Monday, August 30, 2010

Chinese Christianity and pragmatism

Whenever "Google Alerts" brings up results for science and religion, almost always there is an interesting blog post on the Huffington Post that catches my attention. Who knew?

This week it's an article by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, relating his own experience with Chinese students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. A great many of these students, he has found, with some surprise, are Christians. He asks the question,
But, how is it that these students, brilliant scientists in the making from a country that has a tumultuous history with religion, live at such relative ease with what many of us in the West might call their "two selves"?
In the course of his article he identifies three interesting features of Chinese culture that might explain this ability to easily reconcile science with faith.

One is that the traditions of Chinese culture cause Chinese people to more readily embrace many different ideas. Fitzgerald puts it this way:
ne explanation actually comes from religion itself, though not the Christian faith. Unlike Christianity or Islam, neither Taoism nor Buddhism, the traditional religions of China, preaches exclusivity. For this reason many faiths can and do grow alongside one another in China.
The second feature is related to this: pragmatism. This is elaborated by Tim Sigman, a director of a Christian ministry mentioned in the article.
"Asian culture is generally pragmatic," he says. "It is also circular in reasoning whereas we in the West think more linearly." He suggests that the Chinese students "can embrace things that may seem contrary, if they are pragmatic."
The third feature is perhaps the least surprising to me. It is that science is a tool, not a philosophy. This is explained by one of Sigman's students:
In China, he says, "Science is a tool to change one's condition, to fix a problem, or make a living." It is not held in as high esteem as religion is. As to any potential conflict between scientific theories in his field and his beliefs, he explains, "They are not on the same level of understanding about the world."
This doesn't surprise me, given my experience with Chinese mathematicians and scientists. They tend to gravitate more to the applications of science than its theoretical aspects. American students (I'm not sure about European students) tend toward the theoretical, possibly because we still have vestiges of the old Platonism embedded in Western mathematics, but more probably because American students are more likely to have been taught a sense of entitlement that frees us to study whatever we find interesting.

What makes Christian beliefs "pragmatic" to a new Chinese believer, I wonder? This is addressed in the article, as well, using the words of one "Dr. Z,"
a Christian Chinese scientist and professor who, like many of his colleagues, according to the recent book Science vs. Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund, prefers anonymity when it comes to matters of religion and asked that I not use his real name. He explains that the age at which a person converts is very important, as the tenets of Christianity and what it teaches about the world add depth and fill in the spaces in one's prior education, explaining things that the sciences do not. In this way, the two work as partners, as opposed to antagonists, to create a cohesive worldview.
Fitzgerald ends his article with this thought:
If being more open allows for seemingly disparate ideas to co-mingle, and if understanding the value of a comprehensive worldview that comes from merging religion and science gives rest to the debate, perhaps it is time we follow our Chinese colleagues into these spaces in between our "two selves."
His implicit assumption is that religion is about satisfying very pragmatic needs. If religious beliefs fill in the gaps or create better harmony in a person's worldview, then so much the better. I used to think this kind of assumption was shallow and very misleading. It always seemed to me that the truth was more important than pragmatic concerns. Just because something "works" doesn't make it right.

But lately I've been thinking that this assumption has more merit than I initially gave it credit for. It's not that I now favor Fitzgerald's approach of trying to convince everyone to just be more open to new ideas (is this really a Chinese way of thinking, or a Western postmodern way of thinking?). What I'm really saying is that I think our epistemology should be more life-giving. Rather than being consumed with the hope of ascending to transcendent Ideas, perhaps the real point of learning is (at least in part) to better our relationship with the world around us. From what little I know of Chinese thought, perhaps this is more in line with their thought-process: wisdom is about living in harmony with our surroundings. If this is the approach taken, then religious faith must be approached in a way that may appear more "pragmatic" to the Western rationalist who believes that truth precedes harmony.

Christian thought has the potential to get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, wisdom begins with "the fear of the Lord," i.e. having a proper understanding of ourselves in relation to him within his creation. So wisdom is, in a sense, about harmony. It is not primarily about ascending to abstract truths, but about understanding our role in God's creation. On the other hand, the Christian can make a powerful critique of the world around him. Because he understands the world as fallen, he will not be content to live in harmony without appealing to a vision of the world as it should be. Thus he doesn't rid his thought of transcendent ideals entirely; but rather than attempting to transcend the created order himself, he simply calls on the transcendent to purify the created order of its evils.

In other words, Christianity is practical for those people who want not only to explain the world, but to transform it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Calvin on the Holy Catholic Church

I'm making my way into the fourth and final book of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, entitled, "The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein." The first topic in this book is the Church. In this post I'll write some of my thoughts on Chapters I-III.

Calvin's ecclesiology in the Institutes is one of the more interesting topics I've come across, mostly because it's not widely talked about when people refer to "Calvinism." Ecclesiology is interesting to me these days for a variety of reasons. I suppose it has a lot to do with particular experiences I've had in and since college, but I also think it's worth all Christians thinking about. I know it's not the hottest topic at most evangelicals' Bible studies, but it really is one of the central questions of all of Scripture: what defines God's people?

Calvin's doctrine of the Church is so strong that you would think he was Catholic--and in a sense, he was, or at least he thought of himself that way. What he rebelled against was, as is poignantly made clear in Chapter II, the corruption of the Romanist Church. It's important to read Chapter I before Chapter II for two reasons. Firstly, you can't understand just how serious he is about calling the Roman Catholic Church not a church, unless you understand how serious he is about the unity of the Church. Secondly, it will do no good in our time to take all the heated rhetoric of Reformation out of context. What we have in our day all too often is a wealth of criticism without any ability to replace what we're criticizing with a coherent alternative.

Here is Calvin's view of the Church, put simply in Section 1 of Chapter I:
"For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder" [Mark 10:9 p.], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.
Make no mistake, Calvin is talking about the visible Church (Sec. 4). In fact, it is quite clear that when Calvin talks about the "invisible" Church, he does not mean the "real" one. In context he is mostly referring to those who are not yet Christians; his primary motivation for bringing up the invisible Church is to remind us that we must also consider ourselves bound to people to whom we don't yet have a formal attachment.

He concedes that not all Christians are true, and that some will be exposed on the day of judgment. But using parables from the Gospel of Matthew such as the wheat and the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30), he argues that it is not only futile but harmful to try to sort out in this life who is a true believer and who is merely a hypocrite. Our loyalty should be to the Church, no matter what sort of moral corruption we might see within it. Thus Calvin spends several sections in Chapter I criticizing those such as the Anabaptists and other separatists who seek a pure Church.

This I find to be an extremely important counter to the American evangelical's constant need for a Church that's more "true." We seem to be more Anabaptist than Reformed in our ecclesiology, at least in practice. Yet it's more of a relativist strain of Anabaptist ecclesiology, wherein "other churches are true churches, too, but this is the church that I personally agree with most." Completely missing is the consideration of the unity of the Church as a whole. And I think to even suggest such a consideration will almost always get you either blank looks or possibly sneers. I've heard people talk about "Reformed Catholicity," but at this point it is structurally impossible for this to be anything more than an abstract idea. I hate to sound so cynical about that, but there simply is no denying the plain facts.

So what is, exactly, the mark of the true Church? Calvin has a pretty succinct answer in Section 9 of Chapter I:
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.
Calvin says that the moral purity of pastors and members of a congregation cannot annul the benefit of Word and sacrament. As long as these essential elements are there, it doesn't really matter how bad things get; God is at work, and he will be faithful. For Calvin, preaching is not a matter of a preacher coming up with words to say to his congregation. It is about God speaking through a man who has nothing in himself. Likewise, the sacraments don't have any power in themselves, nor are they made effective by those administering them; but are effective by God's grace.

In this context, Calvin defends the decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church in Chapter II. Calvin has not left himself any room to use mild language. If he insists that we must unite ourselves to Church no matter how much corruption there is within it, then he must have a severely compelling argument that the Roman Church is not the Church. Indeed, the word "antichrist" does come up. It's very sad to read this, but it's also easy to be very judgmental from a modern perspective, without understanding the depth of the conflict that led up to this language. I don't feel the need to repeat any of Calvin's invective against the "papists."

