Saturday, July 31, 2010

Calvin on Election

Today I am reflecting on Book III, Chapters XXI - XXIII in Institutes of the Christian Religion. Let me start by acknowledging one thing at the outset. This segment of Calvin's work really is nearly as intolerable as most people make it out to be. Calvin stubbornly insists on pressing the doctrine, even though he is clearly aware that some of his own allies are more inclined to be more moderate on the topic. The primary theme that sticks out to me in Calvin's whole work is the theme of humility--and humility plays the most prominent role in his doctrine of election--yet a question that occurs to me is, how can one humbly beat others over the head with humility? That seems to be what Calvin is doing here, and it's not fun to read. So let me be honest about my complaints, while I also attempt to glean what is most insightful about these chapters.

First, I should give Calvin some credit at the outset for prepping the reading against two errors.
First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder.


There are others who, wishing to cure this evil, all but require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef. Even though their moderation in this matter is rightly to be praised, because they feel that these mysteries ought to be discussed with great soberness, yet because they descend to too low a level, they make little progress with the human understanding, which does not allow itself to be easily restrained. Therefore, to hold to a proper limit in this regard also, we shall have to turn back to the Word of the Lord, in which we have a sure rule for the understanding. For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress.
It's clear from this passage why Calvin is willing to go ahead and push through the doctrine of predestination, even though he is aware of the first danger that he mentions. I admit that he is probably not guilty of the first danger, in the sense that he is very restrained in his interpretation of God's foreknowledge.

But his fault, I find, is something like this: It is as if a doctor were to tell you your wife had cancer, and then explained to you in clear, scientific terms why this was the case. And should you cry out in tears if there is anything he can do about it, the doctor would respond, "Well, no, of course not! The facts are irrefutable." I don't know if Calvin means to sound this way, but he does.

For illustration, here are some nice, friendly quotes:
"No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death. But our opponents, especially those who make foreknowledge its cause, envelop it in numerous petty objections. We, indeed, place both doctrines in God, but we say that subjecting one to the other is absurd."

"As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation."

"But others, not versed in Scripture, and deserving no approbation, so wickedly assail this sound doctrine that their insolence is intolerable. Because God chooses some, and passes over others according to his own decision, they bring an action against him. But if the fact itself is well known, what will it profit them to quarrel against God? We teach nothing not borne out by experience: that God has always been free to bestow his grace on whom he wills. I shall not inquire in what respect the descendants of Abraham excelled other men, except in that esteem whose cause is not found outside God. Let them answer why they are men rather than oxen or asses. Although it was in God's power to make them dogs, he formed them to his own image. Will they allow brute beasts to argue with God about their condition, as if the distinction were unjust? Surely, it is not fairer for them to possess a privilege that they have obtained without merits than for God variously to dispense his benefits according to the measure of his judgment!"

Delightful, isn't it? The worst part is the way in which Calvin makes his view irrefutable, by insisting that God's will is irrefutable:
"For God's wil is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, must be considered righteousness."

"They will say that God's righteousness is not truly defended thus but that we are attempting a subterfuge such as those who lack a just excuse are wont to have. For what else seems to be said her than that God has a power that cannot be prevented from doing whatever it pleases him to do? But it is far otherwise. For what stronger reason can be adduced than when we are bidden to ponder who God is? For how could he who is the Judge of the earth allow any iniquity [cf. Gen. 18:25]? If the execution of judgment properly belongs to God's nature, then by nature he loves righteousness and abhors unrighteousness. Accordingly, the apostle did not look for loopholes of escape as if he were embarrassed in his argument but showed that the reason of divine righteousness is higher than man's standard can measure, or than man's slender wit can comprehend. That apostle even admits that such depth underlies God's judgments [Rom. 11:33] that all men's minds would be swallowed up if they tried to penetrate it.... Monstrous is the madness of men, who desire thus to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason!"

The effect of these statements is to shield Calvin's view of predestination from any possible objection raised by human intuition. Here we arrive at an age-old puzzle. If God is really God, then in some sense that's the way it should be--God is God, we are not, and our opinions don't measure up to His. But on the other hand, we all have to make a choice--is this voice truly the voice of God? And then how will we decide? Of course, if Christians say "the Bible" and Muslims say "the Koran," then we can all continue to be exactly where we are. But we will not get any closer to answering the question. It is, in my experience, an impossible conundrum, but nevertheless one that cannot be ignored.

All I can say is that Calvin's statements here shield him not only from other religious points of view, but even from other Christian points of view (even from his own allies). To me this smacks of folly. It is true that Calvin uses large pieces of biblical evidence from both the Old and New Testaments to make his point, but he seems a bit too hasty to conclude that he has been faithful to the Scriptures where hundreds of great theologians and millions of faithful believers have failed.

I will grant that Calvin makes some important clarifications. Specifically, he refutes the idea that predestination means what we do doesn't matter.
"For who can hear, they say, that either life or death has been appointed for him by God's eternal and unchangeable decree without thinking immediately that it makes no difference how he conducts himself, since God's predestination can neither be hindered nor advanced by his effort? ... Yet Paul teaches that we have been chosen to this end: that we may lead a holy and blameless life [Eph. 1:4]. If election has as its goal holiness of life, it ought rather to arouse and goad us eagerly to set our mind upon it than to serve as a pretext for doing nothing."

"But they stretch their blasphemies further when they say that he who has been condemned by God, if he endeavors through innocent and upright life to make himself approved of God [cf. II Tim. 2:15], will lose his labor. In this contention they are convicted of utterly shameless falsehood. Whence could such endeavor arise but from election? For whoever are of the number of the reprobate, as they are vessels made for dishonor [cf. Rom. 9:21], so they do not cease by their continual crimes to arouse God's wrath against themselves, and to confirm by clear signs that God's judgment has already been pronounced upon them--no matter how much they vainly resist it."

There will be more to say on Calvin's doctrine of election next time, since there is another chapter I still have to read. However, I were to summarize Calvin's doctrine in a way that is as sympathetic as possible, I would have to say, it comes down to this. Christians ought to pursue salvation, struggle to attain holiness, and live charitably toward all people, desiring first of all their salvation and secondly their every good. Yet all the while Christians ought to acknowledge that it is not by anything in ourselves that we receive salvation, nor is it by any effort of our own that we attain holiness, nor is it by any hope or prayer in ourselves that others are saved. Rather, it is all according to God's will, since He governs all. At base level, then, Calvin's doctrine is about exalting God's will to the highest degree, and about instilling humility in human beings, in the most extreme way possible. In some sense, no Christian can argue with that.

I also agree with Calvin on one crucial point: there really doesn't seem to me to be any difference between God's permission and God's will. As Calvin says, "But why shall we say 'permission' unless it is because God so wills? Still, it is not in itself likely that man brought destruction upon himself through himself, by God's mere permission and without any ordaining. As if God did not establish the condition in which he wills the chief of his creatures to be! I shall not hesitate, then, simply to confess with Augustine that 'the will of God is the necessity of things,' and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass, as those things which he has foreseen will truly come to pass."

Indeed, I've never seen why it makes matters any better to assign a little or a lot of the process of salvation to man's free will. The fact still remains, God could have established conditions in which things would have happened differently. Can any Christian seriously deny that? If God wanted to, He could have made it so that Judas didn't betray Jesus. Is it really possible to deny this? Or is God subject to some higher authority?

