Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Origen on the planets and the stars

Origen's rationalism is just painful in this passage from De Principiis:
But to arrive at a clearer understanding on these matters, we ought first to inquire after this point, whether it is allowable to suppose that they are living and rational beings; then, in the next place, whether their souls came into existence at the same time with their bodies, or seem to be anterior to them; and also whether, after the end of the world, we are to understand that they are to be released from their bodies; and whether, as we cease to live, so they also will cease from illuminating the world. Although this inquiry may seem to be somewhat bold, yet, as we are incited by the desire of ascertaining the truth as far as possible, there seems no absurdity in attempting an investigation of the subject agreeably to the grace of the Holy Spirit.

We think, then, that they may be designated as living beings, for this reason, that they are said to receive commandments from God, which is ordinarily the case only with rational beings. “I have given a commandment to all the stars,” says the Lord. What, now, are these commandments? Those, namely, that each star, in its order and course, should bestow upon the world the amount of splendour which has been entrusted to it. For those which are called “planets” move in orbits of one kind, and those which are termed ἀπλανεῖς are different. Now it manifestly follows from this, that neither can the movement of that body take place without a soul, nor can living things be at any time without motion. And seeing that the stars move with such order and regularity, that their movements never appear to be at any time subject to derangement, would it not be the height of folly to say that so orderly an observance of method and plan could be carried out or accomplished by irrational beings? In the writings of Jeremiah, indeed, the moon is called the queen of heaven. Yet if the stars are living and rational beings, there will undoubtedly appear among them both an advance and a falling back. For the language of Job, “the stars are not clean in His sight,” seems to me to convey some such idea.
When one is absolutely convinced that order cannot come into being without reason, one will even ascribe souls to the sun and the moon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Florensky on learning mathematics

In mathematics try not just to memorise what to do and how but take it in gradually, bit by bit, as though it were a new piece of music. Mathematics should not be a burden laid on you from without, but a habit of thought.
(From Avril Pyman's biography, p. 160.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Al Jazeera on religious stereotypes

Interesting opinion piece on Al Jazeera addresses the West's failure to predict or understand the revolutions currently going on in the Middle East. This is what really stands out:
But somewhere in all of this there was a fatal flaw: the good-hearted, progressive, pro-peace activists, pundits, and academics still followed the trend du jour analyses firmly within the framework of "Muslim religiosity" and "cultural understanding".

They affirmed rather than denied the basic premise of the conventional wisdom that when it came to Muslims and Arabs, all was about "religion".


The inconvenient, but certainly long due and welcome, truth is that the uprisings made us see that labour organisations, students, women, professional groups, in a word the civil society, provided the shock troops for the revolutions.

Looking back at the history of the last century or so, it is hard to imagine how we missed to see these dynamic groups, which have been an integral part of political reforms in the region since the late nineteenth century. They suddenly fell below our radars in the post 9/11 world.


It is time to approach three hundred million Arabic speaking people and more than one billion people professing Islam as their faith in their own ways not as "Muslims" but as an integral part of human society – within the context of particular social experiences, needs, aspirations, worries, and grievances, which are as real, complex, and the same as that of the most other peoples around the world.
This is a legitimate complaint about a real problem in Western analysis. On the other hand, isn't the problem more general? Doesn't the media treat every religious group is far more homogeneous than it really is, and isn't it inclined to oversimplify the sociological factors involved in any major event? The very phrase "religious fundamentalism" is a symptom of this tendency. To put it bluntly, I'd say Western media treats its native Christianity every bit as simplistically as it treats Islam.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The psychology of deconversion

Fascinating article at Psychology Today on clergy losing their faith: (HT: Mockingbird) The diversity of reasons for losing faith is always worth exploring. Some simply come to believe religion is nonsense in the face of modern science. Others see moral failings in the church, i.e. hypocrisy, while others come to believe that religious moral claims are simply false, apart from any hypocrisy. I found it especially compelling to read about the experience of clergy, who have invested their whole lives in a theological system. Religious belief is still a social issue, despite our official separation of church and state; it isn't as easy as just picking what you believe.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I think I get it now

In Chapter 11, Vanhoozer finally gets to the point which makes all the difference. In Chapter 11 of The Drama of Doctrine, he has this to say about the doctrine of atonement:
The acid test for atonement theology is to account for the necessity and the efficacy of the death of Jesus as the culmination of the through line of God's covenantal action. Let us address these two concers in order. First, the necessity of the cross. If the cross saves merely by manifesting some universal truth--"God is on the side of the victims"; "God forgives us no matter what"--then it does not really change anything, except for our ignorance of the principle. This position suffers from two weaknesses. First, it leads to the eclipse of Jesus; for once we grasp the principle, the particular story and the events it relates are dispensable. Second, the preaching of the cross becomes a reassuring affirmation ("God's OK; you're OK"), not a radical transformation.
Vanhoozer doesn't quite say it in this way, but here's how I'd phrase what I think he's trying to say: We can't answer why Christ died; we can only answer what Christ's death accomplished. In general, he's saying that the drama of God's action in the world transcends all principles, whereas other approaches make principles transcend the drama. When principles transcend the drama, you get statements like, "Jesus died so that we could be saved from our sins." When the drama transcends principles, you get statements like, "Jesus died; therefore your sins are forgiven."

The difference sounds subtle, but it's really quite profound. It means God doesn't act according to fixed principles; rather, principles are derived from God's actions. Vanhoozer doesn't explore the uncomfortable nature of this claim. It means God really is fundamentally inexplicable. We don't actually know why the theodrama has played out this particular way, because there is no why that exists prior to God's actions themselves (at least as they exist collectively as a single drama). Hence God's response to Job. Hence the "foolishness" of the gospel.

It's a shame I had to read for so long to get to this. It really is an idea worth interacting with.

Origen on final consummation

From De Principiis, Book I, Chapter VI:
But since Paul says that certain things are visible and temporal, and others besides these invisible and eternal, we proceed to inquire how those things which are seen are temporal—whether because there will be nothing at all after them in all those periods of the coming world, in which that dispersion and separation from the one beginning is undergoing a process of restoration to one and the same end and likeness; or because, while the form of those things which are seen passes away, their essential nature is subject to no corruption. And Paul seems to confirm the latter view, when he says, “For the fashion of this world passeth away.” David also appears to assert the same in the words, “The heavens shall perish, but Thou shalt endure; and they all shall wax old as a garment, and Thou shalt change them like a vesture, and like a vestment they shall be changed.” For if the heavens are to be changed, assuredly that which is changed does not perish, and if the fashion of the world passes away, it is by no means an annihilation or destruction of their material substance that is shown to take place, but a kind of change of quality and transformation of appearance. Isaiah also, in declaring prophetically that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, undoubtedly suggests a similar view. For this renewal of heaven and earth, and this transmutation of the form of the present world, and this changing of the heavens will undoubtedly be prepared for those who are walking along that way which we have pointed out above, and are tending to that goal of happiness to which, it is said, even enemies themselves are to be subjected, and in which God is said to be “all and in all.” And if any one imagine that at the end material, i.e., bodily, nature will be entirely destroyed, he cannot in any respect meet my view, how beings so numerous and powerful are able to live and to exist without bodies, since it is an attribute of the divine nature alone—i.e., of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to exist without any material substance, and without partaking in any degree of a bodily adjunct. Another, perhaps, may say that in the end every bodily substance will be so pure and refined as to be like the æther, and of a celestial purity and clearness. How things will be, however, is known with certainty to God alone, and to those who are His friends through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The Atheism Diet

Amusing story this morning on MSNBC:
It might be the potlucks, it might be those long hours sitting in pews, but whatever the cause, a new study presented this week shows a link between religious activity and weight gain.

The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, found that young adults who frequently attended religious activities were far more likely to become obese than those who didn’t.

“Our main finding was that people with a high frequency of religious participation in young adulthood were 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than those with no religious participation in young adulthood,” says Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“And that is true even after we adjusted for variables like age, race, gender, education, income, and baseline body mass index," he added.
Mockingbird should totally blog about this. I'll bet it is the potlucks. Or maybe it's that religious people don't smoke as much.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Be strong and courageous

How should I react to the book of Joshua? For me, there is no easy way to resolve the issue. Four different "modes" of reaction seem to arise in me, and it's difficult to see how they can be combined coherently. So in this little blog post, I will simply go through these four modes of reaction, one at a time, and leave them all standing in tension with one another. Perhaps, just as musical strings must be held in tension in order to produce beautiful sound, it is necessary simply to hold ideas in tension before they make any music.

Mode 1: Just enjoy the show. Joshua would make an epic movie, in the hands of the right producer. That same visceral energy that drives the movie 300 would carry through in this blood-and-guts epic battle sequence. Make no mistake, this book should be rated "R." It does not shy away from prostitutes, from cities being burned and pillaged, from kings being beheaded, or from the wrath of God consuming sinners in the flame. Without doubt, this story appeals to that instinct in us to be part of a warrior nation, a people sworn to absolute allegiance, willing not only to die but to kill for the sake of God. Who would not be stirred by the words of Joshua? "Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings. ... Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight." Who would not be proud to fight for such a man before whom kingdom after kingdom fell? As we read later in Judges 3:1-2, war was a test of Israel's devotion to God, which he explicitly meant for successive generations to experience. I think it is still not so difficult to understand, even in our pampered culture, the appeal of such a life: to forget how to fight, after all, is to become weak, complacent, and unfit for holiness.

Subtle argument for empiricism

Monday, March 21, 2011

Self and the Other

I happen to be sitting in on faith and science discussions on a bi-weekly basis this year. It's been an interesting journey, as two representatives of UVA's atheist/agnostic society have been joining us pretty faithfully. Last week I became especially intrigued by some of the fundamental philosophical issues that finally came up as a result of our conversation. One of the atheists in our group was led by a conversation about where we find meaning to say the following (I must paraphrase, since my memory is not exact):
I realize that in my worldview I hold two contradictory beliefs together: one in strict scientific determinism, and the other in the absolute freedom of the individual.
And there it is! Anyone who is a true philosopher, in my opinion, has already come to this conclusion: that the freedom of the individual and the reality of the Other exist in tension with one another, not in harmony. For everyone knows that his own actions are his own responsibility, yet simultaneously he knows that he is the product not of himself, but of that which is other than himself. I think, therefore I am; yet my thoughts are not my own, but they are the product of genetics, environment, culture, all the result of the mere passage of time. One may search endlessly to truly locate his own identity, and never find it. Am I my thoughts? My emotions? My body? Yet none of these things seem really to be me, since my thoughts are often conflicting with myself, as are my emotions, and my body perhaps most often of the three of them.

There is no resolving the tension; it is inescapable. The only question is, what shall we do with the tension? How do we interpret it? I can name two options; there may be others, but I know of two. One option is nihilism, that is, in the words of my friend, the self is nothing. The self is nothing, because it cannot control its own fate, not really; and yet it must control its own fate, because there is no meaning apart from this. The self is ultimately alone; there really is no Other. "Reality" itself is nothing, with the self eternally separated from it, yet always enslaved by it. With a simple act of will, the self can create meaning for himself, but he never really believes in it. This is nihilism.

The second option is love. Love finds its own identity precisely because it doesn't seek its own identity. Love locates the self in the Other, fully acknowledging its own emptiness. Love's epistemological foundation is grace, the sense that reality is given, not constructed. The self becomes one with the Other, without the two ever being confused. It is only because they are one and the same that they can truly be distinct. In this the self finds true freedom, because love knows that freedom is all of grace, and grace is free. It is this givenness, this freedom, that allows us humans to grow in the knowledge of reality; without grace, we are but nothing studying nothing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

General Revelation?

Vanhoozer, in The Drama of Doctrine, Chapter 8, page 248, says, "God is knowable only to the extent that he gives himself to be known under the form of Jesus' humanity and the human words of Scripture." Does that leave any room at all for general revelation?

Even if Vanhoozer would qualify that statement in some way that allows for general revelation, I'm still dissatisfied with the evangelical tendency to describe God as a being separated from all other "sciences" than theology.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The science of theology

In attempting to explain the Scientia aspect of theology, Vanhoozer says the following about science (The Drama of Doctrine, Ch. 8, p. 247):
While impersonal empirical procedures may be the mark of modern science, they are not that of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Barth. For Aristotle, a science proceeds from the "first principles" that are intrinsic to some aspect or area of reality. These principles are ontological (real) before they are theoretical (propositional). To be scientific is to approach a subject matter in a way that is appropriate with its first principles. ... For both Aquinas and Barth, Christian theology is the science that approaches its subject matter, God, on the basis of first principles that themselves proceed from God: "For sacred doctrine, those first principles are...scripture and Christ."
I don't think the classical approach gets off on the right foot. The theoretical does precede the ontological, because all language, including the word ontological itself, is theory-laden. Theory is more than a package of propositions. It is something like a "procedure," as Vanhoozer suspects, but more pertinently it is an interpretive matrix. Critical to the whole discussion of epistemology is that a theory is an evolving interpretive matrix. Ontology, for us feeble creatures, is really a bit of a fantasy. We could learn nothing if we didn't already have a theory about how things work. It is only because our theories are constantly being bombarded with corrections that we are able to learn more.

It is telling that Vanhoozer has such a gaping hole in his definition of knowledge, here (next page):
Theories of knowledge come and go, and theology would frankly be ill advised wholly to invest in any single account. Some minimal account of knowledge is, however, needed; hence the following provisional definition: knowledge is the product of a disciplined approach to a particular subject matter.
The irony of this statement is that he gets the first part right: theories come and go, precisely because we are ever-evolving creatures. But his provisional definition of knowledge obviously lacks all accounting for spontaneous increase in knowledge, including those wonderful discoveries which occur mostly by accident. Granted, his main concern in this chapter is discipleship. Yet I don't think it is a trivial matter to completely overlook the way in which knowledge grows more spontaneously than we often believe. Perhaps Vanhoozer ought to remember Barth's words: theology is a free science.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Justin Martyr on Reason

From the First Apology, 46:
Lest some should unreasonably object, in order to turn men away from what we teach, that we say that Christ was born a hundred and fifty years ago under Quirinius, and taught what we say he taught still later, under Pontius Pilate, and should accuse us [as supposing] that all men born before that time were irresponsible, I will solve this difficulty in advance. We have been taught that Christ is the First-begotten of God, and have previously testified that he is the Reason of which every race of man partakes. Those who lived in accordance with Reason are Christians, even though they were called godless, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus and others like them; among the barbarians, Abraham, Ananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, and Elijah, and many others, whose deeds and names I forbear to list, knowing that this would be lengthy. So also those who lived without Reason were ungracious and enemies to Christ, and murderers of those who lived by Reason. But those who lived by Reason, and those who so live now, are Christians, fearless and unperturbed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

After The Rapture Pet Care

No, this is not a joke.

"Yes, it seems funny at first. But, if you believe there is a coming Rapture, and you love your pets, it becomes serious. And that’s what we are – serious about the safety and care of your pets, as well as your peace of mind."

Look for yourself:

HT: Mockingbird

Results in education

There's an interesting discussion going on at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the issue of social justice in education. The question that comes to my mind is this: how are we measuring results in education? No Child Left Behind was an attempt to judge schools more rigorously, with the result that now 80% of schools are deemed to be failing. Which begs the question: failing at what?

One thing seems to pretty clear: schools are failing at satisfying parents and students. Another thing which is now evident is that they're failing at reaching government standards. Although they may be failing at both counts, there is no inherent relationship between the two. In particular, there is no guarantee that if schools lived up to government standards, they would also live up to ours. Conversely, what do we make of the case when government demands something other than what the public actually wants?

I worry about the general trend to formulate objective, quantitative standards by which we measure education's benefits. Education, ideally, is about helping a person live as a free person. The more highly standardized and quantized our measurements of education become, the less our education will be oriented toward freedom and creativity and the more it will be oriented toward fulfilling some preconceived vision of a good, productive workforce.

In my mind, then, the argument for school choice is more than a matter of giving students more opportunities. It is also a matter of identifying the value of education where it belongs: in the subjective. We don't know what future benefits a particular kind of education may have. People should be free and even encouraged to try different forms of it. God forbid that the government should have a monopoly on what people can and cannot learn in order to improve their own lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Concept and thought: Vanhoozer gets it right

Chapter 3, page 90, The Drama of Doctrine:
Many, if not most, of the concepts in the Bible (e.g., father, king, salvation, sin, image of God) are more like "my childhood" or "house" than "spped of light." They have fuzzy edges' they lack exactitude. They are not meaningless--far from it!--yet they are not susceptible to unambiguous and univocal definitions either. While some might worry that such fuzzy concepts communicate less, they actually communicate more. The reason is that concepts are not mental pictures of discrete objects but rather mental habits that connect entities and experiences in significant relationships. A concept is a habitual way of experiencing and interpreting the world. We do not think about but with concepts.
Corollary: timeless, unambiguous statements of eternal truth cannot be the goal of theology, unless God really is a creation of man.

These are the words

There is something exquisitely theatrical about Deuteronomy (I suppose Vanhoozer is right on that one). This is not simply a restatement of the law given to the Israelites. It is Moses' great farewell speech, rounding out the Pentateuch with a glimpse of the future to come. The book flows beautifully from a recounting of Israel's journey through the wilderness to a series of exhortations to remember the commandments diligently, followed by a detailed examination of those commandments, then a dramatic enactment of the covenant, and finishing with Moses' song. The epilogue with a bold summary of Moses' life: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face."

I wish I could read through this book in one sitting. It isn't necessarily too long to do, but it's just long enough that time doesn't always allow it. One thing I find incredibly amusing about the modern Christian reading of the Old Testament law is how people are overwhelmed by how long it is. What I find remarkable is how much the opposite is true: this law is profoundly concise. Considering a single bill in the U. S. Congress can be more than 2000 pages, it is totally laughable that anyone would balk at the number of commandments in Torah. What I am getting at here is that each book in Torah deserves to be read as a whole, perhaps in a single reading or even narration. (What kind of insight might we gain if we listened to a professional actor read the whole of Deuteronomy as a dramatic monologue?)

Theological jargon and the Church

Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine attempts to address "the strange disappearance of doctrine in the church." He attempts in many long, drawn out sentences to illustrate how doctrine can be the "stuff of life," related to everything we do. Yet his own tendency to say everything in more words than necessary gives us all the evidence we need to understand the disconnect between theology and the Church.

Let me pick a typical paragraph from this book, and then I'll translate it for you.
It is tempting to reduce the communicative act to its proposition content alone. Yet such an identification of divine discourse with propositional content is too hasty and reductionist, for it omits two other important aspects of the communicative action, namely, the illocutionary (what is done) and perlocutionary (what is effected). To repeat: what is authoritative about the Bible is what God says and does in and with its words. To equate God's word with the content it conveys is to work with an abbreviated Scripture principles that reduces revelation to the propositional residue of it's locutions [!]. Such an abbreviated Scripture principle, in overlooking the illocutionary and perlocutionary dimensions, is both christologically and pneumatologically deficient. It fails to see that what Scripture is doing is witnessing to and hence mediating Christ, and it fails to do justice to the role of the Holy Spirit in making sure that this witness is effective.
Translation: "the authority of the Bible isn't just about ideas; it's about knowing Christ through the Holy Spirit." There, now I think everyone in our congregation gets it. If someone translated the whole book in this way, I might be done with it in one sitting.

There is nothing wrong with technical language where absolutely necessary to convey meaning. As a mathematician, I very comfortably use highly technical language which is packed with meaning. In other words, any other possible way to say the same thing in a mathematical argument would be longer, not shorter. As an off-the-cuff example, there simply is no shorter way to say, "Every bounded linear operator is continuous." In theology (or at least in this book) it appears just the opposite. It reminds me of a sign on one of my college professors' office doors: "Think! There has to be a harder way to do it." We are doing the Church a terrible disservice if theologians continue to endorse language which, though translatable into simple terms which any layman could understand, is meant solely for the purposes of conversation between theologians.

Such convoluted language is generally symptomatic of ideas which cannot be defended in the face of current evidence. The fact that I am 70 pages into Vanhoozer's book and he has yet to actually begin to defend his main thesis is deeply worrisome. I am more satisfied by two blog posts from my brother than I am with 70 pages of flowery reinterpretation of doctrine as "theo-drama."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Wealth of Nations

In celebration of Wealth of Nations being published this day in 1776, The Freeman has an interesting article on the use of the phrase "Invisible Hand" in Adam Smith's political and economic philosophy. Here's an amusing excerpt:
A fascinating discovery uncovered by Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University, may shed light on this debate. Based on a brief remark by Peter Minowitz, the Santa Clara University political philosopher, that the “invisible hand” phrase lies roughly in the middle of both of Smith’s books, Klein made preliminary investigations. He next recruited Brandon Lucas, then a doctoral student at Mason, to investigate further. Klein and Lucas report in Economic Affairs (March 2011) that they found considerable evidence that Smith “deliberately placed ‘led by an invisible hand’ at the centre of his tomes” and that the concept “holds special and positive significance in Smith’s thought.”
The idea they're getting at? Wealth of Nations has a chiastic structure, with "invisible hand" in the center!

You've seen it all when people are doing Midrash on Adam Smith.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy International Women's Day

Here's a lovely article about a woman of international significance:

Not to be all cliché, but it is somewhat amusing to note that Pakistan has had a female prime minister before we've managed to have a female president.

As a little child

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:14-15)
I've always found this amazing quote from Jesus to have a very quaint interpretation in the church: you must have "child-like faith" the enter the kingdom of God, meaning that you trust unquestioningly. But that's a pretty flat picture of how children actually are. Children are normally rather inquisitive, imaginative, creative, eager to test boundaries, disruptive, playful, and often quite unintelligible despite having so much to say. They are at once struggling for independence and clingy, both trusting and skeptical, both fragile and surprisingly strong. They have no fear of exploring the world--that is, until they look up and mom and dad are no longer there. Children are, in a word, free. Free precisely because of the intimate trust of the family. Free because if they venture too far, mother and father will be there. It is not even a question of presuppositions. Children don't have to believe in their parents; they simply never have to face the question why life should be so safe for them (never, that is, until they are forced to leave the intimate trust of the home).

It is typical to interpret Christ's words in terms of trust, but rarely in terms of freedom. What might it look like to base the Christian life on child-like freedom in Christ?

Essence of human

Fascinating book review on the NYT (HT: Mockingbird blog) talking about the neurological roots of de-humanization, from genocide to slavery. In the book Less Than Human, philosopher David Livingstone Smith argues that we may be in some sense hard-wired to de-humanize people:
Smith clearly explains why many cognitive scientists believe this tendency is innate and then links it to another predisposition that seems “built in” to the human mind: our inclination to see living things in hierarchies, as in the “great chain of being” of medieval European Christians, with God at its perfect top, human beings above “higher” animals, and so on down to worms and plants. Because we feel that living things are defined by their essence, and because we feel that each creature has its rank in the world, Smith argues, dehumanization comes easily to the human mind: we accept that someone can look human but have a sub­human essence, and we accept that what is not human must be inferior. “When we dehumanize people,” he writes, “we think of them as counterfeit human beings.”
But reviewer David Berreby thinks this explanation doesn't match reality:
All these troubles arise because Smith’s insistence on immutable essences is only half right: people do categorize themselves and others using essences, but there’s nothing immutable about them. If, like trained philosophers, we could settle for good who is essentially human and who is a zombie vampire squid, we wouldn’t have, or need, this drama of dehumanization, rehumanization, then more dehumanization, and so on. Instead, the who-is-and-isn’t-human question is never truly settled. In fact, it is the dynamic, even mercurial nature of “real human” status that makes this mystery of our psychology so fascinating. What Amenemhet wants us to remember isn’t that he thought Asiatics were dogs, but that he made them act like dogs.
It's something worth thinking about: given dynamic conceptual frameworks, how do we become more just? Is it by taking the philosopher's approach, which is essentially to make our concepts more static, or is there a way to account for justice for an evolving human consciousness?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Democracy and Freedom

In an age of social upheaval in the Middle East and Africa, many are asking a typically Western question: can democracy spread to other parts of the world? The question is misguided in its approach, since it equates democracy and freedom. The two are not the same. Democracy may follow from freedom, but freedom does not follow from democracy. Freedom follows from the Rule of Law, a tradition whereby all laws are themselves subject to general principles agreed upon by nearly all the society which submits to a common government. Freedom requires that a society adopt the traditions which we in the West have enjoyed for centuries: each individual is respected as such, and no one is authorized to interfere in an individual's personal sphere unless it is according to some procedure already anticipated by the general public and in accord with a long-standing public moral conscience.

In a free society, the right to vote may actually be the least valuable freedom an individual has. So long as he has the means whereby he can support himself and his family and pursue his interests, a man has no need to feel empowered by voting. Every year we hear complaints from idealists about "voter apathy," meaning they feel we should be more excited about the electoral process. This is symptomatic of an unhealthy view of democracy which elevates the "will of the people" above the value of the individual. This is precisely the kind of democratic thinking which we should not want to see spread to other parts of the world. This can only lead to more conflict between large factions vying for democratic dominance. The tyranny of the majority is all too easily manifest in countries with a long history of civil unrest.

It seems fashionable these days to decry Western individualism as the source of many social and economic problems. In reality, it is precisely this individualism, rooted in a strong moral tradition which sees inherent value in human beings, that has made the West and America in particular a great civilization. There is no reason why similar ideas should not be able to take shape in other parts of the world; but it will take far more than an elections process to make it happen.

Myth busted: Planned Parenthood and federal funding

Kirsten Powers at The Daily Beast has a devastating op-ed concerning Planned Parenthood's federal funding. (It's worth noting this web site isn't exactly right-wing journalism.) She points to studies showing that Planned Parenthood's strategy of providing cheaper birth control doesn't actually lead to fewer abortions.
Over this time period [2000-2011], the U.S. government has funneled billions of dollars to Planned Parenthood, in large part because the organization claims to provide services to avoid unplanned pregnancies – a laudable goal. Yet despite a robust budget—Planned Parenthood reported a total annual revenue of $1.1 billion in its last financial filing—the organization has done absolutely nothing to change the fundamental dynamics of the United States’ abortion rate.

Asked about the “Contraception” study, the Guttmacher numbers and why no women were saying they got abortions due to lack of access to contraception, a Planned Parenthood spokesman emailed this Orwellian response: “I think the biggest barrier is access to affordable contraception.” Huh?
Powers goes on to say:
It’s unclear whether Planned Parenthood officials simply don’t understand statistics or are so accustomed to having their claims unquestioned that they think if they repeat them often enough, the facts will disappear.
I suspect the latter.

This quote pretty much sums it up:
To preserve its federal subsidy, Planned Parenthood continues to claim that without its contraception services the abortion rate will go up. This deception smacks of a fleecing of taxpayers in an effort to promote an ideological agenda, rather than a sincere effort to help women plan families.
That's what some of us have been saying for years, but it turns out Orwellian propaganda really does work.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Attacking Universalism

Rob Bell has just come out with a new about final judgment. The book, entitled, Love Wins, seems like it's going to defend universalism.

Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition does not like this one bit. He lists eight reasons why we need the wrath of God. Here they are:
  1. First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism.
  2. Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies.
  3. Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.
  4. Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives.
  5. Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means.
  6. Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.
  7. Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.
  8. Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return.
You see? If people aren't going to hell, what's the point of telling them about Jesus? And yes, we forgive our enemies, but only because we know they'll be burning in hell. And God knows the only thing worth dying for is a message of eternal cruelty to those who do wrong. Why would I ever do good if I weren't afraid of God's wrath? Especially caring for the poor--I don't know anyone who does that who doesn't believe in hell.

You get the idea. I find DeYoung's thinking on this issue genuinely perverse and morally bankrupt. I agree with the Gospel Coalition on one thing: bad theology hurts people. But it isn't Rob Bell's theology that is hurting people.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Neoclassical Liberalism

There's a new blog called "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" and their goal appears to be to defend a political philosophy called "neoclassical liberalism." Essentially, it seems like libertarianism with a respect for social justice. Here's an excerpt from the opening post:
What we have in common on this blog is an appreciation for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty. But we appreciate those things, in large part, because of the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods.
This may very well be the direction my own political philosophy is going right now, given my fundamental misgivings about libertarianism (for instance, I don't think the case for liberty can be grounded in the concept of "self-ownership"). I was especially intrigued by Jason Brennan's article on a "higher liberalism." So far the writers there have simply done a little bit of orientation, defining terms for future discussion. I look forward to reading how their arguments unfold.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Language and Reason

Pyman discusses Florensky's attempt at "an answer to the eighteenth-century dispute between Church and Enlightenment as to whether language is God's gift to man or the creation of the peoples who speak it and the individuals who us it. Florensky's take of this dispute is conciliatory:
it is precisely in this contradiction, and in its extreme acuity, that language as eternal, steadfast, unchanging Reason, as pre-human Logos, is in fact conceivable as something at the same time infinitely close to the soul of each one of us, affectionately supple to the heart, personal in its every moment, its every movement and expressive of utmost individuality."
I see what Florensky's getting at here, but my suspicion here is that the Church and the Enlightenment were both wrong, and that even a conciliatory view of their positions is insufficient. I'm more convinced by a view of language as a cultural artifact, a "product of human action but not human design." I am a skeptic when it comes to language being so closely tied to "eternal, steadfast, unchanging Reason." There is a reason why words are so hard to define, why Socratic dialogs never reach firm conclusions. Language is grown; it does not transcend the created order, but is a product of the physical passage of time.

In other words, no matter how in tune we are with eternal truth, we still have no firm or final way to express this. "Out of the mouths of babes and infants..."

Florensky on Ontology

From Avril Pyman's biography on Florensky, quoting Florensky:
The basic self-awareness of humanity, that 'I live in the world and with the world', presupposes the existence, the real existence as reality, of both myself, humanity as such, and that which is outside myself, which exists apart from me or, more exactly, independently of human awareness ... In the act of cognisance it is impossible to separate subject from object; cognisance is at once the one and the other; more exactly, it is precisely the cognisance of the object by the subject, a unity, that is, in which the one can be distinguished from the other only in the abstract, yet at the same time the object is not obliterated by the subject, neither is the latter dissolved in the object of cognisance exterior to itself. Moreover, once unified, they do not engulf one another even though, while maintaining their mutual independence, they are no longer divided. The theological formula without confusion and without separation is fully applicable to the cognitive interrelationship of subject and object...
In other words, subjective and objective are analogous to the two natures of Christ--both bound up together as one, yet fully distinct. It is a paradox on which the pursuit of all knowledge depends.

Self-referential signs

Oddly Specific
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Friday, March 4, 2011

Mental liberty

Talking to my grad student friends about teaching reveals a lot of agreement. For instance, one of the things that strikes all of us who teach calculus is the way our students tend to ask this particular question:
Am I allowed to do that?
Are you allowed to do that? I think to myself. Who ever suggested to you that you were somehow under someone's authority? Notice what the student doesn't ask. She doesn't ask, "Is this true?" She doesn't ask, "Is this the correct meaning of the symbol I'm using?" She doesn't even ask, "Will this get me the right answer?" Just a simple, submissive question: Am I allowed to do this?

Semantics, you say. All of those questions are really just different ways of asking the same thing. Nonsense! It is no accident that students ask this wretched question. From the time they are little children, they are trained to think that truth is a matter of authority. They are trained to look in the back of the book for answers to their math problems, they are trained to solve problems using the exact step by step process spoon fed to them by their teachers, and they are trained out of the creativity they once possessed as children. Because they also happen to be imbibed with an American sense of anti-authoritarianism, they simply become relativists, not having any sense of truth as an objective reality. American individualism notwithstanding, this view of truth degrades human freedom and is the source of all political evil.

I try to tell my students, There are no rules! You are constrained solely by what is true! Only a free person understands this; indeed, it is the definition of freedom. You are never free of all constraints. Objective reality does not give in to your whims. But you are free to poke it and prod it as you wish. What students fundamentally misunderstand about their education is the relationship between themselves and reality. They believe that in some aspects they can stand in authority over reality, whereas in others they must bow in submission. Neither is correct; the human mind never transcends the world, but neither is it simply drifting in the wind.

In short, no one can be free from God; but to be free of every will that is not God's is true freedom. There is a reason we call it liberal education--it is the education of free people. It is not my students' ability to reason quantitatively that I most worry about. What I worry about is their desire for truth, which is fundamentally linked to their creativity and above all their ability to exist as free people. Truly, no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven except as a child. It is when we lose our child-like tendency to ask questions out of sheer curiosity, to poke and prod and play with, to seek out boundaries and see how far we can push them--then we lose our freedom, and with it our thirst for truth, and with that the things that make us most fully human.