Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hiatus



There will be light or no blogging for a while as I am preoccupied with other concerns. When I return I may explain. In the meantime, over the last several years I've posted a lot of stuff on "One Eternal Day" and you might well find some of it interesting.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pro bono?

John J. Miller asked his online readers to help find information about a court case argued by Abraham Lincoln in 1854. They came through. From an historical marker:
Nine women from the village of Marion (now DeWitt), joined by women from Springfield, plotted against the village saloon frequented by their menfolk. The ladies banned together and crusaded against the “Demon Whiskey.” They stormed George Tanner’s saloon, rolled the whiskey barrels into the street, destroyed the kegs, and poured the vile liquid onto the ground. In May 1854, the ladies found themselves in the DeWitt County Courthouse for “riotously, unlawfully and with force turning out, wasting and destroying ten gallons of whiskey, of the value of five dollars.” They had not hired a defense attorney, but it just so happened Abraham Lincoln and John T. Stewart were present in the courtroom and offered their services. Lincoln argued the ladies were not criminals but righteous and moral women, attempting to save the men from the evils of alcohol. He declared they had been prompted by the same spirit and conviction as those who cast tea into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party. Lincoln and Stewart lost. A fine of two dollars each was imposed on the accused. The money, however, according to local lore, was never collected.
‘Demon Whiskey’ - By John J. Miller - The Corner - National Review Online

"Believe through thick and thin"

Perhaps particularly annoyed by Hawking's declaration early in his new book that "'philosophy is dead' because it 'has not kept up' with science, which alone can explain the universe. 'It is not necessary to invoke God'...", Carlin Romano, a professor of philosophy, reviews how some rather prominent 20th century philosophers from Hawking's university might respond. "Their message to Hawking? Scientists eager to delete God exceed their job description." One of the philosophers Romano cites is Ludwig Wittgenstein and in the essay he describes Wittgenstein's relationship to Christianity:
.... Wittgenstein turned decidedly religious during his World War I service in the Austrian Army, when he read the Gospels repeatedly. He prayed often. Even before the war, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience exerted a powerful influence on him. Later, during the only public lecture of his career, he explored the psychological state of "feeling safe in the hands of God."

From his mid-20s on, Wittgenstein referred to God regularly. In his Notebook of 1916, he writes that "to believe in God means to see that life has a meaning." In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), Wittgenstein contends that "God does not reveal himself in the world." Wittgenstein's God is beyond human understanding. In Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press, 1980), Wittgenstein remarks that it is a mistake to "try and give some sort of philosophical justification for Christian beliefs." ....

"Christianity is not a doctrine," he writes, then elaborates: "Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it gives us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative—rather: believe through thick and thin." Wittgenstein acknowledges the emotional intensity involved: "If I am to be really saved—then I need certainty ... and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul needs, with its passions ... not my abstract mind."

After World War II, Wittgenstein apparently stuck to such views. In 1948, he distinguishes "religious faith" from "superstition," writing that the first is a "trusting," while the second is a "false science." On the matter of evidence for God, Wittgenstein offers a characteristically shrewd angle in 1950: "A proof of God's existence should really be something by which one could convince oneself of God's existence. But I think that believers who have provided such proofs ... would never have come to believe through such proofs." .... [more]
Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Religious literacy

Joe Carter, writing about a recent rather discouraging poll, concludes "Americans are Religiously Illiterate":
Did you know that Mother Teresa is Catholic, Maimonides was Jewish, and Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation? Congratulations! You’re more religiously literate than most Americans....
A short version of the Pew poll this conclusion is based on can be taken here.

Americans are Religiously Illiterate » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patriotism from the pulpit

Keeping it in the proper perspective. Nancy Guthrie:
.... What prompts me to write is a statement Beck made on August 30 in an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show, when he cheerfully celebrated that “240 pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams on stage all locked arms saying the principles of America need to be taught from the pulpit.”

As I’ve continued to think about this statement, I’m moved to write today and say “thank you” for not being one of them. Thank you for your faithfulness in preaching Christ from the pulpit, not “the principles of America.” Thank you for leaving that to others and reserving the sacred desk at our church for preaching, in the last few weeks, about the once-for-all sufficient sacrifice of Christ, about the privilege we have to approach God in prayer as Father, about Christ as the Wisdom of God, about Christ as the most valuable Treasure in the universe, worth trading everything to have.

I love my country and certainly I have concerns about where it is headed. But I also know that “this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). I know—as you quote it week-by-week—that “all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25; cf. Is. 40:6-8). ....
No liberal politics either. No politics at all, please, unless it is a clear case of choosing between obedience to God and obedience to the state.

An Open Letter to My Pastors on Glenn Beck – The Gospel Coalition Blog

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I'll bid farewell to every fear


From Conjubilant With Song: Safely Reach My Home:
.... A simple, four stanza text by Isaac Watts, first published in 1707, which appeared under the epigraph The hope of heaven our support under trials on earth.... It could be set to many different tunes in Common Meter (8.6.8.6.) such as ST. ANNE or WINCHESTER OLD, tunes which were known in Watts's time. However, it has become more familiar in this country with a folk tune from Scotland which was arranged in an early American tune collection titled Kentucky Harmony (1817).
When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I'll bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.
And wipe my weeping eyes,
And wipe my weeping eyes
I'll bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.
Let cares, like a wild deluge come,
And storms of sorrow fall!
May I but safely reach my home,
My God, my heav’n, my all.
My God, my heav'n, my all,
My God, my heav'n, my all,
May I but safely reach my home,
Ay God, my heav'n, my all.

Should earth against my soul engage,
And fiery darts be hurled,
Then I can smile at Satan’s rage,
And face a frowning world.
And face a frowning world,
And face a frowning world,
Then I can smile at Satan’s rage,
And face a frowning world.

There shall I bathe my weary soul
In seas of heav’nly rest,
And not a wave of trouble roll,
Across my peaceful breast.
Across my peaceful breast,
Across my peaceful breast,
And not a wave of trouble roll,
Across my peaceful breast.

Isaac Watts, 1707
Tune: PISGAH (8.6.8.6.6.6.8.6.)
Scottish tune, arr. Joseph C. Lowry, 1817


"When I Can Read My Title Clear" at Cyberhymnal.

