Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Reformation Day!

Happy Reformation Day! I finished my reading of Calvin's Institutes, but election day is only two days away, so I decided to write some thoughts on economics instead of blogging on Calvin. I'll have some thoughts on him later in the week. Until then, here's my favorite Reformation Day video!

On traffic lights and economics

Suppose you are sitting behind a long line of cars at a traffic light, and the light turns green. Despite the light turning green, the car in front of you does not move for half a minute. Finally, you are free to drive, yet you are hardly able to move forward before the light is red once more. The light changes again, and you go through the same cycle. By now you'll be late for your appointment. You want to scream at all the cars who were in front of you and wouldn't move.

You think to yourself, "Why is it that when the light turns green, we don't move?" You decide that it would be much more logical if as soon as the light turned green, everyone at the light started moving simultaneously. This would make getting cars through the light much more efficient. Then you wouldn't be late. Driving would be so much better if everyone followed this simple rule that you are convinced they should pass a law requiring it. After all, it would help everyone, in the long run.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Does the good news hinge on bad news?

Is Christianity a guilt-driven religion?

The answer of what I like to call "pop-evangelicalism" is, "No man, it's all about grace."

Grace. Sure. But don't you mean grace in response to...guilt?

The narrative which the evangelical has in mind is still the narrative of Martin Luther--burdened by guilt under the wrath of an angry God, finally liberated by the good news of justification by faith alone. We don't have to keep trying to appease God under the weight of heavy burdens imposed upon us by the Catholic Church. That's good news, right?

Here's the thing: that's still a guilt-driven religion. It's just that you've proposed a different solution to that guilt. Instead of trying to pay of the debt you owe, you are driven to accept the fact that you cannot pay it, confess your guilt, and accept God's forgiveness and cleansing. This proposal would not make sense outside of some shared assumptions about God's wrath and our accountability to him.

Evangelicals often run into the problem that many people aren't starting with those assumptions. Their solution to this problem goes like this: before you tell the good news, you have to tell the bad news. This takes on a couple of forms. One is the fundamentalist bible-thumping technique, where you tell people all the things that they're doing that God hates and will send them to hell. Another is the pop-evangelical method of psychoanalyzing the world around them and convincing us that deep down we're all screwed up. (I read a couple of perfect examples of this here and here.) Whatever may differ in outward appearance, the fundamental principle is the same: make people feel their guilt, so that they may be driven by that guilt to God's forgiveness in Christ. It is the gospel of guilt.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Concerning philosophy and one year olds

rationalism -noun
1. the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.

The life of a graduate student, in my experience, is typically spent around peers, around professors, or in solitude. Marriage is common enough in graduate school, but I would venture to guess that the majority of us aren't married. Parents make up a much smaller percentage of graduate students. In this environment it is taken as a truism that having children hinders progress in our studies. (I have heard stunning exceptions to this. One student in religious studies once told me that his advisor recommends having children as a graduate student--then suddenly you will be unable to waste time.)

Well, you'll get no argument from me on the practical implications of having children--they take a lot of work. What I'm interested in is the effect of simply not being around children, of being immersed in a world of professionals. Of course we could go on all day about how this affects our priorities, what it does to our personal development, and so on. But I'm really interested in the intellectual side of it. How does being absent from children all the time affect the way we think, about ourselves and about our beliefs?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Calvin on the Mass, and those other five Sacraments

Lots of Calvin lately. I guess it's like being at the end of a long race. You see the end in sight, so you kick it into gear. There's no reason in particular why I should be reading at a faster pace, except that I did enjoy Calvin on the sacraments, and because I figure, hey, why not finish this whole book before November?

So that brings me to Institutes of the Christian Religion Chapters XVIII and XIX. Some of the most fiery rhetoric in the entire work is in these chapters, which says something about how Calvin views the sacraments.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How "capitalism" works around here

The Freeman tipped me off to a story this week that has stirred in me an even deeper moral outrage against government interventionism. The headline reads:
McDonald's, 29 other firms get health care coverage waivers

Nearly a million workers won't get a consumer protection in the U.S. health reform law meant to cap insurance costs because the government exempted their employers.

