Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Free meditation on personal liberties

Like the free market, this post will have no central planning. I'm just going to let my thoughts make their way onto the screen by way of my fingers.

That seems like the right way to introduce this post, not only because it excuses the fact that I have no idea what I'm going to say, but also because the topic of this post is the libertarian/classical liberal philosophy of personal freedoms. Specifically, I've been thinking about that philosophy championed by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, which says that a free society is one in which we cannot determine ahead of time what the collective goal of society should be. Rather, we simply design government to uphold certain fundamental human rights, and then let humans interact in unpredictable ways.

There are a couple of fundamental theoretical problems with this. One is this: if no one has the authority to determine what is the proper goal for the collective, why does anyone have the authority to determine what rights an individual should have? The other problem is this: is there any set of individual human rights that is actually absolute and self-consistent?

Let me talk about the second problem first. In my view, nearly every individual right must be relativized, not merely because we haven't yet found politicians who are honest to preserve our fundamental rights, but rather because certain rights are mutually contradictory.

Consider this simple example. We believe that each person has the fundamental right to his own life, as well as the fundamental right to own property. The State, we believe, is obligated to defend both of those rights. But this is impossible, in an absolute sense. In order to protect the lives of citizens, the State must necessarily impose taxes on them. In an absolute sense, this infringes on their right to property.

One might object that this doesn't infringe on the right to property, because in fact a fair exchange has taken place: protection of life in exchange for taxes. But this is not correct, because taxes must be collected based on coercion and not exchange--otherwise the State would cease to be the State. Clearly not all coercion is unacceptable; without it we would have total anarchy.

Indeed, it would be unacceptable to make the protection of human life into a private exchange. Then the rich and powerful could afford to protect themselves more than the poor and weak. But the whole point of a State is to preserve fundamental human rights for both the strong and the weak. If the right to life is not fundamental, what more do you have? Therefore, some people must be forced to give up part of their property, even if they would rather not, and even if they don't feel they're getting an even trade.

So what if we tried to make property rights absolute by imposing a certain limit on how much the State could tax its citizens? Yet in simple economic terms, this is a price cap; it is inefficient by nature. Let's still just consider nothing but the two fundamental rights I've already mentioned: life and property. In order to defend the lives of all of its citizens, the State's costs may go up or down. During times of war, its costs will go up. During times when there is particular danger because of terrorism, costs will go up. During times when there is an extraordinary amount of crime, costs will go up. How can the State pay for these additional costs if it has no ability to tax beyond a certain rate?

Thus these supposedly fundamental rights are inherently conflicting. The State cannot preserve both in any absolute sense. What must happen, then, is some sort of collective bargaining. Because the State must have the power to coerce its citizens into paying taxes for the protection of all citizens, it will naturally always seek to tax at the highest amount it can get away with. Democratic election of government allows the citizens to keep the State in check; it allows the people to make some sort of collective bargain with the State in order to keep the price of government down.

There may be other more efficient ways than democracy of performing this kind of necessary collective bargaining, but the point is that a bargain is necessary. The right to life and the right to property are necessarily in conflict. They cannot be held absolutely. Demand that the State protect one, and you increase the risk of losing the other.

I use these two rights as illustration to make my point clearer to libertarians and conservatives, who are often prone to say that these are the two most important rights--perhaps the only two rights that the government ought to really enforce. Yet even those two rights are not consistent with one another; they are not absolute. If the right to life is absolute (and I'm inclined to side with this one over property) then the right to property is not; conversely, if the right to property is absolute, then the right to life is relative, and frighteningly so.

But I could go on to give real life examples of "rights" that we Americans have endowed ourselves with which are all clearly mutually contradictory. Let's start with one that is particularly ironic. Is it everyone's right to own a home? Our government's policies suggest that it is, yet we all know it isn't. But for those inclined to say that the right to own a home is a necessary corollary of the right to own property, let me answer: nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the two are totally opposed to one another.

For the right to own property does not mean you have the right to own any particular thing; it simply means that you have the right to keep what you have, and you have the right to dispense of what you have in any way that you see fit. If I have a car and I choose to dispense of it by giving it away, that is my right. If I choose to dispense of it by trading it for $50,000, then that is also my right, and it is the right of the fool who chooses to make such a trade to dispense of his $50,000 in that way. The right to own property means you can't tell me how to dispense of my property, nor can you tell me what I must own.

On the other hand, if everyone has the right to own a house, then no one really has the right to his own property. Because in that case everyone who wants a house is entitled to receive one from the labor of society. This means that, if necessary, someone can be forced to build a house even if he isn't getting what he wants for it. In other words, he doesn't have the right to dispense of his labor the way he chooses. His right to property is sacrificed.

This is especially the case with the idea of universal health care. Actually, the latest health care bill past by Obama and the Democrats is overtly anti-property rights, for it actually requires that a person buy a product that he or she may not want. Even if this weren't the case, any attempt to provide every person with a particular product will inevitably lead to the infringement of this right to property. It is just as I stated above; someone will be forced to dispense of his or her labor in a way that doesn't give desired compensation.

I could go on and on, of course. The right to consume whatever resource you want conflicts with your right to live in a healthy environment. The right to free speech conflicts with the right not to feel threatened or abused. The right to privacy conflicts again with the right to life--no, I'm not talking about abortion, I'm actually talking about the conflict between the desire to be protected from terrorism and the desire to have the government leave us alone.

Now many libertarians, or even conservatives, would say that the problem is that we have to get back to those fundamental rights enshrined in Mr. Jefferson's famous writing: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property). But here is why I have started with life and property. These two alone are sufficient to illustrate the necessary tension between all rights, no matter how simple.

And that brings me back to the first point I mentioned. If one would argue that making a few individual rights absolute, while making the rights of the general society a relative thing which cannot be predetermined by human presumption, where then did those individual rights come from? Is it really any less presumptuous to think that we have determined which individual rights are fundamental than to think we know which direction is best for society? I do not argue that the two are the same thing; I understand perfectly well the distinction between individual liberties and the rights of general society. I am merely asking, who tells us that some rights are sacrosanct, while others are not so important? Mr. Jefferson was a fine man, but I would not make a deity out of him (my enrollment at the University of Virginia notwithstanding).

I don't know that there are any easy answers. Some might suggest that the best way to sort it out is to let the democratic process do its work. I suppose that's akin to the way many libertarians and conservatives suggest we just let the market do its work. The problem is that of course it doesn't work. Neither democracy nor markets are natural. Do you know why we can't just let the market do its work? Because the market doesn't exist; it is an abstract entity that we made up. All we have to rely on to "do its work" is the actual people who belong to this world. And indeed, if they can rely on someone establishing a free market in which to freely exchange goods and services to one another, I believe that people will generally find an equilibrium that is to be desired. But who can establish such a thing? I'm not sure a free market has ever existed.

Democracy, on the other hand, is far worse than the free market, in the sense that I cannot idealize it so much by claiming it has never existed. Democracy has existed, and it has done countless evils. This is because, as I have said before, the State has incentive only to implement those policies which earn reelection, and not those policies which are actually best for its citizens, or the world in general. And citizens, in turn, have every incentive to vote for those politicians that benefit them, personally, rather than voting for those that benefit the whole. Democracy is indeed the worst form of government ever invented, except for all of those other forms of government that have been tried.

All this to say that I don't think letting some societal construct "run its course" is any sort of theoretical solution to the question of how to form a free society.

I don't pretend to have the answers, or really any hint of an answer at this exact moment. Really this post is just a matter of me blurting out something that's been on my mind. I'm sympathetic and even quite enthusiastic about the classical liberal or libertarian philosophy of political economy, but I find its theoretical groundwork a little shaky. I've tried here to critique it on its own terms, using economic explanations for why individual liberties are not consistent with one another. Indeed, I think the stunning theoretical realization I've come to is that the problem of scarcity, which economists are so familiar with, extends even into the moral realm, so I don't think it's possible to formulate any two human rights that are actually mutually consistent in any absolute sense. The simple reason is that if I know I must provide two different protections to people around me, then any time I am forced to choose between them I will necessarily fail.

Well, that's enough rambling for one night. I really should have gone to bed a couple hours ago.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Calvin against the Scholastics

A couple days ago I had another day of reflection on my reading schedule through the Institutes. Unfortunately, that also happened to be the day I was scheduled to fly out to Dresden, Germany for a math conference. Hence, I did not have time to blog about the past couple weeks of reading. I was going to do it yesterday, but I was so jet-lagged and sleep-deprived that I just couldn't bring myself to it. I'm still a little jet-lagged, so bear with me.