One possible solution to all this is a Florenskian approach (which is perhaps the approach that many Eastern Orthodox take). From this point of view, "truth is a self-contradictory judgment." God's sovereign election and human free will, then, would simply exist in tension with one another, inseparably part of the truth, though contradicting one another. That's an attractive option in a lot of ways, because it perhaps holds the mysteries of God in even higher esteem than Calvin's view does: God's truth is so mysterious it cannot even be expressed rationally, as one or the other.

But even this doesn't seem to really deal with the thing that is hardest to deal with: the idea that judgment is eternal, and that inevitably some people will be cast into hell. Why should any Christian be comfortable with this idea? I still have never gotten a good answer.

I don't know what the answer is, but I will point out an important contradiction that I find in Calvin's view. When he was talking about prayer, he said, "If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example. For only that prayer is acceptable to God which is born, if I may so express it, out of such presumption of faith, and is grounded in unshaken assurance of hope." But then when he discusses predestination, he agrees with Augustine when he says, "For as we know not who belongs to the number of the predestined or who does not belong, we ought to be so minded as to wish that all men be saved."

To change but a few words of Calvin in section 12 of Chapter XX, "Now what sort of prayer will this be? 'O Lord, I am in doubt whether thou willest to hear me, but because I am pressed by anxiety, I flee to thee, that, if thou willest, thou mayest save all people.' This is not the way of all the saints we read in Scripture." It really isn't: whether it's Abraham interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses interceding for his own people, the saints of old did not sit back and accept God's judgments without a plea for mercy. Why, then, do Christians hear Christ telling them to pray for their enemies, and yet have absolutely no faith that God will hear those prayers?

Call me a heretic, but the only option that makes sense to me is some sort of universalism. The objection is always that there are examples in Scripture of people who are already under condemnation. As if God could not reach down into the depths of hell and save those who are already under judgment! Does this defy the words of Christ? I don't think so--no more than his own words defy the words of the Old Testament. As they say, it's all in how you interpret things. I would probably be better off leaving my heretical opinions to myself, but then this blog wouldn't be what it is.

In any case, Calvin's view actually gives me more motivation to pray for all people. If it is God who ultimately saves, then it is to God that I must go to make my case. Human minds cannot be changed by human power, if the Scriptures are to be believed. Should I not pray, then, that all people will be transformed? And when I pray, should I not pray believing that I have already received it, so that it may be granted [cf. Mark 11:24]? So much, then, for the problem of predestination.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Abortion and the Soul -- Or, why Descartes has made us pro-choice

There are many times when I wonder: Does Christian thought, which has shaped the way our culture thinks, help or hurt the pro-life movement? Most conservative Christians would be absolutely baffled by this question. Religious thought, it is presumed, should naturally lead toward a respect for life and human dignity, and therefore an opposition to abortion.

But the arguments I've encountered in defense of abortion suggest that we face a great difficulty in convincing people that the fetus is a person, precisely because they are borrowing the religious concept of a "soul" in order to draw a distinction between "person" and "human." Thus, while any educated person has to acknowledge that a fetus is biologically human, they can deny that the fetus is a person. They do this, I believe, precisely because Christianity has taught them to think that way.

Not all Christianity, of course. But at least the basic framework that identifies a person as a soul, quite independent of a body, is very common in modern, Western, Christian thought. We should do a survey asking pastors what it means to be made "in the image of God." I will bet you $20 that nine times out of ten they say something about consciousness, or the will, or, most pertinently, the soul. This is the way we identify ourselves as people. This is what, it is supposed, sets humans apart from animals and from other creatures.

Where does that leave us in the abortion debate? Well, if one is determined to stick to Catholic dogma or something like that, then one could insist that a fetus gets a soul at conception. And from perusing blogs on the Internet, one can see very quickly that many people either make or complain about this very argument. If and when this argument is made, the pro-choice side simply shouts, "Separation between Church and State!" and the argument is lost. And personally, I think this is very fair. It is highly presumptuous for Christians to claim to know when the soul enters the body, and that we should base common laws on this claim, when a good portion of our country may not be sure souls exist.

The most common intellectual defense of abortion is that a fetus is not a person, because it has none of the faculties of a person--i.e. consciousness: thoughts, feelings, self-awareness. It is natural for us in the Western intellectual tradition to buy this. What did Descartes say? "I think, therefore I am." Apparently he was not quite convinced he existed until he had time to sit in his cabin in solitude and think. He found his identity in the very experience of contemplation. Other things he could not be so sure about, but the interior life of the mind convinced him that something was real.

We've come a long way since Descartes, but somehow we still tend to define ourselves in the same way he did. The interior life of the mind seems to be the defining thing. In the era of neuroscience and Darwinian evolutionary theory, we have become just sophisticated enough in our understanding of the brain to conclude that consciousness, contrary to Descartes, comes from something physical. It's all in the brain, you see. But this shift to materialism hasn't fundamentally altered the way we view ourselves. We still think, right along with Descartes, "I think, therefore I am," that is, my identity is found in my interior mental life.

That's why it has become so easy in our culture to say that if there's nothing going on "up there," then you're not really a person. People in vegetative states are not people, fetuses are not people--pretty much anyone whose brains don't have the same functions that ours do, aren't really people. You think, therefore you are; and if you don't think, then you aren't.

To me, this is strange. Why should thinking be the primary thing that gives me identity? Indeed, for many cultures in many different times and places, probably the single most important factor in determining your identity has been ancestry. Where did you come from? Whose son or daughter are you? The key identifying factor was not internal, but external.

I would say the most important clue that a fetus is a person is not whether or not she has a brain but rather, "Where did she come from?" If that is indeed the right question, then the answer is clear. She is a human, descended from humans. She doesn't need to earn the title "person." She is a person by inheritance. Perhaps as we lose our sense of inherited identity, we also lose our sense of the dignity of human life. To which all I can say is that hyper-individualism is not conducive to a thriving society.

Why should we pro-lifers have to prove that a fetus is a person according to a sense that is not only unnatural but also quite slippery? For if my personhood is wrapped up in my ability to think, can my personhood increase or decrease as I think more or less clearly? When I go to sleep at night, am I still a person? If I am knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head, am I still a person? If I black out while drinking too much, am I still a person? Trying to work out scientifically when the brain is "conscious" or not is as futile as trying to work out metaphysically when the "soul" has entered or left the body.

No, there is no way to prove that an unborn child has a soul, and of course it is simply a fact that a zygote does not have a brain. My only contention is that this is irrelevant. The key point is that an unborn human belongs to the human family. This may not be enough to satisfy Cartesian skepticism, but I think it's absurd that I should have to.

The irony is that modern people uncritically accept both Descartes' assumption that identity is found in the interior life of the mind, and the materialist view of the mind that defeats that assumption--for Descartes, the true life of the soul was strictly non-physical. Our modern view of what it means to be human is, it appears to me, the bastard child of two contradictory ideas.

But there is a far better way to identify ourselves. It lies not in identifying any particular feature of our existence to find commonality. Rather, it lies in discovering our relation to one another. It lies in discovering that we are all of one family. Humanity doesn't come from something abstract that you conjure up as you sit in contemplation; it comes from the concrete fact that you are descended from other humans.

