possibly perform this act on the body of Christ? Jesus had to die on a cross for this. How can such unspeakable violence be justified for the sake of you who want eternal life? Do you sinners actually think your gratitude is enough to justify this?

But the priest knows that nevertheless his flock needs to be made whole again. He cannot withhold the body of Christ, for it is offered even to sinners.

In the same way, the abortionist reveres the aborted fetus--the awesome and bloody sacrifice--as a little Christ, one who has graciously lost his life to make his mother whole.

And this priest of this holy religion continues to preach the good news to all the nation: that enshrined in our Constitution is a bloody sacrament that can never be taken away. Once we were under the law, but now we are under "choice."

The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.

It is no small thing that an abortionist would be honest about what abortion is. But on the other hand, should Judas take the credit for the salvation of the world?

Hat tip: Thanks to Sarah and Krissy for this article.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Now that I've read Naming Infinity (which I mean to blog a bit more about, but I've been busy) I thought I'd dabble a little bit in Pavel Florensky's The Pillar and the Ground of the Truth, adapted from the very same thesis that Nikolai Luzin read on his journey to converting from atheism to Christianity.

The first letter of PGT, "To the Reader," contains some profound statements of what makes Orthodoxy different from Catholicism and Protestantism. Florensky introduces as a main topic this thing called ecclesiality--which he insists cannot be defined!
Ecclesiality--that is the name of the refuge where the heart's anxiety finds peace, where the pretensions of the rational mind are tamed, where great tranquility descends into our reason. Let it be the case that neither I nor anyone else can define what ecclesiality is!
After meditating on this for a little while, he briefly outlines what for him is the fundamental problem with both Catholicism and Protestantism:
Where there is no spiritual life, something external must exist as an assurance of ecclesiality. A specific function, the pope, or a system of functions, a hierarchy--that is the criterion of ecclesiality for Roman Catholics. On the other hand, a specific confessional formula, the creed, or a system of formulas, the text of the Scripture, is the criterion of ecclesiality for Protestants. In the final analysis, in both cases what is decisive is a concept.... But by becoming the supreme criterion, a concept makes all manifestation of life unnecessary.
And finally, he offers what he feels to be the strength of Orthodoxy:
The indefinability of Orthodox ecclesiality, I repeat, is the best proof of its vitality.... There is no concept of ecclesiality, but ecclesiality itself is, and for every living member of the Church, the life of the Church is the most definite and tangible thing that he knows. But the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life--not in the abstract, not in a rational way.... What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life. Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. [emphasis added]


That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct Orthodox experience.... [O]ne can become a Catholic or a Protestant without experience life at all--by reading books in one's study. But to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to being living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way.
In short, my initial reaction is, "Wow."

It's no wonder so many people in the West are discovering Eastern Christian theology and finding it refreshing. To me, the emphasis on beauty as a genuine measure of orthodoxy is profound, and something in me tells me it's just what I'm looking for.

I wonder where Florensky will take me?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mystical Mathematicians

The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.
Georg Cantor
I continue on in my reading of Naming Infinity, that book about religious mysticism and mathematical creativity.

Chapters 4 and 5 introduce some of the most fascinating mathematicians I've ever read about. Two of them are familiar names from my graduate level Real Analysis class during my first year: Dmitri Egorov and Nikolai Luzin.

Egorov seems more of a distant character than Luzin. He's described as "a very reserved and modest man, so much so that it would be easy to believe that he lived only for mathematics." But if one looks at his actions, one finds a man driven by strong principles and devout religious faith. This becomes a bit more of an issue later, after the Communist take-over in Russia.

Luzin is Egorov's student, a bright, idealistic intellectual who sympathizes with political radicals of his day--at least as a younger man. What really fascinates me is Luzin's story of conversion from atheism to Christianity. It's a story of real crisis, both intellectually and emotionally.
"From 1905 to 1908 Luzin underwent a psychological crisis so severe that several times he contemplated suicide. One precipitating event was the unsuccessful revolution of 1905, an event that was sobering for many left-wing members of the intellegentsia.... Luzin was shaken not only by the shedding of blood but also by personally witnessing poverty and suffering.