Conjubilant With Song: Safely Reach My Home

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Too many greetings...

As someone who is himself rather shy, and as a member of a very small congregation where any visitor will inevitably feel self-conscious, I thought "Introverts in evangelical America" said something that needs to be heard in our churches:
The scowling old man nearly bumped into me as he fled the sanctuary.

As I turned to watch him stomp out to the parking lot, I asked a friend if she knew why he'd left before the service started. She replied, "You know how in your sermon last week you encouraged all of us to be more welcoming to newcomers? Well, after five people came up to him to introduce themselves, he blurted "Can a guy just be anonymous when he checks out a new place? I want to be left alone!" And thus concluded his seven minute survey of our church. ....

...[E]ntering your average evangelical worship service feels like walking into a non-alcoholic cocktail party. Evangelicalism has a chatty, mingling informality about it, and no matter how well-intentioned that atmosphere is, it can be a difficult environment for those of us who are overwhelmed by large quantities of social interaction and who may connect best with God in silence. Sometimes our communities talk so much that we are not able to express the gifts that we bring to others. If we are given the space, we bring gifts of listening, insight, creativity, compassion, and a calming presence, things that our churches desperately need.

Even more dangerous is the tendency of evangelical churches to unintentionally exalt extroverted qualities as the "ideals" of faithfulness. Too often "ideal" Christians are social and gregarious, with an overt passion and enthusiasm. They find it easy to share the gospel with strangers, eagerly invite people into their homes, participate in a wide variety of activities, and quickly assume leadership responsibilities. Those are wonderful qualities, and our churches suffer when we don't have those sorts of people, but if these qualities epitomize the Christian life, many of us introverts are left feeling excluded and spiritually inadequate. Or we wear ourselves out from constantly masquerading as extroverts. .... [more]
Adam S. McHugh, who wrote this column, is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture.

Guest Voices: Introverts in evangelical America - On Faith at washingtonpost.com

Pluralism is a challenge to belief

Peter Berger, thinking about his experiences with the Amish, explains "How to Keep a Closed Community Closed," with relevance to any religious community in our post-Christian society. His conclusion:
.... Modernity, for reasons that are not at all mysterious, pluralizes—that is, it constantly confronts people with beliefs and values different from their own. Inevitably, this undermines the taken-for-granted character of every worldview. If one wants to restore the taken-for-grantedness of a worldview, one must shelter its adherents from ideas that challenge it. That is a difficult project. If one wants to impose a taken-for-granted worldview on an entire society, one must set up a totalitarian state which controls all communications with the outside world. If one settles for doing this in a sub-society where one cannot use physical coercion, the control of communications must be even more strenuous. It is obviously easier to do this in an isolated rural community than in the middle of a big city (though that has been tried too). Pluralism (and not secularization, as many still think) is the big modern challenge to religion. This does not mean that modern people cannot be religious. It does mean that faith is harder to achieve. .... [more]
How to Keep a Closed Community Closed - Peter Berger's Blog - The American Interest

Friday, September 24, 2010

Boys who don't read

The key to reading well is to read a lot. But the fact is that boys in particular are reading less and less. In "How to Raise Boys That Read (As Much as Girls Do)" Thomas Spence explains the simple—although not necessarily easy—solution:
.... According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy...substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents. ....

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time "plugged in" than girls do. ....

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn't it, but Science has spoken.

The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.

People who think that a book—even R.L. Stine's grossest masterpiece—can compete with the powerful stimulation of an electronic screen are kidding themselves. But on the level playing field of a quiet den or bedroom, a good book like "Treasure Island" will hold a boy's attention quite as well as "Zombie Butts from Uranus." Who knows—a boy deprived of electronic stimulation might even become desperate enough to read Jane Austen.

Most importantly, a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter's husband—Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson?

I offer a final piece of evidence that is perhaps unanswerable: There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls. ....
I wonder if I would have learned to read well, or read as much, if I had grown up in the age of the computer. I know that I now spend more time reading on the screen than I do between the covers of a book.

This list of "50 Best Books for Boys and Young Men" includes quite a few titles that I know and love and the site that provides the list looks interesting in other respects, too: The Art of Manliness.

How to Raise Boys That Read (As Much as Girls Do): Not With Gross-Out Books and Video Game Bribes - WSJ.com, 50 Best Books for Boys and Young Men | The Art of Manliness

Thursday, September 23, 2010

City of Man

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, is about to be published. Knowing that it is the first in a planned series of books co-edited by Tim Keller [the other editor is Collin Hansen - see the last post] would have been sufficient to interest me because that, in and of itself, guarantees a level of seriousness and the absence of tub-thumping partisanship. Justin Taylor has provided additional encouragement that the book will be a useful contribution in a couple of posts on the subject. First, he gives us Tim Keller's Foreword from the book. Excerpts:
.... They write as political conservatives, but they begin with a critique of the Christian Right. A very large number of young evangelicals believe that their churches have become as captured by the Right as mainline churches were captured by the Left. Michael and Pete recognize this and largely agree. But they counsel that political withdrawal is not the correct response, nor should alienated evangelicals go down the mainline path. Instead, they urge careful theological reflection, and the rest of this short volume serves as a guidebook to the issues that will have to be addressed, rather than as a finished manifesto of what this new political theology must be.

They begin by making critical distinctions between the roles of the believing individual, the institutional church, and the state. On this foundation, they introduce the issues of human rights, law and order, the role of the family, the nature of wealth and prosperity, and public discourse. In each case they define the field, show what religious believers can contribute, outline mistakes that have been made in the past, and finally hint about directions they would like to see believers take in the future. Evangelicals who are Democrats will probably wish the authors struck some additional notes or made some points differently, but overall this is a wonderfully balanced and warm invitation to believers of every persuasion to re-engage in political life, more thoughtfully than before, but as passionately as ever. ....