The the title of Book 3, Ch. IV really sets the tone for the next segment of the Institutes: "How Far from the Purity of the Gospel Is All That the Sophists in Their Schools Prate About Repentance; Discussion of Confession and Satisfaction." I've come to love the word "prate" after reading a good chunk of Calvin.

This is the first segment in a while, probably since the segment on idolatry, that is specifically anti-Romanist. Here Calvin lays out all the arguments that Protestants to this day use against the Roman Catholic practice of private confession, the doctrine of penance, and indulgences.

Fundamentally Calvin is against the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance because it takes away from the centrality of the cross of Christ. For Calvin, the doctrine of penance meant that something other than the blood of Christ was needed to pay for sins; whereas the true doctrine of the Church was that only the blood of Christ could pay for sins, and only the blood of Christ was necessary.

However, I find it very interesting that what Calvin focuses on near the beginning of this segment is the way the "doctrine of penance torments the conscience" (Sec. 2). In Section 3, he lays it out like this:
But if they say that I accuse them falsely, let them actually bring forward and exhibit anyone who, by a doctrine of contrition of this sort, either is not driven to desperation or has not met God's judgment with pretended rather than true sorrow.

This is reveals a great deal of what drives the Protestant spirit. At first it might seem intuitively obvious that in order to encourage believers to live holy lives, one should require certain spiritual disciplines. But the Protestant points out that requiring these disciplines actually leads people away from true holiness, since it tempts us to believe God is actually satisfied with our works. The Protestant does away with works not because he says salvation is easier than works, but because he says it is much, much harder. The only way to salvation, then, is through union with Christ, who is the only one who can offer up satisfaction for sins.

For Calvin, the practices of confession and penance let the wicked get off too easy, while the truly devout person is crushed under the weight of these practices because he knows they are impossible to truly complete. Of confession he says this in Section 18:
I shall sum up what sort of law this is. First, it is simply impossible; therefore it can only destroy, condemn, and cast into ruin and despair. Then, depriving sinners of a true awareness of their sins, it makes them hypocrites, ignorant of God and of themselves. Indeed, while wholly occupied with the cataloguing of sins, they in the meantime forget that hidden slough of vices, their own secret transgressions and inner filth, the knowledge of which ought particularly to have brought home to them their own misery.

Calvin makes some other technical points, some from the history of the early Church, some from exegesis of biblical passages. One point served as a nice break from the usual seriousness of Calvin's writing. In Section 7 he writes,
But, to say nothing of the time, the barbarism of the words alone discredits the law! These good father enjoin everyone of both sexes once a year to confess all their sins before their own priest. Facetious men humorously take exception that this precept refers only to hermaphrodites, but applies to no one who is either male or female. Then, a grosser absurdity arises in their pupils when they are unable to explain what the expression "their own priests" means.

More seriously, Calvin argues that the early Church did not require confession before a priest, and that the practice was a later institution. He even says that in certain times and places the Church banned the practice. Thus Calvin refutes the idea that tradition can be used to defend the practice.

This seems to be the most common reason for historical evidence set forth by Calvin. He doesn't set out to use early Church practice as a guide for teaching us how we should do things. Instead, he uses historical evidence merely to show that the tradition of the Church contains contradictions, and therefore it is not a reliable source of doctrine. This bolsters his doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

I'm getting a little off track, but I want to make note of this, because it's something I think about a lot. I'm convinced by Calvin that tradition is no reliable source of doctrine, because it contains many contradictions. But then again, I'm not convinced that Sola Scriptura makes sense, because as many contradictions, if not more, arise from reading the Bible as a skeptic of Church tradition. Books like this one (although I've not yet read it) demonstrate how Protestants are questioning more and more our basic assumptions about the Bible and tradition.

Perhaps at some point I'll be able to come to a more settled opinion about this issue. For now, I just want to point out that if Calvin could see how the Church has changed since he lived, he might question the assumptions he made which enabled those kinds of changes within the Western Church.

So much for Chapter IV. Chapter V deals with indulgences and purgatory. Its arguments are very similar to those of Chapter IV, and indeed they are all standard Protestant arguments to this day. It has struck me as I read this book that if these arguments are in any sense original to Calvin, then Protestants of every denomination owe most of their religious thinking to Calvin. In these blog posts I have pointed out all the things that were interesting or unique or puzzling to me; I have probably failed to mention just how standard most of the book feels. We are still using Calvin's thought--often even the exact same words--to defend our Protestant beliefs today, especially as we compare them to Catholic beliefs.

In particular, he has this to say about indulgences (in Section 3):
Let them recognize whether or not these are their judgments: that martyrs by their death have given more to God and deserved more than they needed for themselves, and that they had a great surplus of merits to overflow to others. In order, therefore, that this great good should not be superfluous, they mingle their blood with the blood of Christ; and out of the blood of both, the treasury of the church is fabricated for the forgiveness and satisfaction of sins....

What is this but to leave Christ only a name, to make him another common saintlet who can scarcely be distinguished in the throng? He, he alone, deserved to be preached; he alone set forth; he alone named; he alone looked to when there was a question of obtaining forgiveness of sins, expiation, sanctification.

And this he says of purgatory (in Section 6):
For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Straightforwardness is Calvin's strong point, to be sure. That and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, which he uses to back up these statements and respond to objections thoroughly.

Having refuted these Roman Catholic doctrines, Calvin sets out to describe how Christians should live. Chapter VI is where I'll end this post; it deals primarily with the motivation to live a Christian life. The best way I can think to summarize it is by quoting from Section 3:
Now, let these persons who think that moral philosophy is duly and systematically set forth solely among philosophers find me among the philosophers a more excellent dispensation. They, while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption. Accordingly, unless we give and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only revolt from our Creator with wicked perfidy but we also abjure the Savior himself.

In other words it boils down quite simply to this:
  1. We have been created by God for a special purpose.

  2. We have been saved by God from our own sin.

  3. We have been adopted as God's own children.

  4. We have an example set before us in the Incarnate God.

We really need no more reason than that.

He expounds on these reasons by listing the benefits of righteousness from the Scriptures, and afterward he finishes his attack on the philosophers by saying, "One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man."

And I think I'll stop there. Next time: Calvin describes what the Christian life really consists of.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Great Quote from Adam Smith

The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity in his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the others from employing whom they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed, may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the law-giver lest they should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.

From The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter X, Part II.

The thing that is far too often missed is how much classical liberals--defenders of the free market--cared for the rights of the poor.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Evangelicals exploring new ways to reduce abortions

A USA Today article describes a slight change in the National Association of Evangelicals' stance on abortion: "They've announced a willingness to partner with groups that offer contraceptive services and other programs aimed at reducing the number of abortions."

The article states that "More conservative evangelicals want a ban on legalized abortion and see talk about reducing demand as a dodge."

There are three reasons why I disagree with this conservative view:
  1. It's politically unrealistic. I find it absurd that so many pro-lifers can't find it in themselves to think strategically on this issue. No, not every compromise on this issue is worth it, but some compromises will obviously be necessary. Despite the recent polls showing American opinion becoming more pro-life, we are very far from having enough political capital to significantly change abortion law in this country. We need to make political investments. Part of that is simply working with others, who may not share our principles.

  2. It's uncharitable. Conservative Christians ought to remember that the Christian life is fundamentally about loving God and loving our neighbor. We forget that this often means seeing the good that others do, even when we disagree with them strongly on important issues. In fact, often other groups do better than us Christians on certain moral issues, even if they are dead wrong on others. For instance, I find it shameful that the most outspoken folks on college campuses against sexual assault are almost always led by pro-abortion feminists. Shouldn't Christians be the leaders in speaking out against such horrible things? If we approach the matter with a little more humility, we will see that working with other groups is not only strategic, but it is also good and loving.

  3. Saving lives is the whole point. Working with others to prevent abortions is not a cop out. It's the whole point. We are not fighting for some abstract moral principle; we are fighting for human lives, innocent human lives which are brutally destroyed every day. Working with pro-choice groups for the sake of reducing abortions is not the most dangerous compromise we can make. The most dangerous compromise we can make is to allow more innocent human lives to die for the sake of a "pure" stance. How many more babies have to die before we start doing whatever it takes to end this?

The NAE is taking a step in the right direction, in my opinion. Of course there is no guaranteeing that pro-choice groups will be willing to work with evangelicals, anyway. But taking a willing step forward is the right thing to do.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice

This blog post takes its name from Chapter Two of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, which my Bible study is reading and discussing this summer. Primarily the reason I am writing this post is because I will be out of town and will not get to discuss this remarkable chapter with the guys in my Bible study. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on my latest theological struggles.