Someone will say to me, "But Jameson, if it is all about ancestry, then shouldn't we really respect all life? If Darwin was right, then doesn't that mean we're all related?" Well, no doubt. I think we should respect all life. And if you think that means you should be a vegetarian, that's great. I would rather us all stop eating meat than keep killing our own children.

For many people, this abortion debate gets so stale because no one ever brings any new arguments to the table. A big part of this is that we reinforce each other's presuppositions. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike tend to presuppose that there is something abstract which characterizes us as human. Pro-life Christians choose the abstract religious concept of soul, while pro-choicers choose the equally abstract but more secular notion of consciousness. I think it's time we get to the root of this presupposition, pull it up, and toss it aside.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Freedom and Dependence

As a pro-lifer, I probably should have read Real Choices by Frederica Mathewes-Green years ago, but now that I'm about four chapters in, I can say two things about it. One: this book is well worth the read. Two: it is the only book that ever made me put the book down and cry. There is simply no way to read about the kind of intense experiences these women have actually had and not be moved to tears.

However, stories are not all that Mathewes-Green has to offer. I am rather interested as well in what she has to say about social and political issues surrounding abortion. For instance, I find her comments on "Sex and Pregnancy Prevention" compelling:
While the liberal side of this dialogue promotes contraception, conservatives have a different plan for preventing unplanned pregnancies, but it doesn't center on contraception. Instead, it is concerned with responding more accurately to women's trust-based sexuality. Taking into account a woman's need for emotional security, plus the indications that child-rearing requires two parents, strategists have cooked up a notion to cover all bases. They call it "marriage." ...

In fact, the nuclear family is not a wacky new untested idea, prone to damage participants virtually every time. There are many centuries of evidence showing how the concept works in practice: pretty well, usually resulting in the survival and success of a new generation, humankind's first responsibility. Bonuses of companionship, romantic love, pleasure, and joy often appear as well.

In comparison, an ethic of sexual freedom, where on in four pregnancies ends in abortion and the number of children in single-parent homes keeps rising, fails this goal like clockwork. Indicators for sexually transmitted disease, divorce, abandonment, impoverishment of women and children, unwed motherhood, and abortion are at record levels; the heartbreak index is at an all-time high. Despite all this pursuing of happiness, Americans appear to be, by every reasonable standard, markedly more unhappy. The flip side of freedom is loneliness. [from Chapter 3; emphasis added]
This conservative critique of pure freedom is nothing new, but it's worth restating. The fundamental problem with the modern view of freedom is that it is based on the autonomous self. There are two good reasons why autonomy cannot be the true basis for human freedom.

The first reason is that it would not be wise to base our freedom on something mythical. Autonomy does not exist, certainly not in any pure sense. Every child is dependent on his mother, and eventually on every adult who is given the task of taking part in her upbringing. But mutual dependence does not end in adulthood. To see why this is the case, I need go no further than Adam Smith, of all people! From Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter I:
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation.
What follows is a rather extensive illustration of all the different people involved in providing an ordinary person with all the various things in his home. Mutual dependence is not only a fact of life, it is the source of great prosperity, as Smith himself was very concerned to show. Moreover, it is evident that not only our material goods, but our values, concerns, and beliefs are shaped by those around us. We could not even have our own opinions were it not for the people on whom we depend.

This leads to the second reason why autonomy cannot be the basis for human freedom: it isn't desirable. No one truly wishes to live a perfectly autonomous life. Even a man who goes out into the wilderness to manage for himself, so that he depends on no one, will simply find himself depending on other things--plants and animals, and whatever he can find to give him satisfaction in life. Autonomy is not what we're looking for. We're meant to be connected, to each other and to the world around us.

What, then, is freedom based on, if not autonomy? I would propose that freedom is based on the dignity of human life, first of all. It is wrong to steal from a person, not because it violates his autonomy, because it violates the common trust that ought to exist among all human beings. A person does not acquire her wealth by creating it all herself, but rather through a series of exchanges. In every exchange, both parties ought to feel that they have gained something; otherwise, someone is getting robbed. This is the mutual trust that ought to exist among all people, because of our dignity as humans.

In fact, it should be evident that murder is a crime not because it violates someone's personal autonomy, but because it is an affront to human dignity. I can see how it is easy to get confused on this matter, but consider: when a person is dead, there no longer remains any person to speak of, whose personal autonomy has been violated. If I kill a man, I do not take anything from him; I take him. Which begs the question, from whom did I take him? Evidently, from those who loved him, but also from every other human being.

This is critical in all aspects of our society, but especially in the abortion debate. It is precisely because our relationships are failing that this mythical idea of autonomy has come in to fill the void where we wish there could be real freedom. Convince people that freedom lies primarily in the ability to make choices independently of anyone else, and pretty soon you start seeing transactions that are increasingly meaningless, disconnected from any sense of mutual benefit. Obligation is not antithetical to freedom. In fact, freedom naturally begets mutual obligation, which in turns produces prosperity and human flourishing.

To me this is where the abortion business epitomizes the worst of modern American capitalism. It capitalizes on the fragility of our relationships, especially between men and women, but also between parents and their daughters, and between women and the communities in which they live. It fills the void left by these broken relationships with a still more hollow freedom, finally destroying that most sacred relationship between women and their unborn children. Here we see human dignity totally replaced with human autonomy as the basis for freedom: we'll even kill our own children for the sake of personal choice.

It is no wonder that Mathewes-Green would want to talk about marriage in a book about women's experience with abortion. The only way to defend the dignity of human life is by restoring that basic human trust that ought to exist among all of us. Clearly that trust has never been perfectly fulfilled among us; that is why we are constantly trying to develop more perfect systems of justice. But perhaps Mathewes-Green is right in suggesting politics is not the answer:
But these are not matters for public policy. We cannot pass laws to induce people to behave responsibly and honor their commitments. Such self-sacrificial changes come only when people have determined that the course that promised pleasure is instead bringing pain. Changing behavior comes from changing minds, which can be a sometimes easy, sometimes impossible task.
James Hunter might have a word or two on that last sentence, but that can wait for another time.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Government Literally Wastes Billions of Dollars

Check it out:
Obama to Sign Law Limiting $110 Billion in Erroneous Government Payments

President Barack Obama will sign legislation today to limit erroneous payments by the government and announce a new goal of reducing improper payments by $50 billion before 2012, a White House official said.

The Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act will help limit improper payments to individuals, organizations and contractors, according to the administration official. The White House said that in 2009 a record of almost $110 billion was paid by the government to the wrong person, in the wrong amount or for the wrong reasons.
So does anyone honestly still wonder why some of us have problems with the government spending so much in order to try to "boost" the economy?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Calvin on Prayer

My reading schedule for the Institutes of the Christian Religion had me hold out and read all of Book III, Chapter XX, before having a day of reflection. This somewhat lengthy chapter is entirely devoted to prayer, and it is one of the shining moments, I've found, in Calvin's massive work. It will not be easy to summarize, so I'll just have to ramble along and let the text come back to me by way of written reflection.

Prayer is central for Calvin. As he states at the beginning of Section 2, "It is, therefore, by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father." And a little later, "Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable."

Section 3 is devoted to giving six reasons for prayer. In particular he answers this objection: "But someone will say, does God not know, even without being reminded, both in what respect we are troubled and what is expedient for us, so that it may seem in a sense superfluous that he should be stirred up by our prayers--as if he were drowsily blinking or even sleeping until he is aroused by our voice?" His answer to this objection is clear enough: "But they who thus reason do not observe to what end the Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours."

