Monday, June 29, 2009

Economic heresy

Good intentions are no substitute for practical results. Just as the promotion of ethanol and carbon taxes will negatively affect the poor the most, various socialist proposals to regulate business and re-distribute wealth retard rather than promote the well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Our individual and church obligation to the poor is not well served by left-wing economic panaceas.

Michael Novak explains in "Economic Heresies of the Left" that, if the goal is to help the poor, capitalism produces actual results:
.... An accurate presentation of real existing capitalism requires at least three modest affirmations:
  1. Markets work well only within a system of law, and only according to well-marked-out rules of the game; unregulated markets are a figment of imagination.
  2. In actual capitalist practice, the love of creativity, invention, and groundbreaking enterprise are far more powerful than motives of greed.
  3. The fundamental systemic motive infusing the spirit of capitalism is the imperative to liberate the world’s poor from the premodern ubiquity of grinding poverty. This motive lay at the heart of Adam Smith’s important victory over Thomas Malthus concerning the coming affluence—rather than starvation—of the poor.
Since the origins of modern capitalism around 1780, more than two-thirds of the world’s population has moved out of poverty. In China and India alone, more than 500 million have been raised out of poverty just in the last forty years. In almost every nation the average age of mortality has risen dramatically, causing populations to expand accordingly. Health in almost every dimension has been improved, and literacy has been carried to remote places it never reached before.

Whatever the motives of individuals, the system has improved the plight of the poor as none ever has before. The contemporary left systematically refuses to face these undeniable facts. ....

In brief, nearly all the leftish critiques of American and other forms of capitalism are empirically false. They do not fit the actual facts. But these three—greed, unregulated markets, and the idea that capitalism makes the poor of the world worse off—are especially tiresome, and very far from reality.

Will all those good Catholic leftists who announce their own enthusiastic preference for the poor actually help to liberate the poor, even by a little? Will their anticapitalist policies help alleviate poverty? The historical record offers very little evidence for that contention.

And yet wherever a healthy, inventive capitalism goes, the poor soon rise by the millions out of poverty, come to better physical health, and advance into higher education.

You can look up the record. [more]
First Things - Featured Article

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Your God is too small

Challies quotes from a favorite book, Polishing God’s Monuments by Jim Andrews. An excerpt from his excerpt:
When the Lord’s ways do not neatly conform to our pat little paradigms of what seems (to our fallible minds) right and just, and good and faithful, it says something about human nature that usually the first thought that comes to mind is that something is wrong with God. Somehow the last thing that occurs to us is that God is simply too big for our small boxes. It is imperative at such times that we learn to be humble, not haughty. God always deserves the benefit of the doubt. ....

Christian common sense should also remind us that divine revelation is always a far more reliable barometer of reality that our personal perceptions, distorted as they are by how we think a moral and upright God is obliged to behave in this situation or that. Friends, my advice is this: discount personal feelings—rest in the biblical facts. Don’t always be awash in how things seem; anchor your faith on how divine revelation says they are. Never allow blind emotions to float you off into the open sea of doubt. ....
Discount Personal Feelings :: quotes, suffering :: A Reformed, Christian Blog

"Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly."

An exchange between Samuel Johnson and a Dr. Adams about whether the goodness of God precludes punishment. Johnson:
"That [God] is infinitely good, as far as the perfection of his nature will allow, I certainly believe; but it is necessary for good upon the whole, that individuals should be punished. As to an individual, therefore, he is not infinitely good; and as I cannot be sure I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned" (looking dismally).

Dr. Adams. "What do you mean by damned?"

Johnson.... "Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly."

Dr. Adams. "I don't believe that doctrine."

Johnson. "Hold, Sir; do you believe that some will be punished at all?"

Dr. Adams. "Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment.. ."

Johnson. "Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered... A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair ... I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left." [Boswell, 12 June 1784]

Friday, June 26, 2009

All have sinned and fallen short....

"Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature,
as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles,
without having good practice?"
Samuel Johnson

Responding to the glee with which many have reacted to Governor Sanford's admission that he has sinned against God and his family, James Bowman observes that those who accuse him of hypocrisy can only do so because he actually has moral standards to fall short of:
.... To watch these hypocrisy-haters sneer, you’d think that the only way for one to have moral principles was always to observe them oneself. But, clearly, that cannot be the case. If it were, there would be no more moral principles at all, since it is in the nature of humanity to fall short of them. That’s why it sometimes seems that doing away with moral principles altogether is precisely the goal of those in the media and elsewhere who are most savage against hypocrisy. What they hate is not that someone has fallen short of his own standards; it’s that he ever dared to have any standards in the first place. (emphasis added) [more]
Joe Carter:
In the eyes of the media, Mark Sanford has committed the unpardonable social sin. No, not adultery—is that even frowned upon anymore?—but the sin of being a hypocrite. ....

Sanford may very well turn out to be guilty of hypocrisy if he refuses to resign. But he is repeatedly being refereed to as a hypocrite for the wrong reasons by people who are apparently ignorant about what hypocrisy is.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines hypocrisy as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.” The British literary critic William Hazlitt once explained, “He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves”

By all appearances, Sanford does indeed believe in marital fidelity. His failures so far are due to his behaving in a way that does not comport with those values; a matter not of hypocrisy but of moral inconsistency. .... [more]
Virtual Tar and Feathers by James Bowman - The New Criterion, First Thoughts — A First Things Blog

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Doing nothing

Rita Kramer wonders whether the carefree childhood many of us remember ever really existed in "Whatever Happened to Childhood?" I think it did, and if it doesn't now, more's the pity. Of course alongside the over supervised and planned lives of middle-class kids there are also those without any supervision at all. Kramer:
....Along with the planning of children’s lives today – the testing and the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities, all designed to make sure they are properly prepared for entrance to Harvard – there seems to be a kind of conspiracy to rob them of any free time or free thought. What used to be called play. Child labor has been vanquished in the developed world, but it sometimes seems, ironically enough, as though a different kind of work has been imposed in children’s lives.

Children as a special group, requiring different kinds of living arrangements, considerations, clothing and privileges, is a relatively new concept in the history of mankind. Until well into the 19th century, attitudes toward children were determined by socioeconomic conditions. In the pre-industrial world sons were important as workers on the family-owned land or providers working for others. Daughters were helpers in the household and, in higher circles, instruments of forming marital alliances of benefit to the family or the clan. Sons and daughters were expected to care for their aged parents in later life.

It was only with the burgeoning Romantic Movement and the growth of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century that children began to take on a sentimental significance. More of them lived longer, thanks to advances in obstetrical care and understanding of childhood diseases. And there was less need for their labor within or outside the home. ....

In 1957 Robert Paul Smith published a little book titled “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” In it, he evokes memories of his own untrammeled youth (he was born in 1915) in a landscape dotted with vacant lots that could become pirate ships or Western corrals; the games with rules unknown to grownups (“What we learned we learned from another kid”); the freedom to roam the neighborhood without adult direction; even the uses of boredom – what we would call downtime today and fill up with something useful.