There is, however, a silver lining, so to speak. Calvin ends Chapter II with a word of qualification.
However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine.
The section following these words nevertheless ends on a critical note, showing that whatever Calvin was willing to concede to the "papists," he was still wholly convinced that Roman Catholicism was utterly devoid of the true marks of the Church.

Chapter III is not quite as interesting to me, and I suppose I won't get into it tonight since I'd rather not write for much longer. This chapter talks about the ordination of church officers, a rather dry subject for most of us (including me). It all felt familiar to me, since it is more or less what Presbyterians follow to this day.

Calvin does make some interesting remarks about why God chooses to speak through men, rather than just speak directly. I'm a little bit troubled by the argument, but I can also see how it has some force. Here's the comment that interests me:
If he spoke from heaven, it would not be surprising if his sacred oracles were to be reverently received without delay by the ears and minds of all. For who would not dread the presence of his power? Who would not be stricken down at the sight of such great majesty? Who would not be confounded at such boundless splendor? But when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God's name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing.
This is certainly a good attitude to have toward preachers--they excel us in nothing. But the implication that God is not interested in making his will immediately received by all is troubling. I'm troubled by the idea of God testing people by obscuring his own message.

One more general comment about Calvin's ecclesiology. While I do appreciate his high appreciation for the unity and necessity of the Church, I also think his view is too instrumental. That is, he views the Church solely as a "means of grace," i.e. some tool God uses to make us more righteous. Is there not a sense in which God created the Church simply because that's what he loves? The question I'm asking is this: is the Church merely an umbrella for all the individuals who come to believe in Christ, or is it an entity in itself, with its own life and meaning in God's eyes? When I read that the Church is the Bride of Christ, or even his own Body, I am convinced that the Church has a more fundamental role in God's eyes than just being a tool for helping believers on the path to eternal life. I don't see Calvin specifically disagreeing with this, but he also fails to address it, which is disappointing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beauty for Truth's Sake - a review

If I could pick my top five topics to think about on a regular basis, three of them would be faith and reason, education, and, of course, mathematics. Thus Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education seemed like a perfect book for me to read and contemplate in my spare time. In it Stratford Caldecott offers something of a "manifesto" summarizing a view of education which sees the classical Western Liberal Arts tradition as a means of integrating faith and reason, art and science.

There is much to appreciate about the book. The beginning is quite strong, displaying a clear sense of what has gone wrong in modern education on the philosophical level. The opening lines read,
"In the modern world, thanks to the rise of modern science and the decline of religious cosmology, the arts and sciences have been separated and divorced. Faith and reason often appear to be opposed, and we have lost any clear sense of who we are and where we are going."
Why is this a problem? I think Caldecott sums it up nicely when he says,
"The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation...

As the title of the book suggests, one of the key integration points between these seemingly disparate areas of knowledge is beauty. "Everything," Caldecott says, "is true, good, and beautiful in some degree or in some respect.... Beauty is the radiance of the true and the good, and it is what attracts us to both." In particular--and this is part of what I found intriguing about the book--mathematics is a key to understanding how the classical tradition sought to "perceive the inner, connecting principles" of the universe.
"Theology, therefore, has an important place in the integration of the arts and sciences. Equally important, however, is a symbolic approach to number and shape--that is, the awareness that mathematics has a qualitative, as distinct from a purely quantitative, dimension."
Caldecott spends a couple of chapters in the middle of the book illustrating that qualitative dimension of mathematics, using examples from the ancient Pythagoreans, numerology from the Bible, and various other musings on the relationships between numbers, shapes, and the world around us. It is a rather delightful survey, ranging from the Tetractys to the five Platonic solids to the golden ratio. It really is a shame, in my opinion, that modern mathematical education leaves very little room for this kind of appreciation of mathematical objects.

Let me briefly outline the structure of the book, to show how these ideas are expressed as a whole. The Introduction states the problem as I have, and offers three guiding principles. The first is, "The way we educate is the way we pass on or transform our culture.... The fragmentation of education... is a denial of ultimate meaning. Contemporary education therefore tends to the elimination of meaning...." The second is, "The "re-enchantment" of education would open our eyes to the meaning and beauty of the cosmos." The third is, "The cosmos is liturgical by its very nature." In this way Caldecott makes it clear from the start that education can never find true integration without a religious foundation. This raises interesting practical questions, but this book doesn't deal with them.

Chapter 1 sets about calling us to return to an idea of education as a means of becoming "truly free, fully human." Caldecott wants us to see that education is not just about what is useful. It is, in the great Socratic tradition, about gaining knowledge of "the forms, or the highest causes," which one can only attain "through the systematic ordering of the soul." In Chapter 2, he shows us that this path requires awakening the "poetic imagination," the ability to find "within the self something that corresponds to the object, thus leaping over the barrier between self and other." Thus symbolism comes to play a key role throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 essentially serve to illustrate the "poetic imagination" at work throughout the Western tradition. I've already mentioned the mathematical objects; there are also a number of excursions into theology, as well as music, architecture, ecology, and astronomy. Throughout these chapters one gets the sense that while Caldecott may not be advocating a return to a medieval understanding of the cosmos, he certainly seems to have an affinity for it. Chapter 6 argues quite strikingly for that third principle mentioned in the introduction, that "the cosmos is liturgical by its very nature." He thus argues that any real education must involve elements that are at least implicitly religious.

The conclusion is perhaps the most explicitly religious, in fact explicitly Catholic, part of the whole "manifesto." He says, "As we have seen, the Liberal Arts were intended to conduce to freedom of mind, and they were developed and nourished by the Catholic Church." He then explains that the modern conception of freedom is deprived of a certain fullness that is granted by the Christian (Catholic) view.
"The best way to put this might be that the Christian conception of freedom is larger and fuller than the modern conception, for it includes both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The horizontal dimension encompasses the world we see directly, and the vertical allows for degrees of being and value, invisible realms, formal causality, and so on. ...

In the traditional "three-dimensional" world, the self was encouraged to collect itself together in a point, in order to attach itself to a vertical axis, a spiritual "path." ... Modernity, on the other hand, rejects the existence of the vertical altogether, or the very possibility of thinking in terms of up and down. ...

In a flatter universe, freedom had to be reconceived as entirely a matter of movement within the horizontal plane. I am assumed to be "freer" the more places I can go to, the more things I can choose on the supermarket shelf, the more people I can have relationships with. And that is why the Church claims today to be in the business of liberating human freedom, by making known the beauty of truth in its fullness.

Now that I've summarized the book, let me get into my complaints. I agree with Caldecott that the fragmentation of knowledge is symptomatic of some deep problems. I also agree with the basic idea of seeking beauty in the universe, and that the pursuit of knowledge is, at its core, about love. But I would challenge some of the assumptions of his "Christian Platonism."

Before I do that, though, let me make some slightly more superficial comments. I have to say, and I think many readers would agree with me, there were many times during the reading of this book when I thought "Re-enchantment of Education" simply meant redecorating the universe with medieval superstitions. Certainly Caldecott was aware of this as he was writing, which is why he made the occasional remark that he is not trying to undo the Enlightenment or go back to the Middle Ages. Yet these remarks have little force behind them; he doesn't seem to have anything good to say about the Enlightenment in any meaningful sense.

On a related note, Caldecott relies so heavily on his own Catholic tradition that it is difficult for readers outside that tradition to understand the appeal of his illustrations. For instance, he mentions more than once how cosmically significant it was for Christian that there are seven days in a week and seven sacraments. Well, suppose there aren't seven sacraments... Does that mean the universe is less enchanted with meaning? In one part of Chapter 4 he wanders off into a discussion about the filioque controversy, a subject which is thoroughly uninteresting to many of us. Even more importantly, such controversies aren't settled by geometric arguments, and Caldecott's references to the relationship between mathematics and theology are more likely to offend believers of different theological persuasions than they are to enlighten anybody.

