Monday, March 29, 2010

Calvin on Love

Today is not a day for another blog post on Calvin, but as I was reading today I found a quote that was just too beautiful a gem to pass up. I'll just let it stand on its own. Here's Book 2, Ch. VIII, Sec. 55 of the Institutes (with emphasis added):
Now, since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term "neighbor" includes even the most remote person [Luke 10:36], we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him. It is the common habit of mankind that the more closely men are bound together by the ties of kinship, of acquaintanceship, or of neighborhood, the more responsibilities for one another they share. This does not offend God; for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Calvin on the Law

Today is another day of reflection the Institutes, from Book 2, V.1 - VIII.38. After finishing up a little "Refutation of the Objections Commonly Put Forward in Defense of Free Will," we're on to fallen man seeking his redemption in Christ.

I won't go through the refutations of free will, since I blogged about that enough last time. Calvin shows an extensive knowledge of scripture and all the possible objections to his position, but in my evaluation he's willing to read scripture through a lens that he's chosen. Not that he's horribly perverse in doing so. I think the lens he's chosen is one of humility: we owe everything to God, so that, although we are responsible for our actions, we may not take credit for our goodness.

This humility pervades all of Calvin's thought, including what I'll blog about today, which is his view of the law. The modern Protestant/evangelical of any denomination will relate to what he says about the law showing us how fallen we are, and how desperately we need a redeemer and a mediator in Christ.

However, Calvin's view of the law does not stop there. I want to focus on what I found striking in Calvin's treatment of the law, rather than what seemed familiar. Although I have grown up influenced by the Reformed tradition, American culture tends to obscure Reformed distinctives.

To begin with, Calvin's view of the Old Testament is striking because he posits more or less perfect harmony between Old and New. This is no doubt a corollary of his view that scripture generally functions as a unit. He says in VI.2,
Accordingly, apart from the Mediator, God never showed favor toward the ancient people, nor ever gave hope of grace to them. I pass over the sacrifices of the law, which plainly and openly taught believers to seek salvation nowhere else than in the atonement that Christ alone carries out. I am only saying that the blessed and happy state of the church always had its foundation in the person of Christ.
So Calvin would reject the view sometimes held in evangelicalism that Old Testament Jews were saved by obedience to the law, while the New Testament church is saved by grace. Note also that he speaks of one church, which existed as Israel in ancient times but began to include people of all nations at the coming of Christ.

Calvin draws a natural distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. The ceremonial law points to Christ's sacrifice, a mere shadow (using directly the language of the letter to the Hebrews). He says of the ceremonial law,
For what is more vain or absurd than for men to offer a loathsome stench from the fat of cattle in order to reconcile themselves to God? Or to have recourse to the sprinkling of water and blood to cleanse away their filth? In short, the whole cultus of the law, taken literally and not as shadows and figures corresponding to the truth, will be utterly ridiculous. (VII.1)
And with that his attention becomes mostly fixated on the moral law. He begins to outline three main uses of the moral law. One is to show us how far we have fallen (this he mentions repeatedly throughout). The second is that it "restrains malefactors and those who are not yet believers":
The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law. But they are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. (VII.10)
As a result, the moral law has a political function, in that it can serve to regulate our public sphere of life. Although governments made by men cannot judge the inner thoughts of a human being like God can, yet governments have a responsibility to judge visible actions and punish them for the sake of society.

It's interesting to think about how this works out in own day. If we as Christians ought to be asking our government to govern according to the moral law set out in scripture, what does that look like? The very division between ceremonial and moral law in reading scripture already seems to create a canon outside the canon, so that serious questions of authoritative interpretation immediately come to mind. Who gets to say what laws ought to be followed strictly, while others are followed only loosely or not at all? These are big questions for modern Christians to think about as we involve ourselves in the political life of nations we live in.

The third and seemingly most important purpose for the (moral) law in Calvin's view is for believers to actually follow it!
The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose heart the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God, that is, heave been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways. (VII.12)
Those two ways, as he goes on to describe, are these: first, we can better understand how God intends for us to live; and second, we can discipline our flesh, as it is constantly a hindrance in our journey toward a righteous life.

So although the moral law no longer condemns us (VII.15) it is essential to the Christian life. It appears that Calvin would not trust the idea that Christians, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, would just "naturally" begin to become better people. In his view, discipline is required to continue shedding the sinful nature. The church is responsible for providing that discipline through proper instruction in the law.

Thus he goes on to explain the Ten Commandments in Book 2, Chapter VIII. I'm half-way through that chapter, having read the first five commandments.

My complaints about Calvin's thinking about the law are as follows. First, it's a lovely idea that there is continuity between Old and New Testaments, and that the prophets of old all saw the fulfillment of the ceremonial law in a coming redeemer.

But I wonder sometimes if this can be sustained from a historical perspective. For instance, did Moses and the ancient Israelites really think that the smell of animal sacrifices was hideous, as Calvin indicated? As I recall, the law mentions a "pleasing aroma" to the Lord.

If you were to ask Moses at the time he was alive what he thought of the sacrifices, what would he say? Would he say that these were not meant to be part of the law that is kept perpetually throughout all generations? Would he say, as we assume in our modern culture, that God would have to be some kind of sick freak to actually want animal sacrifices to satisfy him?

In fact, I have to wonder if the attitude would have shifted significantly just going from Moses to David to the later prophets. David, after all, was a king; Moses knew nothing of kings over Israel. The prophets after David lived during the time of a temple in Jerusalem; David never got to see a temple built. And other prophets lived post-temple, or during the rebuilding of the temple. What difference would that have made in their attitudes toward sacrifices and the "ceremonial law"?

The early Church Fathers knew a lot of Greek philosophy. Surely their view of God was shaped by this. Why would God even care about bloody animals? In Justin Martyr's First Apology, he highlights the significance of the fact that the Christian God does not care about animal sacrifices, but he simply demands moral character, and how clearly superior this kind of religion was to creating a good society. In post-Reformation Christendom, suddenly the emphasis became that God doesn't demand works, but that it is all grace. Context affects so much about how we answer questions about God.

So I guess it's not really a problem I have with Calvin so much as the whole Christian tradition that he is taking to the extreme--making Moses harmonize with the New Testament, because clearly Moses could not have been so stupid as to think anything other than what the New Testament teaches us. Calvin makes it clear in VIII.7 that whatever Christ taught, Moses would have agreed with, and it's only those who misread Moses who fail to see this.

See, whenever you start with the principle that the Bible is one unit, meant to guide us to salvation, you potentially cut yourself off from really getting to know its different characters. You have to read Moses in light of everyone else, so you never really get to know Moses. Of course reading all the different parts of scripture will certainly shed light on Moses, but there's a difference between shedding light and forcing someone to fit a particular mold.

But then, I absolutely agree with the Christian principle that we have to look back and read everything in light of Christ. Since Christ was raised from the dead, everything changes. We have to look back at the story of scripture in a totally different light. All I'm suggesting is that this new light is perhaps something Moses would not have expected, nor would David nor perhaps even the prophets. Who says Moses would have expected David? Who says David would have expected Isaiah? Who says Isaiah would have expected John the Baptist? Who says John the Baptist even expected the church?

I think this has a lot of significance for how we read the Bible today. I think it's fine to go to the scriptures in search of wisdom, so that it can shape our thinking. But we ought to be self-consciously aware that we're not reading it in some universal way. It wasn't always being used to answer the same questions that you now have.

I guess I can continue to stumble over these questions as I read through Calvin. So far it has been an educational experience. I'm just about 25% of the way through!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dealing with betrayal

Steven Ertelt, editor of, has written an article on his site which appears to argue that in light of Sunday's vote on health care, pro-life Democrats can't be trusted to come through on the pro-life debate.

The fact that Bart Stupak and other Democrats flaked out at the very last minute is disturbing. And the fact that Democrats for Life is virtually the only pro-life organization right now that is praising the passage of the recent health care bill is at least somewhat disturbing.

It's easy to feel betrayed by pro-life Democrats. The article describes this feeling very well:
Chris Smith, the long-time leader of pro-life lawmakers in the House, told WSJ that Democrats face enormous pressure to yield because the party is so beholden to pro-abortion interests.

"The peer pressure to be part of the team can be overwhelming," he said. "But sometimes it's absolutely necessary, regardless of the cost, to bend into the wind, unmovable, committed to what your heart, mind and conscience know to be right."