What is sound thinking? How do we learn it? Modern thought places emphasis on skepticism--if I can't prove it, I can't accept it. Yet even the most extreme skeptics will admit that we all develop most of our common beliefs based on experience. Not just individual experience, but communal experience. If we cut ourselves off entirely from the community to live with only the knowledge we could come up with by our own skeptical methods, we would hardly get anywhere in life.

Early Christian thinkers developed their deepest thought in and through the communal life of the Church, particularly through its worship. Knowledge of God through Christ was experienced regularly, not just through preserving ideas handed down from the Apostles. On this point I think Wilken contributes something not just historical, but epistemological; that is, he tells us something about how we can know what we know about God.

At the same time that it gives inspiration for all of us Christians, Wilken's chapter challenges us Protestants on three major issues of Christian practice: the sacraments, the tradition of the Church, and the communion of saints. I'll talk a little bit about each of these in turn.


As the title of the chapter suggests, one of the central topics here is the Eucharistic sacrifice. Wilken describes it as a genuine re-presentation of Christ's once-and-for-all sacrifice. He explains that the word anamnesis, usually translated "remembrance," really means "recall by making present." (p. 34) Wilken is not presenting his own theological opinion on the matter; he is presenting the understanding of the early Church, for he quotes the Fathers from the early 2nd century onward.

There is some theological wrestling to be done here with our Protestant reaction to Catholicism on this point. Although we have historically rejected transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, yet many people do not even realize that Calvin and Luther had their own views of the Eucharist that did not constitute mere memorial. They, too, accepted some "mystery" to the sacrament.

In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 we read, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." This is not an often-quoted text in Protestant evangelical circles, but this is straight out of Scripture. Don't think it proves transubstantiation? Fine, I don't either. But don't tell me it says nothing mystical about the Lord's Supper. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body"? Something supernatural is going on, or at least something we can't understand with our rational minds.

Additionally, note the significance this verse has to what it means to be the Church. We are one body because we eat the one bread. Many people argue that they would prefer not to take the Lord's Supper more than, say, once a month, simply because multiple repetition makes it less special. Do people who make such an argument take this text into account? If we understand taking communion together as actually making us one body, then how can we think it wise to take it less often simply because we want to preserve the specialness of it? I can't prove that communion ought to be taken every week, but I do know that many Protestants just seem to be unaware of what all is really at stake in the matter.

Moving onto baptism, I find that here Wilken makes a couple of statements that are rather shocking for their total lack of comment. The first is on page 37: "Baptism was a ritual for adults, not infants..." and the second is on page 40: "Early Christians did not sprinkle or pour, they immersed." Wilken is a Catholic, and as such he must have been pleased to be able to demonstrate the Catholic view of the Eucharist appearing in the early Church. However, on the point of baptism, he seems to have no problem with suggesting that the Catholic Church has clearly veered early Church practice, and moreover he simply has nothing to say about it in this book. That's a testament to his faithfulness to his purpose: he is writing a book about early Christian thought, not about arguing doctrines.

Nevertheless, the uncomfortable thing that all Protestants, both baby baptizers and Baptists, are faced with in this chapter is the core meaning of baptism for early Christians. Wilken is pretty clear that the waters actually meant something. It wasn't simply a sign to let people know that you had converted--though it was certainly that. It was a tangible part of God's grace, which allowed the believer to actually feel the washing of regeneration. Something happened in that baptism, which the early Church would not have rationalized away as "just a symbol." Anyone who came into contact with the waters of baptism came into contact with something transformed by the work of Jesus Christ, filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and thus became something holy (see pages 40-41).

We live in a remarkable time in Western Christianity, in which some Christians want to maintain a religion based mostly on truth (by which they mean nothing more than words) while others want to know God through experience. But the experience they pursue is most often through whatever new innovations they can dream up (such as you can see here). Here is a challenge for us Protestants: why not return to the Sacramental vision of the early Church, and embrace those very ancient and tangible parts of God's grace which help us to experience him?

Church Tradition

If there is one word that American evangelicalism can't stand, it's "tradition." And yet at the same time, there has been a growing number of evangelicals in the past several years showing interest in ancient Christians traditions. Why? I suppose it's because many of us are realizing how ridiculous it is that we spend so much time trying to think of new ways to worship God when the wisdom of hundreds of years of Christianity has preserved many traditions that can lead us in the way we ought to go.

When Wilken is discussing baptism, he mentions that new initiates into the Church had to memorize "the creed." At least as Presbyterians, we have heard of this. In many Presbyterian churches, it is not uncommon to hear the Apostle's Creed recited at every worship service. At our church, we recite it at every baptism. The early Church took the creed seriously enough to make all initiates memorize it.

In describing worship on p. 43, Wilken describes the formation of a lectionary of Scripture readings, and then a liturgical calendar year. This was meant to preserve the Christian story by telling it in its entirety through the year-round worship of the Church. But it wasn't just about the story, the ideas, the words. It was about actually experiencing the presence of Christ. "As Christian thinking was grounded in the events recorded in the Bible, res gestae, the things that had taken place, so it was nourished in worship by the res liturgicae, the things enacted in the liturgy." (p. 44)

Tradition was not for the sole purpose of preserving truths, but also for preserving the experience of Christ in the Church. One thing I so often feel I am missing in my Christian life is a sense of organic connection with Christ. Protestants are constantly stressing personal prayer life, personal devotions, personal Bible study. But what about the rhythms of corporate worship that the Church took time to construct those many centuries ago? Maybe we could give the ancients another look.

Communion of the Saints

One aspect of tradition that troubles most Protestants is the idea of actually being connected with those who have gone before, as well as with the supernatural angels in heaven. I admit I don't know what to make of it, myself. I'm a bit of a rationalist by habit; I don't really know how to embrace this kind of connection.

Yet on pages 45-48, Wilken explains quite emphatically that the Church believed that the Church was called to worship alongside both the angels in heaven and the departed saints. This idea is simply dead in all the Protestant churches, and it probably isn't coming back any time soon. That's one of the things that hit me as I was reading about it. We can wrangle over the meaning of communion, but all Christians have communion. The same is true for baptism, preaching, singing, prayer, and most other Christian practices. But praying with and on behalf of the departed saints, as well as with the angels in heaven, is simply gone from Protestantism, so much that you'd never know it ever existed in Christianity unless you learned about Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy.

Nevertheless I hesitate to make any sort of recommendation on the issue, since I feel I know very little about it.

Seeing Ourselves in the Early Church

Despite all the things that I have to wrestle through while reading about the practices that shaped early Christian thought, I still find I have a lot in common with them. As in the first chapter, Wilken emphasizes the extensive use of Scripture in early Christian thought. He emphasizes the importance of Christian preaching, and the way in which is presents Christ to the believer. And in spite of all of our current doctrinal confusions and disagreements in the modern era, communion and baptism are still very dear to all Christians and constitute a crucial part of our worship.

In terms of intellectual life, Wilken did a good job in this chapter of emphasizing how the practice of worship shaped early Christian thought. But there is also the other side of the coin, which is illustrated by many examples in his writing, namely that early Christian thought did shaped Christian worship. It was not good enough for Christians to simply follow the traditions; the Fathers also explained the traditions so that people could understand. And this is one tradition the Reformation picked up on, and we Reformed have always believed that this is crucial.

As we seek a way forward as Christians struggling with a multitude of complex issues in the 21st century, I'm fairly convinced we ought to pay attention to what shaped the thought of the early Church, which faced a world every bit as complicated and hard to understand as ours is today. I'm not convinced that early Christians were necessarily right about everything, but I do know that their voice is all too easily completely lost. Surely it counts for something that these Christians lived far closer to the time of the Apostles than we do. At the very least, let's look back on the best of early Christian thought and ask ourselves if there's anything we have badly missed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hayek on Intelligibility vs. Rationality

Unlike the Youtube commenters, who focus on whether or not intellectuals really are arrogant/stupid/evil, I think it's interesting to focus on what Hayek says about rationality vs. intelligibility.

Go back to Descartes, he says. In other words, go back to the beginning of modern skepticism: if I can't understand it, I will reject it. If it's unintelligible, it must be irrational.

Hayek's epistemology is different from that. The behavior of the free market may very well be unintelligible, but that doesn't make it irrational. We can see the general principles by which a good outcome is achieved, but it's difficult to see how particular actions in the private sector can possibly contribute to a good outcome.

Hayek therefore argues that intellectuals have a problem of epistemology, not a moral problem. They can't see the good in individual actions in the private sector, and therefore they reject the idea that those actions can contribute to the public good. Unintelligibility equals irrationality.