So already in the 1950s Americans were bemoaning the over-supervised life of the child – in this case, typical of the time, the suburban child. Smith, who was a novelist and playwright as well as a father, thought his sons (no girls in his story) were missing out not having time “to sit on the front steps and watch some grass growing.” He says, “It never occurred to us that there was nothing wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups.” ....

In those unenlighted times kids made things up – boys ran around challenging each other to feats of one sort or another, girls acted out their fantasies playing house and dressing their dolls. Of course we know now there is something very wrong with this picture, and we take care that our boys are introduced to gentler pastimes and our girls learn to throw a fast ball. And we worry if the little boy who isn’t allowed to play with guns shoots enemies with his pointed index finger and the little girl still prefers the dollhouse to the dump truck.

The private quiet life of childhood days that Smith and I remember is no more. Whether children are better or worse off being prepared “to take their place in a global economy,” as the educators put it, is hard to say. All we can be sure of is that every generation looks with dismay on “kids today” and looks back on a childhood Eden that may or may not have existed the way we remember it. [more]
Family Security Matters » Publications » Exclusive: Whatever Happened to Childhood?

Desecration is a defense against the sacred

Roger Scruton on "Beauty and Desecration":
At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. ....

.... It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature—such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. ....

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. ....

.... The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. .... Every now and then...we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. .... [more]
In his description of beauty Scruton uses an example that reminded me of C.S. Lewis's use of Sehnsucht — the longing for something more, something beyond, that an experience can inspire. Scruton:
....Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be. ....
The Constable Salisbury Cathedral illustration was my choice.

Beauty and Desecration by Roger Scruton, City Journal Spring 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Honor your father and mother

From Wesley J. Smith's blog, Secondhand Smoke, a series of posts describing how rationing actually works in a country that has nationalized health care.
In the UK, utilitarian bioethicists control who gets–and who is denied–treatment via the Orwellian named organization NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). NICE explicitly uses a quality of life judgment (QALY–quality adjusted life year) to determine which patients are worth treating. It has now denied coverage for anti-dementia medications to mild Alzheimer’s sufferers. From the abstract of the story in the British Medical Journal:
The hopes of people with mild Alzheimer’s disease have been dashed again by the agency that appraises treatments for use by the NHS in England and Wales, which has reaffirmed its original decision to deny them treatment with dementia drugs. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued amended guidance but still asserts that the drugs would not be cost effective for the mild stages of the disease.
Interesting that NICE is also the acronym for the sinister scientific research foundation in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength.

In another post Smith describes "Futile Care Theory," the idea that care should be withheld when doctors decide it will do no good - something that a NICE-like agency would probably decide once the public cost of health care forces rationing.
A UK bioethicist named Daniel K. Sokol, who writes nary a word in opposition to Futile Care Theory, aka medical futility (meaning, I suspect, he is a futilitarian), has nonetheless written a valuable informative essay in the British Medical Journal (no link, 13 JUNE 2009 | Volume 338) called “The Slipperiness of Futility.” For example, he defines the different “kinds” of futility:
Although ethically aware clinicians need not be familiar with the vast literature on the concept of futility, they might wish to remember the following four points:
  • Futility is goal specific.
  • Physiological futility is when the proposed intervention cannot physiologically achieve the desired effect. It is the most objective type of futility judgment.
  • Quantitative futility is when the proposed intervention is highly unlikely to achieve the desired effect.
  • Qualitative futility is when the proposed intervention, if successful, will probably produce such a poor outcome that it is deemed best not to attempt it.
And he points out, physiological futility–which I think a physician should refuse–is the only objective “type.” Indeed, Futile Care Theory isn’t about truly futile interventions, but about withdrawing wanted treatment based on the medical team’s or bioethicists’ values:
As futility is so rhetorically powerful and semantically fuzzy, doctors may find it helpful to distinguish between physiological, quantitative, and qualitative futility. This classification reveals that a call of futility, far from being objective, can be coloured by the values of the person making the call. Like “best interests,” “futility” exudes a confident air of objectivity while concealing value judgments.
Frankly, I would prefer that such "value judgments" about my care be made by me, or by family members or friends, rather than by guidelines prepared by bureaucrats with the incentive to reduce government costs.

Finally [for now], Smith reports an example of what I have no doubt would become common here in a health rationing regime:
Stories like this continue to mount in the UK, and are a warning to us of the growing utilitarian, quality of life/cost-benefit bent in health care. A stroke patient, it is charged, was almost neglected to death–if not worse–at a UK hospital. From the story:
John MacGillivray, 78, from Auchterarder, was admitted to Perth Royal Infirmary having suffered a stroke on May 22. Two days later, his family were told by hospital doctors he would die within hours. His daughter Patricia MacGillivray told Sky News:…”There were several issues we already had with the level of care he had received in the short while he had been in the hospital, so we started to become suspicious. That’s when we started asking about his medication. It was then we learned that the medication we had been told he was going to receive when he was first admitted, which was specifically for stroke, had been changed to medication for treating seizures which we’d never seen him have.

The MacGillivray family instructed doctors to immediately withdraw all medication and launched a round-the-clock bedside watch.Within two days, Ms MacGillivray says her father had made such a good recovery he was being recommended for stroke rehabilitation treatment and four weeks later he was back home walking around his garden in Auchterarder. Ms MacGillivray feels if her family had not intervened in the treatment her father was receiving at Perth Royal Infirmary then her father would not be alive today. “The effect of that medication was to sedate him.”
Not to prejudge the matter, but I think that is a pretty good bet. Indeed, if my private e-mail is any judge, the disdain for the moral worth within the health care community for elderly people with serious brain injuries or illnesses is growing here too. (That being said, I believe American health care remains fundamentally moral precisely because of the people working in the trenches at hospitals and in nursing homes.)
Note: the illustration of a medical ration book is also taken from Smith's site. Its appearance is based on the ration books used during the Second World War.

Update: 6/25 from Warner Todd Huston at RedState:
Obama said during the ABC Special on Wednesday night that a way to save healthcare costs is to abandon the sort of care that “evidence shows is not necessarily going to improve” the patient’s health. He went on to say that he had personal familiarity with such a situation when his grandmother broke her hip after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Obama offered a question on the efficacy of further care for his grandmother saying, “and the question was, does she get hip replacement surgery, even though she was fragile enough they were not sure how long she would last?”

But who is it that will present the “evidence” that will “show” that further care is futile? Are we to believe that Obama expects individual doctors will make that decision in his bold new government controlled healthcare future? ....