"For so long, Bart did that. Then he was like a runner who stopped a hundred feet before the finish line. It's a sad day for the unborn, a sad day for their mothers, and a serious setback for the culture of life," he said.
So the question is, can pro-lifers trust Democrats at all?

Ertelt and others appear to be saying "no" in light of a perceived betrayal on the part of Stupak and other Democrats. But I would argue that this is a dangerous way to deal with betrayal. If pro-lifers let high emotions get to them at this juncture, they will be making huge long-term sacrifices that they cannot afford to make.

One interesting question is how the abortion issue got so partisan at all. This issue was not so partisan in the beginning. I think we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem here.

As this Gallup poll shows, the two parties have become more polarized on abortion over the past few decades. I have to wonder why this is. Did pro-lifers join the Republican party because the party supported their views? Did pro-choicers join the Democratic party because the party supported their views? Or did people within their parties change their views?

Clearly some have changed their views over the years, probably due to political pressure from within their party, as Ertelt's article demonstrates:
Former president Bill Clinton, former vice-president Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, current number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich -- the list goes on and on of Democrats who, at one time, articulated the pro-life position only to compromise down the road.

And as another example, Ronald Reagan went from signing a liberal abortion law as governor of California to becoming a champion of the pro-life movement.

All this shifting around has caused a bit of a feedback loop. As more pro-lifers flock to the Republican party, the Republican party responds to its constituents by becoming more pro-life (but perhaps only on paper!) which in turn attracts more pro-lifers. The same idea holds for Democrats and pro-choicers.

But we cannot let this cycle continue indefinitely. That would be sacrificing the long-term victory for perhaps a few pathetic short-term political gains. Are we so short-sighted? Can we not see past these political skirmishes we fight, which have very little if anything to do with changing America into a culture of life?

In the long run, we should want nothing less than for abortion to be unthinkable, just as slavery is today. How do you propose that will ever happen if we demonize Democrats for their beliefs on how to make health care accessible?

Whatever your views on abortion, whether or not this health care bill will actually fund abortions is apparently not very clear, with intelligent people on all sides of the issue saying very different things. This is not a fair line to draw on the sand on the abortion issue, although I admit it ties knots in my stomach to think that there's even the possibility of taxes funding abortions.

If Democrats for Life are praising this health care bill, it is probably not a matter of sheer party loyalty; rather, it is probably a matter of commitment to a certain view of how economics (of health care in particular) should work. I happen to disagree with that view of economics, but not on strictly moral grounds (although I might be able to make some moral arguments against it).

Bart Stupak, as I blogged earlier, admitted his feeling of internal conflict over this whole matter. He wanted this health care bill to pass, with abortion being the only thing holding him back. I imagine that those who are unwilling to sympathize with him at this point are simply those who (like me, admittedly) were never big fans of this health care plan to begin with.

The principle of charity demands that we accept these explanations for what happened on Sunday, rather than the explanation that pro-life Democrats are just "spineless Obama-drones," as I blogged the other day out of frustration. I'm willing to admit that my attitude was wrong, but apparently pro-life leaders out there are willing to turn that attitude into a coordinated political movement. This will not work.

The pro-life movement has long been known for its religious influences. Now, at this juncture, we need to take those religious influences seriously, and remember that faith in God requires a desire for reconciliation. If we let our differences turn into political hatred, we will be destroyed from within.

It can be hard to overcome these strong feelings caused by this past weekend, but we must. Otherwise, we risk throwing away the long term for the sake of the short term. We risk throwing away the future of the unborn for the sake of our own self-righteousness.

I believe we pro-lifers risk also deluding ourselves into thinking we have more political sway than we really do. Polls that I've seen have all shown that abortion is pretty low on the list of voting priorities for both Republicans and Democrats. If that's the case, then what are we doing throwing our lot with one party or another?

Polls show at least half of Americans consider themselves pro-life. That would appear to be more than enough to make an enormous influence on abortion law. But apparently it isn't, and I suspect the reason is that the abortion issue isn't a high enough priority for those who already consider themselves pro-life. And how do we expect to change that if we're busy demonizing people like Bart Stupak and Democrats for Life?

Pro-life leaders need to examine themselves carefully before they sell out our future for the sake of their pride. As I've said time and time again, the pro-life movement is not a conservative movement. Nor is it a religious one. It is a human rights movement with a message that is perfectly consistent with any number of political, social, and economic systems.

It's time to put aside our feelings of betrayal and work as quickly as possible toward reconciliation. As long as there are both Republicans and Democrats in this country, we will need support from both of them. Unless you imagine that freedom lies in a one-party system!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Walk for Life 2010

As I've done in years past, I'm going to participate in a local Walk for Life campaign to raise money for the Pregnancy Centers of Virginia. The actual event will take place on April 17 in Charlottesville, and I'm hoping to raise $500 by then.

So I'll be taking donations, both online and via pledges. You can use the widget above to donate online, or, if you know me personally, just e-mail me your address and the amount you'd like to pledge, and you'll receive a bill in the mail.

For those of you who don't know, pregnancy centers are volunteer charity organizations that provide free services to pregnant women. (See the link above to Pregnancy Centers of Virginia; see also here and here for more general info.)

In other words, when people want to know what pro-lifers are doing to provide alternatives to abortion, this is exactly it. This is what we mean by a culture of life: we're creating community support for women in need, so that no one ever has to feel alone during an unplanned pregnancy. We're proving that all people can truly care for one another simply on the basis of our common humanity, instead of retreating from one another on the basis of "personal choice."

If you're pro-life, I strongly urge you to support--either by supporting my fund-raising effort or by donating to your local pregnancy center.

Here's what your donation can do (from my donation sheet):

$50 = Initial visit and pregnancy test for 1 Client
$75 = 24 Hour Helpline for 1 Month
$150 = Purchase crib for a newborn baby
$300 = Ultrasound for 1 Client
$1,000 = Pregnancy support for 1 throughout Pregnancy

As you can see, it takes a lot to support women in need! But whatever support you can offer is greatly appreciated. If we all chip in a little bit, we can do amazing things.

If you're not pro-life, just keep in mind what we're doing here. While plenty of people are willing to take your money in exchange for abortions, we're willing to give away support throughout pregnancy, because we believe that life--including both the life of a woman and the life of a child--is precious.

Thank you to all who choose to donate. Nothing is impossible when we work together.

Also, feel free to copy the above widget and post it on your own web page (or wherever).

Take Action: No stolen elections in Sudan | Save Darfur

Take Action: No stolen elections in Sudan | Save Darfur

I know I've been blogging partisan politics for a few days, so let me blog some non-partisan politics.

One thing we can all agree on is that the blatant oppression going on in Sudan under the regime of Omar al-Bashir is a human rights disaster. We need to speak out on this. In the midst of disputes on domestic policy, our government needs to remember the plight of millions of Sudanese people who have been driven from their homes.

Next month Sudan will have its first democratic election in 25 years. But as in so many countries that introduce elections, this will be nothing but an illusion meant to legitimize Bashir's corrupt regime. Make no mistake, Bashir will do whatever it takes to win that election.

Clicking the link above will send you to a page that will make activism on this issue easy. You'll be able to send a pre-written message (or you can change it up if you like) to your representative in Congress, asking him or her to contact the President and demand a statement explaining that the U.S. will not accept any attempt to legitimize Bashir's regime.

It may not seem like much, but that's why we all need to do our part. The more voices are speaking out on this issue, the clearer it will be that America will not stand for oppression in Sudan. As the video below makes clear, now is not the time to become silent.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Calming Down...

The past few days have been stressful for me as I've watched this whole health care debate unfold and reach its climax. I feel like I'm sort of reliving the days when Obama won the election back in 2008. That was what got me blogging in the first place; I guess it's fitting that I've been driven to blog so much lately.

I blog because I'd like to think that at the very least, I can put my ideas out there, rather than just keep them in my head all the time. Sure, it's fun to just talk politics over lunch with friends, but we live in an age where getting ideas out into the public arena is not nearly as difficult as it used to be. I feel a responsibility as a thinking individual to be part of a much bigger conversation.

Ideas matter. They determine our relationship with the world around us. They shape our government policies, which in turn shape all of our lives. The fate of our democracy depends on us being able to critically evaluate those ideas that affect all of our lives. We cast the votes that endorse one idea over another; we need to take responsibility for understanding those ideas.