...[A]ny simplistic Christian response to politics—the claim that we shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that we should “take back our country for Jesus”—is inadequate. In each society, time, and place, the form of political involvement has to be worked out differently, with the utmost faithfulness to the Scripture, but also the greatest sensitivity to culture, time, and place. This book is a great beginning. [more]
And Taylor summarizes:
Here is an outline of five guiding principles they propose on thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. I think these are well-stated and wise.
  1. The moral duties placed on individuals are, in important respects, different from the ones placed on the state.
  2. The institutional church has roles and responsibilities distinct from those of individual Christians. [Here they appeal to this Richard Mouw CT article on why Carl Henry was right on this issue.]
  3. Scripture does not provide a governing blueprint.
  4. The form of political involvement adopted by Christian citizens is determined in part by the nature of the society in which they live.
  5. God does not deal with nations today as He did with ancient Israel. .... [more]
Tim Keller on Christians and Politics – Justin Taylor, Five Guiding Principles for Thinking about Religion and Politics – Justin Taylor

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Render unto Caesar...."

For me election night is like the Super Bowl and the election season leading up to it  interests me the way the NFL interests others. Politics and political issues have fascinated me since I was young and political science became my primary course of study. I taught classes about politics, political parties, and government for thirty-five years. It isn't always easy to keep things in proportion. Collin Hansen writes "When I struggled several years ago to distinguish between my theological beliefs and convictions on such matters as tax policy and federal bureaucracy, I needed an oasis where I could escape the withering heat of political campaigning. I found it in the community of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Only here did I associate with anyone from the other party. Only here did I hear a message that would endure forever, long after everyone had forgotten any press releases or speeches I wrote." The pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist is Mark Dever and Hansen describes a recent sermon of his as the "best sermon I know on Christianity and government." You can listen to the sermon here. What follows is from Hansen's summary of Dever's "Jesus Paid Taxes," based on Mark 12:13-17.
.... Jesus sets out a novel, revolutionary philosophy in these five verses, Dever argued. By way of background on this confrontation between Jesus and his religious opponents, Dever explained that Jesus posed such a great threat to Jewish leaders that he united bitter enemies from among the Herodians, who conspired with Rome, and the Pharisees, who rebelled against Israel’s occupiers. Together, they approached Jesus, hoping to catch him in a trap. They asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14) By answering, Jesus was in danger of losing either his popularity or his life. In fact, he lost both after a shocking response that subsequently formed the basis for all Western political philosophy.

In his first of three main points, Dever said Christians are good citizens. Though Jesus later suffered the vengeance of his enemies, he actually escaped the rhetorical noose with his answer here. Jesus regarded the pagan state as legitimate when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17). The answer stunned the Herodians and Pharisees, because whatever their differences, Israel and Rome both derived their legitimacy by divine appeals.

Human government is deeply biblical. Dever looked back to Genesis 1:28, where God commanded Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Authority, by nature, reflects God’s authority. Romans 13 echoes this foundational biblical theology as Jesus developed it. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Government is not specifically Christian, but it is good. Certainly order is better than organizing society around unfettered self-interest. ....

In his second point, Dever argued that no earthly kingdom can be identified with God’s people. Christians are international. With his answer, Jesus unhitched God’s people from any one government, severing the national covenant that extended all the way back to Moses. If followers of Jesus could support Rome with their taxes, which government today—no matter how corrupt—can’t Christians support? ....

With his third and final point, Dever argued that Christians are finally accountable to God. Many remember that Jesus told the Pharisees and Heroadians, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Not so many remember that Jesus ended his teaching by saying we should render “to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). While Jesus commanded obedience to the state, he undermined its final authority with this phrase. The type of denarius Jesus requested to see bore an inscription: “Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus may have called for obedience, but he flatly rejected all such worship of Roman emperors. Thus, our duty to earthly authority is limited, Dever taught, a fact that becomes clear when authorities clash.

Authority may be good, but it can be abused. Consider the Sanhedrin, who commanded Peter and John to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). The apostles disobeyed, so they were jailed. When asked why they ignored the order, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This example leaves some space for civil disobedience when the government commands Christians to do something God tells us not to do. If Romans 13 calls Christians to obey government, then Revelation 13 illustrates what happens when the state rebels against God. No government commands the Christian’s unqualified support. .... [more]
Pay Your Taxes But Trust in Christ – The Gospel Coalition Blog

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

There and Back Again

On this day in 1937 J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published. The "new Hobbit," The Lord of the Rings, didn't see publication until 1954. Then Tolkien went back and revised some aspects of The Hobbit to make them consistent with the larger story.

From Chapter I: "An Unexpected Party":
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hail like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (be had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the lefthand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river. ....
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1966, p. 11.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Which side are you on?

Fred Sanders describes himself as "a deeply satisfied free church evangelical Protestant" and wasn't particularly interested in the events surrounding the Pope's visit to the United Kingdom but he did notice the protests and in that particular context has decided "I Guess That’s Kind of My Pope There":
...Benedict’s leading message has been a high-level critique of the aggressive secularism that has such a death-grip on the British mind. It’s a powerful argument, and he’s honed it very well over the years. I’ve been reading Benedict since he was Ratzinger; since he was just a theologian. Of course he’s said lots of other, capital-R capital-C Roman Catholic stuff, but the main point he’s been driving home has been his sustained, principled critique of the secular ideology of the contemporary world.

It seems to me that my interests are being represented by the Pope. What I mean is, the reproaches that fall on him are also directed at me and mine. When the tribes of village atheists come out to the streets with their postmodern versions of “écrasez l’infâme,” they are not upset about the things that divide my Protestant principles from his Catholic commitments. These semi-literate stepchildren of Voltaire simply hate religion, period, and want it all to go away. They lash out at the Pope because he’s famous, he’s said Christian things in public, and now has dared to come near enough to yell at. That’s mere Christian hate there.

So here’s what I learned from the public reaction to the Papal visit. I have a lot of objections to the distinctive elements of Roman Catholic theology. It occurs to me to blog them, or say them, or bring them up on this occasion. But that would be stupid. The Pope protesters are protesting me and my church as well. He’s using his platform to deliver my message to that hostile crowd, and I’m grateful for that.

Besides, when the last king is hung with the entrails of the last priest, I would rather be found among the blessed dead than in the howling crowd trying to shout “sola scriptura” over the deafening roar of “to hell with religion.”
I Guess That’s Kind of My Pope There » Evangel | A First Things Blog

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Father Brown

James E. Person Jr. appreciates "Father Brown at 100" in the current issue of National Review:
.... This rumpled, clumsy detective-priest appeared in 52 short stories, 48 of them collected in five volumes during Chesterton’s lifetime. The strongest of the stories are the earliest — “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Wrong Shape,” “The Sins of Prince Saradine,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” and seven others that all appeared in the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), a work the prominent pseudonymous American mystery writer Ellery Queen called “the miracle-book of 1911” and “one of the finest volumes of short stories ever conceived and written.” These tales were written when inspiration was strong upon Chesterton, and the key concept of Father Brown and his potential were fresh and exciting to the author.