His six reasons for prayer may be summarized as follows:
  1. That we increase in our zeal for God.
  2. That we learn to be open and honest before God.
  3. That we prepare ourselves to gratefully receive blessings from God.
  4. To meditate on God's goodness after he has answered prayer.
  5. To enjoy those things which God has given in answer to prayer.
  6. To gain confidence in God's providence.

It's striking to me how God's sovereignty works itself out in Calvin's theology. Just as Calvin said way back in the first book, belief in God's sovereignty is no mere fatalism. It would turn into fatalism if God were distant. But for Calvin, God is always quite present, and his work is always intimately connected with the Christian life. God's sovereignty would make prayer superfluous if God didn't care about us. But for Calvin, God's sovereignty is precisely the reason why we pray, because God cares about us deeply. His sovereignty is all for our good.

In Sections 4-16, Calvin discusses the rules of right prayer. In sections 4-5 he comes out against irreverent prayer. Two statements demonstrate the seriousness he thinks we need to bring into prayer: "First, whoever engages in prayer should apply to it his faculties and efforts, and not, as commonly happens, be distracted by wandering thoughts.... We have noted another point: not to ask any more than God allows." This second point becomes even stronger later in the chapter, where Calvin says that all prayer should be modeled after the Lord's prayer. More on that later.

Although Calvin demands a certain effort be applied to prayer, true to himself he insists we can't do it on our own. "Therefore," he says, "in order to minister to this weakness, God gives us the Spirit as our teacher in prayer, to tell us what is right and temper our emotions." From my reading of Calvin, I'm not surprised at all that he has been called the theologian of the Holy Spirit.

In Sections 6-7, he proposes another rule: "that in our petitions we ever sense our own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest--nay, burning--desire to attain it." In other words, prayer is not just a duty to be performed, but something to be done out of a sincerely felt need for God's help.

In Sections 8-10, he proposes a third rule: "that anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, abandon all thought of his own glory, cast off all notion of his own worth, in fine, put away all self-assurance--lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit, we should become vainly puffed up, and perish at his presence." Again, Calvin insists on a great deal of reverence in prayer. Also, this emphasis on humility is just so Calvin. It shows up literally everywhere in the Institutes.

In Sections 11-14, Calvin expounds on the fourth rule, which is "that, thus cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered." There are a lot of details to be ironed out in this section, and I admit it's one of the more difficult passages for me to get through. I think most of us Christians struggle with this. What about unanswered prayer? Can we really believe in prayer, when evidence seems to suggest it makes no difference? It's fine for theologians to talk about it in this wonderfully pious way, but in the real world it just doesn't seem to work that way.

But I'm afraid Calvin has nothing but rebuke for doubting Thomases like me. He has this wonderfully frank statement in Section 12:
Now what sort of prayer will this be? "O Lord, I am in doubt whether thou willest to hear me, but because I am pressed by anxiety, I flee to thee, that, if I am worthy, thou mayest help me." This is not the way of all the saints whose prayers we read in Scripture. And the Holy Spirit did not so instruct us through the apostle, who enjoins us to "draw near to the heavenly throne...with confidence, that we may receive...grace" [Heb. 4:16 p.]; and when he teaches elsewhere that we have boldness and access in confidence through faith in Christ [Eph. 3:12]. If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example. For only that prayer is acceptable to God which is born, if I may so express it, out of such presumption of faith, and is grounded in unshaken assurance of hope.
This statement is characteristic of the kind of passion with which Calvin approached his faith. He may be overstating his case here, but he states it so beautifully that it's hard not to be awestruck by it.

Sections 15-16 are also quite interesting, in that they deal with God's answers to prayers either from nonbelievers or from believers who do not pray rightly. But I think I'll pass over this.

Sections 17-27 deal with a matter of central importance for Protestant doctrine--the intercession of Christ alone as our mediator. He rejects praying to or for departed saints. I find his arguments rather compelling, but I don't wish to state them here. Doctrine is only one part of this rich and beautiful chapter.

Sections 28-30 are about public and private prayer. I won't go into this very much, but I found this quote about church buildings rather fascinating:
Now as god by his word ordains common prayers for believers, so also ought there to be public temples wherein these may be performed, in which those who spurn fellowship with God's peopel in prayer have no occasion to give teh false sxcuse that they enter their bedroom to obey the Lord's command. For he, who promises that he will do wahtever two or three gathered together in his name may ask [Matt. 18:19-20], testifies that he does not despise prayers publicly made, provie ostentation and chasing after paltry human glory are banished, and there is present a sincere and true affection that dwells in the secret place of the heart.

If this is the law lawful use of church buildings, as it certainly is, we in turn must guard against either taking them to be God's proper dwelling places, whence he may more nearly incline his ear to us--as they began to be regarded some centuries ago--or feigning for them some secret holiness or other, which would render prayer more sacred before God. For since we ourselves are God's true temples, if we would call upon God in his holy temple, we must prayer within ourselves.
I'm not sure if I agree with Calvin entirely on this one. His view of church buildings seems rather utilitarian, and doesn't fully appreciate how beauty can communicate the creative nature of God and, more importantly, the beauty of the Incarnation. But I won't dwell on that point very deeply. What Calvin says here is surely quite important for the development of modern Protestant thought on that subject.

Sections 31-33 deal with the questions of whether prayer should be sung, and in what language prayer should be spoken. His answers are: yes, there should be singing in church, but it should not be a matter of entertainment or show; and all prayers should be spoken in the language of the people, so that everyone can understand what is going on.

Basically the rest of this chapter on prayer is devoted to the Lord's prayer. Calvin says, "Now we must learn not only a more certain way of praying but also the form itself: namely, that which the Heavenly Father has taught us through his beloved Son." He elaborates with this rather remarkable passage:
Plato, on seeing men's want of skill in making requests to God, which if granted, would often have been disadvantageous to them, declares this, taken from an ancient poet, to be the best prayer: "King Jupiter, bestow the best things upon us whether we wish for them or not, but command that evil things be far from us even when we request them." And, indeed, the heathen man is wise in that he judges how dangerous it is to seek from the Lord what our greed dictates; at the same time he discloses our unhappiness, in that we cannot even open our mouths before God without danger unless the Spirit instructs us in the right pattern for prayer [Rom. 8:26]. This privilege deserves to be more highly esteemed among us, since the only-begotten Son of God supplies words to our lips that free our minds from all wavering.
Thus the Lord's prayer gives us a model of true prayer, so that we do not pray for what we ought not to pray, and we do pray for what we ought to pray.

For me, the most beautiful passage of this whole beautiful chapter is Sections 36-40. Calvin spends four sections meditating solely on the words "Our Father," and a fifth section meditating on "Our Father, who art in heaven." The first meditation consists in this: in calling God "Our Father," we show that we are praying in the name of Christ:
With what confidence would anyone address God as "Father"? Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honor of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ? He, while he is the true Son, has of himself been given us as a brother that what he has of his own by nature may become ours by benefit of adoption if we embrace this great blessing with sure faith.
Surely no one could fail to see Calvin's passionate love for God after reading these words:
By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father. Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" [I John 3:1].