Government does not work by negotiation. Government does not work from the bottom up. It works from the top down. This singular fact means that no doctor will be deciding if you are too old or infirm to get medical care. It will be a medically untrained bureaucrat that sets a national rule that everyone will have to obey. There won’t be any room for your grandma to have a different outcome than anyone else’s. ....
Secondhand Smoke — A First Things Blog, Did Obama Say We Should Kill the Old Folks to Save Money Last Night? - Warner_Todd_Huston’s blog - RedState

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Believing God will do what we desire

I just received an e-mail from a friend, thanking church members and others for our prayers on behalf of a very sick couple and a very premature baby - premature because of the mother's illness. It is indeed good news and I am grateful to God for this blessing. The e-mail ended with these words: "Thanks for all of your prayers. God has heard them and answered them!" I know the writer well and I know that he doesn't live in the illusion that God is ever deaf to our prayers nor that He always gives us what we ask for, but those words reminded me of this recent post by Bob at Wilderness Fandango:
.... We're all about the Lord giveth, but it is not possible, apparently for the Lord to taketh away, at least he wouldn't do that to good, praying Christians.

We just don't go there. It seems to indicate a lack of faith.

That the Lord takes away is a very hard lesson. We want to say that it is the devil who takes away. We live and pray as if the verse said, The Lord giveth, and the devil taketh away (that is if we don't pray enough, obey enough, go to church enough, etc.).

Just listen to the way we pray for people who have life-threatening conditions. The language we use often reveals that we believe that there is a battle between God and the devil for the life of the person in question. The devil brought the life-threatening condition, but we're praying for God to win the battle and restore health to the person. Moreover, we're to believe God will do this, because that's what faith is all about, right? Believing God will do the good thing that we desire. ....

Of course all this sets us up for a major faith crisis when a loved one dies. Instead of God taketh away we cry, How could God let this happen! ....

In Genesis 3 God actually ordains hardship and mortality for Adam and Eve and their descendants. Which means us. Jesus didn't rescind that order for believers, but his mission and ministry, his life and death and resurrection, taken together, shows us the ultimate context of suffering and death in this world. We see death in a new light. The context is not a battle between the devil and God in which sometimes God wins (and we live) and sometimes the devil (and we die). We need to see our own sorrow, pain, hardship, and even our dying in the context of the God's unfolding redemptive plan, which by the way defeated death as an enemy (for those who "look to Jesus") back about 2000 years ago, on a hill called Calvary. [more]
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head,
and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, "Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I return thither:
the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD.
In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.
Job 1:20-22, KJV

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,
to them who are the called according to His purpose.
Romans 8:28, KJV

Wilderness Fandango: The Lord taketh?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sabbath Recorder, July-August 2009

The July-August, 2009, Sabbath Recorder is available online here as a pdf.

This issue has several articles about Seventh Day Baptist history including one based on material I prepared for the SDB Historical Society Museum about Seventh Day Baptists in North America during the colonial and Revolutionary War period. That overlaps somewhat with an article written by the late Rev Don Sanford recounting the stories of SDBs who have served in military chaplaincies beginning in 1775 and continuing through most of America's wars.

There is also news about a new church in the oldest SDB Conference - The Faith Seventh Day Baptist Group of North London, a Milton family about to begin as missionaries in Lesotho, southern Africa, an article about SDBs in Uganda, and much else.

The Sabbath Recorder is the magazine of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference and has been regularly published in some form since 1844.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.
Exodus 20:9-10
"Six days of labor will feed and clothe the body; Sabbath labor will starve the soul." The underlying principle and God-ordained purpose of the Sabbath is rest. .... The idea of rest has high Biblical authority, and it means far more than just physical relaxation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: "In the Bible 'rest' really means more than 'having a rest.' It means rest after the work is accomplished, it means completion, it means the perfection and peace of God in which the world rests, it means transformation, it means turning our eyes absolutely upon God's being God and towards worshipping him." And Heschel writes: "'Menuha' which we usually render with `rest' means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain or activity of any kind. `Menuha' is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.... it took a special act of creation to bring it into being, ... the universe would be incomplete without it. What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose." .... Consecrated rest, thus understood, demands also consecrated work—six days of worldly toil that give one the satisfaction of having completed his assigned task in God's plan. The Sabbath gives time for one to reflect on the accomplishments of his work and to glory in their completion. Man "can consecrate his work," writes [A.H.] Lewis, "and from the Sabbath he may renew the eternal life which shall help him to give some sabbatic quality to the work days." As Heschel writes: "The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days the inspired."
Rev. Herbert E. Saunders, The Sabbath: Symbol of Creation and Re-Creation, American Sabbath Tract Society, 1970.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Read for joy. Read to be enthralled.

Bob at Wilderness Fandango offers "Bob's One Big Awesomely Important Tip on Reading" and he is absolutely right.
.... My mother instilled in me the joy of reading when I was a child. She made sure we visited the local library often, and she let us linger there as long as wanted. The point is, long before I knew that reading was good for me, reading was giving me pleasure. And that, my friend, is the key. ....
Here's my advice. Reading is never going to make it to the top of your to-do list if it's merely a chore, a good-for-me duty, like brushing teeth or watching PBS. What makes a kid love reading is the sheer joy of it, and what's going to make an adult love reading is for him or her to discover that joy also. You might say, it's time to start thinking like a kid again!

Now, admittedly, it's harder for adults to discover joy than it is for kids. We're jaded. We think in terms of future pay-off, kids think in terms of present experience. So this is going to to take a little shift in thinking for some. The question you need to ask is, what kind of book is going to give me joy? ....

I'm serious. Read for pleasure. Read for joy. Read to be enthralled.

One last point. You may not have ever stopped to think about this, but all your favorite movies are stories. That's what they are. Stories. Story-telling is perhaps the art form that undergirds all other art forms, it is a built-in inclination of all humanity. So if by now you're wondering what kind of book might give you pleasure (and I hope you are), my answer is, it's probably some kind of cracking good yarn, that's what kind. And by the way, your local library is full of these, for every reading level. .... [more]
In my case it was my father who read to me [even after I could read - I told him I could hear better when he read], took me regularly to the library, and only resisted briefly when I moved from juvenile books to the adult fiction. I know I am repeating myself, but there is no better gift a parent can give a child than the love of reading.

Wilderness Fandango: Bob's One Big Awesomely Important Tip on Reading

“I freely all forgive!”

John Newton is buried in Olney, England. On his original gravestone was this inscription:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Sav­iour
JESUS CHRIST,
restored, pardoned, and ap­point­ed to preach
the Gos­pel which he had long laboured to destroy.
He min­is­tered,
Near sixteen years in Ol­ney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.

At age 11, with but two years school­ing and on­ly a rud­i­men­tary know­ledge of La­tin, he went to sea with his fa­ther. Life at sea was filled with won­der­ful es­capes, viv­id dreams, and a sail­or’s reck­less­ness. He grew into a god­less and aban­doned man. He was once flogged as a de­sert­er from the na­vy, and for 15 months lived, half starved and ill treat­ed, as a slave in Af­ri­ca.