Each of these early stories is a tightly plotted gem, with fresh dialogue, surprising twists, gorgeous scene-painting, and — most important — a main character who solves and thwarts crimes not by CSI-style clue-chasing or Sherlockian inductive reasoning but by his knowledge of the passions that motivate men. The key to Father Brown’s powers of insight lies in the fact that among his daily duties is hearing the confessions of his flock. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” he asks one astonished would-be robber — his greatest antagonist (and in time his best friend), Hercule Flambeau.

Another unlikely advantage held by the little priest is that in physical appearance he looks for all the world like the sort of hapless rube “whom anybody could lead on a string to the North Pole,” in Valentin’s dry assessment. While he is an observant man, a discerning listener, and a witty conversationalist, Father Brown is forever being underestimated and snickered at by his betters. Not surprisingly, then, his foremost trait is humility. .... Father Brown exemplifies the fact that humility, the disregarding of one’s dignity, is an attribute of the great and the godly. “Humility is the mother of giants,” he declares in another story. “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” ....
As I indicated,the essay is in the current, October 4, issue of National Review. If you are a Father Brown fan, the essay is worth seeking out. If you haven't yet enjoyed the stories, they are in the public domain and available online.

I've always enjoyed the stories and have several collections of them, including an early omnibus of all the stories. A brief examination of my library turned up several "best of" volumes commending the Father Brown stories. H.R.F. Keating's Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books [1987] includes The Innocence of Father Brown as one of the hundred. In Raymond T. Bond's Handbook for Poisoners [1951], Chesterton is represented by "The Quick One." Ellery Queen included "The Secret Garden" in 101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841-1941.

National Review: Father Brown at 100

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The witness of our lives


Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom, on our witness as Christians in the world as taught by John Henry Newman. In this there is no difference between Catholic and Protestant:
At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, as a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Newman’s life also teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly. The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard, and in the end its convincing power comes from itself and not from the human eloquence or arguments in which it may be couched. Not far from here, at Tyburn, great numbers of our brothers and sisters died for the faith; the witness of their fidelity to the end was ever more powerful than the inspired words that so many of them spoke before surrendering everything to the Lord. In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied. And yet, the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.

Finally, Newman teaches us that if we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of his Kingdom. Newman understood this, and was the great champion of the prophetic office of the Christian laity. He saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being. Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognize what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.
The Whole Truth » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog, ZENIT - Benedict XVI's Address at Hyde Park Vigil

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Bar" songs?

Via Cranach, a useful clarification of a myth often repeated:
Luther did not use bar songs but rather his own creations and the musical heritage of the church catholic. The term bar refers to the type of staff notation used in medieval musical composing. . . .

The musical notation was simply a repeat sign, known in Luther’s day as a “bar”. ....
A more complete explanation: "Did Luther Endorse 'Bar' Music for the Church?"

Luther’s bar tunes | Cranach: The Blog of Veith

Not escapism

The Chronicles of Prydain weren't available when I was a child, but I read them as a young adult and thoroughly enjoyed them. John J. Miller finds the Disney film based on them, The Black Cauldron, wanting, but
.... The fault doesn't lie with the source material. "The Black Cauldron" was loosely based on "The Chronicles of Prydain," a series of novels written in the 1960s by Lloyd Alexander. In the field of fantasy literature for children, British authors traditionally have dominated: Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and others. Yet Alexander, a Philadelphia native, arguably deserves a place among these superstars. He may be the form's finest American practitioner. ....

..."The Book of Three" ... was the first of five titles about a boy named Taran, an assistant pig-keeper who finds himself thrust into an epic struggle between good and evil in the magical land of Prydain. The setting was inspired by Wales—"Prydain" is the Welsh word for Britain—and the adventures were drawn partly from "The Mabinogion," a collection of Welsh legends.

The books landed at precisely the right moment. J.R.R. Tolkien was enjoying his first big burst of popularity and Alexander offered a new stomping ground for veterans of Middle Earth. By targeting younger readers, "The Chronicles of Prydain" are closer in spirit to "The Hobbit" than "The Lord of the Rings." They're also funnier. Amid all the adventure, Alexander was careful to include episodes of comic relief.

The fifth and concluding volume, "The High King," arrived in 1968 and won the Newberry Medal, the most prestigious award in American literature for children. A short sixth book, "The Foundling," came out in 1973. Its tales supplement rather than continue the Prydain series, which has never gone out of print.

For Alexander, turning to an audience of boys and girls was liberating. "I found myself able to deal with things that I could never even express writing for adults," he said. "The child's book is as serious an art form as anything else." In his stories, he emphasized the importance of courage and duty, the conundrum of concentrated power, and the notion that where you're going matters more than where you're from.

"Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality," he said of his preferred genre. "It's a way of understanding it."
Disney's The Black Cauldron | Lloyd Alexander, the Prydain Chronicles | Taran Wanders Again | By John J. Miller - WSJ.com

Only nine?


David P. Murray reviews two books about the Ten Commandments, both of which he highly recommends. One is by the president of Wheaton College, Philip Ryken, developed from a sermon series on the subject. The other, by Mark Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century, he identifies as "a fine example of premier evangelical scholarship" with many strengths, among which are that "Rooker explains the Ten Commandments in their redemptive context, as a response to God’s gracious redemptive acts, not as a means of redemption. Towards the end of the book, he has an excellent section on Old Testament salvation by grace through faith...." But he also identifies a couple of weaknesses, one of which I particularly noted since I belong to a denomination identified with a minority position on the fourth commandment. Murray writes:
...I was a bit confused by Rooker’s treatment of the fourth commandment. He argues strongly for the unchanging validity and permanence of the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments are foundational for ethics and religious instruction. Or as Josh McDowell has stated, ‘The Ten Commandments…represent the most famous codification of absolute truth in the history of humanity’… (3); The Ten Commandments express the eternal will of God… (6); As these commandments mirror the character of God…(10); The Ten Commandments are absolute and ultimate… (199); the Ten Commandments manifest the attributes of God (199), etc.