The second meditation on "Our Father" is that we must not be afraid of going before God on account of our sins. Feeling unworthy is not a reason to shy away from prayer:
For if among men, a son can have no better advocate to plead his cause before his father, can have no better intermediary to conciliate and recover his lost favor, than if he himself, suppliant and humble, acknowledging his guilt, implores his father's mercy--for then his father's heart cannot pretend to be moved by such entreaties--what will he do who is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort [cf. II Cor. 1:3]? Will he not rather heed the tears and groans of his children entreating for themselves, since he particularly invites and exhorts us to this, than any pleas of others, to whose help they in terror have recourse, not without some signs of despair, since they are distrustful of their Father's compassion and kindness? ..Therefore, whenever any hesitation shall hinder us, let us remember to ask him to correct our fearfulness, and to set before us that Spirit that he may guide us to pray boldly.
Here Calvin is implicitly being critical of the Roman Catholic tradition of praying to saints to intercede for them, but I can't help but admit his view seems not only more biblical, but also more beautiful. For if God really is perfectly gracious, and even calls us his children, why would we not go to Him first, and not to any intercessors? A child who goes to someone else to talk to his father for him truly has a broken relationship with his father. It would seem, then, that asking for others to seek God's forgiveness on our behalf, is not a sign of piety, but rather a sign that Christ's teaching has not been understood.

The third meditation on "Our Father" is on the word "Our," as opposed to "My." "From this fact," i.e. the fact that we say "Our Father" and not "My Father," Calvin says, "we are warned how great a feeling of brotherly love ought to be among us, since by the same right of mercy and free liberality we are equally children of such a father." He goes on,
Let the Christian man, then, conform his prayers to this rule in order that they may be in common and embrace all who are his brothers in Christ, not only those whom he at present sees and recognizes as such but all men who dwell on earth. For what God has determined concerning them is beyond our knowing except that it is no less godly than humane to wish and hope the best for them.
It is evident from this words that every image ever painted of Calvin as cold-hearted or unfeeling, on account of some misunderstanding of his doctrine of predestination or God's sovereignty, is totally false. Calvin's heart was for all people on earth, as I have noted earlier.

The fourth meditation on "Our Father" is a counterpoint to the third. Calvin notes that we are indeed to pray for ourselves individually, even though we are also praying for God's people as a whole. He uses the example of almsgiving as a comparison. We give alms to those who are around us, not to everyone in the entire world who needs help. However, this is not because we don't care about everyone in the world--we do--but we must act in our own station in life. Yet, Calvin notes, prayer and almsgiving are not entirely the same, since prayer can in fact be directed toward all people generally, as well as certain people particularly.

Then in Section 40 Calvin meditates on the words "in heaven." This meditation is so remarkable I'll just have to let Calvin speak for himself:
From this we are not immediately to reason that he is bound, shut up, and surrounded, by the circumference of heaven, as by a barred enclosure. For Solomon confesses that the heaven of heavens cannot contain him [I Kings 8:27]. And he himself says through the prophet that heaven is his seat, and the earth, his footstool [Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:49; cf. ch. 17:24]. By this he obviously means that he is not confined to any particular region but is diffused through all things. But our minds, so crass are they, could not have conceived his unspeakable glory otherwise. Consequently, it has been signified to us by "heaven," for we can behold nothing more sublime or majestic than this. While, therefore, wherever our senses comprehend anything they commonly attach it to that place, God is set beyond all place, so that when we would seek him we must rise above all perception of body and soul. Secondly, by this expression he is lifted above all chance of either corruption or change. Finally, it signifies that he embraces and holds together the entire universe and controls it by his might. Therefore it is as if he had been said to be of infinite greatness or loftiness, of incomprehensible essence, of boundless might, and of everlasting immortality. But while we hear this, our thought must be raised higher when God is spoken of, lest we dream up anything earthly or physical about him, lest we measure him by our small measure, or conform his will to our emotions. At the same time our confidence in him must be aroused, since we understand that heaven and earth are ruled by his providence and power.

Sections 41-47 are on the six petitions of the Lord's Prayer, and the conclusion ("For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen"). I don't think I'll summarize these sections, for the simple reason that the summary of each section couldn't be better stated than in the words of Jesus himself. But one point is worth noting: for Calvin, the entire prayer is about "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." The first three petitions seem to be more about this than the last three, but Calvin insists that even when we shift to praying for our needs, we are still praying for God's glory. Always for Calvin our needs are bound up in God's sovereign will.

And another point is worth mentioning, as well. Calvin believes in praying for our literal, physical needs, not just for abstract spiritual benefits. Commenting on "Give us this day our daily bread," he says,
What certain writers say in philosophizing about "supersubstantial bread" [Matt. 6:11, Vg.] seems to me to agree very little with Christ's meaning; indeed, if we did not even in this fleeting life accord to God the office of nourisher, this would be an imperfect prayer [Matt. 6:11]. The reason they give is too profane: that it is not fitting that children of God, who ought to be spiritual, not only give their attention to earthly cares but also involve God in these with themselves. As if his blessing and fatherly favor are not shown even in food, or it were written to no purpose that "godliness holds promise not only for the life to come but also for the present life" [I Tim. 4:8 p.]!
Thus Calvin understood our daily life on earth to be substantial enough to be worth praying for. This certainly strikes me as much better than the sharp dualism apparently represented by other theologians.

Sections 48-49 reiterate the point made earlier that the Lord's prayer is a binding rule on all of our prayers--it gives us the basic content which we can adapt to particular times and circumstances. We don't need to stick to the same words, but simply be guided by them to form our own prayers.

Finally, Sections 50-52 close out this chapter with a word on patient endurance in prayer. Calvin prescribes preset times for prayer, though he insists that "this must not be any superstitious observance of hours, whereby, as if paying our debt to God, we imagine ourselves paid up for the remaining hours. Rather, it must be a tutelage for our weakness, which should be thus exercised and repeatedly stimulated."

I have to say, I'm impressed by all the various times Calvin prescribes prayer: "when we arise in the morning, before we begin daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God's blessing we have eaten, when we are getting ready to retire." I know many families who always pray before a meal, but I've actually not met one that prays after a meal.

Sections 51-52 particularly address waiting on God's provision, with the latter section dealing with seemingly unanswered prayers. Here is, perhaps, where the rubber really meets the road, and a choice between faith and disbelief occurs. Here Calvin says,
But if finally even after long waiting our senses cannot learn the benefit received from prayer, or perceive any fruit from it, still our faith will make us sure of what cannot be perceived by sense, that we have obtained what was expedient. ... Besides, even if God grants our prayer, he does not always respond to the exact form of our request but, seeming to hold us in suspense, he yet, in a marvelous manner, shows us our prayers have not been vain. ... For the Lord proves his people by no light trials, and does not softly exercise them, but often drives them to extremity, and allows them, so driven, to lie a long time in the mire before he gives them any taste of his sweetness. And, as Hannah says, "He kills and brings to life; he brings down to hell and brings back" [I Sam. 2:6 p.] What could they do here but be discouraged and rush into despair if they were not, when afflicted, desolate, and already half dead, revived by the thought that God has regard for them and will bring an end to their present misfortunes? Nevertheless, however they stand upon the assurance of that hope, they do not meanwhile cease to pray, for unless there be in prayer a constancy to persevere, we pray in vain.
To put it mildly, Calvin was a pretty intense guy. It is hard to imagine a more devout affirmation of prayer than the one given in this chapter. Calvin's prayer is also distinctly Trinitarian: we pray to God the Father, in the name of Jesus the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. This formula, commonly heard in worship, is firmly adhered to by Calvin in this chapter, and it informs everything he says about prayer. We cannot pray to God without God as our help and God as our advocate. To God, through God, and by God. Prayer, perhaps, is as paradoxical as the Trinity itself; for in it assert our individual needs and desires before God, yet it is actually God speaking through us. All of this makes for a remarkably deep and complex view of Christian prayer.