Just a thought: perhaps this explains something about why the Left has tended to be more secular, while the Right has retained a stronger religious backing. Those who take up modern skepticism tend to reject religion, and by Hayek's argument they will also tend to be skeptical of the free market. Perhaps it is not so much that Christianity has tended to promote free market economics as it is that the secular Left has philosophically alienated both Christians and classical liberals.

E Pluribus Unum

How is it that the many are made one?

Traditionally, the many are made one through a unified purpose, common beliefs, and/or common characteristics. The Church, for example, has sought to achieve unity in truth, uniting around the common goal of right worship and/or right living as well as the common beliefs of biblical orthodoxy.

In common political discussions, it is evident that people desire unity under some common idea or goal. People tend to believe that what the government spends money on is supposed to represent the common goals of our society. If we spend a lot on the military and not enough on education, this means the society cares too much about war and not enough about teaching our children.

If we go to the human brain, as I blogged a few days ago, we see that the human mind is the result of the complex inner working of a neural network. Suppose we examine a single brain cell. Can it understand English? Can it do mathematics? Can it think about God or philosophy? Assuredly no. A single neuron is not capable of human thought. In fact, human thought is only possible when neurons work together as a complex system.

But what are brain cells actually doing? Are they working together toward a common goal which each of them has in mind? Not remotely. A brain cell does not have a mind; it is rather a very minuscule piece of a vast and complicated network that constitutes a mind. Explaining the behavior of the whole brain to an individual brain cell is obviously sheer madness.

As I understand it, the general goal of each brain cell is actually to do nothing more than maximize the amount of energy it receives. No one brain cell is making decisions on a macro level; yet the collective behavior of all these brain cells constitutes, well, you--your personality, your insights, your creativity, your beliefs, and even your will. That is my understanding.

Now suppose we say that all these neurons should work together, unite around a single common purpose. Since each brain cell understands nothing more than how to maximize the energy it receives, this common purpose would have nothing to do with anything other than maximizing the energy that individual cells receive. If brain cells worked together toward this task, you might have an interesting collection of cells--but you would not have a brain. Human thought actually depends on brain cells behaving entirely locally, each of them having no sense of what human thought even is, much less how to achieve it.

So it is, I believe, with society. We are tempted to think that we ought to unite human beings around common goals--such as, in politics, providing health care and education to all, or in religion, determining what is the most sound doctrine. But these are all human goals. Just as human thought is infinitely far above the activity of a single neuron, so the potential output of a human society is infinitely far above human thought.

What exactly that potential output is, I cannot explain, for I can only explain what human thought can absorb. This makes it difficult for us humans to accept as a legitimate goal. Brain cells have the advantage of having very little choice in the matter. They develop in an environment in which proper relationships between cells is already established, and although each cell is really only aware that it is maximizing its own energy efficiency, yet the collective result is the miracle of intelligence.

Therefore it seems to me that one of the dangers to human society is this desire we have to make human decisions collectively. We are like little neurons who decide to run the brain democratically. The result is one big blob that hardly even begins to realize the true potential of the collective.

If we believe in the many being one, we need to ask, one what? Many humans becoming one human? The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is stated as "one God in three persons," not "one person in three persons" or "one God in three Gods." Similarly, the goal of human society should simply be, "many humans, one society." The society does not have goals and purposes as humans have goals and purposes. Its goals and purposes are as far out of the reach of a human being as those of a human being are out of the reach of a single cell.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Scientists Really Think

Someone concerned with university ministry has written a blog post on a new book called Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think. I appreciate the blog post as an attempt to address an issue that goes constantly unattended to by Christians of all sorts. I'm afraid my own views on the matter have grown rather pessimistic, but I hope there's room for change.

You can read their post for an analysis, but here's the raw data they publish, which I think speaks volumes about the world I live in as a graduate student in mathematics:

One comment really rang true for me:
Religious scientists often feel embattled, both in their scientific and religious communities. At work, they might experience subtle discrimination. At church, if they were to express all facets of their identities as scientists, they might face misunderstanding and rejection, especially within religious communities that sometimes question (or outright reject) the theory of evolution.
I can't really say I've experienced discrimination of any sort, but it is easy to feel relatively isolated as a religious person in the academic community. As for my experience at church, this quote hits the nail on the head.

In my opinion the biggest problem with the Church on this issue is stubborn pride. If pastors want to know how to improve their university ministry, start by showing a desire to learn instead of just teach. How about having a scientist--even a nonchristian scientist!--give a lecture on global climate change, or evolution, or some other big issue, at a Christian student fellowship gathering? Try it! See what scientists say. And then see what students say. You might be surprised. You might find students actually talking about things that matter most to them, instead of walking through their Christian life without ever thinking critically about it.

And one more suggestion, though this probably won't go over so well: be willing to accept changes to Christian theology. Personally, I don't think it's possible to take modern science seriously without being led to think new ideas about what the Bible means and what Christianity says about our lives. More fundamentally, the kind of critical thinking that goes hand in hand with science also leads a person to continually rethink theological issues. For instance, the problem of evil is not a scientific problem at all--it is a philosophical and moral issue. Yet scientifically minded people are just as burdened with this issue as with evolution vs creation. As Protestants, especially, I would hope we could learn to respect liberty of conscience enough to allow Christians to think new thoughts about our theology and practice, especially as this liberty is essential to building intellectual life among Christians.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Politics and Sacramental Worldview

One of the blogs I follow, An Orthodox Christian is a Postmodern World, has a post that came out today on the recent oil spill in the gulf coast. It's short, and worth reading. Fascinating what he says about environmentalism in the Orthodox faith:
Environmental concern reflects the Orthodox understanding of the Creation as a Sacrament, a meeting place with God. Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes "grace is implied in the act of creation," and furthermore, that the "the world is created in order that it might be deified" and "creation can have no other end than deification."
I find it essential in these times to interact with Christian tradition that takes this kind of view of creation. In the West we've been far too influenced by the one-sided view of Protestant dualism that claims creation is secondary in God's plan; in fact, in many Protestant traditions, its destiny is simply to be utterly destroyed and replaced with something else. Not only do I find this one-sided, I actually tend to sympathize more with the view that creation has a more fundamental role in God's work of salvation. (See Romans 8:19-21)

This particular Orthodox Christian has tended to side with more socialized economics, as you can read here in his post on socialized medicine. I suspect many Orthodox, as well as Roman Catholics, agree with this approach to economics based on their tradition. What I appreciate about this approach to political life is that it take all things to be spiritual--that is, all things need to be approached using the power of the Spirit through the work of the Church. There is no secular sphere that gets to have its own secular rules.

Where I disagree perhaps most strongly with this approach is in the tradition itself. Both Catholics and Orthodox are more used to a "top down" approach, in which the individual responds to the directives of higher authorities. I concede that in many ways this works, and it's respectable for that fact alone. But on the other hand, this approach tends to institutionalize bad ideas as well as good--and even the good ideas lose their capacity for improvement. Incidentally, this is almost the exact critique I would give of socialist government.

Nevertheless, I think these Christians deserve to be taken seriously on economic and social issues (in fact I am with them 100% on more than one social issue, including abortion). As a Christian who happens to appreciate both Protestantism and the classical liberal tradition, I feel challenged to seek a more deeply spiritual explanation for my beliefs, one that can somehow interact with the more mystical tradition with which the Orthodox approach social issues.

I wonder if it's possible to be a Reformed Protestant libertarian mystic?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Decentralized Learning

As an undergraduate, one of the most thought-provoking classes I ever took was a class on the philosophy of Paul Churchland. His eliminative materialist philosophy challenged my traditional thinking, especially as I come from a Christian background, yet his whole approach to philosophy has captured my imagination and continues to shape my thinking.

What has always stuck with me is Churchland's goal of merging scientific inquiry about the brain with philosophical inquiry about the mind. Modern science has made that possible. Whereas before neuroscience came into its own, philosophers generally engaged in the philosophy of mind merely by, well, thinking.

Perhaps Churchland's most challenging idea about the mind is that it really doesn't "contain" the beliefs and ideas that we talk as if we "have." This is a direct consequence of looking at the mind as equivalent to the brain, and asking, how does the brain work? The brain, as it turns out, is a complex network of cells, each with a set of connections to other cells, with each of those connections adjusting its "weight" over time due to a series of interactions between cells. The upshot is that what we know and believe is really embedded in a set of weights that describe this neural network at a given time.

Think of it as a market. In a market, people freely exchange goods with one another. You can think of people in the market corresponding to cells in the brain, and economic exchanges as the connections between cells. The state of the market is described by all the exchanges that are taking place. The efficiency of the market is directly analogous to the efficiency or health of the brain.