But, to me at least, he fatally weakens his argument by arguing that the fourth commandment is not binding on the Christian today. It is hard to argue that the Ten Commandments are “foundational” “absolute truth” and “the eternal will of God” and then say that one is no longer applicable either because it is not mentioned in the New Testament (debatable), or because there were some “typical” elements attached to it in the Old Testament that were fulfilled in the New.

On the basis of Acts 15, Rooker states, “The Sabbath law was no longer binding on the people of God” (97). But then, having said that, Rooker concludes his chapter by saying, “the principles involved in observance of the Sabbath law are applicable today. The principles of work, rest, and worship that emerge from the Sabbath law are extremely meaningful in their application to the contemporary Christian” (99-100). He then goes on to give an excellent exposition of these principles, which sound very like Sabbath-keeping to me!

I know it is unintentional, but I sometimes wonder how much we unwittingly undermine the whole argument for absolute and unchanging truth by undermining the place of the fourth commandment. If the Ten Commandments are now only nine-strong, where has absolute truth gone? .... [more]
A further consideration: if the fourth commandment is still important, why not observe it on the day God chose?

The Ten Commandments - TGC Reviews

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's about fear

I don't usually approve of burning books, or flags, or any other symbols of deeply held, fundamental beliefs, although it has become basic First Amendment interpretation that symbolic acts [like flag burning or dancing naked] are fully protected speech—a position about which civil libertarians have, in the past, been particularly dogmatic. And so Americans have every legal right to do things that are offensive to others, even though you or I might disapprove. I most certainly do disapprove of burning Korans. But I wish that the media had paid no more attention to this attention-grubbing "pastor" than they do to the average flag burning.

Bruce Bawer, writing from Norway, thinks that the real story about the Koran-burning controversy is being ignored:
.... It’s clear, of course, that Jones—who at the last minute canceled the bonfire, declaring that “God is telling us to stop”—is a nut. He’s apparently made a career of spewing hate at Jews, gays, and just about everybody else who doesn’t belong to his tiny church, which seems to be some kind of wacky cult.

But that’s neither here nor there. The real story here isn’t about Jones but about the rest of us and what we’ve allowed to happen to our civilization since 9/11. Who would have imagined, on the day the Twin Towers fell, that nine years later we’d be so scared of Muslim reactions that the plan of some crank to burn a few copies of the Koran would become the lead story on the evening news and cause the president himself to plead with the guy to call it off? ....

.... Needless to say, the truly important things went unsaid on those network news reports. Nobody pointed out that we wouldn’t be fretting like this if there weren’t something very special about Islam. You could announce plans to burn a stack of Bibles, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Dhammapada, or the Book of Mormon, or Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, or a truckload of copies of The Watchtower, or any other non-Muslim religious text without making the White House and Pentagon call emergency meetings and put embassies around the world on alert. How little time it’s taken for us to get used to paying Islam a unique degree of “respect”!

One of the network news reports—I don’t remember which—showed an anti-American demonstration by Muslims in Kabul reacting to Jones’s planned Koran-burning. The demonstrators were burning an American flag and stomping on it. Neither the reporter nor the anchorperson commented on this fact. Plainly, in their view, the burning of an American flag was not worth remarking upon. After all, in recent years Muslims around the world have burned countless American flags, not to mention the flags of pretty much every other Western democracy. Since 9/11, we’ve grown used to seeing the revered symbols of Western democratic values routinely desecrated in the Muslim world.

And we’ve also grown used to the fact this is most assuredly not a two-way street. American flags can be burned by the hundreds, by huge crowds, in the major squares of Muslim capitals, and that’s apparently hunky-dory with us. But when a guy in Gainesville whom nobody ever heard of decides to burn a few Korans, everybody from the president on down begs him to reconsider. Obama to the contrary, this isn’t about “our values as Americans”; it’s not about “freedom and religious tolerance.” It’s about fear. .... [more]
Fear by Bruce Bawer, City Journal 13 September 2010

A "Jesusy" experience

Bob Spencer, dissatisfied with the church he had been part of, has been looking for something more satisfying and trying out some of those in his neighborhood. One of the most important criteria for him is that it be "Jesusy," by which he means "Gospel centered" and [as he writes to one of his commenters] "in the shadow of the cross." This Sunday he visited the nearby Catholic parish:
...I walked down the street to the local Catholic establishment. They meet in a big high-ceilinged space with beautiful artwork on the walls and a hymn-singing choir that sounds like angels. We sang Shall We Gather at the River, Precious Lord, and I Know that My Redeemer Lives. I was lovin' it!

And here's the thing. It was one of the most Jesusy church experiences I've had in years.

There were readings of extended passages of Scripture, and almost no sermon at all, but for a brief talk concerning a couple of the parables of Jesus (the lost sheep, the lost coins). The priest said, "The sheep doesn't have to prove itself worthy before the Shepherd will rescue, and the lost coin doesn't even have to cry out for mercy in order to be found. In fact, the coin can't cry out at all, but the woman searches relentlessly till she finds it."

Ummm, I hate to admit it (kind of), but that's more Gospel than I've heard in my two evangelical church visits combined.

Now, look, I'm not planning to "swim the Tiber" or anything like that. But as a confirmed evangelical, with charismatic leanings, I find it kind of embarrassing that a Catholic church beats us hands-down at preaching the Gospel, and without a 45-minute lecture, too! .... [emphasis added]
Wilderness Fandango: Church Visit #3

Monday, September 13, 2010

Buy this book!

There are books I read and enjoy and put on the shelf and then there are the books I also recommend and lend. Eric Metaxa's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is in the latter category. So far five members of our little church have read it or are reading it. Charles Chaput's review in First Things explains some of the reasons the book is so worthwhile.
Biographies matter because they teach through the lives of others. Done well, they inform and entertain. Done very well, they can inspire. And, sometimes, at the hands of an author of real passion and talent, they can change the way we think about ourselves and our times. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, is just such a book. Eric Metaxas has created a biography of uncommon power: intelligent, moving, well researched, vividly written and rich in implication for our own lives. Or, to put it another way: Buy this book. Read it. Then buy another copy and give it to a person you love. It’s that good.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the sort of compelling figure from the past many people know something about, but few take the time to fully understand. One of eight children from a distinguished German family, he was a man of high intellect and social class who chose practical Lutheran ministry over a promising university career. Repelled by Nazi thuggery, he was appalled by the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews. He was equally disgusted by the collaboration and cowardice of mainline German Christians, and helped found a “Confessing Church” of resisting, faithful Christians critical of the regime. A pacifist by preference, Bonhoeffer nonetheless joined the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. He eventually was arrested and was hanged in Flossenburg prison camp in April 1945, just two weeks before the camp’s liberation by American troops.