Chapter 4 ends with a paragraph that begins, "Speculations like those I have mentioned in this chapter will appear forced to many." Believe me, they did. I found circles and lines to be wholly inappropriate for trying to visually represent the Trinity. I found the comparison between Jesus and the line perpendicularly connecting a point on a circle to a given diameter also rather "forced." And the ratio between this line in the "golden circle" and the circumference, why, it's miraculously just over 7! The amount in excess of 7 which we find in this ratio is, of all things, what Caldecott thinks might correspond to that "tiny and indispensable human contribution needed if heaven is truly to descend to earth." In other words, heaven divided by earth = 7 (God's number) + some tiny human contribution = pi * ((2 * phi) - 1) = 7.02481473...

It is worth noting here that the number of man's symbolic contribution in this calculation is irrational. All this to say, one has to be very careful before going off to find the logoi of creation. This search can easily degenerate into such absurd arguments as "there are seven sacraments because there are seven days in a week." It might be postmodern of me, but different cultural perspectives really are worth keeping in mind as we examine the connections underlying things in the world. For instance, the octave interval in music might very well have a special relationship with the number "eight" in the West, where eight might have special theological meaning (on the eighth day Christ rose again) or other kinds of meaning. But, lest we forget, this association is based on Western musical scales. Other cultures have more varied intervals, and therefore the association doesn't work. That's often how it goes with Platonism. You think you've found the form of which all the world is a reflection, but then you realize it's just your own perspective being forced on the world around you.

Now I am starting to get into my deeper qualms with Caldecott's assumptions. Consider this third vertical dimension of human experience, which he proposes in his conclusion. It is as if he says we ascend to heaven through the illumination of education (the right kind of education, anyway). This is indeed a very Platonic way of viewing things, but not a very Christian one. In the gospels, wisdom is given to ordinary people. It is all about grace, not enlightenment through systematic human effort. As I have already suggested, there is no guarantee that such systematic efforts would lead one closer to heaven. Human beings have difficulty seeing the difference between the beauty inherent in the universe and their own prejudices based on cultural conditioning.

Another point I would make is that this Platonic notion that Ideas are ultimate reality (the "thoughts of God," for a Christian Platonist), and all else is reflective of these pure Ideas, is in some sense to deny the goodness of creation. Creation has its own reality that is not a mere shadow of something else. I'm sure this point has been made plenty of times by people much more theologically astute than I, but from my own perspective it is important to recognize that every single thing you see and feel has its own existence. Yes, it is all made of the same basic stuff--i.e. matter and energy governed by universal laws of physics. But to have the underlying principles is not to have the thing itself. The world is not translucent. I don't agree with this idea of looking at the world as if the only thing that makes it good is being a channel through which to see something else.

In terms of application I think this point can be rather significant. As in I don't think it's necessary or fruitful to link every scientific discovery to some theological precept. I don't think mathematical objects have some inherent mystical meaning. In terms of mathematics education, I do think it would be helpful for people to be taught that mathematics is more about inner relationships than it is about formal operations, which can have nothing to do with reality. Far from vindicating Platonism, however, I think this just points for the need for human beings to be connected to things. Caldecott gets it right when he talks about the "poetic imagination," at least insofar as he describes human beings as inherently connected to creation. But I think he gets it wrong when he posits a realm of pure Ideas which have some higher reality than the world of tangible experience.

The last thing I'll point out is that Caldecott seems, in spite of himself, to miss the strong distinction between Platonic idealism and Christian realism. Related to Platonism is, I think, a tendency to try to escape realism. If the most important thing is to ascend to the Forms, then it becomes less important to actually deal with the gritty details of the real. I submit that this is a theological weakness in Caldecott's understanding. He spends some time in first chapter talking about "Beauty on the Cross." There is, paradoxically, a great deal of beauty on the Cross of Christ, but the other side of that paradox must always be remembered. The crucifixion was a gruesome, grotesque thing. The Incarnation itself was an "emptying" of Christ to the point of humble obedience.

It is important that we as Christians remember this, so that we, like Christ, can enter into the world as it actually is, and not as a mere reflection of perfect Ideas. True education demands a certain realism. We cannot gloss over the details. We must be willing to face the world as a complicated, often frustrating place. We're not going to be able to transcend uncertainty and confusion. Even Christ himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if it is your will, save me from this hour." And on the cross he cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" How much less will we be able to transcend the uncertainty of this life? Caldecott criticizes the postmoderns for doubting the human ability to obtain truth, but to a certain extent the postmoderns are right. It is not necessary to believe that truth is "relative" to have a healthy skepticism about the human ability to possess truth. We have to be realistic about ourselves, and about the world we live in. And instead of trying to transcend this world, we ought to follow Christ's example; he stepped down from his position of transcendence, that he might enter into this world--not, I believe, to show us the way out of this world, but to begin to transform it.

Caldecott is right about the most important thing: it all comes down to love. It is difficult to know what direction love should take us. While I don't agree with the direction Caldecott proposes, I think he is right to give us an alternative to our current approach to education. We do live in a beautiful universe, and it would be a waste to treat it in the purely utilitarian way that students are encouraged to now. Perhaps there is a better approach, one that relies not so much on enchantment as on the love of the universe for what it really is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paul Krugman says something rational

In a New York Times article this week, Paul Krugman actually said something libertarian economists can completely agree with:
What will Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, say in his big speech Friday in Jackson Hole, Wyo.? Will he hint at new steps to boost the economy? Stay tuned.

But we can safely predict what he and other officials will say about where we are right now: that the economy is continuing to recover, albeit more slowly than they would like. Unfortunately, that’s not true: this isn’t a recovery, in any sense that matters. And policy makers should be doing everything they can to change that fact.
Then he goes and says the Fed should buy more debt, the government should spend more money on stimulus, blah blah blah. But at least he ends with the right sentiment, sort of: "It’s time to admit that what we have now isn’t a recovery, and do whatever we can to change that situation."

Of course, the real task is to make real growth possible, not, as Krugman would have it, to play god with the economy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just a little piece left to us?

I have nearly finished Beauty for Truth's Sake by Stratford Caldecott, and I intend to review it in the next few days. But since I've been blogging a lot on Calvin, one particular passage has been gnawing at me. It has nothing to do with the main argument of the book, but nevertheless Caldecott takes the trouble to spell it out with some force, so I feel the urge to respond.

He makes the following statement with regard to human effort and divine grace:
As St. Paul says: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col. 1:24, my emphasis [that is, Caldecott's]). This sentence has often been taken by theologians to refer to our cooperation with God in our own salvation and deification.... As the Catholic Catechism puts it: "God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan." It is represented in the Catholic Mass by the drop of water with which the priest slightly dilutes the cup of wine that is about to become the blood of Christ. This is the tiny and indispensable human contribution needed if heaven is truly to descend to earth, and earth finally to be integrated with the everlasting Trinity.
This passage, as it contributes nothing to the argument of the book, might as well have been put there entirely to irritate Calvinists. I note, with some irony, that the very next sentence reads, "Speculations like those I have mentioned in this chapter will appear forced to many."

All that aside, I wanted to make a serious point about this line of reasoning, as I find it very common not only in Catholic thinking but in most non-Reformed Christian thought. God's grace plays a huge role, but the contribution of man gets just a drop--that oh so precious drop appears to make all the difference in the world. Why can't the Calvinist just acknowledge that one drop? Why must he strip human beings of every contribution to God's work of grace?

Before I answer the question, why don't we press the question further? Why do Calvinists even get out of bed every morning? For heaven's sake, why did Calvin strain himself to death (literally, I think) working as a clergyman in the newly Reformed Church? If he didn't even believe one drop of contribution was left to man, why did he appear to put in so much effort? Many who consider these questions conclude that the Calvinist must simply be irrational, or strangely obsessed.

But now let me hint at an answer. It is telling that Catholic teaching leaves here only a drop of human contribution. If it were more than that, this would sound like an affront to God's grace, and would violate so many passages of Scripture that seem so clear on God's grace being preeminent. So man, it is thought, must out of humility be content with his little drop for which he can claim credit.

The Calvinist, on the other hand, leaves nothing to himself, but in this way he paradoxically takes on everything. Consider a few quotes from St. Paul:
"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Cor. 15:10)

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:19-20)

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)
Paul is not talking about adding his drop of water. No, he can accomplish all things, he can work harder than any of them, even to the point of being crucified with Christ. Yet not one of these things happens apart from God himself. It is only because Paul is united with Christ that he is able to accomplish so much.