Ideals, as opposed to ideas, just don't cut it. Ideally, we could simply wish everyone to have health care coverage, and it would happen. But the problem is, that can't happen. Intentions are not enough. The world does not run on our good intentions. It runs on our ideas, not our ideals.

In my opinion, that's where health care reform falls short. It's full of good ideals, but not good ideas. What is needed is a clearer picture of what's actually causing inefficiencies in the current health care system. It doesn't do any good to repeatedly point out that there is a problem, which is one of the most frustrating tendency I've found in liberals on this issue. As if conservatives don't know there's a problem! But unfortunately, it is possible to do worse than nothing. I fear the bill we just passed is in fact worse than if we had just done nothing.

Which leads me to blame conservatives for not tackling this issue when they had the chance. What we need in the government are smart conservatives. Not "compassionate conservatives" the way George W. Bush thought. Compassion is a good thing; but compassion is useless if you don't know what you're doing. Far more important is for conservatism to be smart.

But smart conservatives also need to be pro-active. I'm tired of seeming to have only two choices: one choice is to have Democrats in power taking the country further left, the other choice is to have Republicans in power focusing on the war on terror and not implementing any conservative solutions to domestic issues. Where was the health care reform back during the Bush era, when Republicans could have at least passed significant tort reform? What were the Republicans thinking when they passed No Child Left Behind, another inefficient big government program that fails to see the fundamental problems with education?

Since I've been truly alert to politics, I can't think of one thing that Republicans have successfully argued for on the domestic front other than lower taxes. As if lowering taxes solves all economic problems! And it makes me so sad, because I read all the incredibly bright conservative thinkers out there with great ideas about how to bring real reform on huge issues like education and health care. Who's going to put those ideas in place? We need a smart conservative, one who can make the case to the public convincingly, and then actually get it done, the way Obama and Pelosi hammered their agenda through.

Whatever else I have to say about Obama, he's a pretty impressive politician. If I agreed with his ideas, I'd probably be ecstatic. Unfortunately, it never feels good when the star player is on the other team.

And with that, I think I can wind down, count my blessings, and remember that frustration will not accomplish anything. I'm thankful that in this country I have the freedom to express my criticisms, my doubts, and even my frustrations. But with that privilege, I think, comes a responsibility to figure out the best way to use it. I can certainly do better than just complain.

Ideas matter, and I'll continue to defend ideas that are counter to Obama's. But they don't really matter as much as love. And no matter what this health care bill does, I can still choose to love my neighbor. Will it cause me to have to pay more to the government? I can still be generous with what I have left. Will it actually, as Obama says, end up saving us money? Well, then I'll have the blessing of being proved wrong.

Will it end up promoting abortions? That is still a tricky issue. But even then, the way we show love does not change. We go and we stand and pray and show that we love all people, no matter what. We give our own money to pregnancy centers, and show that there is an alternative to abortion. We change hearts and minds. There really is no shortcut past this. Our political stances are only as good as the love we show to other people.

It's good for my soul to have written this out for myself, and also for all of you who happen to think I have anything to say worth reading. In the land of political commentary on the Internet you don't get a lot of calming influences. If nothing else, at least I'll sleep better at night.

Did you know you voted for socialism?

Despite polls showing that Americans did not approve of this health care bill, Rev. Al Sharpton insists that the American people wanted this all along. Obama ran on a socialist platform, he says (apparently not troubled by that idea). The people overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Therefore, the people overwhelmingly voted for socialism.

Sadly, he's right. Whether or not people knew that's what they were voting for, that's what they voted for. This is why mere words like "change" and "hope" as well as phrases like "yes we can" serve no purpose but to hypnotize people into voting for a disaster.

Next time, America, remember that policies matter, and they're the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. It doesn't matter how inspiring or how charismatic a politician is. All that matters is what he will do.

And what Obama has done is apparently not going to go through without a fight from several states. (See also this article.)

A victory for the American people? It sounds more like a civil war.

Well, never mind

Never mind about Stupak. Never mind about integrity. All we have in Congress is a bunch of spineless Obama-drones. And then some Republicans, I guess.

Good job, Pelosi. Today is your day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Natural and Supernatural Ethics

I got into an interesting discussion yesterday with a couple of friends over lunch. We were talking about what causes inequality, and specifically income inequality between men and women. My friend brought up the oft-quoted statistic that women make, on average, about 77% of what men make, and the discussion took off from there: why this inequality?

My friend took the position that the reason is structural bias, i.e. that women don't have the same options as men. By this he meant that employers don't offer as much money to hire women as they do to hire men, and there aren't as many high-paying jobs available to women as to men.

This he sees as an inherent injustice. He put it like this: "If I told you that people who preferred Pepsi to Coke made more money than people who preferred Coke to Pepsi, wouldn't that make you question the market? Of course it would, and the reason is that such a distinction (Coke vs. Pepsi) is arbitrary."

Thus the assumption here is that the male/female distinction is arbitrary, in the sense that being male or female has nothing to do with having something to contribute to the market. The conclusion is that inequality between the two groups, male and female, makes no sense, and is therefore the result of injustice.

It's interesting to think about what gives us this kind of moral intuition in today's culture. Equality between men and women has by no means been a natural belief for human beings throughout history. Similar statements can be made about things like slavery. Indeed, it's remarkable that most of the world perceives slavery as inherently unjust, when it appears that for most of human history, most civilizations found slavery quite natural.

One way to think about it is that some systems of values arise from looking at nature, and deciding that what's natural is basically right. We look at men, we look at women; we happen to notice men tend to be bigger and stronger. Naturally, then, men were meant to be that way. Naturally speaking, men are supposed to have a more prominent place in society. That's one way that humans seem to have thought about things.

An important application of this is to the question of life after death. You look around at life, and it quickly becomes quite clear that everything dies. Death is natural. So are myths that explain death, and what happens after you die. Whether you believe that your soul leaves the body and travels to the underworld, or that your soul is reincarnated, or that you just simply die and completely cease to exist, you're acknowledging that there's something quite natural about the cycle of life and death. (It'll be clear where I'm going with this in a minute.)

Although many people tend to think of Christianity these days as a backwards religion, holding on to ancient traditions in spite of modern insights, early Christianity was (and, I would argue, is) quite revolutionary on that particular question of life after death. Christians claim that death is not meant to be natural for humans. In fact, we have evidence: Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

That is the claim that early Christians brought to the society around them. And did it inform their ethics? Absolutely. As N. T. Wright (who is totally brilliant in his focus on the resurrection) has pointed out somewhere, ancient Romans knew two things about early Christians that they considered very odd. One was that they believed in resurrection from the dead. The other was that they weren't sexually promiscuous.

Promiscuous sex is another thing that appears quite natural--I don't think I need to explain that in this culture. The Romans didn't need that explained, either. But early Christians practiced a chaste lifestyle. Why? Because they believed the body was holy. They believed that body wasn't meant to be treated in such a "natural" way. They believed in something supernatural.

To tie this back to the conversation I had yesterday, it seems that modern liberal moral intuition actually has a bit of this flavor to it. Rather than surveying nature and assuming that what's natural is right, it critiques nature by appealing to something higher. It has in view some sort of eschatology, really, holding to the belief that it's our destiny as humans to be equal, self-determined, and happy.

In other words, the liberalism being espoused by my friend seems to prefer the supernatural to the natural. I can't help but admire this. Also I can't help but think that it's somewhat inherited. Surely there are echoes of early Christian thought in my friend's concern for equality. I'm not merely speaking of the way Paul declares that in Christ there is no longer male nor female (Gal. 3:28); rather, I'm speaking more of a way of thinking about ethics, based on things to come rather than things present.

But one thing that Christianity has, which I think is essential, is a claim to not only have a vision for the future, but also a vision of the future in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian claim that Jesus was (and is) a human being who physically walked among us and was physically raised from the dead is significant, because it grounds claims about the future in something already experienced. This in turn means that ethical claims made by Christians are also (at least in theory) tied to that experience, which means we're not just taking shots in the dark.

Liberalism, if it isn't tied to anything in the way that Christianity is tied to the life of Jesus, has the problem of grounding its ethical demands in reality. Not that liberal moral claims are wrong; I'm inclined to agree that equal income between men and women would be a good thing. But finding real grounding for that might be a challenge, especially as liberalism more and more abandons religious claims about the world.

If an atheist wants to argue that we derive our ethics by trial and error, by looking at what "works"--in other words, scientifically--I will reply that this is not what liberalism truly hopes for. This is the old, Roman way of looking at the world. This is the kind of approach that leads to male dominance over women, slavery, and whatever else appears natural to those who have power (and even those that don't).