A chance read­ing of Thom­as à Kemp­is sowed the seed of his con­ver­sion. It was ac­cel­er­at­ed by a night spent steer­ing a wa­ter­logged ship in the face of ap­par­ent death. He was then 23 years old. Over the next six years, dur­ing which he com­mand­ed a slave ship, his faith ma­tured. He spent the next nine years most­ly in Li­ver­pool, stu­dy­ing He­brew and Greek and ming­ling with White­field, Wes­ley, and the Non­con­form­ists. He was even­tu­al­ly or­dained, and be­came cur­ate at Ol­ney, Buck­ing­ham­shire, in 1764. [CyberHymnal: John Newton]

Pastor Mark at Grace Dependent provides the full text of the poem from which comes the hymn "Amazing Grace":

In evil long I took delight,
unawed by shame or fear;
Till a new object met my sight,
and stopped my wild career:

I saw One hanging on a tree
in agonies and blood;
Who fixed His languid eyes on me
as near His cross I stood.

Sure, never till my latest breath
can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
though not a word He spoke.

My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
and plunged me in despair;
I saw my sins His blood had shed,
and helped to nail Him there.

Alas, I knew not what I did,
but all my tears were vain;
Where could my trembling soul be hid,
for I, the Lord, had slain!

A second look He gave that said,
“I freely all forgive!”
“This blood is for thy ransom paid,
I died that thou mayest live!”

Amazing grace,
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come:
‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
as long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess within the veil,
a life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
the sun forbear to shine;
But God Who called me here below
shall be forever mine

Amazing Grace « Grace Dependent, John Newton, Amazing Grace

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The baptism of children

Guided there from 9 Marks, Justin Taylor recommends this Q&A for parents about the Sacraments:
This document, The Sacraments: Questions and Answers for Parents, is an appendix from a manual for new/prospective members at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, entitled Starting Point: Our Journey Together at Covenant Life (92-page PDF). The whole thing looks enormously helpful.
Indeed the document does look very good. The following is the advice relating to the baptism of children:
2. What is baptism?
Baptism is the sacrament which uniquely depicts initiation into the Christian life, portraying the believer's union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). It points to the beginning of the Christian life (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38) and displays one's commitment to Christ, a commitment which will be lived out in the local church.

"Baptism is the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church." —John Calvin
3. When should a child be baptized?
Only when he or she can provide a believable profession of faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41; Galatians 3:27).
4. What is a believable profession of faith?
Anyone professing Jesus Christ as Lord should be able to:
  • Communicate the content of the gospel as well as an expression of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  • Evidence godly sorrow over sin, followed by repentance which leads to the fruit of the Spirit.
  • Have the ability to examine himself and the condition of his soul (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
  • Have demonstrated a willingness to turn away from the world and instead live a life keeping God's commands and loving God's church (1 John 2:15-17; 5:1-5).
  • Exhibit fruit which proceeds from regeneration (Galatians 5:22-23).
5. Does God save young children?
Yes! God can and does convert young children (Romans 10:9-13, Acts 2:21). However, we also recognize that the nature of children, their intellectual immaturity, the frequency with which they change their opinions, the ease with which they can be influenced, and for many, their limited exposure to worldly things, makes it exceedingly difficult to discern with certainty whether a child is truly converted. The younger a child is, the more difficult this becomes.
6. What is the role of the parent in evaluating a child's readiness to be baptized?
Parents bear primary responsibility for the condition of their children's souls. They are to:
  • Teach their children God's commands (Deuteronomy 6:7).
  • Train their children up in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6).
  • Bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).
At the same time, pastors bear primary responsibility for administering the sacraments within the local church and for caring for the souls of those who receive them. For these reasons, parents (and especially fathers) should evaluate the readiness of their children for baptism and should actively seek to involve their pastors in this process. Parents know their children best and are ideally situated to discern the fruit of repentance in their children. (Note: the observations of others—in Care Group, trusted friends, and others in the church—will also be extremely helpful in this process.) A parent who believes his child is ready to be baptized should then meet with a pastor so that the pastor can verify the parent's evaluation. Pastor, parent and child should all be confident in the readiness of the child to move forward with baptism.
7. If my child said a prayer and invited Jesus into his heart, isn't that enough to be baptized?
No. The language of 'inviting Jesus into your heart' is not biblical, ignores critical features of the gospel such as justification by faith, and fails to call forth repentance. Experience reveals that it is relatively easy to persuade young children to invite Jesus into their hearts, but many who have made such a commitment or prayed such a prayer later show no evidence of regeneration. [....]
15. Why not baptize infants?
Scripture nowhere instructs us to baptize infants, nor does it describe infants being baptized. Baptism in the New Testament is exclusive to believers, to those who have repented from their sins and placed their faith in Jesus Christ. Because infants are not able to do this, they are not believers and should not be baptized.
16. What do I do if my child was baptized as an infant?
The biblical pattern is for those who have come to faith in Christ to then be baptized. Thus we urge all who have turned to Christ to be baptized by immersion, regardless whether they were baptized as infants. We say this with deep respect for our brothers and sisters who practice infant baptism.
17. What if my child was baptized at an early age, and now I don't think he was really converted until later; should he be baptized again?
If a child was baptized as an unbeliever, his was not a biblical baptism; he should now be baptized as a believer. [more]
The sections I haven't quoted deal with Communion and are also excellent. I have followed Taylor's example and re-numbered since the original document omitted a number "6."

Between Two Worlds: Q&A for Parents on the Sacraments

"No Christ do we follow..."

There continue to be those who profess to believe that Christianity was primarily responsible for the crimes of the Nazis. Many German Christians were complicit, adapting to the ideology, but Nazis were no more sympathetic with Christianity than were Communists. Although Hitler wrote and made public statements seemingly affirming Christianity, his actual beliefs expressed to his colleagues, as well as the behavior of the Nazi regime, demonstrate hostility. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism provides this description made available at NRO:
...[T]he Nazis worked relentlessly to replace the nuts and bolts of traditional Christianity with a new political religion. .... The German historian Götz Aly explains how Hitler purchased popularity with lavish social welfare programs and middle-class perks, often paid for with stolen Jewish wealth and high taxes on the rich. Hitler banned religious charity, crippling the churches’ role as a counterweight to the state. Clergy were put on government salary, hence subjected to state authority. “The parsons will be made to dig their own graves,” Hitler cackled. “They will betray their God to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable little jobs and incomes.” ...[T]he Nazis replaced the traditional Christian calendar. The new year began on January 30 with the Day of the Seizure of Power. Each November the streets of central Munich were dedicated to a Nazi Passion play depicting Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. The martyrdom of Horst Wessel and his “old fighters” replaced Jesus and the apostles. Plays and official histories were rewritten to glorify pagan Aryans bravely fighting against Christianizing foreign armies. Anticipating some feminist pseudo history, witches became martyrs to the bloodthirsty oppression of Christianity.