Earlier, he had embraced science, materialism, and secularism as the answer to Russia's problems. Now he doubted that these were any answers at all."
Thankfully, Luzin is deeply acquainted with Pavel Florensky, the third member of this "Russian trio." Florensky studies mathematics with Luzin in Moscow and then later becomes an Orthodox priest. The two of them remain very good friends, and later during the time of Luzin's personal crisis, this friendship becomes extremely important, as the two correspond concerning Luzin's troubled thoughts. Luzin writes to Florensky,
"You found me a mere child at the University, knowing nothing. I don't know how it happened, but I cannot be satisfied any more with the analytic functions and Taylor series.... To see the misery of people, to see the torment of life....--this is an unbearable sight....I cannot live by science alone.... I have nothing, no worldview, and no education.


"If I do not find a path to seek the truth...I will not go on living."
Florensky himself is a convert to Christianity, having converted from atheism at the age of 17. Despite having been raised in a secular environment, he believes that one of the sources of Russia's problems is that so many of its brightest minds (like Luzin) are attracted to atheism.

Florensky therefore provides Luzin with a "path to seek the truth" from his own religious insight. Luzin reads Florensky's thesis "On Religious Truth" (a version of which I happen to have at the moment, thanks to a kind uncle who seems to have every book in the world).

This reading combined with a continued friendship with Florensky leads to a full conversion. In 1908 Luzin writes to Florensky, "I felt as if I had leaned on a pillar...I owe my interest in life to you."

Luzin and Florensky press forward from here into a study of mathematics shaped by a shared interest in Christian mysticism. Florensky becomes an avid supporter of the "Name Worshiping" movement which goes back to chapter 1. Luzin surely knows about this development, even if he never becomes an active participant in the movement.

When it comes to mathematics, Luzin and Egorov are the real experts, it seems, but when it comes to fusing religious, philosophical, scientific, and mathematical thought together, Florensky is the real genius. Some quotes from the book illustrate:
"Florensky was convinced that intellectually the nineteenth century, just ending, had been a disaster, and he wanted to identify and discredit what he saw as the 'governing principle' of its calamitous effects. He saw that principle in the concept of 'continuity,' the belief that one could not make the transition from one point to another without passing through all the intermediate points.


Florensky faulted his own field, mathematics, for creating this unfortunate monolith. Because of the strength of differential calculus, with its many practical applications, he maintained that mathematicians and philosophers tended to ignore those problems that could not be analyzed in this way--the essentially discontinuous phenomena. Only continuous functions were differentiable, so only those kinds of functions attracted attention... Differentiable functions were 'deterministic,' and emphasis on them led to what Florensky saw as an unhealthy determinism throughout political and philosophical thought in general, most clearly in Marxism.


Florensky was convinced that mathematics was a product of the free creativity of human beings and that it had a religious significance. Humans could exercise free will and put mathematics and philosophy in perspective.... Mathematicians could create beings--sets--just by naming them.... The naming of sets was a mathematical act, just as, according to the Name Worshipers, the naming of God was a religious one....
I can't tell you how motivating it is to read about Florensky's religious and mathematical thought, and his influence on Egorov and Luzin. Today's mathematicians often seem inclined to divorce philosophical concerns from mathematics, but that is a sad state of affairs, one from which these early 20th century Russians can liberate us.

I am also deeply moved by the personal struggles of these mathematicians, and how they had to respond to the crisis of their time. I, with them, am persuaded that the best response to the crises of our time is deeper religious thought, not more secular thought.

As much as I am a fan of interacting with secularism in a healthy and open-minded manner, I think that ultimately secular thought lacks the resources we humans need to move forward. Not that religion doesn't often hold us back; but I think the best cure for stale religion is fresh religious thought. Man, does one ever find that in Florensky.

Still more to come... This book has been really good so far!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Two can play that game...

So did a video with a bunch of celebrities attempting to make fun of conservative critiques of the public health insurance option.