So it is by embracing the most profound humility that one actually obtains the greatest empowerment. The Calvinist sees himself as nothing, but therefore gets to see all of the good that he does as nothing less than divine. And this is perhaps the most incredibly presumptuous, most absurdly arrogant thing a man could possibly think about himself--that his actions are actually the works of God--unless that is exactly what God promises to be true.

Union with God cannot be separated from the Calvinist's view of grace. The Christian must be a total paradox--capable of nothing but capable of everything, wretched and human yet sanctified and clothed with divinity. The joy of Calvinism is that one can not only worship God as sovereign and transcendent, but actually participate in his transcendent life. (Otherwise how could he possibly conceive of prayer as so vital?)

No little drops for the Calvinist. One might say it's all or nothing, but that would be a misunderstanding. For the Calvinist, it's all and nothing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Homebuyer tax credit didn't benefit homebuyers?

At least one analysis of the homebuyer tax credit calls it a total scam:
The Realtors backed it… the home builders backed it… the mortgage bankers backed it… virtually anyone with an financial interest in residential real estate transactions backed the Homebuyer Tax Credit (and it’s expanded extension) and now that the program is finally complete and a whole host of indicators (NAHB builder sentiment, pending home sales, existing home sales, home prices, etc.) suggest that the its effects were at best temporary, we can see fairly clearly that this policy was a scam of epic proportions benefiting few and costing many.
Here's what you get for trusting the government to make things cheaper:
Many of the homes purchased with the credit have already declined in value in excess of the credit’s maximum $8000 benefit (i.e. a mere 2.5% decline on a $350,000 home) leaving many unwitting home “buyers” in the cruel predicament of sinking in a quicksand of asset price deflation for simply having jumped for a slight nibble of the government’s meager tax carrot.
Well if the actual homebuyers didn't benefit from this, why would the government enact such a policy? Surely someone must have benefited. Oh, that's right. I could have told you right from the beginning:
Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers…. some of the most notable culprits of the housing bubble years… all walk away cleanly skimming the proceeds coming from the transactions of an estimated 2 million temporarily stimulated home purchases.

It should come as no surprise that these were the very same industry groups that worked tirelessly lobbying to enact this failed policy… it was a simple exchange… your tax dollars to their wallets.
No, it really shouldn't come as a surprise. This reminds me of two things I learned from Adam Smith: 1) business people tend to know their own interests better than the general public knows their own interests, and 2) business people are also very good at convincing the government that their interests are actually in line with public interests, when this is in fact not the case. Not much has changed in the two and a half centuries since Smith.

There's one other fundamental principle that I remember from Wealth of Nations which is relevant here. The amount of profit that a producer requires is not determined by consumer demand. Consumer demand only determines the price at which he is able to sell. If he is unable to sell at a price that will get him sufficient profit, he'll just have to do something else. On average, this is a normal part of a fluid economy that should not be looked down on. There is nothing wrong with giving up a certain venture when it becomes irrational to keep holding on. However, what often happens is that the government will provide subsidies, for instance a homebuyer tax credit, which allows producers to sell at a higher price and thus make their required profit. This encourages them to continue in what would otherwise be considered irrational economic activity.

The problem is that when it comes to public interest, we somehow see certain goods (such as houses) as having some sort of absolute value. Everyone just has to have one! And people accuse capitalists of being materialistic. The reality is that every good has only relative value. It's only valuable if it's valuable to you. We all know this in our own daily lives. For instance, I would never pay as much for coffee as my brother, or my uncle. This is not a character flaw in either party. But now suppose that in this troubled economy, I were forced to pay my brother so that he could keep buying coffee...

That's pretty much the state of things in this country. And who wins? No, the buyers don't win. The people who stand to gain a profit are the sellers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Big business vs. free markets

Charles Johnson writing for the Freeman says,
British Petroleum, as a corporation, exists because governments created it – with a monopoly concession from the Shah of Iran to a company owned by the government of the United Kingdom. Like all other Big Oil companies, BP extracts the oil it sells mainly from government-controlled land and sea, through monopoly concessions, bureaucratic bidding processes, and politically granted leases. It uses government protection, liability caps, and escrow funds to insulate their business from paying the economic and social costs of their actions. In a freed market BP’s concentrated wealth and reckless business model would not exist.
Being in favor of free markets does not make you an advocate for big business. In many respects, it makes you just the opposite.

It's nice to see someone debunking the ever-present media insistence that pure capitalism caused the oil spill, and now we need the government to save us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Unity in Truth

For just as the body is one and has many memberrs, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)
Can there be unity among Christians? There are always attempts being made to do so. In our day people very much appreciate dialogue, and there is a lot of hunger, especially among young Christians, to see divisions decrease. Yet there are always a significant number of people who say (and reasonably so, at least on the face of it) that "we can have unity as long as we unite around truth." After all, it would be silly to unite solely around the fact that we're willing to call ourselves "Christians." We'd have unity, but we'd have very little to show for it.

And yet, all those passionate seekers of truth, despite the best of intentions, always seem to end up splitting Christianity into smaller and smaller pieces. Why is this? There may be many reasons, but I have come to suspect that it largely boils down to a misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we get it.

Postmodernism has brought with it the now widespread idea that truth is relative to both cultures and individuals. The assumptions we hold are conditioned by our experiences and by the society we live in; therefore there really is no "absolute truth." Christians (at least of a more conservative bent) tend to emphatically reject this assumption, insisting that truth is one, and that it is absolute. This is ironic for a group of people who run around proclaiming so many conflicting "truths." Uniting around the belief that there exists only one capital-T Truth is as vacuous as uniting around a mere label, such as "Christian."

The question is, what do Christians have with which to replace postmodern claims about truth? Can we deal with postmodern critiques without merely dismissing them? It would not be wise to neglect the insight that our assumptions are indeed culturally conditioned, and that a lot of the truths we cling to are largely wrapped up in personal experience. Ignoring these insights does not make them go away. It is not much better to casually admit, "True, our beliefs are largely culturally conditioned, but that doesn't mean there isn't absolute truth out there to be found." We ought to have some positive evidence that there really is Truth to be found, and that we're not wasting our time in search of it because we wish it to be there.

How have we misunderstood truth? In my opinion, postmodern claims about truth are irrefutable, provided we assume truth is something to be grasped individually. This understanding of truth is so fixed in our minds that I suspect it would take ages to pry it out. Yet what I believe to be closer to reality is that truth is grasped corporately. It might even be necessary to say something as radical as truth is not a "thing" to be grasped at all, but it is more like a state in which all the parts of a whole are properly ordered.

What leads me to this idea? Ironically, I would start with how individuals learn. One incredible modern insight is that the mind is, essentially, a corporate entity. The brain is composed of billions of cells, each of which sticks to its own individual tasks. Thus learning, even for a single human being, is a corporate activity. Propositions are not grasped by any one neuron. Human understanding is a product of all the parts of the brain being in proper cooperation with each other.

This proper cooperation is exactly what Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12. He describes many different tasks that we are given in the church, yet all of these separate tasks are part of the functioning of the one body of Christ. What if we applied this to our understanding of truth?

We already intuitively sense that our pursuit of knowledge benefits from diversity. We see how beneficial it is to discuss things collectively, so that flaws in our reasoning might be exposed and different voices might give us needed perspective. But all this gives us is a struggle to find the right balance between open-mindedness and strong resolve. This is because we still believe that knowledge is fundamentally something to be grasped individually. Hence the struggle is to find the best strategy for getting truth for oneself: open-mindedness might help bring a person closer to truth, while being resolute in one's opinions might protect it from outside threats.

What if this struggle is fundamentally misguided? Individual neurons in the brain do not individually struggle to understand propositions. That is the task of the brain as a whole. In the same way, I suspect that the Truth we are after is of a higher order than each of us as individuals. None of us can grasp it. I am not saying that none of us are smart enough. I am suggesting that it is necessarily impossible, like individual neurons trying to learn calculus, or individual muscle cells trying to play basketball. The Truth is not within our grasp because we are not supposed to grasp it individually, but collectively. This is why the church is a body, and not merely a set of individuals.