.... The so-called German Christian pastors preached that “just as Jesus liberated mankind from sin and hell, so Hitler saves the German Volk from decay.” In April 1933 the Nazi Congress of German Christians pronounced that all churches should catechize that “God has created me a German; Germanism is a gift of God. God wills that I fight for Germany. War service in no way injures the Christian conscience, but is obedience to God.” When some Protestant bishops visited the Fuhrer to register complaints, Hitler’s rage got the better of him. “Christianity will disappear from Germany just as it has done in Russia . . . The German race has existed without Christianity for thousands of years . . . and will continue after Christianity has disappeared . . . We must get used to the teachings of blood and race.” When the bishops objected that they supported Nazism’s secular aims, just not its religious innovations, Hitler exploded: “You are traitors to the Volk. Enemies of the Vaterland and destroyers of Germany.”

In 1935 mandatory prayer in school was abolished, and in 1938 carols and Nativity plays were banned entirely. By 1941 religious instruction for children fourteen years and up had been abolished altogether, and Jacobinism reigned supreme. A Hitler Youth song rang out from the campfires:
We are the happy Hitler Youth;
We have no need for Christian virtue;
For Adolf Hitler is our intercessor
And our redeemer.
No priest, no evil one
Can keep us
From feeling like Hitler’s children.
No Christ do we follow, but Horst Wessel!
Away with incense and holy water pots.
Meanwhile, the orphans were given new lyrics to “Silent Night”:
Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright,
Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight,
Watches o’er Germany
Liberal Fascism on National Review Online

"Take Me to the Water"

From the introduction to Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950:
"Whether you have ever actually experienced a baptism or not, whether you are a believer or not, these pictures and the music that accompanies them transmit all the emotional information: the excitement and the serenity, the fellowship and the warmth, the wind and the water. They are about theatre, pageantry, holiday; inclusion, transformation, enveloping love and transporting joy. They show a great many people in the midst of one of the peak experiences of their lives. Even the calmest scenes are electrified by the ecstasy of the actors. You would have to have heart of tin not to recognize this as one of the happiest collections of archival photographs ever assembled." — Luc Sante, from the Introduction to the Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950
And from the description at Vimeo:
Making the past present once again, Grammy winners Dust-to-Digital unveil what could easily be seen as the seventh part of their acclaimed Goodbye Babylon box set. Take Me to the Water is a 96-page hardcover book which contains photographs from the collection of Jim Linderman, a scholar of 20th Century self-taught American art and a noted collector of outsider art, early American folk art, and daguerreotype photographs of even earlier American folk art portraits. Also included is a compact disc featuring rare, vintage songs and sermons recorded between 1924-1940 and an introductory essay by Luc Sante.
I own Dust to Digital's Goodbye Babylon and ordered this one this morning as soon as I became aware of its existence.Dust-to-Digital : Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950 [DTD-13], Take Me to the Water on Vimeo

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Becoming relevant to Him

Spengler is unhappy about those who see the value of religion in terms of finding "meaning" for their lives and in "I Want Life, Not the 'Meaning of Life'" makes an argument just as relevant for Christians as for Jews:
...I don’t want to hear anything more about the meaning of life. I don’t care about the meaning of life; I want life, not “meaning.” The religion I learned from Rosenzweig and Heschel does not understand the problem of what will outlast my life or survive me, for it tells me that I am not going to die — not forever in any case. ....

This life never will end, not even when God wears out the universe like an old coat and must replace it, as the Psalmist (Psalm 102:25-28) tells us:
25 Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
26 They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.
28 The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.
Judaism does not come to terms with death, find meaning in life that transcends death, seek the meaning of life, attempt to do things that outlast one’s life, or any other such kind of tail-chasing existential idiocy. Judaism hates death. ....

.... God has planted eternal life among us — among the people of Israel — because we partake of the eternal life of Israel. It is we who must become relevant to the service that God requires of Israel and thereby gain eternal life. ....

But it is not each of us who are saved as individuals; it is the People of Israel who are saved, and we are saved by virtue of our citizenship in Israel. Christians believe the same thing, namely that they are saved because they are adopted into Israel through the miracle of Christ’s blood-sacrifice.

If we believe that there actually is a God who revealed himself to us, then we also must believe that the dialogue of that God with his faith community tells us what it is that God expects of us — and how we can become relevant to him. .... [more]
Spengler — I Want Life, Not the “Meaning of Life”

Dying is inevitable

J.S. Whale, Congregationalist theologian and preacher, on the eternal significance of faith:
As a sinful man looking at death and beyond it, into the eternal world, I need salvation. Nothing else will meet my case. There is something genuinely at stake in every man's life, the climax whereof is death. Dying is inevitable, but arriving at the destination God offers to me is not inevitable. It is not impossible to go out of the way and fail to arrive. Christian doctrine has always urged that life eternal is something which may conceivably be missed. It is possible to neglect this great salvation and to lose it eternally, even though no man may say that anything is impossible with God or that his grace may ultimately be defeated.

I know it is no longer fashionable to talk about Hell, one good reason for this being that to make religion into a prudential insurance policy is to degrade it. The Faith is not a fire-escape. But in rejecting the old mythology of eternity as grotesque and even immoral, many people make the mistake of rejecting the truth it illustrated (which is rather like rejecting a book as untrue because the pictures in it are bad). It is illogical to tell men that they must do the will of God and accept his gospel of grace, if you also tell them that the obligation has no eternal significance, and that nothing ultimately depends on it. The curious modern heresy that everything is bound to come right in the end is so frivolous that I will not insult you by refuting it. "I remember," said Dr Johnson on one occasion, "that my Maker has said that he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left." That is a solemn truth which only the empty-headed and empty-hearted will neglect. It strikes at the very roots of life and destiny.
J.S. Whale, Christian Doctrine, Cambridge University Press, 1950, quoted in Timothy Dudley-Smith, Someone Who Beckons, IVP, 1978, p. 24.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Without excuse

Via Insight Scoop, an article describing a Catholic commission's paper on natural law — the idea that moral standards are part of Creation and can be discerned by anyone, whether or not they have the advantage of God's revealed Word. From TheBostonPilot.com:
Modern men and women may deny the existence of "natural law," but they actually recognize that certain moral values, such as protecting the environment, are universally valid, said members of the International Theological Commission. ....

For centuries, the Catholic Church has insisted that there is such a thing as "natural law," a code of ethics written by God in the consciences of each human being and one that each person can discover through the use of their reason. ....

Since God created human beings, his will concerning their behavior must make sense from the point of view of what is best for them and it must be something people can figure out when they reflect with intelligence and respect for one another, they said.

"The vision of the world in which the doctrine of natural law was developed and still finds its meaning implies a reasoned conviction that there exists a harmony" in what God wills, what human beings want and need and what nature demands, the document said.