Bonhoeffer was thirty-nine when he died. He already had written two small volumes that have become modern Christian classics—Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship—and a collection of notes that were edited after his death by his friend Eberhard Bethge and published as Ethics.

As Metaxas shows, Bonhoeffer’s actions cannot be appreciated outside the zealous Christian faith that animated him. In an age of arid theology and practical unbelief, even among many self-described Christians, Bonhoeffer committed himself to live what he claimed to believe. He saw Scripture as the restless but reliable word of God—a word that demands not only intellectual assent but also obedience of heart and submission of will in lives of active service. He had a passion for Jesus Christ and a deeply evangelical faith shaped by the Lutheran tradition. This makes him a rather awkward hero for modern secularizers who fail to read the Bonhoeffer fine print—especially when he speaks, with inconvenient Christian clarity, about the nature of marriage, family, and euthanasia and abortion, which he bluntly described as “murder.” For Bonhoeffer, faith had consequences for the entire range of human behavior, and he took an intensely allergic view of inappropriate Christian compromises with the world. He could see, firsthand in Germany, where such compromises led. .... [more]
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Human nature

Via RightWingBob.com, Bob Dylan:
"Human nature hasn’t really changed in 3,000 years. Maybe the obstacles and actualities and daily customs change, but human nature really hasn’t changed. It cannot change. It’s not made to change."
RightWingBob.com » A note on Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan In America”

Friday, September 10, 2010

The self-creating universe

The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking's new book, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, isn't getting a whole lot of respect. At First Things Stephen M. Barr, himself a physicist, writes "Much Ado About 'Nothing': Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe," indicating that there is nothing new in their theory and that "the ideas propounded in Hawking’s book constitute no threat whatever to the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation."

And then The Economist's reviewer:
.... The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?

It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles.

The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” They say that these surprising ideas have passed every experimental test to which they have been put, but that is misleading in a way that is unfortunately typical of the authors. It is the bare bones of quantum mechanics that have proved to be consistent with what is presently known of the subatomic world. The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be.

Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think. [emphasis added]
Understanding the universe: Order of creation | The Economist, Much Ado About “Nothing”: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe | First Things

Unintended consequences

The Economist describes a study indicating that efforts to control energy use — and thus reduce its expense — by mandating more efficient sources of artificial light may well have the opposite effect.
.... The light perceived by the human eye is measured in units called lumen-hours. This is about the amount produced by burning a candle for an hour. In 1700 a typical Briton consumed 580 lumen-hours in the course of a year, from candles, wood and oil. Today, burning electric lights, he uses about 46 megalumen-hours—almost 100,000 times as much. Better technology has stimulated demand, resulting in more energy being purchased for conversion into light. ....

.... Assuming that, by 2030, solid-state lights will be about three times more efficient than fluorescent ones and that the price of electricity stays the same in real terms, the number of megalumen-hours consumed by the average person will, according to their model, rise tenfold, from 20 to 202. The amount of electricity needed to generate that light would more than double. Only if the price of electricity were to triple would the amount of electricity used to generate light start to fall by 2030.

Dr Tsao and his colleagues see no immediate end to this process by which improvements in the supply of light stimulate the desire for more—rather as the construction of that other environmental bête noire, roads, stimulates the growth of traffic. Even now, the interiors of homes and workplaces are typically lit at only a tenth of the brightness of the outdoors on an overcast day, so there is plenty of room for improvement. And many outdoor areas that people would prefer to be bright at night remain dark because of the expense. If money were no object, some parts of the outdoors might be illuminated at night to be as bright as day.

It is worth remembering that when gas lights replaced candles and oil lamps in the 19th century, some newspapers reported that they were “glaring” and “dazzling white”. In fact, a gas jet of the time gave off about as much light as a 25 watt incandescent bulb does today. To modern eyes, that is well on the dim side. So, for those who truly wish to reduce the amount of energy expended on lighting the answer may not be to ban old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, as is the current trend, but to make them compulsory. [more]
Energy conservation: Not such a bright idea | The Economist

Thursday, September 9, 2010

At least three English Bibles

Dan Wallace addresses "What Bible Should I Own? at Parchment and Pen in three categories and concludes that each of us should have at least three English Bibles in our libraries:
.... First, I think everyone should own a King James Bible. It has been hailed as one of the greatest literary monuments to the English language, and the greatest literary monument every produced by a committee. Regardless of what you think of the KJV’s accuracy, it is a must for all English-speaking Christians. I would add that I think it’s a must for all English-speaking people, regardless of their faith commitments. ....

Second, I would propose that every English-speaking Christian own a good study Bible. It should be accurate and readable, and have plenty of helpful notes. There are several excellent study Bibles available, but the one I like the best is the NET Bible (available at www.bible.org). Why the NET? .... What makes the NET Bible unique are three things: its philosophy of translation, how it was produced, and its extensive footnotes. The translation philosophy was to combine three different approaches: accuracy, readability, and literacy. ....

But there are other good study Bibles, too. The ESV [English Standard Version] is an excellent, literary translation with understated elegance, in keeping with the KJV and RSV [Revised Standard Version]. And its study Bible, with articles and notes, is excellent. The NIV Study Bible has very good notes and a very readable translation, but it interprets a bit too much for my tastes. The NRSV [New Revised Standard Version] is a very good translation, though its stance on gender inclusivism sometimes mars the beauty of the translation and is even, at times, misleading (cf. Matt 18.15; 1 Tim 3.2). The REB [Revised English Bible] is a gender-inclusive translation but it has sidestepped the problems of the NRSV by giving literary power a higher priority. ....