In both pictures, all we can really say is that a complex network is in a certain "state" in a multi-dimensional "state space." We can never tell the whole story by boiling it all down to a collection of thoughts or ideas (in the case of the brain) or a bottom line GDP per capita or some other economic measure (in the case of the market).

How can a complex network that behaves according to an unpredictable series of exchanges be said to "learn" anything? This is where our intuition fails us, but if we challenge ourselves to think a little more abstractly about ourselves, we find some startling insights. Here is what Churchland says about learning and conceptual change in Chapter 11 of A Neurocomputational Perspective:
To cognitive creatures, the world is a highly ambiguous place. not just in the ambiguity it presents to our sensory systems, where the initial coding is typically consistent with a diversity of external circumstances, but more profoundly in the ambiguity it presents to our conceptual systems. Any conceptual framework, no matter how robust or natural its categories may seem to us, is but a single point in a practically infinite space of alternative possible frameworks, each with a comparable a priori claim on our commitment. ...

This talk of a vast space of alternatives is not merely romantic. Each of us has a history of conceptual diversity already. For you were not born with your adult framework. You came to it slowly, through a long period of development. There is indeed a space, through which each of us has a complex journey already completed. ...

Talk of conceptual "space" may seem metaphorical still, but as outlined in the two preceding chapters, recent research has shown us how to make literal and very useful sense of it. If we assume that the human brain is a multilayered network of interconnected units, we can uniquely specify its current position in conceptual space by specifying the individual strengths or weights of its myriad synaptic connections.... That configuration of weights can be directly represented by a specific point in a multidimensional space, a space with a distinct axis for each of the brain's 10^14 dimensions with at least 10 possible positions along each. Its volume is almost unimaginably vast--at least 10^(10^14) functionally distinct positions--as our guiding metaphor suggested.

That number, 10^(10^14), is far too large to fathom. 10^14, by itself, is 1 followed by 14 zeros, as in 100000000000000. So the number we're talking about is 10^100000000000000, or 1 followed by 100000000000000 zeros. I'm not going to type that out for you.

We find ourselves hopelessly incapable of contemplating the vast realm of possible states which our own brain may explore. Yet it is precisely by exploring that incomprehensible space that our brains learn. We develop categories by which to understand the world around us, we develop ideas that help us predict events in our lives, and we develop moral beliefs and attitudes that help us decide what to do next.

This has a very troubling yet delightful consequence: I am not really an "I." Although intuitively I would like to believe that there is a singular force or will driving my mind, such is not the case (if smart men like Churchland are to be believed). What we see instead is that I am the product of a series of unpredictable exchanges in a complex network. There is no central authority in this network; in essence, there is no "I" except what has arisen out of this series of exchanges.

Intuitively, I find this troubling. Surely there is an "I" lurking about somewhere, driving the machine. The image of a reasonable soul driving the body is a long-standing one that will not quickly go away. However, scientific study of the brain has provided me with an opportunity to rethink my understanding of myself in an infinitely more interesting way. I am not singular, but plural.

When I say plural I emphatically do not mean democratic. In no way do the cells of the brain cast ballots and vote on what the brain as a whole will believe. To think this would be missing the point. There is no belief contained somewhere in the brain. Beliefs are mere "cross sections" of a state in a vast state space. When I say I am plural, I mean rather who I am, what I think, and how I approach life is the sum of a series of exchanges that I neither planned from the beginning nor fully understand or control now. It is as if my mind is a marketplace, and I am merely the result that some "invisible hand" has created out of a complicated series of economic exchanges.

But if I am troubled at the thought of thinking of myself in this decentralized way, it does not surprise me in the least if we as a society tremble at the thought of thinking of our economy in a decentralized way. The desire to have centralized planning of our complex economy is probably related to the desire to believe that I have a centralized will that drives the complex network that constitutes my own mind.

To be very concrete, consider the desire for universal health care. In our day, this is commonly called a very "collectivist" goal, with the implication being that we seek the good of the whole rather than of individuals. We put our trust in politicians to carry out our collective desire to give everyone health care, because we believe that the whole society ought to be driven in part by this single purpose. In other words, there has to be some singular will driving the whole thing.

The fact that we come up with this democratically leads us to believe that we are meeting the needs of the whole society. But this is not how the brain works, and neither is it how society works most effectively. In the end, it is not democratic decisions that are most effective, but rather decentralized decisions. The latter are not as readily accepted by society, because we can't see them as directly or concretely define them as easily as the former. Yet a society that grows in a decentralized way harnesses infinitely more learning power than it ever could if driven by some central (albeit democratic) authority. (This idea is not original to me; Friedrich Hayek said much the same thing. Incidentally, Hayek was also trained as a neuroscientist.)

For many people, the thought of a truly decentralized society, in which people enjoy the freedom to make private economic decisions rather than be guided by public opinion, is scary, because it seems like a purposeless society. It has no central goal; how can such a society have a meaningful collective life?

Yet that is precisely the life of the human mind. It is not given some central goal to pursue from birth. It is given an incomprehensibly vast state space to explore as it attempts to interact with the world around it. The result is a human person--not a static, well-defined concept, but a dynamic personality which is never fully predictable.

The same can be said of a free society. While it does not appear to be given some overarching goal, yet it can be truly said to have some collective life. I reject the conservative notion that the individual is more important than the collective. I think the collective is vitally important, but I also believe that the way in which we truly grow as a collective is through individual freedom, allowing our society to grow through complex interaction between its constituent members.

In essence, a free society can be said to "learn" in a way that a socialized society cannot. Socialism depends on central planning, which leaves no room for real learning. The reason today that the average person cannot imagine a computer learning is that most of the computers we use are based on central planning: an engineer designs the machine to work according to a certain set of instructions, and the machine must faithfully carry out those instructions. However, the reality is that many computers out there can and do learn, at least in a primitive sense. This is because we have begun to design parallel processing systems which mimic the complex neural networks found in the brain.

There are many people today who wish that some centralized governing agency would engineer society in a way that we could follow the instructions exactly and achieve a desired outcome. Thus they clamor for more regulations of the market, more government spending, universal health care, and so on.

Then there are those of us who desire a free society, because we understand that real societal learning takes place without central planning. Not all of us may be able to accept the idea of a decentralized self; but at least we are able to accept the idea of a decentralized market, in which human beings acting in their own self interest actually work to the benefit of the collective.

I have not even begun to treat these ideas with sufficient care, but maybe this blog post is a start.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Christianity and Progressive Economics

The only time I ever read anything on the Huffington Post is when I'm looking for something else--this evening it was a video of a baby anteater that never loaded. (Don't ask me how I got started looking at that.)

Anyway, I happened to stumble upon an article by a certain Mike Lux, who gave a classic argument why (evangelical) Christians ought to be politically progressive. (Perhaps "classic" here is just a nice way of saying "cliche.") I have no doubt that progressives are interested in spreading these kinds of arguments these days. From what I understand of the 2008 election, Barack Obama won in part due to support from evangelicals tired of conservatism. Given that evangelicals continue to make up a major portion of the American population, politicians will most likely attempt to sway them if they can.

Now, if Lux wants to argue that Christians should not be conservative, I will not argue against him. The kind of conservatism he bashes in his article is a pretty sad excuse for a political philosophy, not to speak of its biblical merits. However, Lux wants to argue more, that a biblical Christian ought to support progressive economic policies, because that's what Jesus would do. This is what I have to disagree with.

Lux's argument for progressive politics makes two fundamental errors that Leftists make repeatedly. The first is viewing economics as inherently zero sum. The second is that he creates a false dichotomy between favoring the rich and favoring the poor.

Let's look at this first mistake. Right at the beginning of the article Lux says,
When you are in the political world, you have decisions to make every single day about who you will try to help and who you won't.... Who you tax, who you give a tax break to, what programs you cut or add to, who you tighten regulations on, and who you loosen them on, what kind of contractors are eligible for government work, which school districts and non-profit groups get federal money, etc: these political decisions are generally not win-win. Instead, they mean that one group of people win, and one group of people loses. It is the nature of politics, and you can't take the politics out of politics.

Right away Lux would have us view economics as zero sum. This means that if one person is to gain something, someone else must lose. I believe this is the fundamental reasoning behind all leftist economic policies, and I believe this reasoning is utterly false.

The entire basis for a free market economy is that it is positive sum. That is, net value can actually be added to the entire economy. How can this be? We can't create new materials out of nothing; we aren't God. But the thing about value is that it isn't a material substance. Value is about how important something is to people. It's not about how much stuff is actually there; it's about how meaningful it is to human beings.