Next time I get to meditate on Calvin's doctrine of election. You know. The part everyone thinks "Calvinism" is all about.

Fun stuff.

Adam Smith on the role of government

Sometimes people wonder, what do libertarians believe government should do? It always sounds as if they don't want the government to get involved at all!

Well, I don't know about libertarians, but Adam Smith had a pretty clear vision of what government should, and should not, do. From Wealth of Nations, the end of Book IV:
It is thus that every system which endeavours, either, by extraordinary encouragements, to draw towards a particular species of industry a greater share of the capital of the society than what would naturally go to it; or, by extraordinary restraints, to force from a particular species of industry some share of the capital which would otherwise be employed in it; is in reality subversive of the great purpose which it means to promote. It retards, instead of accelerating, the progress of the society towards real wealth and greatness: and diminishes, instead of increasing, the real value of the annual produce of its land and labour.

All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society. According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings; first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.
A remarkably concise yet robust statement of political philosophy, if you ask me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Adam Smith on imperfect competition

From Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter IX:
Some speculative physicians seem to have imagined that the health of the human body could be preserved only by a certain precise regimen of diet and exercise, of which every, the smallest, violation necessarily occasioned some degree of disease or disorder proportioned to the degree of the violation. Experience, however, would seem to show, that the human body frequently preserves, to all appearance at least, the most perfect state of health under a vast variety of different regimens; even under some which are generally believed to be very far from being perfectly wholesome. But the healthful state of the human body, it would seem, contains in itself some unknown principle of preservation, capable either of preventing or of correcting, in many respects, the bad effects even of a very faulty regimen. Mr. Quesnai [a French economist], who was himself a physician, and a very speculative physician, seems to have entertained a notion of the same kind concerning the political body, and to have imagined that it would thrive and prosper only under a certain precise regimen, the exact regimen of perfect liberty and perfect justice. He seems not to have considered that in the political body, the natural effort which every man is continually making to better his own condition, is a principle of preservation capable of preventing and correcting, in many respects, the bad effects of a political economy, in some degree both partial and oppressive. Such a political economy, though it no doubt retards more or less, is not always capable of stopping altogether the natural progress of a nation towards wealth and prosperity, and still less of making it go backwards. If a nation could not prosper without the enjoyment of perfect liberty and perfect justice, there is not in the world a nation which could ever have prospered. In the political body, however, the wisdom of nature has fortunately made ample provision for remedying many of teh bad effects of the folly and injustice of man; in the same manner as it has done in the natural body, for remedying those of his sloth and intemperance.
This argument is significant to me for a number of reasons. For one, it deflates the vaunted economic achievements that many wish to ascribe to government. That is, economies have flourished not because of, but rather in spite of the meddling of government. For another, it is a nice statement of Enlightenment optimism: things naturally progress forward, in spite of many serious obstacles. It would be foolish, however, to describe Smith as a simple optimist. There are many other statements in this treatise which sound rather pessimistic. Nevertheless, this is perhaps a hopeful statement for libertarians, who will, with near absolute certainty, never be satisfied with how government handles the economy.

Adam Smith on alcoholic beverages

From Wealth of Nations Book IV, Chapter III, Part II:
It deserves to be remarked too, that, if we consult experience, the cheapness of wine seems to be a cause, not of drunkenness, but of sobriety. The inhabitants of the wine countries are in general the soberest people in Europe; witness the Spaniards, the Italians, and the inhabitants of the southern provinces of France. People are seldom guilty of excess in what is their daily fare. Nobody affects the character of liberality and good fellowship, by being profuse of a liquor which is as cheap as small beer. On the contrary, in the countries which, either from excessive heat or cold, produce no grapes, and where wine consequently is dear and a rarity, drunkenness is a common vice...

Adam Smith on taxes

From Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter II, Part II:
"Before I enter upon the examination of particular taxes, it is necessary to premise the four following maxims with regard to taxes in general.
  1. The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state....
  2. The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person....
  3. Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner, in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it....
  4. Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state."
I was thinking about these four maxims with respect to our income taxes. Aside from the fact that Adam Smith says taxing the wages of labor is a terrible idea, I also think our system fails miserably on the first and second of these maxims. I imagine this is fairly detrimental to our economy. That is, the tax code is so horrendously convoluted, that it is not only extremely unequal due to various loopholes, but it is far from clear how much will be owed from year to year.

One thing I will say, however, from reading this monumental treatise on economics: taxation is anything but simple. At various times I have been ideologically attracted to things like the "flat tax" or the "fair tax," but Smith's treatise has made me realize that taxation is a subtle and difficult project. Politics has probably given us very nearly the worst possible system of taxation for a country to still be as prosperous as ours; yet even if we had expert economists determining a system of taxation, I doubt it would be easy to come up with.

Still, Adam Smith is full of insights like this one, which I think libertarians and conservatives probably tout a little too much:
"High taxes, sometimes by diminishing the consumption of the taxed commodities, and sometimes by encouraging smuggling, frequently afford a smaller revenue to government than what might be drawn from more moderate taxes."
And of course, I think we can all agree with this:
"There is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people."

Adam Smith, the prophet?

From Wealth of Nations Book V, Chapter III:
"The progress of the enormous debts which at present oppress, and will in the long-run probably ruin, all the great nations of Europe, has been pretty uniform."
It's like he could see the future.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Someone explain this to me

From the New York Times:
The White House on Wednesday issued new rules requiring health insurance companies to provide free coverage for dozens of screenings, laboratory tests and other types of preventive care.
The White House issued new rules? When did the president gain the power to legislate? And how is this not a slow but steady government take-over of health care? The whole argument for this legislation (which mysteriously has come from the executive branch, according to the NY Times) appears to be, "We're the government, we have the experts on our side, so do what we tell you." As illustrated in the Times article:
In general, the government said, Americans use preventive services at about half the rate recommended by doctors and public health experts.


The rules stipulate that no co-payments can be charged for tests and screenings recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of scientific experts. The rules apply to new health plans that begin coverage after Sept. 23 and to existing health plans that make significant changes after that date.
At least the experts who are so benevolently dictating what happens in our economy are willing to admit that you can't get something for nothing.
The administration said the requirements could increase premiums by 1.5 percent, on average.
There is, after all, no free lunch.

I am troubled by the fact that people are willing to grant the President more and more power over the private sector all for the sake of "fairness" and this "fundamental right" to health care. Motivated by a sense of resentment toward businesses we like to demonize, we willingly create a monster in the White House, who promises to ensure that everyone gets what they need. That is not the system of economics that has led to American prosperity. We did not achieve prosperity by handing such authority over to a single team of "experts," and we will not sustain prosperity that way. In the long run, we will all be worse off--even the poor, who supposedly benefit from such paternalism.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Abortion advocates target "false advertising"

Every once in a while, I see things happening on the abortion issue that I can oppose both on pro-life and libertarian grounds. For example, as this article explains,
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have reintroduced a bill (first introduced in 2007) that would require the Federal Trade Commission to “promulgate rules to prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, any person from advertising with the intent to deceptively create the impression that such person is a provider of abortion services if such person does not provide abortion services.”
Exactly what kind of deception in advertising have crisis pregnancy centers ever committed?
NARAL’s website, for example, says that crisis pregnancy centers “often mislead women into believing that they provide a full range of reproductive-health services. They do so by using questionable advertising tactics and providing dishonest or evasive answers when women call to inquire about their services.”
"Questionable advertising tactics"? "Evasive answers"? Oh, the injustice!