But conservatives can play that game, too, it seems. Here's a video from Catholic Vote Action:

I don't know where this one is from, but I might as well throw it in the mix:

A lot of times I wince when conservatives try to outwit liberal satire, but in this case, the liberal video was so bad it made the conservative videos hilarious. Thanks, Alexa.

I'm most disappointed in Will Ferrell's performances. At least when he impersonates Bush, it's funny.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Christian Capitalism

For those of you who hate Michael Moore, this article I just read probably won't make you like him, but I still recommend reading it with an open mind.

It's hard to deny that capitalism in our global economy just keeps widening the gap between rich and poor, something that seems antithetical to the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." (Luke 6:20,24)
Moore's rambling hardly counts as constructive criticism--what would he replace capitalism with? (I haven't watched his new movie; maybe he argues for some more effective system.) But still, it's hard to simply ignore the simple question: would Jesus approve of capitalism?

I'm going to say the answer is, "No," at least not in the form we have it. Of course Jesus doesn't favor the powerful over the powerless, which is exactly what our current system does.

But then again, what system of economics hasn't done that? What frustrates me to no end is that the alternative liberals come up with to capitalism is big government control of our economy.

Is the irony completely lost on them? Your concern is with shifting power away from the powerful and into the hands of the powerless, and what do you do? You fork all the power over to some big-wigs in Washington. Fail.

The biggest theoretical problem that liberal Christians seem to be unable to overcome is this idea that economics is a zero-sum game. At least that seems to be the idea subtly working behind every sorrowful pronouncement that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

I find it sad that Moore's imagination is so limited when he looks at the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000:
"How else did he divide up two loaves of bread and five pieces of fish equally amongst 5,000 people? Either he was the first socialist or his disciples were really bad at packing lunch. Or both."
A more imaginative reading of the text might say that Jesus was showing us that we always have more in front of us than we at first realize. Where others see limited resources, we ought to see abundance. Economics is not a zero-sum game.

This to me could be the spirit of a truly Christian capitalism. It would be based on the belief that all human beings are meant to participate in the creative work of God, and from that we pursue ways to overcome the problem of scarcity with innovation.

Probably the biggest difference between Jesus and modern liberals is that, whereas liberals harp on the rich to start caring for the poor, Jesus embraced the poor themselves, and taught them how rich they really were.

Notice how Jesus when speaks to the outcasts of society, he gives them a stringent moral code to live by. This is a message of empowerment. It says to every individual that you can be part of God's work.

That is the message that our society needs. The powerless are actually powerful, not because of some big government program stooping down to rescue them, but because they are inheritors of God's creative energy.

I think if we want a society that follows the words of Jesus, we will stop worrying about what big important people have to say about these big important issues, and start thinking about how each and every individual can be a source of change, a channel though which God's power can enter into this world.

It hardly sounds like economics, but it really is. Entrepreneurship begins with the assumption that human beings have the capacity to produce something valuable. Free trade depends on the notion that by taking what you have in exchange for something I have, I can create something better.

In a truly worthwhile exchange, the net gain in natural resources is always precisely zero, but the net gain in value is always positive. This is because humans, made in the image of God, have the capacity to create, in some sense ex nihilo--just because we cannot create matter does not mean we cannot create something new.

All of this is very abstract, I know, but I just think it would be helpful for Christians to think seriously about the philosophical and theological foundations of our economics. We so easily ally ourselves to secular political and economic philosophies without ever developing our own.

And that's why maybe we should listen to the ramblings of people like Michael Moore every once in a while. For all their faults, they might actually have a point or two.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Imagining God

I've been thinking for a little while about this "Name-Worshiping" idea that I've blogged about recently. It reminds me of something I've thought for a long time.

A lot of times you hear more or less an accusation that religion invents God for whatever reason--we need something to justify our existence on this planet, we need a crutch to get through tough times, we need a way to control the masses, etc.

So no matter what kind of experience one has had with the divine, perhaps even supernatural encounters with miracles or visions, and no matter what evidence you see for the divine, there will be those who say, well, that's just your imagination.

My response to this would be, I don't think it's just my imagination... but I do think imagination has a lot to do with it.