Walter Williams has a clever way of saying that the market is zero sum. If I spend a dollar on a newspaper at a newsstand, then that newspaper must have been more valuable to me than my dollar, and the dollar must have been more valuable to the newsstand than the newspaper--otherwise, one of us is a fool. In other words, every trade is supposed to add value to the economy, because you shouldn't be forced to trade something for something else you think is less valuable.

Unfortunately, this principle tends to get completely forgotten when we think about economic policy. We think that the only way to make life better for some is to make life worse for others. This is false. In fact, the best way to allow people to make everyone's life better is to create a free market economy.

This means that the government shouldn't be making any decisions about "who you tighten regulations on, and who you loosen them on." Regulations should apply to everyone equally. In fact, the kind of decisions Lux is here describing, as if it is a necessary part of politics, is antithetical to political liberty. The fact that Lux completely misses this suggests that our culture is generally uneducated about the basics of free market economics.

Let me anticipate one remark: I do not say that there should be no government regulations. I am simply saying government regulations should be blind: they should not target any specific groups of people. Far too many people today believe this is an unachievable and even undesirable goal. This is to the detriment of our economy and our political life.

The second mistake that Lux makes is that he creates a false dichotomy between favoring the rich and favoring the poor. He says,
The most fundamental difference between progressives and conservatives is that question of which side you are on. Conservatives believe that the rich and powerful got that way because they deserve to be, that society owes its prosperity to the prosperous, and that government's job when they have to make choices is to side with those businesspeople who are doing well, because all good things trickle down from them. Progressives, on the other hand, believe it is the poor and those who are ill-treated who need the most help from their government, and that prosperity comes from all of us -- the worker as well as the employer, the consumer as well as the seller, the struggling entrepreneur trying to make it as well as the wealthy who already have.
Who could possibly deny that "prosperity comes from all of us"? Or that "those who are ill-treated ... need the most help from their government"? And who honestly believes that "society owes its prosperity to the prosperous"? Indeed, if conservatism and progressivism really are what Lux says they are, it's difficult to imagine how conservatives could win a single election.

The beauty of the free market is precisely that it allows prosperity to come from all of us. When given the freedom to do what we will with our own property, it turns out that we can do some surprising, innovative things. We can come up with solutions to complex problems that a centralized government never could. It's not possible to anticipate what free people will do when allowed to use their resources in the way they choose. Just imagine how shocked our Founding Fathers would be to see the kinds of innovation we've produced in the past century! But that is a testament to the power of freedom to bring out the unexpected greatness of human creativity.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Left provide incentives not to take risks and not to be productive. While I understand the desire to help the poor, I don't think the Left can claim to be more egalitarian than those of us who believe in the free market. If I believe that all people have the potential to provide some service to the economy and that we should give them incentives to do so, am I not siding with "the worker as well as the employer, the consumer as well as the seller, the struggling entrepreneur trying to make it as well as the wealthy who already have"? Indeed, I'd bet that most "struggling entrepreneurs" are more likely to vote for politicians who believe in the free market than those who believe in progressive economics!

A believer in the free market is in no way allied with the rich. Every great thinker who has argued for the free market (from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek) has lamented the way the rich and powerful are favored in society. The free market is actually about protecting the right of individuals not to be coerced by those who are more powerful. That includes, of course, the government itself!

Now let me be frank. This kind of choose-a-side mentality is what I find most absurd about the Left. In fact, I find it downright immoral. The most fundamental principle on which our nation is built is equal justice under law. This means, in no uncertain terms, that we simply must not take sides. The Bible does talk a lot about justice for the poor, but it does also mention this:
You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-4)
I cannot think of a better verse to describe the inherent danger that democracy brings with it: the tyranny of the majority. It is clear that the public, whether out of envy or a misguided sense of justice, is capable of wrongly denying a person of his freedom.

Lux does make one good point:
Conservative Christians' primary argument regarding Jesus and politics is that all he cared about was spiritual matters and an individual's relationship with God. As a result, they say, all those references from Jesus about helping the poor relate only to private charity, not to society as a whole. Their belief is that Jesus, and the New Testament in general, is focused on one thing and one thing only: how do people get into heaven.
I can accept that this is the wrong way to view Jesus. But the certainty with which Lux makes the following statement is all too typical of the Left:
Jesus may not have been primarily concerned with politics, but for what politics he did have, it is virtually impossible to argue that he was anything but a progressive thinker.
The only way you can buy into the statement is if you make the same two errors Lux does, which really amount to a fundamental misunderstanding of free market economics.

Personally, I think it's impossible to derive the "correct" system of economics directly from Scripture. But here's a story about Jesus that inspires my economic thinking:
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They said to him, "We have only five loaves here and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Mt. 14:13-21)
Progressives see this as supporting their own view, but I think it rather reinforces my point of view: God's economy is not zero sum.

I don't believe that God means for us to base our economic policies on fear, but rather on love. The ultimate economic value is the value of the human person. It is human beings, not things, that add value to the economy. It is not a matter of redistributing wealth, but a matter of valuing life and liberty. Life is unpredictable, and liberty embraces that. But these are the greatest gifts of God, and I would be ashamed if I didn't embrace them.

And that's why, as a Christian, I still disagree with "progressive" economics.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Imaginative, Creative Love

The sermon today at Trinity was on the Golden Rule, with a very inspiring interpretation. "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." That word wish has special meaning for us as Christians, according to my pastor. It means that love is about first using the imaginative and creative powers of our minds, to invent new ways in which to love others. This is the end to which we ought to commit our intellectual resources: spreading God's love.

And then as I was reading Orthodox Way of Life I read this beautiful quote from a homily given by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Sunday of the Man Born Blind, May 14, 1972:
Now we live in another time, we live in the time with God truly having become man in our midst, and more than this: He has made us to be living members of His body, an incarnate, concrete presence of His Incarnation, the temples of the Spirit, the place of the Presence. Now any man who is in need should at the same time find in each of us a man stirred to compassion, taught mercy and understanding by God become Man, and at the same time, simultaneously, meeting with us, he should be able to see the love of God in our eyes and to perceive the active, imaginative, creative action of divine charity in our words and in our deeds.

It's amazing how ideas just come together like that sometimes. The more I learn about different theological perspectives, the more I think that, in our time, the most important idea for Christians to develop further is the idea of Incarnation--that is, not simply that God became man in Jesus, but that the Church is also his body, participating in the divine life of Jesus. It's that combination of the supernatural with the organic that makes Christianity uniquely powerful, and supremely important to the world in which we live.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

SimCity Politics -- A Thought Experiment

One of the most curious things to me in politics is how governments so often act against the best interest of the citizens they represent. Whether you look at the outrageous deficit of our federal government, the devastating budget crises of states like California, or the anti-job growth policies of small counties like the one I grew up (at least during my junior high and high school years), it always seems that politics come before the benefit of citizens. Why is that?

A thought occurred to me while playing one of my favorite games of all time, SimCity. In that game, you get to be mayor--which really means dictator. You get to set tax rates, allocate funding for various government services ranging from education to health care, build infrastructure, establish city ordinances, and so on. Moreover, all of your decisions go into effect immediately.

Does all that power go to your head? I imagine some players find pleasure in doing nothing but send disasters upon their poor city. But any player who actually wants to see his city grow has to deal with the fact that absolute control over the city does not in any way mean you have absolute control over the two things that matter: cash flow and population growth.

Why is that? The answer is quite simple. Sims (i.e. simulated people) are totally free to move in and out of your city, depending on how desirable you have made it. If you choose not to fund education, for instance, you will never be able to get high-wealth commerce or industry, and thus you will not be able to attract wealthy residents. If you choose to give industry a tax hike, you will prevent jobs from coming in, thereby decreasing growth and thus diminishing cash flow (even though you meant to increase cash flow). On the other hand, if you're too generous, you will lose money even though you are growing in population. Over-funded schools, hospitals, police stations, etc. are going to suck up funds unnecessarily. It might sound nice to give all these services unlimited funds, but if you're losing money, ultimately you can't sustain city growth. So while you are free to run the city however you'd like, you have to run things carefully if you want to optimize growth and cash flow.

The following might sound like a radical proposal, but let's just consider it a thought experiment. What if we had private-owned cities, like those in SimCity? The owners of a city could make all the decisions about infrastructure, government services, and even laws (as long as they cohered with federal and state law). All decisions made by those owners could go into effect immediately, without the political red tape that typically stalls so many important decisions.

What would be the incentive for people to own private cities? Profit, of course, just like in SimCity. I'm positive that privately owned cities would be able to balance their budgets far more often than most government entities do now--their profits would depend on it. Moreover, private owners would probably be more likely to have policies that encouraged city growth, since growth is a natural way to increase profit. In short, private owners could make a far more efficient use of a city's resources than democratically elected governments.