Rejection of natural law in favor of a reliance on legislated laws promoted and approved by the majority can be deceiving because it "opens the way to the arbitrariness of power, the dictatorship of the numerical majority and to ideological manipulation to the detriment of the common good," the document said.

In the document, members of the theological commission briefly reviewed the moral teaching of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, traditional African religions, Islam and the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to demonstrate that natural law is not a Catholic invention valid only for Catholics. And it asked leaders of those religions and philosophers to join in an international discussion about ethical values that can be recognized as universally valid and necessary.

The review highlighted the fact that "some types of human behavior are recognized by most cultures as expressions of a certain excellence in the way a person lives and realizes his humanity: acts of courage, patience in the trials and difficulties of life, compassion for the weak, moderation in the use of material goods, a responsible attitude toward the environment (and) dedication to the common good," it said.

"On the other hand, some behaviors are universally recognized as objects of censure: killing, theft, lying, rage, covetousness and greed," they said.

The values are not only traits of holiness, they are attitudes most respectful of human dignity; and the faults are not simply sins, but acts that threaten human life, human dignity and peaceful coexistence, they said.

They also said that marriage between a man and a woman united for life and open to having children is an example of a moral value that is not simply religiously motivated, but coincides with the fact that human beings are either male or female and have a natural urge to procreate.

While saying that all sins are "against nature" in the sense that they are obstacles to a right relationship with God and—or with others, the document said, "some behaviors are judged as 'sins against nature' in a special way" because they directly contradict human nature.

As examples, the document referred to suicide, which "goes against the natural inclination to preserve one's life and make it productive," as well as what it described only as "some sexual practices that go directly against the purpose" of being created male or female.
C.S. Lewis addresses this question, the question of natural law, in, among other places, his The Abolition of Man. The text can be found here. For those not inclined to read the entire book online, the appendix, "Illustrations of the Tao" might be particularly relevant.

Theological commission publishes document on natural law

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flag Day

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A flash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

Blue and crimson and white it shines,
Over the steel-tipped, ordered lines.
Hats off!
The colors before us fly;

But more than the flag is passing by.
Sea-fights and land-fights, grim and great,
Fought to make and to save the State;
Weary marches and sinking ships;
Cheers of victory on dying lips;

Days of plenty and years of peace,
March of a strong land's swift increase:
Equal justice, right and law,
Stately honor and reverent awe;

Sign of a nation, great and strong,
To ward her people from foreign wrong;
Pride and glory and honor, all
Live in the colors to stand or fall.

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
And loyal hearts are beating high:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

The Flag Goes By, by H.H. Bennett

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Silence is not just the absence of noise

We are told in Scripture to pray continually, that is, we are to be constantly aware of God's presence. Activity, work and and all the other distractions that surround us make that difficult. Keeping a Sabbath is one way [at least for those of us who aren't pastors] to break away from all that. Another problem is the constant noise that surrounds us — much of it chosen because of our unwillingness to exist without the television in the background, or music, or conversation. Albert Mohler reflects on an article especially lamenting the absence of silence in the lives of the young:
One of the most lamentable aspects of modern life is the disappearance of silence. Throughout most of human history, silence has been a part of life. Many individuals lived a significant portion of their lives in silence, working in solitude and untroubled by the intrusion of constant noise. ....

Our culture now assumes noise and the constant availability of music, electronic chatter, and entertainment. In many homes, there is virtually no silence — at least during waking hours. In some homes, family members live in isolated environments of independent sound, with iPods, televisions, radios, and any number of other technologies providing a customized experience of noise. ....

Writing in the June issue of Standpoint, Susan Hill argues that our children are being impoverished by being deprived of silence. We have betrayed children, she asserts, by "confiscating their silence." As she explains:
But so difficult has it become to find such oases of silence, that many children never experience it. In adapting to constant noise, we seem to have become afraid of silence. Why? Are we afraid of what we will discover when we come face to face with ourselves there? Perhaps there will be nothing but a great void, nothing within us, and nothing outside of us either. Terrifying. Let's drown our fears out with some noise, quickly.
As Susan Hill acknowledges, complete silence is very difficult to achieve. Her goal is not to see children experience an artificial silence, but instead to see children experience the natural sounds that come as gifts — sounds that require turning off the television to hear.

"Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual," she explains. This growth and maturity, cultivated by silence, is essential to education — both of the mind and the soul. Reading, writing, analysis, and reflection require some level of silence. Many children, particularly teenagers, are shortchanging their education by developing a dependence on noise, even when studying (or what they call studying).

The life of the mind and the shaping of the soul require the ability to hear, recognize, and understand what would be lost in a cacophony of sound. She expresses this beautifully:
If children do not learn to focus and concentrate in a pool of quietness, their minds become fragmented and their temperaments irritable, their ability to absorb knowledge and sift it, grade it and evaluate it do not develop fully. Reading a book quietly, watching a raindrop slide slowly down a windowpane or a ladybird crawl up a leaf, trying to hear the sound of a cat breathing when it is asleep, asking strange questions, such as, "Where do all the colors go at night?" and speculating about the possible answers — all of these are best done in silence where the imagination can flourish and the intricate minutiae of the world around us can be examined with the greatest concentration.
Not to mention prayer, reading, study and meditation.

"Where Do All the Colors Go at Night?" -- Children and the Need for Silence

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Thirty-Nine Steps

My high school English teacher, Dorothy Shaw, thought this somewhat bored, and perhaps difficult, adolescent boy might enjoy The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. She was right and I have read that suspenseful romance many times since. I later discovered that Buchan was an author that C.S. Lewis enjoyed. I just read the story again in an edition that a friend found in England and gave me on his return [the title page on the right]. I still enjoy it almost as much as I did the first time, although now I am much more aware and less tolerant of the casual racism and anti-Semitism so unfortunately common in the first half of the Twentieth century.

The book was first published in 1915 and the story is set a year earlier, just before the beginning of the First World War. The hero, Richard Hannay, a South African in England, has gained knowledge of a German plot and through a series of circumstances is a fugitive fleeing through the Scottish Highlands, pursued by both the police and the plotters.

In these excerpts, Hannay has been captured by the Germans and sequestered in a dark storeroom in the spymaster's house:
The storeroom was a damp chamber in what had been the old farmhouse. There was no carpet on the uneven floor, and nothing to sit down on but a school form. It was black as pitch, for the windows were heavily shuttered. I made out by groping that the walls were lined with boxes and barrels and sacks of some heavy stuff The whole place smelt of mould and disuse. My gaolers turned the key in the door, and I could hear them shifting their feet as they stood on guard outside. ....