There is simply no hard evidence of pregnancy centers directly misrepresenting themselves. It is simple enough to ask, "Do you perform abortions?" and there is not one instance of a pregnancy center claiming, "Yes, we do." It is extremely hypocritical to ask that crisis pregnancy centers should be any more up front about what they are than abortion clinics, which often have names like "Charlottesville Medical Center For Women" or "Annandale Women and Family Center." Funny how they generally avoid the word "abortion" in their names.

Why exactly do we need government intervention in this matter? I think the answer is quite simple, really: money. Some might speculate that here is another example of abortion advocates militantly trying to suppress their ideological opponents. That may be true, but I would venture to say that it probably just comes down to business trying to protect its own interest. Clear the competition when it comes to advertising, and you can more effectively attract customers.

In general, we don't need government regulations helping businesses gain bigger profits. In particular, we certainly don't need government regulations protecting the abortion industry from competition in advertising. It would appear that the pro-"choice" movement is really quite the opposite of what the name suggests. Not only do they want the government to protect their businesses from free competition, they also believe that we're too dumb to choose what kind of "family planning" services we actually want.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Adam Smith on presumption

As I read through Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, I'm finding that Book IV, Chapter II is a gold mine for some of his most concise and powerful statements on economic freedom.

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Apparently, this is the famous "invisible hand" argument. It's kind of funny to me that its context is merely a chapter on why laws against imports are bad. However, it really is quite a beautiful idea: we can actually benefit the whole society, which is incomprehensible to us, by focusing on that which is entirely comprehensible to us, namely our own self-interest.

Smith goes on:

What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman of lawgiver can do for him. The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would no-where be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

Ah, there it is! The presumption of state-led economic development.

Wisdom for Our Time

From Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II:
"No regulation of commerce can increase the quantity of industry in any society beyond what its capital can maintain. It can only divert a part of it into a direction into which it might not otherwise have gone; and it is by no means certain that this artificial direction is likely to be more advantageous to the society than that into which it would have gone of its own accord."
And yet, we just keep trying...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Presumption and World-Changing

I've just finished reading James Hunter's book, To Change the World, and I thought that instead of writing one big review, I'd handle it in little bits of reflections on various points he has made. Yet before I get into particulars, let me quickly summarize my view of the book. I think it has a number of profoundly important points for today's Christians. It's very helpful that these points come from an academic, someone who studies the subtleties of history and culture professionally. On the other hand, I imagine that for this very reason many of these points will not be well received. At times Hunter seems to let himself get a bit preachy; either I am underestimating or he is overestimating the weight of his theological opinions in the broader Christian context. The first essay is especially good, because it sticks to an empirical argument with all the evidence needed to convince the average Christian of something he might not already know. The end of the book is a little less satisfying, with Hunter providing a lot more opinions than direct evidence in support of those opinions. All in all, I would recommend this book to any Christian. It is worth reflecting on.

This evening the thing that stuck out in my mind was the insightful challenge Hunter offers to presumption. Anyone who reads my blog will know that I am something of a free market advocate. What may or may not be so clear is that my primary reason for believing in free markets over state led development is precisely this issue of presumption. How arrogant to think that we could possibly conceive of an equitable distribution of goods, and then act it out through force of the State! The politics of presumption are the worst kind of politics, in my opinion. That is why my political philosophy moves in any direction that challenges our tendency to think we know how best to organize the particulars of society.

Strikingly, Hunter's critique of today's Christian attitudes toward social change is fairly similar:
Let me say further that the best understanding of the creation mandate is not about changing the world at all. It is certainly not about "saving Western civilization," "saving America," "winning the culture war," or anything else like it. The reason is that so much of the discussion surrounding this kind of world-changing is oriented toward the idea of controlling history. The presumption is both that one can know God's specific plans in human history and that one possesses the power to realize those plans in human affairs. There is a fine line between presumption and hope, as Aquinas observed, but in our culture, such presumption nearly always has tragic consequences. (page 95)
Elsewhere in this book, Hunter says that the church ought to provide a challenge to the prevailing market ideology. Yet I can say without a bit of irony that I agree with him completely. Indeed, what makes the free market free is that people continually challenge its dominant paradigms. Moreover, I will be the first to assert that we are far too quick to associate markets with materialism. Life is far more than material goods. Indeed, the value of those goods is intimately linked with the value of life itself. When the value of goods becomes the measure of the the value of life, then something has been turned upside down. I certainly cannot fault anyone for challenging the materialism of our time, and I dare not say that such materialism is good for a free society.

But to get off the subject of economics, the dangers of presumption always loom overhead whenever we start thinking about how to make the world a better place. Hunter rightly warns against trying to control history. Somehow we are tempted to draw a false dichotomy between absolute control on the one hand and a purposeless existence on the other hand. We pretend to believe that if we cannot decisively shape the world around us, we must then have no real reason to be here. Somehow we find ourselves grumbling at the thought of embracing a very small role in this grand universe. We tell ourselves that being full of love for all people necessarily implies being full of big ideas for governing their lives. There is, of course, an equal but opposite temptation, as well, which is to become apathetic in the name of not imposing on anyone. There is a fine line to be walked carefully.

It is good to remember as Christians that we don't change the world; God does. The challenge is to constantly fight against presumption. I find I am always tempted to think I know more than I really do. I suppose it takes a little presumption to post my thoughts on the Internet for everyone to see, but I can assure whoever is reading this (if anyone) that I have no intentions of changing the world through this blog. Just think of it as my own form of "faithful presence."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ritual, Narrative, and Understanding the World

Inspired in part by a post by Peter Leithart called "Changing the Liturgy," I thought I'd share this piece of human psychology demonstrated here:

What I think this video demonstrates is how we enter into ritual behaviors (which are called "liturgies" in a religious context) and commit to seeing them through to the end, so much that we can be led to miss rather obvious details in our surroundings. The trickster you see in this video, Derren Brown, has a bit of an agenda in mind. He wants to show people how they are so easily fooled. He seems to be trying to train people in the ways of skepticism.

One thing I found just as interesting as the video itself was watching the reactions of my friends to the video. You probably will have them yourself: laughter and incredulity. There's a certain irony to this reaction. The people in the video are so easily fooled because they have accepted a narrative about their surroundings and are committed to acting within that narrative. Our reaction to those people also shows how we have bought into a certain narrative.

The narrative we buy into is that human beings are reasonable people who make choices one at a time; call it the "narrative of rationality." Part of this narrative is that all evidence is equally important. Every detail matters, and if we are alert enough to notice every detail, it shouldn't be difficult to make rational decisions based on those details. Thus our incredulity: how could these people be so stupid? Would I be that stupid if put in that situation? What's happening to the narrative I've accepted about myself as a rational person?