What would be the incentive for people to live in private cities? Better opportunities for higher standards of living. I understand there is something inherently more attractive to us Americans about living in a city where we elect our own representatives. However, I can name two good practical reasons why this is unnecessary. First of all, by choosing to live in a city, you are effectively casting a vote for that city. Freedom does not require the ability to cast a ballot; it simply requires the ability to influence others based on your behavior. Since private owners of cities would have to respond to public demands in order to maximize profits, they would probably end up behaving more "democratically" than elected officials do currently.

A second and somewhat related reason comes to mind why people shouldn't recoil at the thought of living in a privately owned city. I'll simply ask a question: Can you even name all of your city officials? Come to think of it, I don't even know who the mayor of Charlottesville is. (Okay, maybe I'll go look it up now, just for the sake of civic responsibility.) The fact is, people move around so much in our country that it's easy to completely forget that local government matters.

But what does matter to you when you move to a new city? Not who is running it, but how it's being run--whether there's economic growth, whether there are opportunities for good education and health care, whether it's safe, and so on. If that's what matters in the end, wouldn't you be just as happy living in a city run efficiently by private ownership as living in a city with a democratic government? Wouldn't you possibly be happier? I mean, seriously, aren't local politics the most corrupt, anyway?

So why do I think privately owned cities would be more effectively run than democratic ones? In other words, why do I think that democratically elected governments tend to run cities (and states, and countries) less effectively than they should? I'll give you a theoretical answer.

Politics is a competition for a fixed number of positions, and competing for one of those positions is a "winner-take-all" game. Politicians, like businessmen, seek to maximize profit. However, unlike businessmen, the "currency" that democratically elected politicians compete for is votes. All it takes for a politician to secure his position is secure a plurality of votes, and there is a fixed quantity of votes (unless you're cheating). This is inefficient, because it leads to politicians doing just enough to secure votes, and not enough to run government as effectively as possible.

To make matters worse, politicians are capable of getting away with policies that are downright detrimental to the lives of their citizens. Even their own supporters might be hurt by their policies; but because human emotions and lofty rhetoric can cloud our better judgment, we often vote for people not on the basis of politicians providing a superior product, but on political loyalty. It gets even more complicated than that, since sometimes when we think something is in our best interest, it really isn't because of unintended consequences. For instance, some people might be inclined to vote politicians who will increase social welfare programs, not realizing that those programs may inhibit economic growth, thus contributing a negative net gain even for the poor.

Privately owned cities wouldn't have to deal directly with politics per se. Rather, the only votes they would be dealing with are the choices people make about where to live, and how much they're willing to pay in taxes in order to reap the benefits of better opportunities. Because the city's goal would be to maximize profit, they would find ways to act most efficiently. Thus they could sidestep political rhetoric about why this or that program is needed. Only those programs that actually brought about a good outcome would be funded.

In order for this idea to work, however, there is need of high mobility. The only way the SimCity model makes any sense is if people can move in and out just as fast as a computer can change numbers in a game. That's obviously not strictly realistic (although I think SimCity isn't too unreasonable in its calculations). However, given how much more mobile we are already becoming, I can conceive of a culture in which this kind of market of privatized cities could actually make sense.

I understand that there is a downside, in that loyalty to a particular place would not make as much sense as it once did. On the other hand, given how effective customer loyalty can be in the free market, why couldn't the same thing hold for cities? Effective mayors would gain a loyal following (just as they probably already do) based entirely on the product they offer. And there's no reason why the private owner of a city couldn't be a nice guy. Power corrupts, but as long as there is competition among those with power, the powerful are reminded that they must serve others in order to retain power. That's the beauty of the free market.

Again, we'll classify this as just a thought experiment, but I don't think it's so far-fetched as to be totally useless. No matter what, we need to continue to think about this question of why governments tend to be ineffective, and how to make them more effective.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Calvin on the Holy Spirit, conversion

For the last couple of weeks I have been starting into Book 3 of the Institutes, which is called "The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow."

I realized immediately upon starting this segment what should have been obvious from the start. The first three books of the Institutes are arranged in a precisely Trinitarian order. The first book, "On the Knowledge of God the Creator," then the second book, "On the Knowledge of God the Redeemer," and now the third book correspond precisely to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creation, redemption, application.

For Calvin, Christians can't be Christians without the Holy Spirit. No part of conversion happens without him. Faith, repentance, and sanctification are all the work of the Spirit. I guess I'm not surprised to read this; modern day Calvinists don't really say it any differently than Calvin did.

Having established the Holy Spirit as primary in the application of grace, Calvin sets out to list the most important parts of that application. Faith for him is first: "faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit." (Ch. I, Sec. 4) Calvin's definition of faith is rigorous. First off, it can't be merely "implicit" faith, as apparently the Roman Catholics taught. That is, one could not simply submit to the Church without attempting to genuinely understand the gospel and then expect to be saved.

He admits, on the other hand, that faith is never perfect in this life. Calvin's concern for the common Christian seems to be showing itself here again. As I mentioned when talking about Calvin on the Ten Commandments, Calvin's concern for making common piety rigorous seems to be this: he didn't think holiness was something that should be limited to a select few very holy people. For him it was a mockery of the gospel to pretend that the common person couldn't pursue holiness in the same way that monks and clergy could. In some ways that means he's asking more of the common person than the Church had done previously. But his motivation seems to be egalitarian, not authoritarian.

Calvin defines a strong connection between Word and faith. Faith is not abstract; it is a deeply held belief in what God's Word actually says. That's not to say it requires total understanding of what God's Word says. Calvin elaborates thus:
When we call faith "knowledge" we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man's mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. (Ch. II, Sec. 14)
Calvin describes faith as "assurance." Thus he says that faith implies certainty. He admits that in this life there will be many obstacles to faith, but ultimately asserts that the regenerate cannot in the end be defeated by doubt. "Unbelief does not hold sway within believers' hearts, but assails them from without. It does not mortally wound them with its weapons, but merely harasses them, or at most so injures them that the wound is curable." (Ch. II Sec. 21) Calvin makes it clear that faith is a matter of the heart. "For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation." (Ch. II Sec. 36)

Finally, Calvin refutes the idea that faith cannot reach the level of assurance that he has described. The main thrust of his argument is that to lack assurance in faith is to question God's goodness. He rejects objections on the basis of humility. That is, some will make the claim that it is too presumptuous to say that God has assured you salvation. For Calvin, this is to question God's goodness. He says that faith ought to find its assurance on the basis of union with Christ, so that even though we don't merit God's grace on our own, yet because we are united with Christ, we can rejoice that God has promised to be gracious.

Following faith, Calvin discusses repentance. Repentance plays a central role in how we receive the grace of Christ, but it derives from faith, and so faith must still be first. After he has dealt with this point, which distinguishes him from his theological opponents, he goes into painstaking detail about what repentance means. It is easy to get bogged down in this segment of Calvin's writing. In fact, I can only hope I got the main gist of it.

Repentance, it seems, consists of three points. Here I'll just quote lines from Ch. III Sec. 6, 7, 8, and 9:
First, when we call it a "turning of life to God," we require a transformation, not noly in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal.


The second point was our statement that repentance proceeds from an earnest fear of God. For, before the mind of the sinner inclines to repentance, it must be aroused by thinking about divine judgment.


In the third place it remains for us to explain our statement that repentance consists of two part: namely, mortification of the flesh and vivification of the spirit.


Both things happen to us by participation in Christ. For if we truly partake in his death, "our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin perishes" [Rom. 6:6 p.], that the corruption of original nature may no longer thrive. If we share in his resurrection, through it we are raised up into newness of life to correspond with the righteousness of God. Therefore, in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam's transgression.
According to Calvin, "Believers experience sanctification, but not sinless perfection in this life" (this is the heading for Ch. III Sections 10-15). He refutes those who say otherwise (such as "Certain Anabaptists" who "conjure up some sort of frenzied excess instead of spiritual regeneration" in Sec. 14). He also makes clear that repentance is primarily a matter of the heart, and that outward ceremony is not good enough (Sec. 16-20).

In Sections 21-25 of Ch. III, Calvin gets into that sticky of issue of the "unpardonable sin" that causes so much fretting among Christians. He says, in no uncertain terms,
I say, therefore, that they sin against the Holy Spirit who, with evil intention, resist God's truth, although by its brightness they are so touched that they cannot claim ignorance. Such resistance alone constitutes this sin (Sec. 22)
i.e. the sin that cannot be pardoned. He reasons that although a person who has committed this sin could in theory return to God, in which case God would graciously forgive, yet he never will, because his heart has been totally hardened (by God himself, apparently).