The postmodern complaint that no one can own the truth seems to be correct. But the conclusion that there is no truth relies on the assumption that we are meant to exist solely as individuals, rather than as a connected whole. Yet in the New Testament, the "new humanity" (Eph. 2:15) is a "body," (1 Cor. 12:12) organically connected to one another, as it were. It is not the destiny of human beings to find truth individually, but only as a body.

So if truth is not something that can be grasped individually, what is it? I have to insist that I don't know, because it is beyond my grasp. Instead, I merely insist that I am connected to a body that, in time, will be "guided into all the truth." (John 16:13)

For Catholics (at least of a conservative persuasion), the interpretation of John 16:13 is that the Church has been kept safe from key doctrinal errors, and that the way to have the Truth is to receive the teaching passed down through the Church. This would appear to be close to what I am saying, but it is in fact radically far off. The job of the body is not to receive the truth and break it down into propositions which can be understood by each individual part of the body. How absurd would it be if the brain broke down ideas so that the fingers and toes could understand them! This is not even necessary, nor is it reasonable. Rather, the body as a whole gains wisdom as each member of the body carries out its function properly.

Thus the function of the church as the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) is not primarily to write down statements of doctrine to which its members ought to assent. Statements of doctrine are wonderfully useful. I by no means intend to disparage words and propositions. That is how, for millennia, human beings have meaningfully communicated with one another on a level that would not be possible otherwise. I am simply saying that words and propositions are not "the truth," and never will be. No, the task of the church, as I have said, is to be well-ordered, to be healthy, and in this way to collectively possess the truth in a way that surpasses all individual understanding.

Here I have to express my skepticism toward the Protestant treatment of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In my mind there are two very different understandings of that doctrine, one of which I can accept, and another which doesn't work, in my opinion. The former is simply that the church does not have authority over Scripture, but must be continually transformed by it; in this sense the Scriptures are "authoritative." This much I can accept.

But there is a second sense in which Sola Scriptura commonly taken, and in that sense the Bible is God's Truth perfectly expressed to man in written form. Regardless of whether or not the words of the Bible are 100% factually accurate, I find it difficult to accept this doctrine of Sola Scriptura on philosophical grounds. Words and propositions do not add up to Truth, and I think this applies as much to the Bible as to anything else. Not that the Bible is just some other book; I wouldn't even suggest such a thing. I just think we have to make a distinction between capital-T Truth and the words of Scripture. Wouldn't every Protestant admit that understanding the words of Scripture is not the same as knowing God? Theologically speaking, wouldn't we rather say that knowing God is closer to what "having the Truth" is about, rather than knowing certain doctrines?

So then I reject these two notions of Truth espoused (at least sometimes) by both Catholics and Protestants--dogma on the one hand and "Sola Scriptura" on the other hand--which are really the same notion, namely that Truth is meant to be consumed individually. Instead, I propose that Truth is meant to be understood by us corporately, by which I mean that we are connected to one another and rightly ordered as a body. Ideally this means all humans. But it is natural to ask, how do we as the church pursue truth under this model?

For one thing, we each do our individual tasks. Each of us has a particular calling, and we ought to fulfill that calling in faith that by doing so we are contributing to the proper functioning of the body. The eye has to have faith that because it does its job, the legs will be able to carry the body where it needs to go. The ear has to have faith that because it does its job, the mind will understand what's being said. We all have to have faith in our individual tasks, because those tasks are all essential parts of a much greater body; and none of us has the right or that capability of overseeing the entire body.

For another thing, we connect to one another. The famous "love chapter" is the central part of Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 12-14, concerning the body and its proper ordering. Love really is the core of the Christian life. We ought to have faith that our collective understanding of the truth comes out of our mutual love for one another. I don't think it really happens in reverse. One does not need to know "the truth" in order to love others. Neither do I think it really helps us love one another when we have pure doctrine. Rather, love is more fundamental. Truth is something that we can have together, but only if we have love keeping us together. If we don't have love, then neither will we have truth. But this requires a different notion of "truth" than what is commonly accepted.

I think I'll end this here. There's a lot more I could say, but I think I will save it for other topics.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Peer-driven culture

Frederica Mathewes-Green hits the nail on the head in "School and Career: Making It Work," the eleventh chapter in Real Choices. I was particularly interested in what she had to say about college students and pregnancy.

"On secular campuses, sexual activity has become less of a scandal than virginity, so pregnancy is not seen as shameful. It is, however, seen as stupid. A student at an Ivy League college told me that the campus health center refers about fifty women every year for abortions; yet in the previous five years the number of students who continued their pregnancies totaled zero."

Peer-driven culture has its own way of shaming. Instead of making you feel guilty, it just makes you feel stupid and/or left out. (I wonder which is worse? Guilt or stupidity?) While it's crucial to recognize the practical hardships that having a baby causes for a college student, it's equally if not more important to recognize the social pressure that causes women to abort. As Mathewes-Green puts it,
"The problems that pregnancy causes in school and job situations appear to be somewhat vague and occasional, and chiefly social in nature. The power of social pressure should not be underestimated, but it is a general human constant, not elicited by the specific obligations of school or job."
This applies especially to college students. One has to understand how the college experience is woven into our social fabric. A college student doesn't just expect to get an education. She expects to have four years that she will never forget, marked by experiences shared with other people her own age, and characterized also by a general lack of genuine responsibility. To at least some degree this expectation is encouraged (and to some extent maybe ought to be encouraged) by our parents; but the largest part of this expectation is given to us by our own peers.

The result of this expectation is that anything preventing that expectation from being fulfilled is to be shunned. That makes pregnancy just about the worst thing in the world. Unfortunately, abstaining from sex, if it isn't the second worst thing, is pretty close behind. In such circumstances, abortion seems like an inevitable fallback.

It's difficult to blame college women for this, though in the end we must all take responsibility for our choices. Yet I would argue that society's commitment to the college experience is almost religious in nature. It is treated as both necessary and deserved: necessary in the sense of being a cocoon out of which adults emerge, deserved as in some sort of birthright for middle- to upper-class children (often the elitism of this expectation fails to be recognized). A woman in college who suddenly finds herself pregnant can't possibly think of it as any less than an utter violation of the natural order of things. And yet the reality is nothing could be more natural: at an age when human beings are most fertile, it should not be surprising when sex leads to pregnancy. Yet the values of her culture have been so instilled in her that she will quite probably feel the most horrifying shock imaginable at the prospect of having a baby.

I know that there are many factors leading to abortion, but I suspect that one of the most crucial cultural factors leading to abortion is the fact that culture for people in their late teens and early 20's is almost entirely created by their peers. Our system of education makes it so. As children we're put together starting from the time we're four or five years old; we grow up together in school, possibly spending more of our waking hours with each other than with family, and certainly learning more about social life from each other than from our parents; and finally we go off to college to pursue the college experience, just as I've described above.

And this only continues after college, because it's totally ingrained in us. As 20-somethings, we continue to surround ourselves with other 20-somethings. It's not at all surprising that people my age would be so hesitant to get married, and even less surprising that they would be hesitant to have children. We just haven't been trained for that. The habits we've set for ourselves have been based on social norms set by our peers. We're not used to inter-generational relationships. We only know how to please our friends. How in the world would we raise kids?

To me it's not surprising that church-going Christians tend to marry younger than other people. I know it has something to do with values, but I suspect there's also something much more practical involved, as well. People who go to church see other people in different stages of life on a regular basis. They see families with little children; they see teenagers; they see grandparents. You never see these people at work (especially not in grad school). Churches can have a profound impact on people my age. Where else would we even get the idea that having children can be a good thing?