Finally, I suggest that every English-speaking Christian get a Bible that is readable, lively, and captures the ‘feel’ of the original. The more accurate Bibles usually don’t do this (including the NET and ESV). The NIV comes close, but Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the Living Bible [now The New Living Translation], and J.B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English do well in this regard. These are Bibles that are meant to be read one chapter (or passage) at a time, not verse by verse. In fact, Phillips stripped out the verse numbers and only had chapters so that the reader would not get bogged down when reading the text.

So, what Bible should you own? At least three, and one of them needs to be the King James Bible. But whatever you get, make sure to read it! [more] [Note: I have expanded the titles of the Bibles that were abbreviated above and added the Amazon links]
In the third category, I would recommend Phillips, although he only did the New Testament.

Thanks to Justin Taylor for the reference.

Parchment and Pen » What Bible Should I Own (Dan Wallace)

Morality without God?

Is it possible to make a plausible case for the theological virtues [faith, hope and love] while adopting a thoroughly naturalistic worldview? Reviewing two books that would like to argue that it is, John Cottingham says it is not.
.... It is absurd to suggest that becoming an atheist entails abandoning morality. But if the natural process is all there is, and social and moral norms are simply conventions devised by humans as part of that process, then what provides morality with its authority — that sense of an imperative that exerts a call on us whether we like it or not? Again like Johnston, Comte-Sponville frequently helps himself to a vocabulary to which as a naturalist he is no longer entitled — in this case, notions like "absolute", "sacred", "unconditionally imposes itself", etc. Once we probe deeper, we see that, for Comte-Sponville, the "absolutisation of ethics", as he puts it, is in the end "illusory". It is a "projection on to Nature" of "what only exists within ourselves". So for all the fine language about the sacred, we end up slipping down the primrose path to relativism: the call of morality reduces to what I decide to do or to refrain from doing. "Should I rob or rape or murder?" Comte-Sponville asks. And he quotes admiringly from Alain's answer: "No, because it would be unworthy of what I am, and what I wish to be." This is clearly supposed to be a rather splendid answer, but actually its implications seem to me as chilling as Nietzsche's terrifying suggestion that I might justifiably decide to suppress impulses of compassion if they got in the way of some grand project I might choose to adopt. Despite all the good intentions, we end up with a worldview in which people's own self-inflated sense of what is "worthy" of them is all the barrier that stands between us and barbarism. ....

What we are witnessing among these religiously sympathetic naturalists, if I am right, is an attempt to have one's spiritual cake and eat it — or rather to continue to be able to eat it once the main ingredients have been discarded as rubbish. Rather like the British socialist politicians of the second half of the 20th century, intent for doctrinal reasons on destroying the very grammar schools to which they themselves owed so much, many naturalists would no doubt argue that the price of the demolition job is worth paying: in the educational case, elitism was the supposed bogey that had to be eradicated, while in the present case it is supernaturalism. Yet if the scientific outlook is supposed to be the reason for scrapping the supernatural, the irony is that there is nothing in science that in fact leads, or could possibly lead, to that result. Science, the study of the natural world, cannot conceivably pronounce on what may or may not transcend that world.

The spiritual praxis that has enriched so much of our collective history, the practices of prayer, meditation, lectio divina and the whole structure of private and public worship, has been, in the Western tradition, inextricably linked to the Judaeo-Christian idea of our creatureliness — the notion that our very existence is shaped by a creative power, source of all goodness, truth and beauty. This theistic framework is not the only possible framework for spirituality: both the writers under discussion flirt intermittently with the Buddhist notion of anatta — the idea that the self is an illusion and that there is nothing beyond a constant flow of impermanent conditions that arise and pass away. But it is no easy task to graft such ideas on to the ethical rootstock of Western spirituality. For one thing, it is far from clear how a worldview based on detachment and oceanic merging into the impersonal void could support anything like a morality of unconditional requirements that calls us to orient our lives towards the Good.

We need, as Comte-Sponville rightly concedes, fidelity to the tradition that shaped us. But part of that tradition condemns intellectual pride and calls us to humility. A little humility may be enough to allow us to make the short step from fidelity to faith. We need the humility to accept that we cannot create our own values, or pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral sensibilities have sprung. Instead of embarking on the project of "saving God" by replacing him with the naturally and humanly shaped world, it is perhaps time, even at this late stage, to acknowledge that it is we ourselves who need saving, and that the salvation cannot be entirely of our own making. [more]
It's Not God Who Needs Saving - It's Us | Standpoint

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The intrinsic value of individuals

Standpoint provides a very interesting and wide-ranging conversation between Raymond Tallis [author of Enemies of Hope, 1997] and Roger Scruton [author of The Uses of Pessimism], which they title "Staving Off Despair: On the Use and Abuse of Pessimism for Life." One of the many topics they touch on is the ubiquity of sex in the culture:
Daniel Johnson: We have a culture now in which sex plays a central role, and yet it's strangely bloodless, isn't it?

Raymond Tallis: I strongly share Roger's point of view over this. We live in a world in which pornography or at least sexual allusion is almost wall-to-wall. You can't open a copy of The Times without seeing a naked woman and that to me is the marker of where we are at. It's as if sex has become shallower and shallower as it has become spread more widely. Sex as a consumer item increasingly dominates over sex as an encounter with the utter mystery of another person, with a profound sense of love and compassion for them. These are marginalised by the ubiquitous culture of pornography.

Roger Scruton: I agree. One of the social functions of religion is that of withdrawing certain things from the market. We fence them round and say that here is a realm where things are not exchanged, bartered, paid for or taken, but it's still a realm where things can be given in a special way.