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which provided a list of exemptions, said it granted waivers in late September so workers with such plans wouldn't lose coverage from employers who might choose instead to drop health insurance altogether.

Without waivers, companies would have had to provide a minimum of $750,000 in coverage next year, increasing to $1.25 million in 2012, $2 million in 2013 and unlimited in 2014.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Calvin on the Sacraments

With the help of two reading days this week, which I actually managed to spend reading, I have made a ton of progress on the Institutes. It also doesn't hurt that what I've been reading on the sacraments has been some of the most fascinating material in all of Calvin's work. Truly, there are some rather astonishing passages in these chapters that one could not expect from Calvin if one were judging only on the popular perception of him. From general cultural impressions I seem to have this latent image of Calvin as something of a machine, coldly calculating the true doctrines of Christianity, without regard for feeling or mystery. These chapters on the sacraments, more than any others in the Institutes, completely obliterate this image of Calvin. Instead, we find a picture of Calvin as overcome with the mysteries of God, and wholly inclined toward a direct personal experience of Christ. It is nothing short of a tragedy that this image has been lost in popular Christian consciousness.

Justice and the natural order

A recent article in First Things by Stephen M. Barr entitled, "Fearful Symmetries" argues that scientific reductionism has been misapplied by scientific materialists. Barr decries the "diminished ontological status" of the fundamental "stuff" of the universe in the materialist view of things. In contrast, he expresses the belief that it is precisely by looking at the basic building blocks of the universe that we see its underlying order, and thus we see the Mind of God at work. Working "down" from the complex to the simple does not mean explaining away the beauty of the universe; on the contrary, it means discovering that beauty.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

For my brother, and anyone else who has had to edit extraneous punctuation marks

epic fail photos - Quotation Marks Fail
see more funny videos

Christian Intellectual Liberty

In thinking about the relationship between science and religion, and considering very carefully the interaction between my faith and the academic world, it seems good to me to consider the more basic questions (and assumptions) which are really at the heart of the matter, rather than endlessly arguing over creation and evolution, the historicity of the resurrection, and so on. From where I sit, conversations between Christians and non-Christians (especially secularists) can feel rather fruitless, even when they are civil. I suspect this is because we have a hard time identifying what's really important to the people with whom we are conversing.

As indicated by the title of this post, I think one of more fundamental questions that rarely gets addressed seriously is that of intellectual liberty. It is useless to keep arguing whether certain scientific theories such as evolution are compatible with Christianity, if we are not going to address the more basic question of whether or not Christians are free to question old ideas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Calvin on the Papacy, Part 2

In my last post on Calvin's Institutes, I focused on Calvin's severe critique of the Roman Catholic Church. Here, in discussing Book IV, Chapters IX - XIII, I will focus more on the constructive side of Calvin's criticism. If Calvin so detested the papacy, what was he ready to replace it with? What reasons did he have to support his view?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What's wrong with math education...

epic fail photos - Teacher Fail
see more funny videos

Another sign that our math education is based on mindless application of formulas rather than common sense...

P.S. The teacher is wrong here, not the student.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Free Will and Creativity

In discussions about religious topics in which both atheists and Christians take part, the subject of free will plays an interesting role, in that both sides are internally divided on the issue. Atheists, on the one hand, find it difficult to tell whether a scientific understanding of the universe implies some sort of determinism (quantum mechanics notwithstanding) or whether there really is something to the intuitive belief in free agency. Christians add a theological dimension to this struggle, since on the one hand moral agency is non-negotiable in Christianity, but on the other hand so is God's omnipotence.

I wonder if the question of free will can be framed in more useful terms. It feels like every time the subject arises, we just end up spinning our wheels. Yet the topic also seems important, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, if we're interested in justice, it must be important to know whether someone ought to be held responsible for his choices. For another, isn't it depressing to envision a world in which our choices don't really contribute anything?