In other words, an atheist just doesn't have an argument against slavery, nor does he have a legitimate grounding for equal rights. That requires eschatology, that is, a vision of who we are meant to be in the future. And if the universe just doesn't have any purpose for us, then eschatology is meaningless.

So I find that my liberal friends are actually very religious at heart, much like the Athenians with their idol dedicated to an unknown god. And often I'd like to tell them, like Paul in front of the Areopagus, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you."

I wonder how they'd take that.

Friday, March 19, 2010

God Bless Bart Stupak

The more I've been following this health care debate, the more I've gotten confused, discouraged, and at times angry. Being invested in the pro-life issue, I was of course primarily concerned with abortion funding. I've long known that Obama is 100% committed to the pro-abortion cause, so I knew right from the introduction of a health care reform bill that abortion funding would be something to watch.

I was encouraged back when Congressman Bart Stupak originally introduced his amendment to ban abortion funding in health care, and 64 Democrats joined with the Republicans to vote in favor of the amendment. If this passes, I thought, at least it'll be something I can live with (although some pro-lifers were concerned even by that amendment).

Then the Senate bill came out, and apparently it did not live up to the language of the Stupak amendment. Trying to figure out exactly what it does say, and trying to figure out what's really going on, has been a sobering experience.

Every pro-life e-mail list has been frantically telling its members to contact their representatives in Congress to try to get opposition to this bill until it's changed to exclude abortion funding. But the sad realization I've come to is that all this energy devoted to this one bill should have been channeled a long, long time ago.

Part of what made me realize this is the way some people have had the gall to argue that we shouldn't oppose this bill now, because the government already funds abortions, anyway. I guess trying to do something about it now is considered infringing on women's personal liberties. Never mind my personal liberty in keeping my money from supporting abortion.

The more I've learned, the more I've come to realize just how much abortion is ingrained in our culture and in our economy. Decisions made by federal courts a long time ago have firmly established abortion is something politically unopposable, except in pitifully small ways. Honestly, if pro-lifers gain any victory on this health care bill, it too will be pitifully small.

This is why I simply can't vote for anyone who isn't pro-life. Although it seems rather futile in the short run, the fact is absolutely nothing of any long-term consequence can ever be done politically on this issue unless politicians have a price to pay for being pro-choice.

A big part of me would love to say I still respect pro-lifers who voted for Obama, based on many other important issues of conscience. But in many ways, I just can't. I have a really hard time respecting people who claim to believe abortion is wrong but won't do anything about it politically. The currency of politics is votes; give people your vote, and you give them incentive to stick to their current beliefs. Being pro-abortion is one of the worst beliefs I can think to endorse.

Change can only happen on this issue if people stick to their principles. Of course, it's true that many people will simply have to be convinced to change their minds. But much of the time, it's simply a matter of pro-lifers not having any backbone, being willing to sell out when the debate gets tough.

That's why Bart Stupak is just the man. This Democrat from Michigan has become the focal point for more political ire than I can imagine. But he isn't backing down.

Stupak is a long-time supporter of health care reform. In his own words, "I believe everyone should have healthcare. In all my correspondence — I’ve been saying for years — it’s a right, not a privilege."

But there's a price that Stupak isn't willing to pay: he isn't willing to see federal subsidies supporting abortion. And oh, the criticism he's taken from the Left; just Google his name and search for a few seconds.

For instance, Michael Moore has decided to chime in with a letter, brilliantly titled, "My Congressman, Bart Stupak, Has Neither a Uterus Nor a Brain." Besides Moore's characteristically inflated rhetoric and poor reasoning, the letter also contains unproven accusations against Stupak all for the sake of demonizing the guy, just because of his principled stance on this difficult issue.

Another article accuses Stupak of being willing to "kill the living to save the unborn." It also takes a stab at Stupak's conservative constituency:
Coming from a state that has been so touched by this recession, you'd think that voting against health care reform would be political suicide, but apparently, if Rep. Stupak is reading his constituents correctly, they are people who are willing for other people to die from lack of health care insurance, more than they are able to see beyond the perceived threat within their own "conspiracy theory" minds that health care reform is nothing more than a liberal, socialist plot to provide free, federally funded abortions. Next they'll be saying that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen and has no right to be president. Yeah right.
No one thinks any of this. But people bent on passing this health care bill without regard for its potential side effects will go to great lengths to make Stupak and his supporters out to be idiots.

And I just wonder, why? Why don't the Democrats just throw Stupak a bone, here? In the end, maybe it won't matter; maybe the Democrats will be able to ram it through without his support. But is it really so much to ask that federally subsidized health insurance plans don't cover abortions? I guess it is for most Democrats in Congress.

The Republicans we can count on to oppose anything that the Democrats try to pass in terms of health care reform. Part of that is a matter of principle, and part of it is just partisan politics; we all know that. What's amazing about Stupak is that he's withstanding enormous pressure from his own party, the party in power, to give in.

You just don't see that kind of courage every day. The news media and the bloggers can say whatever they want about his motives. But I say, God bless him. It's nice to see politics based on principle once in a while.

Health Care Bill -- Another Update

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) argues in this report that the current health care reform bill isn't covered by the Hyde Amendment and would indeed provide federal funding of abortions.
Fact #3: The new funding appropriated for community health centers by the Senate health care bill is not covered by the Hyde Amendment.

This should be clear from the wording of the Hyde Amendment itself: "None of the funds appropriate in this Act" may be used for most abortions (referring to the annual Labor/HHS appropriations act). The Senate bill's new funds are not appropriate in the Labor/HHS appropriations act, so Hyde does not cover them.
The report traces the legal precedents set by federal courts on the issue of abortion funding. The astonishing fact is that federal funds are required to pay for abortions as necessary health care for women, except if the legislation that appropriates funds specifically excludes abortion.

If it weren't for the Hyde Amendment, even state legislatures would actually be required to fund abortions. For instance:
When the Hyde amendment ceased to prohibit use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions in cases of rape and incest in 1993, federal courts throughout the country ruled that states participating in the program were now required by the underlying Medicaid statute to provide and help pay for rape/incest abortions--even if that meant overriding state constitutions that allow state funding of abortion only in cases of danger to the life of the mother.
I guess the reality is, most of us, even pro-lifers, don't really know how bad things already are. The courts are basically ready to pounce on our freedom of conscience. They are restrained only when health care legislation specifically says abortion will not be covered. If that wording isn't there, the courts have set a precedent of going to the opposite extreme: abortion must be covered.

For example:
A similar situation came to light in 1979, when members of Congress asked why the Indian Health Service (IHS) was continuing to provide abortions despite enactment of the Hyde amendment. The agency replied that it had no choice but to do so: The authorizing legislation for the IHS created a broad mandate for services to conserve the "health" of Indians, and the Interior appropriations bill funding these services contained no abortion limitation like the Hyde amendment to the Labor/HHS bill. Therefore "we would have no basis for refusing to pay for abortions" (Letter from Director of the Indian Health Service to Cong. Henry Hyde, July 30, 1979). Not until 1988 did Congress finally revise the authorizing legislation for the IHS to require that program to conform to the annual Hyde amendment.
The USCCB argues that the current Senate health care bill has exactly the same flaw: it's not covered by the Hyde amendment, because the Hyde amendment amended a particular appropriations bill.

Clearly the Hyde amendment is not a law in its own right. Therefore every health care bill that would be passed by Congress must contain its own language that specifically prevents abortion funding--its own Hyde amendment. The current Senate bill apparently does not.

It's hard to know who to believe, but frankly I'm more inclined to trust the USCCB than all the liberals in Congress who want to take my money for their political purposes, far more than organizations like Planned Parenthood who profit from the promotion of abortion.

So I'm going to try to call Congressman Perriello again and tell him I'm against this bill. Congress has no right to take our money without guaranteeing that it won't be funneled toward abortion.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Abortion and Health Care - An Update

Last week I blogged about why the National Right to Life Committee is opposing the current Senate Health Care bill on the grounds that it could allow federal dollars to fund abortions.

I read a few articles last night that gave me pause. First, several Catholics and Evangelicals advocating for health care have written a letter to Congress defending the current bill and its treatment of abortion.