In the modern world people often try to pick sides between a cold, rational way of looking at things and a romantic view that incorporates mystery and wonder. Often things we say seem like attempts to convert each other from one point of view to the other: "Oh, that's just your imagination," or "Where's your sense of wonder?"

If you pick one side or another, though, you're just cutting yourself in half. Reason and imagination go together, always, and when they don't you're bound to go wrong somewhere.

This is especially clear to a mathematician, actually, since imagination is essential to discovering new mathematics, but reason and logic are the tools by which we tie these new discoveries to old ones.

On a more basic level, imagination and reason are both involved when we ask the question, how do I know this is real? How do I know the world around me is real? How do I know God is real?

How can I really know another person? Oh sure, my capacity to reason plays a role. I have to learn patterns in a person's speech and behavior. Social interaction can be just as much a game as anything else, with rules and logic that a master can figure out and manipulate.

But that's not all there is to really knowing a person. My ability to know a person has everything to do with my ability to imagine her. Imagine what it really means for her to be a person. Imagine her as more than a face in the crowd, an individual with an imagination just like mine. She has stories, hopes, and dreams, and she wants to imagine someone else imagining her.

A lot of philosophy is done with the intention of musing on a thought for a while because it's interesting to think about. I could never do philosophy that way, and I'm not doing that now. To me philosophy begins with pain.

There really is nothing quite like the pain of knowing a person deeply, only to be faced with the reality that it really was just your imagination.

It's tempting for someone who has experienced this to retreat and say, it was my imagination that did this to me. If I simply put on my guard, hide behind the cold shell of logic and reason, then I won't experience this pain anymore.

But only those who lose their life find it. It is only by risking yourself enough to imagine someone who might, after all, not even be there, that you can ever truly love someone.

(Am I speaking metaphorically? Sometimes it's hard to tell. Perhaps metaphor just expresses reality so much better than facts.)

Reason grasps for answers; imagination creates possibilities. They need one another. I would not diminish the importance of anyone's attempt to provide reasons for God's existence; but I emphatically believe that imagination is essential to the spiritual life.

Very often our reason flourishes after a rush of imagination. That's how it always works in mathematics, anyway, and I suspect it works that way in theology. It's no wonder the prophets were always telling people to tear down their idols. Idols limit the imagination; they teach us to think of God as smaller than He really is.

Christian traditions have doctrines that they've built up to direct people toward God. I've noticed that when pastors preach about doctrine, they tend to focus on the weakness of ideas outside their own tradition.

What if, instead, pastors focused on the weaknesses of their own tradition? What if each pastor could act as a prophet for his own congregation, urging them to tear down their own idols, and not self-righteously look down on the idols of others?

Would this not liberate the imagination from the chains of "pure doctrine" that we Christians so quickly wrap around ourselves out of sheer vanity? But we are too afraid of a God who speaks out of a whirlwind, a God who meets our questions with more questions, rather than answers.

There are many Christians these days who say we need more apologists, more people explaining why the Bible is fully reliable, showing that evolution is false and creation is true, proving that Jesus rose from the dead, or giving five reasons why there must be a God.

But my honest answer to anyone who asks me why I believe in God is that faith is as risky as love. My faith looks forward in hope to something I don't even understand, but I try to imagine it every day. I try to imagine a world without evil, and I think, God, that's what I pray for.

Sometimes I catch just a glimpse when I see the sun rise on a clear autumn day, or when I hear a voice that I've been waiting all day to hear, or maybe when I just stop and let myself be alone with my own thoughts. Just a glimpse is all. Isn't that all any of us ever really see of those we love?

I don't suppose that will convince anyone of anything, nor do I even think it should. But it's honest, and maybe the more I think about it the more fruit will come of it. That's the cool thing about reason--eventually it can catch up to imagination, before imagination takes another turn.

Until my reason does catch up, though, this little blog of mine will have to act as a bookmark so I can come back to these thoughts. It's hard to shake the feeling sometimes that there's something just around the corner that I'm not seeing.

Life is like that, though, isn't it?