One of the things that makes Calvin so Calvinist is that he considers repentance itself, like faith (and everything else, really), to be a gift of God, provided entirely by the Holy Spirit. We do not conjure it up out of our own free will. That frustrates just about everyone who isn't already a convinced Calvinist, and it probably should frustrate Calvinists more. But for Calvin, it's a basic principle that he simply applies over and over again. We have nothing in ourselves to bring us closer to God. So we must totally rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to provide everything needed for salvation.

Personally, this is what I love and hate about Calvin. I love it, because it is a totally theocentric way of viewing life. Everything good comes from God. It's a beautiful and powerful way to think about life. Imagine if you acted every day as if everything good you were going to do was literally coming from the power of God in you. Don't you think you would start to look like someone totally other-worldly? From what I know about Calvin's life, this is kind of what Calvin himself looked like.

But then, of course, it's just weird to think of God choosing to bestow these amazing gifts on some but not others. For me it's not an issue of who deserves what. It's a question of what is God thinking. If no one deserves salvation, and he gives it to some, well, what is he thinking? There's a certain degree of embarrassment or shame that comes with being offered a gift that none of your peers receives, when in fact you are no better than your peers. More to the point, it makes a person question the integrity of God, who is dispensing these gifts.

I guess I don't really like Calvinism, but I hate any alternative to it, e.g. Arminianism. You can't solve the problem by factoring in human free will. That just destroys God's grace, in my opinion. If, at the end of the day, you can honestly say that you think the reason God will save you is because you decided to believe in him, I'm not sure whether to call you insanely arrogant or just insane. When I consider how limited my own will is--how susceptible it is to being influenced by everything from complex cultural forces to things as simple as physical discomfort--and then I consider what an enormously monumental choice must be made in order to genuinely seek God, I am simply awestruck that anyone could think of faith and repentance as anything other than gifts.

No, indeed, the only way the change Calvinism for the better would be to simply say that in the end, God will find to a way to transform everyone, so that no matter what evil we have done, we will all be changed by his grace into what we were originally meant to be. Which doesn't sound bad to me, except I know neither Calvin nor most Christian theologians would agree with that. But hey, it's my blog, and I'm allowed to think whatever I want.

More honestly, though, I don't know how else to live my Christian life, other than to at least hope that something like this is true, or in fact pray that it might become true. As far as I know, God's judgment on humankind hasn't come yet, and if I believe God hears prayers, then why shouldn't he hear my prayers to extend that same grace to all which he has extended to sinners like me? No one has ever really explained that to me.

Really I'm just taking a page right out of Calvin and running with it: relying on the limitless character of God's grace. As frustrating as Calvin can be to read at times, I never tire of his passion for this point: that literally everything can be found in God's limitless grace. I find that once you start actually believing in this, it's hard to imagine living under any other basic assumptions.

Next time: Calvin battles the Scholastics.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Christianity and Public Life: Theory vs Practice

I just got through reading an article in First Things by Peter Leithart, whose blog I follow regularly. Leithart seems to be one of those Christian thinkers who fits a trend I've discovered recently, which is to react against modern assumptions about religion and the public square. I think it best to summarize this reaction in his own words:
This is the possibility that Meacham cannot allow himself to contemplate. He can imagine government sponsorship of religion and the religious coercion that frequently has followed, and he recoils. He can imagine religion standing prissily to the side, going to the garden alone, and his heart is strangely warmed. What he cannot imagine is the possibility that Christ might lay demands on Caesar. Yet it’s that third, unthinkable prospect that is inherent to the Christian gospel; it’s that third, unthinkable prospect that marked the political difference between Christianity and paganism.

Thinkers like Leithart get their inspiration from deeply held theological convictions, based on a thorough understanding of Scripture and ancient history. I appreciate much of what they're saying, but I'm afraid I don't think they've been able to bring their ideas effectively into a modern context. Worse, I'm not sure they ever can while still following the same train of thought.

My basic complaint about Leithart's thesis is that he can't explain how it would work. He argues his way into a trap, it seems. Either we really ought to implement the practical applications of his theological points, which seems to me to establish theocracy in America, or we have to back off from those practical applications and stick to saying very abstract things about the relationship between God and public life. If the latter is true, we're no better off than where we started. If the former is true, well, even he would probably admit the pitfalls of theocracy in this world.

Theologians who insist on reminding us that God must have sway over the public sphere have completely failed to illustrate what that looks like. I'm not sure which is more tragic: when theologians stay very vague and abstract and make God look like a vaporous nothing, or when they get very specific, thus reminding us how many different Gods--even Christian Gods--there really are. The sheer amount of disagreement among theologians over what God really demands of us should be enough to make the necessary point, namely that God and society will always have a very tricky relationship.

If one understands the New Testament very well and believes that it is absolutely true, then I can see how one would be inspired to make a whole-hearted effort to say to the world, "Jesus is Lord!" I respect that, and I can only hope that my life is somehow an expression of that reality. And yet both when I read the New Testament and when I simply look at the world around me, I am faced with a rather unfortunate fact: Jesus is not here. The eyes of faith, it is true, can see the Holy Spirit at work in this world; and yet this takes a great deal of faith precisely because of the undeniable fact that Jesus is not with us. We wouldn't be waiting for anything called a Second Coming if he were, in fact, here right now.

Why does this matter? Well, it means that if Jesus is Lord, he is surely not the kind of Lord the world is used to. If, as Leithart says, he makes demands of "Caesar" (i.e. the American government) then he's not making them the way most lords would. If Jesus wanted to be like other lords, he could have made his demands abundantly clear, and backed up those demands with an army of weapons. What does he do instead? He speaks in parables, tells his disciples to put away their swords, and submits to the punishment of crucifixion. And then--here's the best part--just when he has been vindicated through his resurrection, he leaves! This is no ordinary lord, indeed.

Far from considering this any fault of Christ's, I personally view this as the tension that all Christians must embrace in faith. God's style of government has never been what we wanted it to be. God said no idols, but the people constantly wanted something to look at. God alone was to be King in Israel, but the people wanted a king just like everyone else. The people wanted a military ruler to defeat the Romans for them, but God became man in order to die on a cross.

And I think now there are a lot of Christians just repeating the same old mistakes. Dare I call it idolatry, when it's coming from such brilliant and dedicated theologians? I don't know what to call it, other than "wrong." What I mean is, it doesn't work. If our government must be subject to Christ, then what does that mean? Should we demand an increased Welfare State out of concern for the poor, or should we diminish it out of concern for good stewardship and a productive workforce? Should we demand state-run health insurance, or not? Should we enact strict environmental controls, or not? What should be done about immigration? And how about the war in Afghanistan?

None of these questions can be answered by appealing to the authority of Christ, because Christ has not made his voice clearly heard on any of these issues. Does he speak through Scripture? The troubling thing about Scripture is the number of careful and insightful interpretations there are--for they are all mutually inconsistent. Does he speak through the Church? Which one? Who gets to call themselves the Church? Do people who disagree with each other get to be called one Church?

The fact is, no matter what source of authority you choose--papal authority or Sola Scriptura or whatever--none of these authorities actually is the authority of Christ. Christ, in his strange unworldly wisdom, has chosen to exercise his authority by not lording it over us, "as the Gentiles do." Perhaps that is the main clue for how government ought to behave. Indeed, I think the most intolerable thing in the world is for the government to act as if it had instructions from God on how the country ought to live--which is an attitude I associate with the Secular Left as much as the Religious Right.

And as for this whole issue of the "National Day of Prayer" being "unconstitutional," if that's really all Leithart's article was about, then frankly, that's just silly. I don't even know when National Day of Prayer is, and I certainly don't pray more fervently on that day than on any other. It would feel a little idolatrous if I did.

To sum up my main point, theologians will never get any credibility with the general public if they don't grapple with the troubling realities of the real world. As much as all of us Christians define our lives by the words, "Jesus is Lord," it is simply not possible to say those words without a hint of sadness and perhaps uneasiness. Why has it been this long, anyway? When will he return? And what is it exactly that we're supposed to be doing in the meantime? If any Christian thinks he knows the precise answers to these questions, I would kindly recommend he go dunk his head in a bucket of water.

I say this not as someone who wishes to tear down the faith, but as someone who is sensitive to the political and social challenges we face. These challenges are very closely related to our theology. We hurt ourselves by disconnecting our theology from our lives, and we do even worse by reconnecting our lives with our theology only to disconnect our lives from reality. The best we can do is enter into the public arena with patience and restraint. Patience, because God is going to redeem the world in his own power. Restraint, because we are not God. This is perhaps the most important rule of good government.