The more I thought of it the angrier I grew, and I had to get up and move about the room. I tried the shutters, but they were the kind that lock with a key, and I couldn't move them. From the outside came the faint clucking of hens in the warm sun. Then I groped among the sacks and boxes. I couldn't open the latter, and the sacks seemed to be full of things like dog biscuits that smelt of cinnamon. But, as I circumnavigated the room, I found a handle in the wall which seemed worth investigating.

It was the door of a wall cupboard—what they call a "press" in Scotland—and it was locked. I shook it, and it seemed rather flimsy. For want of something better to do I put out my strength on that door, getting some purchase on the handle by looping my braces round it. Presently the thing gave with a crash which I thought would bring in my warders to inquire. I waited for a bit, and then started to explore the cupboard shelves.

There was a multitude of queer things there. I found an odd vesta or two in my trouser pockets and struck a light. It went out in a second, but it showed me one thing. There was a little stock of electric torches on one shelf. I picked up one, and found it was in working order.

With the torch to help me I investigated further. There were bottles and cases of queer-smelling stuffs, chemicals no doubt for experiments, and there were coils of fine copper wire and yanks and yanks of a thin oiled silk. There was a box of detonators, and a lot of cord for fuses. Then away at the back of a shelf I found a stout brown cardboard box, and inside it a wooden case. I managed to wrench it open, and within lay half a dozen little grey bricks, each a couple of inches square.

I took up one, and found that it crumbled easily in my hand. Then I smelt it and put my tongue to it. After that I sat down to think. I hadn't been a mining engineer for nothing, and I knew lentonite when I saw it.

With one of these bricks I could blow the house to smithereens. I had used the stuff in Rhodesia and knew its power. But the trouble was that my knowledge wasn't exact. I had forgotten the proper charge and the right way of preparing it, and I wasn't sure about the timing. I had only a vague notion, too, as to its power, for though I had used it I had not handled it with my own fingers.

But it was a chance, the only possible chance. It was a mighty risk, but against it was an absolute black certainty. If I used it the odds were, as I reckoned, about five to one in favour of my blowing myself into the tree-tops; but if I didn't I should very likely be occupying a six-foot hole in the garden by the evening. That was the way I had to look at it. The prospect was pretty dark either way, but anyhow there was a chance, both for myself and for my country. ....

I got a detonator, and fixed it to a couple of feet of fuse. Then I took a quarter of a lentonite brick, and buried it near the door below one of the sacks in a crack of the floor, fixing the detonator in it. For all I knew half those boxes might be dynamite. If the cupboard held such deadly explosives, why not the boxes? In that case there would be a glorious skyward journey for me and the German servants and about an acre of the surrounding country. There was also the risk that the detonation might set off the other bricks in the cupboard, for I had forgotten most that I knew about lentonite. But it didn't do to begin thinking about the possibilities. The odds were horrible, but I had to take them.

I ensconced myself just below the sill of the window, and lit the fuse. Then I waited for a moment or two. There was dead silence-only a shuffle of heavy boots in the passage, and the peaceful cluck of hens from the warm out-of-doors. I commended my soul to my Maker, and wondered where I would be in five seconds.

A great wave of heat seemed to surge upwards from the floor, and hang for a blistering instant in the air. Then the wall opposite me flashed into a golden yellow and dissolved with a rending thunder that hammered my brain into a pulp. Something dropped on me, catching the point of my left shoulder.

And then I think I became unconscious.

My stupor can scarcely have lasted beyond a few seconds. I felt myself being choked by thick yellow fumes, and struggled out of the debris to my feet. Somewhere behind me I felt fresh air. The jambs of the window had fallen, and through the ragged rent the smoke was pouring out to the summer noon. I stepped over the broken lintel, and found myself standing in a yard in a dense and acrid fog. I felt very sick and ill, but I could move my limbs, and I staggered blindly forward away from the house. .... [more]
Good reading for a pleasant summer day in the sun.

God's sovereignty and blind chance

Stephen M. Barr responds to the argument that "theistic evolution" as advanced by people like Francis Collins is incompatible, in Joe Carter's words, "with a strong view of God’s omniscience." Barr thinks that is a false dilemma:
.... The dilemma is created by a failure to take adequately into account the complete sovereignty of God and the fact that God is outside of time. This is ironic, because Joe says he is a Calvinist, and Calvinists of all people, should have no problem with these issues.

Let’s back off from the emotionally heated subject of evolution for a moment and look at an issue that is much simpler. We have all played games of chance, I suppose. When you roll a pair of dice, is there not an obvious sense in which the outcome is “random”? Is there not an obvious sense in which the rolling of dice is a matter of “chance” so that one can use the concepts of “probability”? On the other hand, isn’t it also true that God knows and wills from all eternity what numbers come up when dice are rolled? If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between these statements, then I suggest that he hasn’t really grasped the traditional teaching about God’s atemporality. And I would further suggest that he lacks certain basic theological insights that would allow him to think clearly about evolution. ....

.... To say, as Joe says, that “God making evolution appear undirected is similar to the idea that he planted dinosaur fossils and created geological strata to fool us into thinking the earth has been around more than 6,000 years,” is in my view completely to misunderstand what scientists and ordinary people mean when they speak about random processes. When one shuffles a deck of cards, one is really randomizing it—the whole point of shuffling. The randomness is not some sort of ploy or ruse on God’s part. But when we shuffle a deck, we are not escaping in any way from God’s absolute control over events: God knows and wills in exact detail from all eternity that I will shuffle the deck, precisely how I will shuffle the deck, and what the order of the cards will be after I shuffle the deck. On this point Calvinism and Catholicism agree.

Francis Collins understands the issues very well. His theological mentors are St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. His understanding of divine providence, omnipotence, and omniscience are thoroughly in accord with the insights and explanations to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream of Christian tradition. ....

Every person of common sense realizes that there is some sense in which one can truly speak of randomness and chance in the world. Actuaries, weather forecasters, poker players, physicists, investors, pollsters, people who engage in statistical analyses of data, and all sorts of other people understand this. It in no way implies a denial of divine foreknowledge or absolute divine sovereignty over the world. St. Thomas Aquinas devoted an entire chapter (Book 3, chapter 74) of his Summa Contra Gentiles to arguing this. The title of that chapter is “Divine providence does not exclude fortune and chance.” I think Calvin would have agreed with Aquinas on this point.

One problem, I believe, is that some people think that saying “Nature is blind” is equivalent to saying “God is blind.” The two statements, however, are poles apart. God is not Nature and Nature is not God. When scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes. [more]
Joe Carter responds to the response, denying that he is victim of the described false dilemma and agreeing with Barr about the compatibility of sovereignty and chance. In part:
My criticism is not of all neo-Darwinists and/or theistic evolutionists but only those who believe that the the process is “absolutely unguided.” This may not apply to Francis Collins, and if not then I am sorry that I followed John West in misrepresenting the views of a man I greatly admire.
Re: The New Theistic Evolutionists, A Random Response to Stephen Barr

The politics of Original Sin

James Nuechterlein in "Sin, Theodicy & Politics" describes Reinhold Niebuhr on human nature and the limits of political possibility:
.... Christian realism rested, in brief, on certain assumptions: that the imperfections of the world stem from fallen human nature; that the realities of self-interest, aggression, and the human will to power have to be reckoned with; that to improve the world it is necessary to work with those forces and not dream of obliterating them. Though the perversities of fallen humanity can, with considerable effort and ingenuity, be manipulated in the direction of the common good, they cannot entirely be overcome. Thus the anti-utopian imperative at the heart of Niebuhr's politics.