If we really want to work toward a culture of life, we may have to start being intentional about building inter-generational relationships. The more kids are allowed to define their own values, for themselves and for each other, the longer they'll stay kids, and the less they'll tend to value being connected to the whole of human society. Without that sense of connectedness, the value of human life is also diminished. More concretely, kids just tend to want sex without consequences. Without any sense of obligation to anything beyond the kid culture they have constructed, abortion becomes an all too attractive choice.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Calvin on leaving the church

Not a long post today on the Institutes, just a couple of quotes that I read today that I found essential. From Book IV, Chapter I, Section 12:
What is more, some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God's mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith. ... Here are the apostle's words: "Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be of the same mind; and if you be differently minded in anything, God shall reveal this also to you" [Phil. 3:15]. Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise by the basis of schism among Christians? First and foremost, we should agree on all points. But since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation.
And from Section 13:
There are others who sin more out of ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of that insane pride. When they do not see a quality of life corresponding to the doctrine of the gospel among those to whom it is announced, they immediately judge that no church exists in that place. This is a very legitimate complaint, and we give all too much occasion for it in this most miserable age. And our cursed sloth is not to be excused, for the Lord will not allow it to go unpunished, seeing that he has already begun to chastise it with heavy stripes. Woe to us, then, who act with such dissolute and criminal license that weak consciences are wounded because of us! But on their part those of whom we have spoken sin in that they do not know how to restrain their disfavor. For where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity. Indeed, because they think no church exists where there are not perfect purity and integrity of life, they depart out of hatred of wickedness from the lawful church while they fancy themselves turning aside from the faction of the wicked.
How might Protestantism look differently if this had been the dominant opinion for the past 500 years?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is "free will," anyway?

Inspired by a comment I got today, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to post my thoughts on free will. It seems that this debate continues to go on, especially in Christian circles, where Calvinism seems to be everyone's favorite enemy--except, of course, for Calvinists, who pride themselves on believing the true biblical doctrine in spite of all common objections. Personally, I am continually shocked by the confidence with which either side can make their case. How both sides be so confident when it is logically certain that at least one of them is wrong?

Yesterday I thought a lot about how the way we use words confuses a lot of arguments. This is certainly true of free will. We use the words "free will" largely as a gap-filler. There's something about our actions we don't quite understand, and we attribute the part that remains mysterious to something innate in ourselves that can't be broken down any further. "Free will" becomes the same kind of answer as "God did it." It almost becomes a non-answer.

Here's what I mean. We've all had the sensation of wanting to do something, and then doing it. And probably all of us have had the sensation of wanting to do something and not being able to do it. Likewise, we've had the experience of not wanting to do something but being forced to do it anyway. So in common experience, it's easy for me to differentiate between things I do according to my own free will and things I do, or don't do, against my will.

But this only gets at sensation. What's behind that sensation? I have the experience of wanting to do something. Where did that desire come from in the first place? Did I create it, ex nihilo? I suppose there are some who might maintain such a position (I tried to argue this position in a philosophy class once), but after a little consideration, it seems kind of absurd. Our desires are very much based on things we have very little control over--primarily our own bodies, but also the culture we've grown up in. It's hard to underestimate just how much our culture helps create desires for us. Why do I have such a desire to pass my oral proficiency exams this week? Probably because I've been taught to think of this kind of success as a good thing. Do you think that if the academy didn't exist I would have any desire to take a test in mathematics?

So it's not so simple as just saying we have free will. From a scientific perspective, we have to deal with the fact that we are made of matter, just like everything else. Hence the stuff we're made of follows the same basic laws that all the other stuff in the universe does. Whatever free will is, then, it can't be so dramatic that it fundamentally violates this fact.

But before you accuse me of scientific determinism, consider the matter from a theological perspective. It's not really much different. Is God omnipotent or not? Are we capable of changing his plans? Does he somehow depend on us for input? Whatever free will is, it can hardly be so dramatic as to make God depend on humans. Ultimately, we're creatures, just like everything else. As Genesis puts it, we are dust. That doesn't mean we're not noble creatures. It just means that when you get right down to it, even the noblest of creatures can hardly violate God's control over his creation.

At this point it's natural to bring up the key objection to all of this. If everything is predetermined, why am I responsible for anything I do? That's the real heart of this whole "free will" debate: responsibility. And underneath responsibility, of course, has to be our basic understanding of justice. How do we deal with evil? How do we honor what is good?

The words "free will" really short-circuit any real discussion about justice. It is far from obvious how to deal with various real-world encounters with evil. Our culture is profoundly confused on this topic. Some are so convinced that every evil person is just a product of outside factors, that they will attempt to fix crime in every way except punishing criminals. Some take the opposite approach, insisting that every criminal is a product solely of his own choices. Both have profoundly detrimental effects on society. The reality is, evil is not so simple. It is hiding around every corner. It affects both our individual choices and our cultural influences. There is no more certain lesson from history than that one can never really draw a line between good guys and bad guys; evil cuts through everything.

Justice comes up a lot when talking about God and predestination. How can God be justified in punishing sin, when he predetermines every sin ever committed? But an equally potent question would be, how can God be justified in leaving mere creatures left to their free will? To make the force of this question clear, just consider the question in the context of saving faith. Good Protestants believe that if you believe in Jesus Christ, you will be saved--and if you don't, most would say, you will face God's judgment. How, then, would God be so cruel to leave that decision up to each individual human, knowing full well what the consequence of a wrong decision will be, as if by allowing humans decide for themselves he's washed his hands of guilt?

And in my mind, we're back to the same question we started with. Some say that we choose to believe in Christ or not based on free will. Okay, but what does that mean? Isn't that just an empty phrase to fill in the gap between what we know and what we don't? We know that some believe, and that others don't. What we don't really know is why. Why are some people convinced that the gospel is true, and others not? "Free will" answers nothing; it only allows people to quickly place the blame where they feel it belongs.

The more I reflect on these matters, both theological and philosophical, the more I am inclined to try to escape the question of free will altogether. That's because I believe more and more that what's really important, and what we can actually accomplish in life, is to try to oppose evil in a creative, redemptive way. Assigning blame doesn't accomplish that, whether you're assigning blame to individuals who do evil or to the influences that drive those individuals. The only thing way to really oppose evil is to become more aware of it, understanding how all-pervasive it is, and fighting it at every turn. It's both inside and outside, in every culture and every individual. Because of this, we may never really know why we do what we do. I'm often shocked by the evil I'm capable of doing. I'm surprised how often I hurt people, especially people I love. Romans 7 hits close to home for most of us, I think. Free will just doesn't seem to explain the real world, after all.

But even if we never understand why we do what we do, we can understand the difference between good and evil. It seems far more useful and important to focus on our actions, rather than on the "ultimate cause" of those actions (i.e. free will or predestination). Identifying good and evil may be difficult, but I do think we are capable of improvement. I don't have such hope for understanding free will.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What is "religion," anyway?

Karl Giberson, Vice-President of the BioLogos Foundation, frequently writes at the Huffington Post about science and religion. His latest post brings up a helpful point:
The most trivial part of the relationship between science and religion, and yet one that generates lots of debate, is the simple question of compatibility: Can they co-exist? I have written a bit about this, but I have to confess that this question is boring. Establishing that two things can exist at the same time is not an engaging enterprise, because it leaves unanswered the question of whether either of those things should exist at all. Pornography, as we know, is compatible with unbridled free enterprise (yawn). But should either, or both, of those things exist? Now that is a real question.
The article goes on to give a defense of religion's existence. I don't find his conclusion very helpful. I admit that it's interesting in terms of connecting the beauty of mathematics with religion, but ultimately I find his argument to be another version of the "God-of-the-gaps" argument. We've all heard one form of this argument or another: Science can tell us lots of things, but there's always something that it can't tell us, and that's where religion comes in.

I think a more fundamental question that our culture needs to be asking itself, especially with regard to science and faith, is, "What is religion?" Our society wrestles with questions about the compatibility of science and religion because we have a hard time critically analyzing our use of the words "science" and "religion."

Just for fun, I thought I'd go to and search the word "religion," to see what the Bible says about it. I checked a few different translations, but the largest number of results I ever got was five. Five times in the entire Bible is the word "religion" mentioned--and not one time in the entire Old Testament. Kind of interesting, isn't it?

And what does the word appear to mean when it is used? I think the perfect verse to examine would be James 1:27--
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
In this and other contexts, the word "religion" appears to mean the way we serve God. It might in some other passages include things like belies and doctrines, but on the whole it seems to have more to do with tradition and practice than anything else.

Evidently, the word "religion," once upon a time, did not mean anything like "how we learn more about the world" or "how we learn what is true." Of course, religion might be based on certain truth claims, but the word "religion" itself was not used to mean the pursuit of those truth claims. It wouldn't make sense, then, to say that we need religion to answer questions that science can't answer. It's only in modern times that we think of religion this way. This probably has to do with the influence of Christianity, which has always stressed belief in certain propositions. But to use the word "religion" in the ancient sense, there is only one logical answer to the question, "Why should religion exist?" The answer is, "Because God ought to be served."

Questions about the compatibility of science and religion come up in many different contexts, and the modern tendency to lump all of these questions together is silly. A Christian has vastly different questions about science and religion than does a Hindu. For the Christian, the questions mostly boil down to how we ought to read the Bible. This is not a new question. The early Church Fathers almost 2000 years ago were asking questions like whether or not Genesis should be taken literally. The assumption that modern science presents new challenges to Christianity is pretty naive. Christians have been arguing for centuries, both with non-Christians and with other Christians, about the historicity of the Bible and the compatibility of scientific discoveries with Christian beliefs.

The point I'm trying to make is this. Every time someone asks the question, "Are science and religion compatible?" they are, knowingly or unknowingly, using a definition of "religion" that automatically diminishes all particular religions. We have come to use the word "religion" according to the assumption that science is what's actually helpful, while religion is just some impulse in humanity that we have to tolerate because it just doesn't seem to go away. There are indeed many people who believe this to be the case, but there are many other people who use the word "religion" to unwittingly support that assumption.

My own opinion is that science can and should inform and/or correct some of our religious beliefs. For instance, the modern view that the earth is billions of years old is not consistent with some of the traditional claims of Christianity. This doesn't bother me so much. I don't think the Christian religion is an all-or-nothing deal. If it is, God only knows which of us are actually Christians. On the other hand, neither do I subordinate all religious belief to science. Science is the study of the repeatable. Not everything worth understanding is repeatable, in my opinion.

When you get right down to it, you just have to start asking more specific questions than, "Are science and religion compatible?" or "Is religion useful?" These vague questions only perpetuate the assumption that science is good and religion is tolerable at best, without providing a serious critique of that assumption.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Calvin on Assurance, Resurrection

I have finished three out of the four books in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, a satisfying accomplishment, which I was able to do only by reading a few pages every day since January 1 of this year. By the end of the year, I should be finished with Book IV.

Having dealt with the doctrine of election, Calvin moves on in Chapter XXIV (of Book III) to talk about how we confirm our own election. This is an interesting chapter. As it builds on the previous chapters on election, it is in some ways just as frustrating. On the other hand, here as always we see some of Calvin's classic statements of humility and total dependence on God. The thing that always sticks out in Calvin is how humility is always coupled with confidence--both are rooted in a belief in God's absolute supremacy.

According to Calvin, God has elected from all eternity those destined for adoption as his children, but there is still a process of actually making them his own. The preaching and hearing of the gospel is essential to bringing the elect to faith (Sec. 1). But that isn't sufficient without the work of grace by the Holy Spirit (Sec. 2). Faith can only be stirred up in the elect, but election doesn't depend on faith (Sec. 3). This is basically a reiteration of earlier arguments, which make it clear that God doesn't simply predict the future--he actually determines it. In Calvin's mind, there really isn't any difference between God allowing and God causing; one way or the other, God is in total control of whatever happens.

There is a right and a wrong way to attain certainty about one's own election (Sec. 4). Calvin's own words are best to describe the difference:
I call it "seeking outside the way" when mere man attempts to break into the inner recesses of divine wisdom, and tries to penetrate even to highest eternity, in order to find out what decision has been made concerning himself at God's judgment seat. For then he casts himself into the depths of a bottomless whirlpool to be swallowed up; then he tangles himself in innumerable and inextricable snares; then he buries himself in an abyss of sightless darkness. For it is right for the stupidity of human understanding to be thus punished with dreadful ruin when man tries by his own strength to rise to the height of divine wisdom.


Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God's call, and to end with it.
In other words, certainty about one's own election can never come from some special knowledge. It can never come from yourself, no matter how spiritual you are. It always comes simply from believing God's promises.

In some sense, Calvin would have to agree that the doctrine of election need not be understood before assurance of calling is attained. For he insists it is wrong to seek certainty of election by directly inquiring about God's foreknowledge. Instead, he asks believers simply to believe the promise of the gospel, which is freely offered to all. It is as if the door leading to eternal life were marked on the front with the words "Come, all who will, and inherit eternal life," and then on the back with the words, "Welcome, you who have been chosen from all eternity." Those who enter the door might never even see the words on the back, but they would no less be those chosen from all eternity. They would inherit eternal life simply by believing the words on the front and obeying them.

And Calvin seems to be confirming this in Section 5 when he says, "First, if we seek God's fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God's Spirit rests [cf. Matt. 3:17]. If we seek salvation, life, and the immortality of the Heavenly Kingdom, then there is no other to whom we may flee, seeing that he alone is the fountain of life, the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the Kingdom of Heaven." If we enter into life through this door (that is, Christ) then we may be assured that we have eternal life, without penetrating the eternal decrees of God. It would seem to me, then, that contemplating our eternal election ought to serve only to produce humility, i.e. to prevent us from thinking that our decision to follow Christ was from ourselves, rather than from grace.

In Section 6-11, Calvin does a bit of scriptural exegesis to try to defend the view that those who truly believe cannot fall away. In my opinion, it all depends on what you mean by "truly believe." If you define true belief retroactively, so that only in the end can you know who truly believed, then you've won the argument by default. This to me is not very helpful. But I think the point Calvin is getting at is this: believers don't need to be troubled by their own sin, or by the nagging idea that God might let them go in the end, even after a life of struggling to believe. For Calvin, all believers ought to be reassured that God is good; he is not mean or arbitrary, and his promises are sure. As for those who fall away and stop believing and trusting in God, the promises no longer apply, and according to Calvin, they never did apply.

Personally, I don't think Calvin's view of perseverance matches real-life experience, and I also don't think it fits all that well with scripture. It seems to me that if you're going to talk about eternal things, you need to stop talking about temporal things, and vice versa. The choices people make here and now are real, but they are not eternal. People can and do choose to believe at one time, and then years later decide to stop believing--and vice versa. I think these choices are real, and meaningful. And I think it makes sense to say, so long as a person believes, he is a true Christian, and so long as he does not, he is no longer a Christian. Perseverance, then, is useful only in talking about eternal outcomes, rather than all these temporal decisions that people do, in fact, make. So far as I am concerned, the doctrine of perseverance, like the doctrine of election, is useful only in reminding believers that their salvation, both in the future as well as in the present, is only by grace, and not by something gained from themselves; and as it is by grace, we can trust that God will ensure the best outcome, because he is good.

Sections 12-17 explain what God does with the reprobate (those not elect to salvation). This is an intense section, but Calvin's motivation is, as always, quite clear. He insists that it is God who determines the fate of the reprobate--which sounds awful, because it is as if God throws them into hell against their will. But there is an awful lot of tension here. Calvin doesn't want to say anyone is thrown into hell against their will. The question he is answering, though, is why some people don't will to believe. In the end, he says, the answer to that question has to come down to God's decision; otherwise, it would come down to man's decision, and grace would no longer be grace.
If the same sermon is preached, say, to a hundred people, twenty receive it with the ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it. If anyone should reply that this diversity arises out of their malice and perverseness, I still will not be satisfied, because the nature of the former would be occupied with the same malice if God did not correct it by his goodness. Therefore, we shall always be confused unless Paul's question comes to mind: Who distinguishes you? [I Cor. 4:7] By this he means that some excel others not by their own virtue but by God's grace alone.
And if that doesn't satisfy you, well, here's what Calvin has to say:
When the impious hear these things, they complain that God with unbridled power abuses his miserable creatures for his cruel amusement. But we, who know all men to be on so many counts liable before God's judgment seat that challenged on a thousand points they cannot give satisfaction even on one, confess that the wicked suffer nothing out of accord with God's most righteous judgment. Despite the fact that we do not clearly grasp the reason for this, let us not be unwilling to admit some ignorance where God's wisdom rises to its height.
There is a great deal of humility in these words, yet also a sad lack of struggle in them. As I have mentioned time after time, the great saints of the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to David and even Jesus himself, all struggled with God over his sovereign purposes. Calvin doesn't give his readers much in the way of resources for truly "wrestling with God" (a feature of Jacob's character which earned him the very name Israel).

I'll just deal briefly with Chapter XXV, on the final resurrection of the dead. Mostly this is stuff commonly accepted by all Christians, but there are a couple of interesting ideas that Calvin takes the trouble to refute, which makes me curious which people have actually promoted these ideas.

The first idea is that there will be no resurrection. What's interesting about Calvin's refutation of this is that he uses burial rites to defend the idea that all cultures have been led to value the body and hope for resurrection.
Why the sacred and inviolable custom of burial but as an earnest of new life? And no one can claim that this arose out of error, for burial rites were always kept up among the holy patriarchs; and God willed that the same custom remain among the Gentiles so that an image of the resurrection set before them might shake off their drowsiness. Now, although that ceremony was unprofitable, it is useful to us if we wisely look to its purpose. For it is a weighty refutation of unbelief that all together professed what no one believed!
This is an interesting defense of Christian belief. In general the strategy is fairly common: take something that all people implicitly believe based on their actions, and show that it is logical only in a Christian worldview. But here the application of this strategy is quite unique, at least in my experience. Maybe that's because in our modern world burial customs aren't considered as important.

The second idea that Calvin refutes is the idea that when we are raised from the dead, we will have a new body, not the body we have now. Calvin affirms that the body we have now will be glorified, so that it will not be the same as it is now; but nevertheless it will be the same body. The reason he gives for this is quite wonderful, actually:
For it would be utterly absurd that the bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples [I Cor. 3:16] should fall away into filth without hope of resurrection! What of the fact that they are also members of Christ? [I Cor. 6:15]. Or that God commands all their parts to be sanctified by him? Or that it is his will that his name be praised with men's tongues, that pure hands be lifted to himself [I Tim. 2:8], that sacrifices be offered [Rom. 12:1]? What madness is it for that part of man, deemed by the Heavenly Judge worthy of such shining honor, to be by mortal man reduced to dust beyond hope of restoration?
Thus Calvin refutes the dualism of the Manichaeans, who said that flesh was evil, and therefore could not share in the resurrection life. It's good to see a strong, classical Reformed affirmation of the physical body.

I think that's it for today. Next time I start in on Book IV, which has the pithy titled, "The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Capitalism vs. Corporatism

Sheldon Richman over at the Freeman online wrote a great essay asking the simple question, is American "capitalism" really so much better than European "socialism"? He summarizes his view of American economics in this way:
What counts is what the system really is. And it’s nothing like an open, competitive market void of government privilege. It’s a corporatist system in which the liberty and property of regular people are subordinated in myriad ways to the interests of a mainly business-oriented ruling elite. (Do we need further evidence than the “socialist” Barack Obama’s coziness with Wall Street — rhetoric notwithstanding — and his generous gift to the health insurance industry?) Yes, we have some degree of freedom, but it is freedom circumscribed by a system of rules and regulations aimed at producing certain broad economic outcomes for the well-connected. At the federal, state, and local level, money has always talked. Intervention is of course defended on moral grounds (say, protection of consumers and workers), but behind the scenes lurks an economic interest. “Baptists and bootleggers” are ubiquitous.
This is what I appreciate about the libertarian, or classical liberal, perspective. The fundamental difference between "conservative" and "liberal" in this country seems to have to do with where the power structure should be located. The libertarian has the courage to ask, why should the power structure have a central location at all?

This is also why Republicans always sound so hypocritical. They talk about economic liberty, but what it really comes down to is more power for corporations, which is not better than more power for the government (in fact, sometimes it is equivalent). What we need is a true capitalist party, rather than a corporatist party.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Plagiarism and Incentive

Read this in an interesting New York Times article on growing amounts of plagiarism in American universities:
A University of Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, disturbed by the high rates of reported plagiarism, set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word, or “texts” in Ms. Blum’s academic language.

She conducted her ethnographic research among 234 Notre Dame undergraduates. “Today’s students stand at the crossroads of a new way of conceiving texts and the people who create them and who quote them,” she wrote last year in the book “My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture,” published by Cornell University Press.

Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.

In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.
I find these remarks rather fascinating in that they trace a pattern through all areas of modern culture. Could we really be losing our desire for originality in general?

Perhaps, but I think Blum misses the essential structural problems that have led to this trend in American schools.

I tend to see the issues with American education in practical, economic terms. What Americans need to understand is what kind of system we have created, and how the pressures of that system will inevitably lead to more plagiarism, less originality, and less desire to achieve the Enlightenment of ideal of individual creative thought. The Internet may be a huge catalyst for this change, but the basic structures have been in place for years.

What we have is a system in which the following ideas are taken for granted:
  1. Everyone deserves the same chance at a good education.
  2. All good jobs require four years of college education.
  3. The sooner you can finish college and start working, the better.
  4. Being a "well-rounded" and super-involved student is much better for finding jobs than being a bookworm or nerd.
Now let's talk about the natural, and inevitable, effects of these ideas, when they are taken for granted by the whole society:
  1. Price inflation: The price of education must go up. This is in fact what we have seen for years now, and it's amazing that people still marvel at it. Yet this is a very predictable result of the incontrovertible law of supply and demand.
  2. Utilitarianism: The vast majority of students will not see the pursuit of truth as the primary reason to go to college and participate in academics. They will see it, rather, as a means to a good job in the future. That this is the case seems self-evident, but I'd be happy to find some source to back me up on this.
  3. Trade-offs: When education is really about reaching economic goals, students do whatever will help them reach those goals. If teachers hold the line on things like plagiarism, that will make some difference, but it won't be the final word. Students will inevitably have to compromise between many different priorities.
  4. Grade inflation: It's not just the idea that everyone deserves a chance. It's also simple economics. If grades matter to their economic well-being, then students will do whatever it takes to get higher grades. If they find that certain strategies other than actually learning more are working to get them grades, these strategies will flourish. It is infinitely more difficult for teachers to universally maintain rigorous standards than it is for students to come up with new ways of getting good grades. Grade inflation, under this system, is as inevitable as price inflation.
What does any of this have to do with plagiarism? Far too many people are under the impression that plagiarism is a sign of moral degradation and/or laziness among students. It is neither. I find it extremely hard to believe that entire generations are actually very different from one another in moral character. A friend once told me that some of the oldest writings we have from human civilizations include words lamenting the moral decline of younger generations. The belief that one generation is worse than the previous is as old as time; yet it is probably never true.

No, plagiarism is not a sign of moral degradation or laziness. It is actually the inevitable result of students trying their best to do what they've been told they must. They must go to college, they must do more than they can possibly do well in order to get the most out of college, they must get good grades, they must develop good relationships and networking skills, and they must find some way to balance all of these imperatives. Desire for free, original thought may be what drives the professor at the chalk board, but the students in their classroom are driven by much more practical concerns.

This, by the way, is a source for a lot of confusion in education over the issue of how to actually teach subjects to modern students. We see that students are motivated by practical concerns, so we think that the solution is to try to make learning more "hands on." We insist on finding ways to make everything from mathematics to philosophy more "practical." But this is to fundamentally mistake students' motivations for learning style. Of course different methods of teaching are always important for different students. But it is not as if an entire generation of students has become more "hands-on" than ever before (unless you just mean they know how to use a computer). It just means that an entire generation has become more interested in education as a tool for success and not as a path for intellectual growth.

Another point worth mentioning is that original thought may be genuinely more difficult than ever to produce. Think about it. If there are more kids in college and more information available than ever before, isn't it possible that there is less room for meaningful originality? It's not at all surprising to me that someone would say, as was quoted in the article, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Young people must surely feel this way after realizing that any good thing they ever thought has already been said before, and any original thing they ever thought is crap. (This blog post, for instance, probably falls into one of those two categories.) It's easy to become cynical.

As long as our system remains in place just the way it is, I suspect that plagiarism will become more and more common, and students will come to accept it more and more from their peers. It will not help to simply be appalled at it. I find it staggering the way professors in the academy can look at the situation we have with an air of self-righteousness. Do professional educators seriously not understand how the business of education works?