I don't know how "pro-life" these Christians really are. I have no doubt that they are "personally against" abortion, but from the names I saw on that letter, I'm not inspired to think that these guys are in the pro-life movement for the long-haul. They seem to be too enamored with progressive politics to put up a genuine fight for pro-life legislation.

Nevertheless, their letter makes clear that in a way, the current Senate bill really will keep federal dollars from funding abortions. That said, there is something Americans need to understand in general about abortion in this country.

The fact is, we already endorse abortion with our federal tax dollars. I say "endorse" rather than "pay for" because, according to the Hyde Amendment, no federal money is allowed to be used to pay for abortions. However, organizations such as Planned Parenthood, which is the number 1 abortion provider in the nation, do get federal money for the other things they do.

While my taxes aren't specifically paying for abortions, they are helping an organization that actively promotes abortion. In other words, I am being forced to endorse abortion, even if I'm not paying for it.

The same thing will occur with this new Senate bill. Insurance plans that provide abortions will technically have to take a separate fee for the "abortion part" of their plans, thus being forced to use only private money to pay for abortions.

However, the fact is, these plans will still be subsidized by the government. It's just like the current state of affairs with Planned Parenthood. I am not being forced to pay for abortions, but I am being forced to endorse abortions.

Morally speaking, this is rather grating to me. I wish I could live in a country where no company that performed or paid for abortions could get federal funding. But I suppose fighting for that would be very much an uphill battle, since precedents have already been set against this.

So I guess in the end I wonder how wise it is for the NRLC to fight so hard against this bill on the grounds that it could fund abortions. It doesn't seem like it really will, directly, at least. And if we're going to ask that insurance companies that provide abortion coverage not be subsidized at all, well, we might as well push to de-fund Planned Parenthood, while we're at it.

Not that this is a bad idea. I just think it's an uphill battle, and there might be something morally twisted about using the health care issue as a platform for getting our opinion heard on this issue.

The second article I read last night indicates that Tom Perriello, my representative, just made a statement in which he expressed his belief that the current health care bill will not fund abortions. I have to say that I respect Perriello on this issue. Even if he isn't pro-life, he seems to have a genuine commitment to respecting pro-life convictions, and wants to make sure tax dollars don't fund abortions. He voted for the Stupak amendment, and I'm not sure I'm totally willing to doubt him on this Senate bill.

Finally, I happened to glance at a thought-provoking blog post which asks the question, "Does universal coverage reduce abortions?" A little bit of evidence is given that it does, although the post doesn't go into great detail. That also got me thinking: are we pro-lifers right to oppose this bill if it could actually have the net effect of reducing the number of abortions in this country?

Fundamentally, of course, that's an empirical question about the future, and such questions don't have sure answers. And it's hard, if not impossible, to know who to trust more to answer accurately.

Of course, fewer abortions would not end the abortion issue for me or for anyone who is pro-life. But it would be a step in the right direction.

I pray for this country, I really do. There are plenty of other issues to be dealt with on the health care issue, and the only issue I've really invested myself in is the abortion issue. I pray that we have the wisdom to balance them all.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Deep Intellectual Thoughts

OK, so not all my posts are serious... Sometimes I like videos of French pranksters doing silly things.

Hat tip to Sarah K. for introducing me to these videos.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jesus and the foundation of ethics

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you know see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but do eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
Matthew 15:10-20

My post yesterday got me thinking again about the basis of ethics. This is a hot-button issue between Christianity and atheism. Indeed, the modern atheist apologist probably has to spend more time on this issue than any other issue to try to convince Christians that morality makes sense with no God.

Christians, in turn, often defend the existence of God on the grounds that there is morality in the universe. If there were no transcendent morality, there would be no basis for acting to fight injustice. And there can be no transcendent morality without a transcendent God.

Atheists have a plethora of counterarguments to choose from. Among the more popular these days is the argument I highlighted yesterday, namely that if there is a transcendent God, he is clearly very immoral, since the universe makes no sense.

Another popular argument is to point out the apparently horrible things one reads in the Bible. Indeed, it is quite common for the modern atheist to argue against Christianity directly from scripture, a provocative inversion of the modern evangelical's strategy.

This puts Christians in a pretty awkward position. Traditional orthodoxy wants to argue that our ethics for all of life come from the Word of God handed down to us through scripture (it's not so different for Jews and Muslims). Thus the only response to atheists that traditional orthodoxy can give is to stubbornly assert that our human moral intuition is hopelessly flawed, and in fact the things we find reprehensible in scripture are good and right.

Another possible response would be to say that we may not understand the meaning of all these strange passages of scripture, but what we do understand, we adhere to. But already this is creating a canon outside the canon. We get to decide what we understand and are able to apply; thus we are no longer strict adherents to scripture as our ultimate moral authority.

What puzzles me about this tangled mess in which traditional orthodoxy leaves itself is that Jesus himself does not seem to approach ethics in this manner. In the passage from Matthew's gospel quoted above, we see Jesus very decisively breaking with tradition and scripture.

Doubtless Protestants will eagerly raise their hands to spout off all the theological reasons why Jesus is allowed to do this and still be consistent with scripture (they probably read them in Romans). But such reactions are merely a sign of great anxiety over this issue. Why is Jesus so counter-traditional, even counter-scriptural?

There is one last insistence that comes across as quite orthodox from a Christian perspective, which is that Jesus has authority to declare a shift in the law. After all, he is God incarnate; the law came through him, and his authority precedes the law. So we can take it on bare authority that what Jesus says is right.

But how does Jesus himself reason in this passage? "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"

"Do you not see?" These words ring powerfully for me in this passage. Open your eyes, friend, Jesus seems to be saying. Put down the scripture and the tradition with which you've been raised. Just look, for heaven's sake!

I would admit that I might be inferring too much from such a small detail, except that Jesus really does radically alter the Jewish understanding of the law in this passage. Even his own disciples don't get it. How can Jesus be going against everything they've been taught?

The answer Jesus himself gives is very human. It is not based on lofty theological concepts, nor on scripture-proofs, nor on tradition. It is an argument that any modern atheist would most likely agree with--it makes no sense to judge a person based on whether they've washed their hands in a ceremonial way. Rather, it is what comes out of the heart that matters.

Not that Jesus breaks totally from his tradition. His list of sins in verse 20 certainly hearken back to the Ten Commandments. But frankly, I fail to see how this is anything close to holding scripture as the absolute final authority on moral questions. It's not an all-or-nothing question. Just as Jesus tosses aside certain restrictions from the Old Testament, he makes other restrictions even more severe (e.g. his teaching on divorce).

From my point of view, the only way we can make sense of Jesus is by trusting that God has given us other means by which to make critical moral decisions, other than by clinging tightly to a written set of propositions. "Listen and understand," he says.

Perhaps by the grace of his Spirit, we will understand.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Evolution, Ethics, and Theodicy

Michael Le Page at CultureLab wrote a review of a book entitled Inside the Human Genome: A case for non-intelligent design by John C. Avise. The title of the review expresses succinctly what I find to be the most profound link between the debate over evolution and the debate over religion.

The title Le Page chose was, "A caring god would not have designed us like this."

Essentially what modern atheists do is restate the problem of evil in terms of evolutionary science. Look at how much DNA is wasted, they say. Look at what a mess it all is if you really look at it. Look at how much better it could have been if it really had been designed.

Thus the fascination that scientists have toward the human body and its incredible complexity is tempered by a sober realism about the horrible things that can occur naturally, all because our biology is so screwed up.

As N. T. Wright wisely points out, the problem of evil cuts both ways. For the religious, the problem is, "If God is good and God is in control, how can bad things happen?" For the atheist, the problem is, "In light of the immense evil that surrounds us, is all of the good that we experience just a big cosmic joke? Is there any meaning to it at all, or is it essentially random?"

Any self-aware scientist has to feel the tension. We study the world around us because it truly is so fascinating, so beautiful, in all of its complexity. But yet that very complexity leads to many things that cause incredible misery. Should we love or hate the world we live in?

Christians are far from working out this question. Although scripture insists that the world was good, even very good when God created it, the current state of the world difficult to measure from a Christian perspective. Is the universe in all of its complexity still essentially good, or has it experienced fundamental corruption?

And different denominations of Christianity profoundly disagree on their doctrine of the end times, which has significant implications for how we view the universe now. Is God going to completely obliterate all created matter and bring in something totally new, or are we going to see some continuity between the old and the new? Should we spend time caring about this world, or should we be so other-worldly that we think only of the next?