As the meeting place of power and morality, politics was inescapably for Niebuhr an arena of tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty. The central problem of politics is power, the inevitable temptation of people—most especially when acting collectively—to use whatever advantages are theirs to further their own interests over those of others.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Niebuhr's argument for democracy differed so radically from that of most on the religious left in his day. For them, democracy rested on the possibility of human perfectibility. Niebuhr, by contrast, famously insisted that while it is humanity's capacity for justice that makes democracy possible, it is humanity's inclination to injustice that makes democracy necessary.

Niebuhr's version of liberal democracy—whether directed to domestic or international concerns—rested on the concept of the balance of power. A serious politics requires at all times elements of deterrence, of checking power with counterpower. Realism, Niebuhr said, means that you achieve the common good not just by unselfishness but by the restraint of selfishness. Since power is never in stable equilibrium, so neither is politics: it is an ongoing process, not an achieved end. There can be no dream of perfect justice. Politics has to do with the relatively better, or even the lesser evil. .... [more]
First Things - Sin, Theodicy & Politics

The stars still stand

Before the gods that made the gods

Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.


The Ballad of the White Horse is remembered and recommended by Hal G.P. Colebatch at The American Spectator:
.... It was published in 1911, and is a vast (173-page), sweeping, heroic account in ballad form of King Alfred the Great's hopeless war, crushing defeat and final "eucastrophic" victory over the Great Army of the marauding Danes in "the Thornland of Ethandune" about a thousand years ago, a victory which saved English-speaking civilization from being murdered in its cradle, and saved us, as Chesterton put it earlier, "from being savages forever." ....

It is a poem that can be read by anyone in need of inspiration and encouragement in dark times. It begins with the king, defeated and hiding in the marshes of Athelney. The Christianized kingdom of Wessex...has been shattered by Viking attacks, both open invasion and the treacherous betrayal of Chippenham:
There was not English armour left
Nor any English thing
When Alfred came to Athelney
To be an English king …
....However, there is no alternative but to fight. Otherwise nothing will survive:
"I bring you naught for your comfort,
Naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher."

Then silence sank. And slowly
Arose the sea-land lord.
Like some vast beast for mystery,
He filled the room and porch and sky,
And from a cobwebbed nail on high
Unhooked his heavy sword.
With the same council he gathers a Christianized Roman magnate, Mark, and a Celtic chief, Colan — as in so many epics, up to The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, the forces called to resist evil are an ill-assorted lot. ....

Having arranged for the chiefs to meet him as soon as they can gather their forces, Alfred wanders on alone in thought over the "shrill sea-downs", through the ruined landscape towards the meeting-place, playing his harp in the dusk ("The rook croaked homeward heavily, the West was clear and wan …"). He is captured by a party of relatively good-humored, drunken Danes, who, admiring his harp-playing, bring him before their chief, Guthrum of the Northern Sea, the Emperor of the Great Army, and three of his principal Earls. Each, after listening to Alfred's playing, takes the harp and makes a song on it, and Alfred learns that despite their power and terror they are actually despairing and terrified of death. ....

The dreadful Earl Ogier's consolation in the face of death is destruction ("The barest branch is beautiful, one moment, as it breaks"), but beyond them is Guthrum, who has passed even through that and is staring into a universe of despair too absolute even for Nihilism: and
"When a man shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods;
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods …"
The nameless, shabby "rhymester without a home" who is Alfred replies to this Pagan hopelessness:
"Our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
The spirit with which you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars still stand
And the small apples grow …" ....
.... C.S. Lewis has said that The Ballad of the White Horse is "permanent and dateless…does not the central theme of the ballad…embody the feeling, and the only possible feeling, with which in any age almost defeated men take up such arms as are left them and win?"

It is good to read The Ballad of the White Horse, and also to reflect that it is basically true. There really was a climatic battle at Ethandune (possibly modern Edington, where a white horse is carved on the chalk hillside, possibly originally in memory of the battle), and where, against all odds, the nascent Anglic civilization and its noble and undaunted king, after years of defeats and betrayals, really won the day, and where the barbarians really were not only defeated but Christianized: Guthrum, with Alfred as his Godfather, took the Baptismal name Athelstan and kept the peace for the rest of his life. In England learning, culture, and civilization were revived under Alfred's rule, and we really were saved from being savages forever. Thank you, G. K. Chesterton. [more]
The American Spectator : Epic Chesterton

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The foreigner within your gates

Justin Taylor posts a short e-mail interview with James Hoffmeier, an Old Testament scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and author of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible. Parts of the interview:
Does the OT operate with similar distinctions that we have today between documented aliens and illegal immigrants?

What I learned in my study is that there are three relevant terms used in Hebrew (ger, zar, nekhar). Different English translations render the words differently. The TNIV and NLT render them all as “foreigner.” That is misleading and incorrect.

Zar and nekhar indeed refer to foreigners or visitors, people passing through a foreign land.

Ger or the verb gwr, which together occur more than 160 times in the OT, refer to foreign residents who live in another land with the permission of a host. ....

The law is clear that ger is not to be oppressed, but to receive equal justice, and have access to the social support system of ancient Israel. And there was a provision for religious inclusion, but they were also obligated to live in accordance with the laws just like the Israelites.

The Law does not, however, extend to the zar and nekhar such benefits and services. From this I conclude that ger was viewed as a legal alien.

The mistake of some well-meaning Christians is to apply the biblical laws for the ger to illegal aliens in American even though they do not fit the biblical legal and social definition.

It seems to me that in the public square those who are using the Bible in the immigration debate assume that the Bible endorses the idea of providing sanctuary for illegal aliens. Do you agree?

The OT Law is very clear about the practice of sanctuary or accessing the cities of refuge. The former was for those living in proximity to the Tabernacle or Temple, while the city of refuge were scattered throughout Israel for easier access.

The purpose of sanctuary was not to avoid the law or one’s sentence, but to get a fair trial in the case and only in the case of accidental death (cf. Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:11-15, 22-29; Josh. 20:1-9).

So when American cities offer their cities as sanctuary from federal law, or when churches offer their facilities as a refuge for illegal immigrants who have been tried and ordered deported, they are neither following the letter or spirit of the OT law. .... [more]
Between Two Worlds: What Does the Bible Teach on Immigration? An Interview with James Hoffmeier