Clearly this video shows the narrative of rationality to be false: normal people often don't operate that way. But whereas Derren Brown might suggest that the average person just needs to learn a bit more skepticism, I would suggest a different idea. Ironically, the firm belief in absolute skepticism (which, to be fair, I can't say for sure Brown holds) requires a commitment to merely a different narrative about the world than the ones ordinary people buy into. Call it the "narrative of unreliability": everything and everyone is potentially a threat, and only by forcing your surroundings to undergo the most rigorous scrutiny can you achieve the best result.

Consider this other video:

Notice that Brown is able to swindle two businessmen--even a high end jeweler!--but he isn't able to swindle the hot dog vendor. My hypothesis: the hot dog vendor more easily accepts the narrative of unreliability. Perhaps in the world as he experiences it, people really are out to get him, and he really isn't safe. The narrative we accept about the world informs how we respond to things.

I don't think the answer is pure skepticism, i.e. just testing everything until you make sure everything works. This simply buys into the narrative of unreliability, and ironically, this narrative cannot be questioned. Skepticism is never able to turn in on itself, or if it does, the result is pure nihilism. I think we can do better than that.

What I'd like to do is offer something more constructive. What we need is a narrative of "constructive ritual-making." This means two things. One is that we can't do without rituals; they are the mechanisms by which we gain access to the order of the universe, the means by which we ultimately understand the world we live in. The second thing is that rituals can and do bind us, and at times they bind us to false things; thus we must continue to build and adapt rituals as we measure the successes and failures of our old ones.

Normal people (and really all people, to greater and lesser extents) must rely on ritual to interact with the world. Skepticism is a leisure activity. Brown's tricks would not be possible if he did not have time to commit to planning them out and executing them. I have no resentment toward Brown whatsoever. On the contrary, we need people who can look at our rituals and penetrate their weaknesses. But such people are specialists; it doesn't make sense for an entire society to be devoted to this kind of analysis. Indeed, the only reason Brown is able to make an influence on anyone is because of the ritual of making and watching broadcasts. Were it not for the rituals built into society, no one would have any reason to give Brown a chance to be heard.

Skepticism also relies on the assumption that all details are equally important. But rituals carry a certain weight and demand a certain commitment that often trumps certain details. Why did people in the first video not recognize the switch from one person to the other? It wasn't because they couldn't see the difference. Indeed, the difference was right in front of them. Almost assuredly, their brains actually took some note of this change. One person even commented on it. He stops, looks at the new person holding a map, and says something like, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else for a second," and then goes back to explaining directions. Why did he go back to explaining directions instead of insisting that something was wrong? The social ritual of explaining directions took precedence over any details that seemed amiss.

Hilarious and shocking as this may be, I don't think it shows something fundamentally wrong with us. I think that not only is it natural, but it is also good that we learn to give that kind of commitment to certain rituals. How can people in a large society ever hope to work together without certain cultural artifacts being preserved? Total skepticism would require zero commitment to rituals of social interaction. Language itself would have to be questioned. If we lose that, what do we have left?

Of course, we do need to question the value of certain rituals. There is no doubt that rituals can control us to such an extent that we miss out on opportunities to change for the better. However, it must be acknowledged that no one can question every ritual all the time, nor can all people be equally involved in questioning every ritual. The task of examining the rituals through which we understand the world around us is a specialized task. Thus, the existence of skeptics depends on the existence of trust. Society depends on skeptics, but skeptics in turn depend on the fact that society is not fundamentally skeptical. Every skeptic should also realize the limits of his own skepticism. At the end of the day, even someone whose entire occupation consists in skeptically analyzing the world has to have some basic narrative by which to make sense of the world. And in fact, everyone does have some narrative, whether he acknowledges it or not.

One last point. I've been saying that it is through ritual that we not only interact with the world, but actually "understand" it. Is that right? It might not sound right to most of us, because we're used to thinking of knowledge as something quite different from interaction. Knowledge, in the common view, is something that's out there that needs to be gathered and put into the mind to be processed. I say this view of knowledge isn't quite right. Knowledge is precisely our ability to interact with the world in a way that coheres with its inherent structure. When you write answers on a test, we like to say that you regurgitate information onto the page, but this metaphor is highly misleading. What you are doing, in reality, is interacting with the world around you according to the rituals you have learned. And that is precisely knowledge. Knowledge doesn't "come out" of you while you are taking your test; rather, knowledge is demonstrated while you are taking your test, precisely in that it is demonstrated that you have the ability to respond to the test in a coherent way.

Take another, clearer example. When you are driving, you do not regurgitate information. Rather, you react to things as they come, and the reaction is instantaneous. Later you can explain in words what you have done, but the connection between knowledge and action is far more immediate than words convey. Knowledge is not simply a store of information that allows you to drive; knowledge is the ability to drive. Thus the ritual of learning how to drive, and the rituals that define driving itself (changing lanes, obeying traffic lights, etc.) actually allow you to understand the world around you. You understand driving by following its rituals. It is exactly the same with anything else.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Beautiful Mathematics

Peter Kuchment is here helping to teach us about Radon transforms and medical imaging. He described the way in which Johann Radon originally discovered the Radon transform: it was just a side project, for fun, without any "useful" purpose. We now know that the mathematics Radon did as a side project in 1917 are foundational for computerized tomography, for which Allan Cormack and Godfrey Hounsfield won Nobel Prizes in physiology in 1979.

Kuchment suggested that Radon probably worked on the Radon transform out of sheer curiosity, simply because the idea was beautiful. He said, "If it's beautiful, it must be important." Mathematicians work on problems for their own sake; but the great mathematicians, according to Kuchment, always seem to find problems beautiful which also have a long term impact on the sciences. The lesson to be learned from this is that one ought to pursue mathematics for the sake of its beauty, and that "if it's not beautiful, it must not be that important, anyway."

There seems to be an implicit theology at work here. Truth, beauty, and goodness are unified in a transcendent way. The pursuer of truth needs not only logical skill but also a heightened sense of beauty. He who discovers what is truly beautiful also discovers both what is true and what the world needs. That the universe should really be this way is a pretty remarkable presupposition. I find this presupposition both deeply theological and deeply compelling.

It might take a bit of sheltering to preserve this kind of faith; I don't know for sure. After all, this world often seems fragmented. Rampant consumerism, promising to yield all that the world needs, has often dulled our sense of what is beautiful. The cultivation of "high art" has often been disconnected from anything true or meaningful. And the rigorous pursuit of scientific "facts" has often been done without regard for anything actually worth valuing, right down to scientific progress being used to destroy human life rather than preserve it. Truth, beauty, and the good seem miles apart from one another, and most people actually seem to stop believing in one or more of them. Thus cynics on the one hand accept the hard facts of life while rejecting its inherent beauty, while optimists on the other hand reject facts for the sake of beauty and goodness.

But then, mathematics is a subject that demands patience. It is a pursuit of the beautiful, but it doesn't always appear so. If we want to find beauty, we cannot listen simply to our hearts; we have to take the hard path of contemplation and rigorous logic. And if we seek what is truly beneficial to society, there again we must be patient. Without taking the long journey of pursuing what is beautiful and abstract, we can never lay a foundation for more powerful applications. So in some sense the belief in the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness is hard earned. It doesn't come naturally but must be slowly cultivated over time.

In this sense, I find mathematics one of the most deeply spiritual things we do as human beings.