This question, which I maintain is equally unclear for both atheist and Christian, really comes to bear when considering ethical questions we face today. For Le Page, it comes down to this:
Why do we still allow children to be born with hideous diseases that could be prevented? Why do we rightly glorify efforts to cure diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, but still regard tackling the root cause - our dismal, degenerating DNA - as taboo?

Our ethics have been so hideously distorted by superstitious nonsense that we cannot see the clear moral imperative: we need to start sorting out the mess of a genome evolution has left us as soon as we can.

I'm not unwilling to sympathize with Le Page on this point. For him, the problem of evil can be solved by endeavoring to fix it ourselves. I think it would take a certain hardness of heart, from a Christian perspective, to completely shut him down on this point.

Yet I do think it's worth reflecting on where our power to do good is coming from. If all of the universe has been formed out of the oblivion by totally impersonal forces, what makes us think that we have actually accomplished anything by attempting to alleviate human suffering? Will not all of our attempts to solve the problem of evil be swallowed up by death and decay?

If, on the other hand, we believe the testimony of ancient Christians, who claimed that the Messiah was truly raised from the dead, and that God's new creation has begun, there is something to hope for in fighting against the problem of evil. There is power in every attempt to alleviate human suffering, because we have hope that the power of God really is for us, not ultimately against us.

Now if we do rely on such power, then in fact it would be wise to use caution when approaching ethical problems. The urge to just "do something" when faced with problems of suffering in the world has to be tempered by wisdom. That is where religion derives its moral authority in society; it preserves the memory that the best intentions often pave the road to hell.

But if we say that ultimately our hearts our set on the next world and not this one, then I don't really know what we do about the problem of evil. We can hope to escape it, but we can never hope to really solve it. I can see how a scientist would have a real problem with this.

Ultimately I think the way we, both Christians and atheists, need to approach the question of theodicy is by asking the question, "Should we love or should we hate the world around us?" I think this will put us all on more common ground as we consider important ethical questions facing our world.

It's easy for atheists to think, "There just can't be a loving all-powerful God out there because there is evil," and it's easy for Christians to think, "I know why God allows evil, and atheists are just so hard-hearted that they won't accept it."

But if we consider together the more complicated question (all of us admitting that it is complicated) that I have just put forward, we will realize that we have a lot of different values to weigh against each other. One value is of our curiosity about this beautiful and fascinating universe; another is our desire not to see people suffer.

How we measure those values against one another will make an enormous difference for our future. The problem of evil is not some philosopher's game; it is a real, practical matter for all people.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Abortion Policy and "Health Care Reform"

NRLC Media Backgrounder: Abortion Policy and "Health Care Reform"

The above link is for anyone who would like details on the current pro-life opposition to the Senate health care reform bill that Nancy Pelosi et al. are trying to push through Congress.

You can say whatever you want about the need for health care reform, but I think a little respect for our position is in order. This is a principled stand. It is not asking a lot that the federal government spending shouldn't fund abortion. The vast majority of Americans agree, but Pelosi and her fellow crusaders can't give us the simple dignity of a guarantee. The argument that "we wouldn't be changing current federal law" is simply not good enough.

Here's a simple question: if current law supposedly already prohibits federal money from being spent on abortions, then how can it possibly hurt to respect the conscience of millions of Americans by stating in clear, simple language that health care funding will not go toward abortions? As superfluous as that may be (and my hunch is that it isn't) it would at least show some basic respect.

Pro-choicers, you might think that pro-lifers are trying to take away your personal choices. But we think you're trying to kill people with our money. Which of these really carries more weight? Be honest with yourself, and have a little respect for us.

There are plenty of us pro-lifers who would be fine with seeing this health care reform bill pass, as long as we had a guarantee that federal money couldn't be spent on abortions. So wouldn't the most prudent thing to do be simply to give us what we want? We're not asking a whole lot.

But just as I was saying back before the election in 2008, I fear people too often underestimate the abortion lobby's power over seemingly virtuous politicians. I guess "change" doesn't come without collateral damage, namely thousands more children each year being killed thanks to government spending.

Or so I am led to believe.

Calvin on Free Will

In this blog post, I get to tackle Book II, 2.1 - 4.8 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which deals especially with everyone's favorite doctrine of Calvin's, his doctrine of free will, or rather his doctrine of bondage of the will.

Now, before I begin, I think it's necessary to untangle two very distinct doctrines that don't have as strong a connection as one might at first think. Those two doctrines are providence and bondage of the will.

The doctrine of providence was dealt with back in Book I (see my post here). In Calvin's understanding, every event happens not only with God's foreknowledge but by his decree. This is obviously a tough idea to swallow (given that so many bad things happen) but Calvin defends it as scriptural.

The doctrine of bondage of the will described in this section of the Institutes is not the same thing by any means, because Calvin is not talking about our will being subject to the decree of God. Quite the opposite: our will is enslaved by the devil.

There is a relationship between these two doctrines, but ultimately if we're going to understand them both, we have to first uncouple them. I think a simple example helps to illustrate my point.

In the Garden of Eden, according to Calvin, Adam and Eve had free will. Their will was not bound by the power of evil. They had the power to choose good or to choose evil. So Calvin's doctrine of the bondage of the will starts after Adam's first sin.

However, Calvin's doctrine of God's providence starts before Adam's first sin. Calvin would say that even though Adam had perfectly free will in Eden, yet it was ultimately God's decree that determined everything. This is paradoxical and confusing, yet Calvin defends it.

So to me, personally, the doctrine of providence is way harder to understand than the doctrine of the bondage of the will. Bondage of the will in Calvin's theology can be seen in terms of cause and effect: Adam sinned, so human will was corrupted and is no longer free.

Providence, on the other hand, has no such explanation. It is all-pervasive in Calvin's thought. All things, good or bad, ultimately come down to the mysterious decree of God. Even when people have free will still God's providence reigns supreme, in some incomprehensible way.

Just one comment on this before continuing. Many people would wonder, "If it's all up to God's providence, why pray?" But Calvin would surely respond, "Why would you pray if it's not all up to God's providence?"

Calvin definitely believed that God answers prayers, and that the prayers of the faithful can actually change the course of events. How does he reconcile that with his doctrine of providence? In some sense, he doesn't; whatever mystery is lurking there he just ignores.

But in another sense, there's no need to reconcile prayer with providence; for Calvin they go hand in hand. Calvin was no deist. He didn't believe in a far off God who determined everything long ago and is now simply watching. Quite the opposite: for Calvin, God is always close to whatever is happening. This is where prayer makes the most sense.

I could spend all eternity trying to hash this out, but I haven't said anything yet about Calvin on free will. The basic doctrine is simple enough: "Man has now been deprived of freedom of choice and bound over to miserable servitude" (this is the heading to Book II, Chapter 2). Don't you love Calvinism?

I find that Calvin here deals with lots of philosophical arguments in his development of the doctrine. Although he is blunt, he is also aware of and sensitive to many philosophical and theological questions about how we should view free will.

He understands that there are two errors to be avoided:
(1) When man is denied all uprightness, he immediately takes occasion for complacency from the fact; and, because he is said to have no ability to pursue righteousness on his own, he holds all such pursuit to be of no consequence, as if it did not pertain to him at all. (2) Nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of his honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence.
Calvin's view, then, is simply the most intensely God-centered you can imagine: None of the credit belongs to us, and all of the blame belongs to us. We justly deserve blame for what we do wrong, but only God deserves credit for what we do right.

He sympathizes with the early Church Fathers who seemed to uphold free will, but from his point of view they were falling into error (1): they thought that if they denied free will, they would relieve humans of their responsibility to be righteous.

He criticizes the philosophers for falling into error (2): they fall into the belief that humans by our own efforts can purify ourselves and become righteous.

Calvin actually demonstrates himself to be a sort of compatibilist, in the sense that "man is necessarily, but without compulsion, a sinner." In other words, humans sin willfully and not because they are forced to; but yet because our very will is tainted, we will necessarily do evil and not good. So we are justly condemned, even though in some sense we can't help ourselves.

I find that discussions of the will are most confusing because it's difficult to talk about something outside of ourselves affecting something that is at the core of who we are. Calvin's doctrine of the will is not about the devil tying up our souls so that we no longer have a choice. It's something much, much deeper and scarier.

One way to gain power over someone is by being stronger and being able to force them to do what you want. The other way, which is much, much scarier, is to be able to lure them in so that they actually obey you even though they think they're doing what they want.

My friend once told me that choosing not to follow traditional moral codes is also a form of self-discipline. Choosing not to restrain one's sexual appetite, for example, is as true a decision as choosing to restrain it.

But if you sell yourself into slavery and call it freedom because you chose it, you're still a slave. That is the way the devil works. He is far more powerful than a strong man. He has no need to attack you. He simply waits while you come crawling to him willingly, thinking that you are exercising freedom in doing so.

This is how Calvin understood the state of the human will. I have to say, it's difficult not to agree with him; I see it both in scripture and in experience. In our world it is not the sin that we feel guilty for that worries me. It is the sin that we feel no guilt for, because we think we are doing right! That is the ultimate slavery.

Still, Calvin is not as unreasonable as some would take him to be on this issue. For instance, he says that it's okay to use the term "free will" if it is understood correctly: "If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account. But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished. I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it."

But what about the good things that people do? Humans aren't utterly corrupt, are they? No, and Calvin actually praises the abilities that God has given people through his Spirit. This is one of the passages in Calvin that I most enjoyed reading:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
In other words, truth, wherever it is found, is God's truth, and all people who have such truth deserve our respect and honor. This is a great theological tradition, and I think we have a constant need in the Church to emphasize it.

But as for spiritual understanding, Calvin stresses that it is only by the Spirit that a person's will can ever be regenerated in order to seek the good. And he emphasizes that this is wholly the work of God, even after regeneration; he does not regenerate us only to then allow us to make up our minds, but he regenerates us completely, so that just as sin once had absolutely sway over our hearts, now righteousness does.

I have to wrestle with these ideas, but I've spent all my time just writing them down. Calvin's theology is so dense that it's hard to break it down into simple concepts that I can work with. The Institutes are 1400 pages long, and yet the only reason they're not three times as long is because Calvin's writing is so focused!

Maybe after I've let these ideas percolate a little while, I'll have more commentary to make.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reading Paul

For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
Romans 2:6-8

During the adult education hour at our church, I've been going to a class on Romans. We Protestants love Romans, don't we? To us it almost seems to summarize the gospel more sublimely and succinctly than, well, um, the gospels. (shrug)

Anyway, the structure of the class has been to hit a series of hot-button issues dealt with in Romans, rather than to outline the overall argument. The teachers have been very up front that this is what they're doing, so I can't blame them for it. It is good to educate Christians about modern controversies about the Bible. At the very least, when people hear all the fuss about N. T. Wright and the "New Perspective on Paul" they'll know a little bit about what's going on.

I have to give the teachers credit for stating explicitly that we're not to judge anyone with regards to the controversy on Paul's view of justification in Romans. There's an awful lot of mudslinging that goes on over seemingly obscure theological issues, but since many people take those issues to be the core of the gospel, they're quick to pass judgment on new ideas.

What do I mean by "obscure theological issues"? It might sound offensive to many Christians, but that's really what these are: obscure. Face it. You don't know what Romans says in Greek, do you? If you do, then great, but let's all admit from the start that a) Paul is hard to understand and b) if God's salvation is based on understanding theological fine print, we're all screwed.

So what are these issues that are obscure yet central to what many Christians believe is the gospel? Quite simply: God's righteousness, our guilt, and justification by faith apart from the law.

These are big theological concepts, so thankfully we've broken them down so that even little children can understand. We're all sinners, but God is so merciful to us that he sent his only Son to die on our behalf, so that if we believe in him he will forgive our sins, and we can go to heaven. Justified by faith: just as if I'd never sinned. Easy, right?

Except that it isn't so easy. Evangelicals insist so adamantly that our salvation is not by works that they virtually screen out passages like Romans 2 (see the quote above) where Paul explicitly states that there will be a final judgment according to works. What happened to faith alone?

I asked one of the teachers at the end of our class today about this, and he actually thought that Romans 2 worked in his favor, against the New Perspective guys, including Wright.

His reasoning is as follows. The thing that the New Perspective does with Paul is that it makes justification by faith not so much about how we are saved (soteriology), but about who constitutes the church (ecclesiology). There is massive evidence for this shift in Romans, including the fact that every single time Paul brings up justification by faith, it's in the context of talking about the Jew/Gentile distinction that is now abolished in Christ.

The problem, my teacher says, is that Romans 2 makes it clear that when Paul talks about works, he is also talking about the moral law, not just the particularly Jewish law. So when Paul says that justification is by faith apart from works, he means those works, too.

Wait a minute. So, he's basically interpreting Romans 3 in such a way as to nullify what was just said in Romans 2, and to do that he actually uses Romans 2? That's like using Paul to refute Paul. Something is amiss.

In fact, the vast majority of evangelical churches interpret Romans 2 the way they want to. They call it "reading in context," but it's not reading in Paul's context--just the context of post-Reformation theology. They explain it like this: in Romans 2, Paul is showing us that God has the right to demand of us perfect righteousness. But then in Romans 3, he shows us that none of us are righteous, and that there's no hope except in God's mercy. So then he finishes Romans 3 by telling us how we are justified by faith apart from works, because there's no way we could be saved by our works.

The only problem is that's basically interpreting Romans 2:6-8 out of existence. It's not reading it "in context," it's just a failure to take it seriously. In absolutely no part of Romans does Paul ever indicate that he's not utterly serious when he says, "To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life."

So is this "works salvation?" Well, one huge complicating factor is that Paul often seems to view salvation as a different thing from judgment at the end time. Having taken my teacher's advice and read Romans straight through (about three times since this class start three weeks ago) I noticed that often Paul talks about being "saved" while referring merely to conversion. It seems to indicate being rescued from the present corrupt generation and being brought into God's people, "grafted into the root," as it were.

But then other times, as in Romans 13:11, Paul refers to "salvation" as being the end time, perhaps the return of Jesus. And in that context, he says quite explicitly that we need to "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."

Paul would seem to be saying that the first kind of salvation is absolutely not based on works, but entirely by faith (cf. Romans 10:9-10). But as for anticipating the hope in which we were saved (8:24) Paul exhorts us to "put to death the deeds of the body," "for if you live according to the flesh, you will die." (8:13) And this seems entirely consistent with what he said back in Romans 2, that people will be judged according to works.

But is it by our own effort that we're saved? Paul doesn't really seem to be saying, "Just put in the effort and you'll be saved." He says, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." Without the Spirit, for Paul, nothing is possible. With the Spirit, everything is possible. So in the end, it's still all by grace--not by your own works, but by the work of the Spirit.

What is Paul's primary message in all of Romans? Well, starting in Ch. 1 he talks a lot about faith; then especially in Ch. 8 he talks about hope; but he ends the letter by talking about "the greatest of these": love. Echoing the words of Jesus, Paul answers for us the question of how we ultimately please God: "The commandments... are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (13:9)

Kind of funny how 1 Cor. 13 is the "love chapter," and then it turns out, so is Romans 13!

And that really does, I think, summarize Paul's biggest point ever: it's all about love. In Romans 2, when he's talking about judgment, he starts with, don't judge others! And in Ch. 12-15, he talks about serving one another, overcoming evil with good, and not violating someone else's conscience, and all the other ways in which we show love.

In the end, I don't understand Romans any better than the next guy in my Sunday school class. But I do know that Protestants will often go to great lengths to twist passages in Romans that don't suit their preconceived notions of what "the context" of Romans is. And that seems wrong to me, mostly because I think it causes us to miss Paul's greatest point ever, which is that it's all about love!

So if anyone asks me what the gospel is all about, I will say it's all about love. And I think that's easy enough for a child to understand.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Big business conservatism? No way.

I really appreciate this article written by Jonah Goldberg, which discusses why "big business" does not equal "conservative."

In fact, the interesting bit of information he opens up with is how much big business seems to support the Democrats: "It's worth remembering that Obama was the preferred candidate of Wall Street, and the industry gave to Democrats by a 2-1 margin at the beginning of last year."

Yet, as Goldberg points out, the generally left-leaning newspapers would rather focus on whatever support big businesses are giving Republicans. What they fail to highlight in stories with headlines like "Wall Street shifting toward Republicans" is that Wall Street is still giving a majority of their political contributions to Democrats, despite whatever gains Republicans have made.

In casual political conversation, it's almost a given that Republicans are in line with big business while Democrats are trying to protect the little guy from those big evil corporations. Could it be that big evil corporations had a change of heart last year and decided to support the liberals in office?

I doubt it. Here's Goldberg's take on things:
The lesson here is fairly simple: Big business is not "right wing," it's vampiric. It will pursue any opportunity to make a big profit at little risk. Getting in bed with politicians is increasingly the safest investment for these "crony capitalists."
It's all about profit. Would anyone seriously be surprised to hear that?

The scary thing is that sometimes politics can actually feed the desires of powerful companies to maximize profit. And in our day, this is how "progressive" policies end up actually working. By being overly involved with which businesses are profitable or unprofitable, the government is actually favoring the powerful, not the little guy.

In a just system, powerful people should not be able to gain financially from laws passed by Congress. Markets should be driven by what consumers want, not by what politicians want, especially politicians who are driven by pressure from wealthy political supporters.

This is why it would be so wonderful to have genuine conservatives in government, who believed not in big business, but in free markets. That means restrained government--not "small" government, as many conservatives would put it, but simply disciplined government that didn't use its power to play favorites.

But chances of that appear dismal, as even Goldberg admits: "For years, the GOP defended big business in the spirit of free enterprise while businesses never showed much interest in the principle themselves."

It's no wonder Americans get so apathetic about politics. For all of our conversations about basic political ideology, neither party actually seems to represent the ideology to which is pays lip service.

Yet I do think our conversations about such things are important, because we do have power over politicians in this country. At some point they will listen, because they want votes. See? Politicians are just like businesses, really. Just as you can always count on businesses to desire maximum profit, so you can always count on politicians to want to win elections.

The question is whether the American people, consumers both of goods provided by business and of government provided by politicians, will be able to restrain these desires for profit and power. This means taking responsibility for what we value, both in what we buy and in what political opinions we hold.

Of course, it's easy to get cynical about that, too. Can we really expect Americans as a people to take more responsibility for our values as consumers and as voters? But we can't afford to ask that question. We really don't have an option; American democracy depends on taking this responsibility on ourselves.

To me, this is fundamentally what being a conservative is all about: I think that society should be structured so that people are capable of being independent--not independent from one another, but independent from ruling elites.

From that point of view, it's sheer nonsense to suppose that conservatism is anything like "pro-big business." Big businesses are powerful elites that need to be restrained from exercising too much authority over people. But on the other hand, it is natural to restrain big government for the same reason.

My only question is whether your average, everyday Democrat would disagree with me. Being surrounded by liberals in the academy, I know there are plenty of elitist liberals out there who genuinely believe in meritocracy--which of course means they should run the country because they're so smart.

But I'd like to think that most Americans do value independence from any sort of aristocracy, whether it's based on how rich you are or how smart you are. I just wonder, then, what leads people to vote for such flaming liberals like Barack Obama.

Oh well. Some things I will never understand. At least I have enough freedom to blog about them.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fasting of the heart

The days are growing longer. The sky is clear. The snow is almost melted. Into my room come gentle rays of evening light. The trees are still bare; but there's something in the light of the sun at 6:00 in the evening that says Spring is coming.

I sit and soak in the gentle light. My heart is open. Feed slowly, I tell it. Just as a hungry man must keep himself from eating too quickly, lest he regret it shortly thereafter, so also I must tell my heart to pace itself. Soak it all in, but not all at once. These are magical moments, but they are fragile.

We are a couple of weeks into the season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and examining ourselves to see where we have fallen short and in what ways we must repent and turn ourselves toward God. I have learned in recent years the benefits of literally fasting. The body is good, but it must be made to serve a higher purpose than its impulses.

But we must eat. Why would we deny the body something it needs? The body needs food, yes, and that is exactly why fasting helps us gain control over the body. When the body gets comfortable having all of its needs met instantly, it is easy for the self to be guided by the body, rather than the other way around.

(And anyway a fast doesn't have to be total abstinence from food; it can be simply eating no meat, or eating half as much as usual, or leaving something out that usually seems essential. But abstaining from food for, say, 24 hours, is not an insurmountable feat. It can be done, and it is a useful exercise of the will.)

The Eastern Orthodox are very thoughtful about this topic. I've been reading a blog with daily thoughts on spiritual practices such as fasting (see also here and here). The practices they prescribe can be intense, as in this post, which makes the reason for such extreme measures clear:
Saint Theophan advises us that the flesh should be persecuted in all it parts and functions so that it can be transformed into a keen weapon of righteousness.

This is not the kind of theology of the body that is usually taught in Protestant circles. Judging by the teaching that comes out of evangelical sermons, one might be led to believe that Christian spirituality ought to involve no physical effort whatsoever.

For instance, in the sermon I heard last Sunday, the pastor explicitly said that it makes no difference what posture you take when you pray, and I'm sure the vast majority of Protestant Christians would be inclined to agree. God judges the heart, not the outward appearance. I suppose that's true.

But the heart, like the body, is prone to various lusts. The body may lust after food and sex, but the heart lusts after beauty, power, status, recognition--not that these are inherently evil, but neither are food and sex; yet lust after such things is spiritual darkness.

A frightening question occurred to me the other day. What else does the heart lust after? Just as the body needs food, what does the heart need, which it then learns to lust after? Friendship, perhaps. Love, romance, beautiful art, beautiful nature, hope, ecstasy, happiness--God?

Can the heart possibly lust after God? Isn't the greatest commandment to love God with all our heart? Yet love is not lust. Lust does not make a marriage. Seeking to make other people look at you is not true friendship. Lust turns inward; love turns outward. Is it not possible to do the same thing with God?

I fear it is. And there is practically no recognition of this in the culture in which we live, perhaps especially in the Christian subculture forged by evangelicals.

Lust after God begins innocently enough, with a deep and ecstatic desire to have a "personal relationship" with God. We pray to God earnest, heartfelt prayers, not mechanically, as the error-prone traditionalists are apt to do. Then "Our Father" becomes my Father, my Jesus, my personal Lord and Savior, mine, all mine.

There is this insatiable hunger for an experience of God, a prayer life that is ecstatic and intensely personal. There is an unquenchable thirst for real worship, the kind you feel when you are waving your hands in the air to music that really moves you. There is a desire to read the Bible and see what it really says, so that you know how to avoid all the errors of the dead, traditional church.

Or perhaps there is simply a desire for something different, something new, something that the masses can't handle because of their simple minds or their hardened hearts. Perhaps there really is something there...but you crave it so badly that you can never really have it.

But God wants our prayers and our worship to heartfelt! But sometimes the heart seeks God, and other times it seeks to devour God. The heart is not so different from the stomach. The stomach craves food, but if it is not disciplined, it will simply devour, rather than eat.

Is it really so hard to believe? Was it not in eating the very body and blood of Christ that the Corinthians displayed their selfishness and gluttony? (1 Cor. 21) Every Sunday before communion, our pastor tells us, "Feed on Christ in your heart, with thanksgiving." I wonder if the pastors at my church ever thought to add, "Eat slowly."

So it occurred to me this Lent that my heart, too, needs a certain amount of fasting, just like my stomach. It is always tempting for a Christian to go into prayer with the heart in a posture of grasping, rather than receiving. But what does the Lord's prayer say? Not "my will," but "Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." It is not for the heart to ascend into heaven to take the things of God, but rather to stay on earth, and to receive God's gifts from heaven.

What would that fast possibly look like? It is quite simple, really. Pray the Lord's prayer. Oh, but your pastor will tell you that the Lord's prayer should never be just a formula. Yes, it should. My heart needs a formula, or else it will always be greedy. It needs to be restrained by the words Jesus taught us to pray, so that it will not seek to devour God, but rather to love God.

The only pronouns in the Lord's prayer are our, us, you, and, your. There is no I, me, or my. Prayer is not about me. And prayer (and all of life) is first and foremost about loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Your Kingdom come; your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

So I will say the Lord's prayer, slowly, on my knees, not adding any of my own words--mechanically, even. This will protect the heart from reaching out to devour. It will be a fast. Just as for the stomach, I don't eat food, so for the heart, I don't feed it with its desires.

But the heart needs God! Yes, it does; that is the point. Just as the body needs food, yet we deny it food for the sake of making the body a "weapon of righteousness," so also the heart needs God, or rather to feel intimate with God, yet I will deny it for the sake of making the heart, too, a "weapon of righteousness," capable of feeding on Christ slowly, rather than simply devouring.

And then, perhaps, the heart will be liberated from its selfishness, so that it can truly pray those beautiful words, "Our Father," and actually feel that the Almighty God is indeed Father.