That is the idea of a sacrament: certain ways in which human beings give to each other have a sort of blessing from another realm, and only then can they be fully themselves. It's not just sex that religion withdraws from the market — people too. At least in Christianity, people are not to be used and sold, they are to be understood as objects of intrinsic value. This intuition was rephrased by Kant in terms of his categorical imperative but it's there in Aquinas and all Christian thinking. It is there in the Old Testament too. .... [more]
Staving Off Despair: On the Use and Abuse of Pessimism for Life | Standpoint

Distinctions

The editors of National Review make "The Case for Marriage" in the current issue. Marriage has always had something to do with sex and procreation. In fact non-consummation was long thought to be grounds for annulment in those traditions that didn't permit divorce. The article raises this interesting issue [via Rick Esenberg]:
.... Same-sex marriage would introduce a new, less justifiable distinction into the law. This new version of marriage would exclude pairs of people who qualify for it in every way except for their lack of a sexual relationship. Elderly brothers who take care of each other; two friends who share a house and bills and even help raise a child after one loses a spouse: Why shouldn’t their relationships, too, be recognized by the government? The traditional conception of marriage holds that however valuable those relationships may be, the fact that they are not oriented toward procreation makes them non-marital. (Note that this is true even if those relationships involve caring for children: We do not treat a grandmother and widowed daughter raising a child together as married because their relationship is not part of an institution oriented toward procreation.) On what possible basis can the revisionists’ conception of marriage justify discriminating against couples simply because they do not have sex? .... [more]
The Case for Marriage - Article - National Review Online

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Students and teachers

My guess is that any teacher would agree with these and, moreover, would be largely uninterested in criticism from students who don't attempt to practice them. Via Insight Scoop and very relevant at the beginning of a new school year: "What a Teacher Wants in a Student":
1. Effort. I would gladly exchange 10 IQ points for sincere effort, any day of the week. Give me a student who has read the material, genuinely engaged it, and is struggling to understand it, and I will give that student everything I have as a teacher. By contrast, give me a brilliant student who gives a half-hearted effort, and it is hard not to be irritated, frustrated, and short with him.

2. Charity. This is much tougher than it seems, because being a good student requires charity on multiple fronts: toward other students, toward the professor, and, just as important, toward the readings. Take them by turns. ....

3. Practice. Reading carefully and writing well are skills, and, like other skills, they must be practiced. You must do them over and over again. .... When it comes to your own writing, revise, revise, revise. Go over your paper three, four, five times; in the morning and at night; let it go a day and then return to it. Do not be afraid to delete, cut, or globally rethink. There is perhaps no single more important key to successful writing than editing. Use it liberally.

4. Preparation. An old quip has it that ninety percent of success is showing up. I would say: Ninety percent of success as a student is preparation. ....

5. Finally, purpose. Why, exactly, are you here? .... [more]
James R. Otteson: What a Teacher Wants in a Student

How to open a new book

Via Alan Jacobs. This is exactly what I was taught when I worked in the college library as a teenager:


Monday, September 6, 2010

Working side-by-side with God

Gene Edward Veith wants Christians to recover the concept of "vocation" and finds in Labor Day an ideal occasion to remind us of its importance. Vocation is much more than a job, although any legitimate job can be your vocation. From "Vocation as the Christian Life"
.... The word is simply the Latinate term for “calling.” Perhaps the best summation of the concept is in 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”

God “assigns” different kinds and places of service for each Christian and then “calls” each Christian to that assignment. The Reformation theologians fleshed out this concept with other biblical teachings about God’s workings in society and the Christian’s life in the world (e.g., Ephesians 5-6, Romans 12-13, 1 Corinthians 7).

The great theologian of vocation was Martin Luther, who developed the teaching in his battles with monasticism—the view that the spiritual life requires withdrawal from secular life—and in defining “the priesthood of all believers.”

For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God’s work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates.

Vocation is, first of all, about how God works through human beings. In His providential care and governing of His creation, God chooses to distribute His gifts by means of ordinary people exercising their talents, which themselves are gifts of God.

Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.

God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther’s many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them.

God created us to be dependent on others—meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents—and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself.

Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation. .... [more]
Vocation as the Christian Life | Cranach: The Blog of Veith

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ex nihilo

Father Robert Barron, whose comments on Christianity's relationship to the culture I often enjoy, is disappointed that Steven Hawking seems [at least in the publicity for his new book] to have joined the campaign of the "new atheists." From "Steven Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism":
So another prominent British academic has weighed in on the God question. Stephen Hawking, probably the best-known scientist in the world, has said, in a book to be published a week before the Pope’s visit to Britain, that the universe required no Creator. (I’m sure, of course, that there was no “intelligent design” behind that choice of publication date!). I confess that something in me tightens whenever I hear a scientist pontificating on issues that belong to the arena of philosophy or metaphysics. ....

Here’s an example from Hawking’s latest book: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Well, first of all, which is it: nothing or the law of gravity? There’s quite a substantial difference between the two. If Hawking is saying that the universe, which is marked in every nook and cranny by stunning and mathematically describable intellegibility, simply came forth from Nothing, then I just throw up my hands. The classical philosophical tradition gives us an adage that is still hard to improve upon: ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing comes nothing). ....

So suppose we say (to return to Hawking’s rather incoherent statement) that gravity is the ultimate cause of the universe. This would mean that a force within nature is the source of the being of the world. To be sure, this sort of claim has a long pedigree, stretching back at least to the pre-Socratics, but it remains highly problematic. The question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is not searching after a thing within the universe, but rather the being of the universe. It is wondering why (to use the technical term) contingent things exist, that is to say, things that do not contain within themselves the reason for their own being. You and I are contingent in the measure that we had parents, that we eat and drink, and that we breathe. In a word, we don’t explain ourselves. Now if we want to understand why we exist, we cannot go on endlessly appealing to other contingent things. We must come finally to some reality which exists through the power of its own essence, some power whose very nature it is to be. But that whose very nature it is to be cannot, in any sense, be limited or imperfect in being, and this is precisely why Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contingent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as “God.” To claim that something as finite and variable as the force of gravity is this ultimate explaining value is simply ludicrous. However all-embracing or powerful it is, gravity is still a worldly nature, something within the contingent cosmos.

There is a line from one of the articles describing Hawking’s book that I found, actually, quite helpful and illuminating. The author said, “in his new book, The Grand Design…Hawking sets out a comprehensive thesis that the scientific framework leaves no room for a deity.” Quite right. Since the true God is not a being alongside other beings, not one thing in the universe among many, he is not circumscribable within a scientific frame of understanding. He should not, therefore, even in principle, be either affirmed or denied from a purely scientific perspective. There is, of course, rampant today a “scientism” which would reduce all legitimate knowing to the scientific mode of knowing. You can find this form of dogmatism in the writings of all of the prominent “new” atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, etc. I must confess that I’m disappointed that Stephen Hawking appears to have joined their company.
Fr. Robert Barron's Word On Fire - Theology:Steven Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism