Thursday, May 31, 2012

The only remaining evil?

The same people who are "pro-choice" when it comes to the choice of whether to end unborn human life seem determined to deprive us of choices that are comparatively trivial. Sean Curnyn on New York Mayor Bloomberg"s latest decision to protect New Yorkers from themselves:
The world seems agog at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to forcibly improve the health of his subjects. He is proposing—and seems very likely to be able to fully implement—a ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 oz at restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and street carts (i.e.: pretty much anywhere other than standard grocery stores, where fortunately you’ll still be able to take home a 2-liter Pepsi and embrace death by high fructose corn syrup). ....

I believe the decisive turn in that battle was fought and lost (or won, depending on your point of view) years ago, and it too happened in New York. ....

Now, health fascism is not political correctness; they are different animals, but they share some genetic code. They both carry stiff strains of puritanism and sanctimony. Think about it: just as with political correctness one is ordered not to use certain words because they might make someone else feel uncomfortable, so with what we might call “health correctness” one is not allowed to smoke—even, now, in Central Park!—just in case a whiff of it might be detected by another human being.

Indeed, I am convinced that it was the implementation of these kinds of strict anti-smoking rules, spearheaded by Mayor Bloomberg himself in New York City (although we now see them in many locales), which tipped the balance in favor of the health correctness movement. Momentum counts for a lot in these matters. Once you have allowed the government to prohibit what was previously perfectly normal and legal behavior in the name of protecting people from theoretical health consequences, you have opened up a very large hole in the fabric of personal freedom. It was nothing from there to progress to the variety of other health-correctness-dictates which have emanated from New York’s preeminent nutritionist and nurse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

I am not a smoker (that is, I quit over 15 years ago). Smoking is not good for you. However, society gave up something important when it decided to treat cigarette smokers like vermin, to be scorned and kicked out into the street. I wrote about it once before, calling it “the death of hospitality,” and contrasting it with how the world once seemed to work:
Back when I was a little lad, my parents didn’t smoke, but ashtrays were kept in the house to be offered to visitors who did. I learned that the proper answer to someone asking, “Will it bother you if I smoke?” is “Of-course not! Go right ahead.” It had something to do with courtesy, hospitality and tolerance of each others’ vices (we do all have them, after all). Of-course, courtesy was also expected from the smoker, too—the asking of permission being part of it, and the avoidance of smoking to such an excess that it could not but annoy others. It was always, perhaps, an uneasy kind of détente, but it was based, as I said, on a mutual understanding of human foible and a willingness to accommodate one another cheerfully.
There is no accommodation anymore. Now we use the law to take care of these things. We are so much more civilized.

So, you’ll forgive me, I hope, if Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on Slurpees seems to me like only a very minor advance in the all-consuming war on potential ill-health.

This war will finally end in total victory for those on Mayor Bloomberg’s side when we are all utterly prevented from doing anything which might possibly injure our health, thus relieving us of any remaining reason to go on living.
New York Nanny Bloomberg takes a really big gulp (but this battle was lost long ago) | The Cinch Review

"Stupid, selfish and unhappy"

While I am quite certain Dr. Webster would find my convictions inadequate, I doubt that he would find them nearly as annoying as he does "new age spirituality" which makes him very "grumpy." From "How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy":
The opening line of the book has raised some eyebrows, and some friends felt it ought to go, but it really seemed to capture the emotional motivation for this project:
When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual,” I want to punch them in the face.

Of course, I go on to note that I resist such temptations—for reasons of ethics and cowardice. However, this annoyance was something I wanted to investigate. Why did it wind me up so much? ....

That the idea of being “spiritual, but not religious” is, at the very least, problematic. As I suggest in the book, mind-body-spirit spirituality is in danger of making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.

Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.

Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realizes that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is cause for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.

Finally, I argue that the dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality—the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them—leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives, and ‘soul’. ....

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sending the wrong message

Kevin DeYoung describes one of the reasons the Church has difficulty communicating about homosexuality. The problem has to do with the delivery of (or the propensity to hear) only a part of the message.
.... There are various groups that may be listening when we speak about homosexuality, and the group we think we are addressing usually dictates how we speak.
  • If we are speaking to cultural elites who despise us and our beliefs, we want to be bold and courageous.
  • If we are speaking to strugglers who fight against same sex attraction, we want to be patient and sympathetic.
  • If we are speaking to sufferers who have been mistreated by the church, we want to be apologetic and humble.
  • If we are speaking to shaky Christians who seem ready to compromise the faith for society’s approval, we want to be persuasive and persistent.
  • If we are speaking to liberal Christians who have deviated from the truth once delivered for the saints, we want to be serious and hortatory.
  • If we are speaking to gays and lesbians who live as the Scriptures would not have them live, we want to be winsome and straightforward.
  • If we are speaking to beligerent Christians who hate or fear homosexuals, we want to be upset and disappointed.
So how ought we to speak about homosexuality? Should we be defiant and defensive or gentle and entreating? Yes and yes. It depends on who is listening. All seven scenarios above are real and not uncommon. And while some Christians may be called to speak to one group in particular, we must keep in mind that in this technological day and age anyone from any group may be listening in. This means that we will often be misunderstood. ....
DeYoung then goes on to recommend "ten commitments I hope Christians and churches will consider making in their heads and hearts, before God and before a watching world."

The Church and Homosexuality: Ten Commitments – Kevin DeYoung

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

“Viva Cristo Rey!”

It may or may not be a good film, but the reaction to it is a bit revealing. "Viva Cristo Rey!":
The movie depicts the Mexican Cristero uprising against the military dictatorship of President Plutarco Calles between 1926 and 1929. Calles was an ardent anti-Catholic in a nation dominated by Catholics. At his command Catholic churches were ordered shuttered, the Mass outlawed and many priests murdered.

The most famous moment in the struggle, not depicted in the film, was the martyrdom of Padre Miguel Pro, ordered shot by firing squad by Calles in 1927, with the heart-wrenching final moments (Pro kneeling in prayer, then standing, his arms extended in the sign of the cross as bullets shatter him, Pro shot point blank when the fusillade didn’t kill him) photographed by order of the Presidente. Padre Pro was beatified by Pope John Paul II the Great in 1988. ....

.... Slant magazine pans it as a film “that gives the screen epic a bad name.” It attacks the “solemn speechifying,” the “overstuffed cast of characters,” the “half-baked material,” and given “this religion is specifically Catholic… [the movie] …makes the material a tough sell.” When Garcia’s character ultimately converts to Christianity, “we’re back to embracing a worldview where the implied mandate to practice Catholicism feels near as onerous as the inability to do so.”

But how historically accurate is this “implied mandate to practice Catholicism”? Here’s a hint. Slant dismisses “a whole host of bathetic subplots” claiming “its martyrdom fetish reaches its grotesque nadir when a young boy dies rather than make the most token anti-Catholic gesture.” ....

The “most token anti-Catholic gesture” which would have saved his life was his refusal to shout “Death to Christ the King,” instead proclaiming “Viva Cristo Rey!”

Jose was 14. He was beatified by Benedict XVI in 2005.

It is still illegal to celebrate Mass outdoors in Mexico. [more]
Bozell Column: Viva Cristo Rey! |

Walling in the Church

The President of the Catholic University of America [and former Law School dean] cites a Baptist in arguing that HHS gets "the wall of separation" wrong:
.... Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, suspicious of organized religion. He believed that efforts to establish an official religion led to persecution and civil war.

The metaphor was not original to Jefferson, though. Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance, used it in 1644. History has shown, he observed, that when churches “have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall . . . and made his garden a wilderness.”

Williams had different reasons than Jefferson for preaching separation. Jefferson thought that religion was bad for government. Williams thought that mixing church and state was bad for the church.

These two perspectives often give us the same results. They both warn against tax support for churches and against prayers composed by public school boards. But Williams’s theological metaphor may have been more influential than Jefferson’s political one in the adoption of the First Amendment.

I think this has a bearing on a neglected aspect of the HHS rules — not the mandate itself, but the exemption for a “religious employer.” It defines that term to mean an organization that exists to inculcate religious values, that is exempt from filing a tax return and that primarily employs and serves people who share its religious tenets.

This is a remarkably narrow view of religion. ....

.... The government has been eager to regulate the behavior of churches in ways more to its liking. It does this by defining religion down, so that only the most rigid and separatist groups are exempt. The rest are, for constitutional purposes, no different from the Jaycees or the Elks Club. We might say that the wall of separation is intact, but the government has made it so small that it encloses nothing more than a flower bed.

How distressed Roger Williams would have been. [more]
For the government, what counts as Catholic? - The Washington Post

"He cares only for what ought to be"

Today is the anniversary of G.K. Chesterton's birth. GKC via First Things:
“We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.”
G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World - Project Gutenberg

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering to be moral

I used to tell my classes that a free society depends on most people being honest most of the time. If we weren't, only a police state could make things work. And the only way most of us are honest is because we believe we ought to be — most of us have our own little policeman controlling our behavior. Edmund Burke said "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without." The traditional source of the most effective internal restraint upon behavior has been religion. It seems to me that those points were reinforced by Dan Ariely's "Why We Lie":
Not too long ago, one of my students, named Peter, told me a story that captures rather nicely our society's misguided efforts to deal with dishonesty. One day, Peter locked himself out of his house. After a spell, the locksmith pulled up in his truck and picked the lock in about a minute.

"I was amazed at how quickly and easily this guy was able to open the door," Peter said. The locksmith told him that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. One percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another 1% will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television; locks won't do much to protect you from the hardened thieves, who can get into your house if they really want to. The purpose of locks, the locksmith said, is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock. ....

What, then—if anything—pushes people toward greater honesty?

There's a joke about a man who loses his bike outside his synagogue and goes to his rabbi for advice. "Next week come to services, sit in the front row," the rabbi tells the man, "and when we recite the Ten Commandments, turn around and look at the people behind you. When we get to 'Thou shalt not steal,' see who can't look you in the eyes. That's your guy." After the next service, the rabbi is curious to learn whether his advice panned out. "So, did it work?" he asks the man. "Like a charm," the man answers. "The moment we got to 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' I remembered where I left my bike."

What this little joke suggests is that simply being reminded of moral codes has a significant effect on how we view our own behavior.

Inspired by the thought, my colleagues and I ran an experiment at the University of California, Los Angeles. We took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and set them loose on our usual matrix task. We asked half of them to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books that they had read in high school. Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools' honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior. .... [more]
Wall Street Journal: Why We Lie

Memorial Day, 2012

Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, "Take Time to Remember" in The Weekly Standard:
.... Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is a post-Civil War holiday. It was first instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic on May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” If the Fourth of July renews the memory of the birth of the nation, Decoration Day renewed the memory of those who gave their lives “that that nation might live,” or again in Lincoln’s words, that this nation would have a new birth of freedom.

On Decoration Day, May 30, 1871, at Arlington National Cemetery, it was an ex-slave named Frederick Douglass who delivered the memorial address near the monument to the “Unknown Loyal Dead,” before a gathering that included President Grant, his cabinet, and many other distinguished people. “Dark and sad,” Douglass began, “will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors.” Giving eloquent expression to that homage, he concluded: “If today we have a country not boiling in the agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage...if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.”

On this occasion and for the rest of his life, Douglass was at pains to keep alive through speech the memory and meaning of the deeds of that noble army of men who gave their lives to preserve the Union. ....

After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in service to our country. Later, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day; later still, it lost its fixed date in the calendar, celebrated instead on the last Monday in May. ....
Take Time to Remember | The Weekly Standard, May 29, 2011

"Their glory shall not be blotted out"

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. .... All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.
[The Apocrypha: Sirach 44:1-15 KJV]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Our inconsolable secret"

Via By Every Word:
What Augustine knew is that human beings want God…God has made us for himself. Our sense of God runs in us like a stream, even though we divert it toward other objects. We human beings want God even when we think that what we really want is a green valley, or a good time from our past, or a loved one. Of course we do want these things and persons, but we also want what’s behind them. Our inconsolable secret, says C.S. Lewis, is that we are full of yearnings, sometimes shy and sometimes passionate, that point us beyond the things of earth to the ultimate reality of God.
(Cornelius Plantinga)
By Every Word...: "Our inconsolable secret"

"Day by day : we magnify Thee"

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 version of The Book of Common Prayer. The "Te Deum Laudamus" is part of the BCP order for Morning Prayer. Trevin Wax says of it, "One of my all-time favorite prayers! This one just overflows with praise…":
WE praise Thee, O God : we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship Thee : the Father everlasting.
To Thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To Thee Cherubin and Seraphin : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of Thy Majesty : of Thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise Thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise Thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise Thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge Thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man :
   Thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
   Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that Thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray Thee, help Thy servants :
   whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with Thy Saints : in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save Thy people : and bless Thine heritage.
Govern them : and lift them up for ever.
Day by day : we magnify Thee;
And we worship Thy Name : ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord : to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us : have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let Thy mercy lighten upon us : as our trust is in Thee.
O Lord, in Thee have I trusted : let me never be confounded.
Thanks to Trevin Wax for reminding me.

Book of Common Prayer [1662]: Morning Prayer.

"The only good reason to have marriage laws..."

Elizabth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress, recently reiterated a proposal she first made four years ago — one possible way past the political differences about the recognition of "gay marriage":
“...the churches should reconsider their roles in authenticating marriage. Governments issue birth certificates; churches issue baptismal certificates. Governments issue death certificates; churches pray the funerals. Governments issue divorces; Churches annul. Both work within their separate and necessary spheres, serving the corporeal and the spiritual. It is only in the issue of marriage that church and state have commingled authority. That should perhaps change, and soon. Let the government certify and the churches sanctify according to their rites and sacraments.”
The idea is to create a clear differential between contract and covenant, between legalism/unions and theology/marriage. Our post-modern understanding of marriage may well need that differential in order to begin to re-appreciate that marriage is more than an expression of a mood that needn’t last. It also will afford some protections to the churches — for a little while, at least — against controversy, law suits and fines. .... [more]
That approach appeals to my more libertarian impulses. It allows churches to set the standards they wish for Christian marriage and permits those who are unwilling to abide by those constraints to have a civil ceremony. And it might protect churches from legal interference with practices that some believe discriminatory — assuming the Constitution affords more protection to American churches than has proven to be the case in Canada, for instance. But it is not a sufficient reason for change if there are persuasive secular arguments to maintain the status of marriage as the uniting of a man and a woman. One of the unsigned editorials in the current National Review succinctly provides what seems to me a sound secular argument for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
.... All people, whatever their sexual orientation, have equal dignity, worth, and basic rights, by virtue of being human beings. We do not believe that this premise entails the conclusion that the marriage laws should be changed. The only good reason to have marriage laws in the first place—to have the state recognize a class of relationships called “marriage” out of all the possible strong bonds that adults can form—is to link erotic desire to the upbringing of the children it can produce.

We have already gone too far, in both law and culture, in weakening the link between marriage and procreation. To break it altogether would make the institution of marriage unintelligible. What possible governmental interest is there in encouraging long-term commitments with a sexual element, just as such? What reason is there to exclude from recognition caring long-term relationships without such an element? (In previous editorials we have mentioned the case of two brothers who raise a child together following a family tragedy; other hypotheticals are easy to devise.)

Many people who support same-sex marriage sincerely believe that they are merely expanding an institution to a class of people who have been excluded from it rather than redefining it. But this view is simply mistaken. We will not make our society more civilized by detaching one of our central institutions from its civilizing task. (National Review, June 11, 2012, p. 16.)
"What possible governmental interest is there in encouraging long-term commitments with a sexual element, just as such?" In other words, surely there are any number of relationships that have no sexual component that are at least as worthy of governmental encouragement as is "gay marriage." Why should this relationship, which is differentiated from others only by a sexual element — every other element of relationship, emotional, economic, medical, inheritance, etc. — can exist in other contexts. So, why should this one be entitled to the word, "marriage"? Perhaps many such and varied  relationships should be legally privileged without confusing them with marriage.

Let Government Certify and Churches Sanctify – UPDATE

Saturday, May 26, 2012


NRO reproduces a memo from Jason DeSena Trennert of Strategas Research Partners, a Wall Street firm, to his colleagues:
.... I travel around quite a bit and on my travels to the U.K. and Canada I would occasionally see men and women wearing red crepe-paper poppies. Either through complete cluelessness or stupidity, I had never learned or had forgotten that these were worn on Memorial Day as a remembrance of those who have died in our nation’s service. The practice takes its origin from the poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by John McCrae.... Last year, I resolved myself to bring the poppy back to my little corner of the world. We’re buying 1,000 to give to friends and clients and colleagues. Please let us know if you’d like us to send you one. They’re only 16 cents a-piece so we’ll consider it an honor if we need to buy more. I’m going to encourage all of my colleagues here at Strategas to wear them on the Friday before and the Tuesday after Memorial Day. ....
The poem:

In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae,
Canadian Expeditionary Force,

Poppies - By Jack Fowler - The Corner - National Review Online

"Tonight I am ashamed to be a Baptist"

Bill Leonard, a Baptist, expresses well the kind of reaction to this "sermon" that I've read by many other Baptists and evangelicals. I have yet to read a defense of Worley's now widely-circulated abomination. No doubt there have  been some from Westboro types.
...[T]onight I am ashamed, because I heard a Baptist pastor say things so abhorrent to the gospel of Jesus that I could not keep conscience with my Baptist forebears and remain silent. In what appears to be a May 13 sermon, Charles Worley declared: "Build a great, big, large fence — 150 or 100 mile long — put all the lesbians in there," Then he continues: "Do the same thing for the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can't get out. Feed them, and you know what, in a few years, they'll die out. Do you know why? They can't reproduce!"

I’ve listened to those statements multiple times, each time hoping that I’m not hearing what I think I’m hearing. But I am.

That a person who serves a congregation calling itself Baptist would utilize such brutal words is not simply an affront to the men and women he wishes death upon, but to all who “name the name of Christ.” So dastardly are those words and the sentiment behind them that those of us who value the Baptist tradition must demand repentance of this fallen Christian brother. ....

After years of living through Baptist controversies I determined to address issues — not individuals — in public debates. I’ve kept that covenant for at least two decades. But not tonight.

Tonight I’m disgusted with and praying for Pastor Worley, clinging to Paul’s words to Corinth offered in contrast to “another gospel” he found rampant there: “We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behavior, our grasp of truth, our patience and kindliness; by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).

Tonight I am ashamed to be a Baptist. Maybe the grace of Jesus and my Independent Baptist grandmother will find me by morning. Maybe that grace will somehow find a repentant Baptist preacher in Maiden, N.C. One can only hope. [more]
A Baptist shame

Friday, May 25, 2012

"You need know nothing"

Stephen Fry on classical music:
.... Classical music is, functionally at least, beyond fashion and outside time, (though of course it can be studied in quite the reverse way). To engage you need know nothing, only to be able to sit and listen.

To make the journey and visit the places the music takes you. You will find yourself inside the most astonishing aural architecture that has ever been constructed. Frightening, awe-inspiring, forbidding at first. But when you realise that these pieces were written by people like you who believe first and foremost in love and hope, bliss, justice and connection, and that they want to take you by the hand and cause your heart to burst in your breast for joy and wonder and pity, the fear melts away. Not something one is always ready for, any more than one could eat haute cuisine every day. But when you need it, oh the difference … [more]

"To sally forth courageously"

A collection of eight good quotations from St. John Chrysostom on how to raise children includes this:
.... Let us train boys from earliest childhood to be patient when they suffer wrongs themselves, but, if they see another being wronged, to sally forth courageously and aid the sufferer in fitting measure. — An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, 66. [more]
8 Quotes from St. John Chrysostom on How to Raise Children | St. Peter's List

"Because He cares for you"

An important reminder:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7
.... Whatever your level of anxiety, God invites us to cast our anxiety on him. I don't know anyone else offering this. He's best equipped to handle the stuff that we can't. ....

We don't have to make something of ourselves, because God will look after exalting us when it's the right time. Our job is to stay humble and to keep giving him all the stuff that keeps us awake at night, knowing that he has our best interests at heart. .... - Blog - He Cares

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Parties happen to be how things get done"

David French's "Open Letter to Young, 'Post-Partisan' Evangelicals" is getting quite a bit of attention in the evangelical blogosphere. He begins by describing his evolution from despising the "culture warriors" to being "the guy you’re trying not to be — the guy you think is destroying our Christian witness. Heck, I’m the guy that even I used to hate." He concludes:
...I no longer believe the lie that there is a path for Christians through this culture that everyone will love — or even most people will love. I no longer believe the lie that American Christians are “too political” and if we only spoke less about abortion we’d be more respected (the mainline denominations have taken that path for two generations, and they continue to lose members and cultural influence).

So, “post-partisan” Christians, please ponder this: First, as the price for your new path, are you willing to forgo any effective voice at all for unborn children? Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence? After all, that is the true price of non-partisanship — silence. Second, if you believe that a more perfect imitation of Christ (more perfect than the elders you scorn) will lead to more love and regard for the Church, consider this: No one was more like Christ than Christ, and he wound up on a cross with only the tiniest handful of followers by his side.

Follow Jesus, yes, but don’t think for a moment that will improve your image, and don’t be surprised if He takes you down much the same path He took the generation before you. [more]
Responding to some of the discussion of French's letter, Matthew Lee Anderson argues for a partisanship that isn't captive to the "partisan mind":
.... Ross Douthat recently wrote a book that critiques the culture wars. But his solution isn’t political independence: it’s repudiating what he has called “the partisan mind” while holding on to party affiliation because, well, parties happen to be how things get done in government. ....

The new path forward for evangelical engagement in politics will often share the political conclusions that the religious right came to. And it won’t be timid about saying things that the culture not only disagrees with but is downright hostile to. .... I am not convinced that Republicans are quite as committed to, say, overturning Roe as French is. In fact, I’m more of the opinion that social conservatives are viewed as the idiosyncratic, slightly embarrassing uncles in the Republican world.

Which is why the better path of partisanship is not a wholesale defense of partisanship but rather the understanding that we have a strategic alliance that will break the moment the Republican party ceases to be friendly to our concerns. We can take that approach, I think, while recognizing that there are substantive differences between the party platforms and their environments (blessings on you few pro-life Democrats, but the failure of Stupak effectively killed their prospects for the season), differences that justify partisanship without captivity to the “partisan mind.” [more]
An Open Letter to Young, “Post-Partisan” Evangelicals, Post-Partisan Evangelicals and the Culture Wars: An Attempt at Clarification | Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture

Good news for liberal arts majors

"Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts":
.... Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

"The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking," said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. "They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed." ....
Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts - Daily Brief -

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Seventh-day Adventism

Over the last year at her blog Rachel Held Evans has done an interview series asking representatives of various systems of belief questions coming from her readers. She notes: "...[W]e’ve featured an atheist, a pagan, a nun, a Mormon, a Mennonite, a Calvinist, an evolutionary creationist, a humanitarian, an environmentalist, a gay Christian, a Unitarian Universalist, an  Orthodox Christian, a Pentecostal, and many more."

Today, Seventh-day Adventist pastor and editor, David Newman, answers questions about his denomination. Since Seventh Day Baptists are often confused with that denomination, I thought SDBs might find the interview interesting. Here are a couple of Pastor Newman's responses from a much longer set of answers.
From Paula: Seventh-day Adventists have a strong practice of Sabbath keeping. Why, in your view, is Sabbath keeping so important to Christian life and practice? What gifts from this practice would you want to share with the rest of the church?

We believe that the Sabbath celebrates the birthday of the world, the new life God brought into the universe, and justification by faith. When we rest by not doing our own work on the Sabbath, it is a powerful reminder that just as we trust God to supply our material needs, so we trust in his grace for salvation and that none of our works count toward that salvation. The great gift of the Sabbath is to legitimately forget for one day the pressures of this world, and to revel in God’s grace spending extra time with Him, with family, and with friends.

Seventh-day Adventists are part of a long tradition of Sabbath-keeping on the seventh day. Christians observed the seventh day from the first century to the present, so Adventists are not the first ones to make an issue of this day. On the tombstone of Peter Chamberlain, physician to Queen Elizabeth I [Note: actually King James I, and two of his successors], are these words: “As for his religion, he was a Christian, keeping the commandments of God and faith of Jesus. Being baptized about the year 1648 and keeping the seventh day Sabbath above thirty two years.”

The founders of the Adventist Church came from the Methodists and the Christian Connection and were all Sunday keepers. Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh Day Baptist, was the first one to introduce this concept to the early Adventists in the middle of the 18th [Note: actually the 19th] century.

From Geraldine: Do you see [Sunday worship] as a sin, and if so why? Are all other Christians sinners because their sacred day is Sunday and not Saturday?

This is a great question. The challenge is to explain in a few words what sin is. Sin exists on two levels: relational and behavioral.

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the commandments (behavior), he replied to love God first and your neighbor as yourself (relational). SIN spelled in capital letters is our break in our relationship with God. It is rebellion against God; sin spelled in lower-case letters are all the behaviors that are not in harmony with God’s will. Since no one will ever be sinless (1 John 1:9) sins do not keep us out of heaven. If we have placed our trust in God, we are saved. Now comes the growing part. The Bible says we are born again, and just like a baby is very immature and grows into maturing during its whole life, so we must grow.

So “Sunday worship” is not a sin. We are all sinners. Some are lost sinners. Some of us are saved sinners. Whether we worship on Saturday or Sunday is never a condition of our salvation. What counts is whether we have placed our trust in God. .... [more]
Rachel Held Evans | Ask a Seventh-day Adventist...(Response)

Religious freedom is not just freedom to worship

More than forty Catholic institutions initiated lawsuits Monday against the HHS health insurance mandates on the grounds that those mandates not only violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (introduced by Senators Kennedy and Schumer, and passed in 1993) but also, of course, the First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty. It seems to me that here Catholics are fighting the good fight for all of us.

A friend draws my attention to George Weigel's commencement address, "Defending Religious Freedom in Full":
...Catholic "at-homeness" in the United States has had a deeper philosophical and moral texture. One of the great Catholic students of American democracy, Father John Courtney Murray, described that side of the Catholic experience of America in these terms, in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, a book published fifty-two years ago:
"Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language. The ideas expressed are native to his universe of discourse. Even the accent, being American, suits his tongue."
.... Appeals to the natural moral law we can know by reason underwrote the American civil rights revolution. Appeals to that same natural moral law underwrite the pro-life movement, the successor to the civil rights movement. And appeals to the natural moral law have underwritten U.S. international human rights policy for the past thirty years. Until, that is, December 2009, when the Secretary of State of the United States, in a speech at Georgetown University, emptied the concept of religious freedom of everything save the "freedom to worship" while asserting, in a catalogue of what she claimed were fundamental international human rights, that people "must be love in the way they choose" — which "choice" must, presumably, be protected by international human rights covenants and national and local civil rights laws.

This speech, as things turned out, was one harbinger of an assault on religious freedom that continues to this day — an assault that imagines "religious freedom" to be a kind of "privacy right" to certain leisure-time activities, but nothing more than that. This dramatic misconception of religious freedom was evident in the present administration's attempt to re-write federal employment law by dissolving the "ministerial exemption" that had long protected the integrity of religious institutions. It was evident in the administration's refusal to continue funding the U.S. bishops' efforts to help women who had been victims of sex-trafficking (because the Church refused to provide abortion as part of that work). And it has been most dramatically evident in the January HHS mandate that requires all employers (including religious institutions with moral objections and private-sector employers with religiously-informed moral objections) to facilitate the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs like Plan B and Ella to their employees. ....

What is this "religious freedom in full" that you must defend and advance?

It surely includes freedom of worship, but it must include more than that; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is content with freedom of worship, so long as the Christian worship in question takes place behind closed doors in the American embassy compound in Riyadh. Religious conviction is community-forming, and communities formed by religious conviction must be free, as communities and not simply as individuals, to make arguments and bring influence to bear in public life. If religiously informed moral argument is banned from the American public square, then the public square has become, not only naked, but undemocratic and intolerant. If, on the other hand, religiously informed moral argument is welcome in public life, then we have the possibility of rebuilding, not a sacred public square (a goal the Catholic Church rejected at the Second Vatican Council), but a civil public square, in which tolerance is rightly understood as differences engaged within a bond of civility formed by a mutual commitment to reason.

It is a matter of both political common sense and democratic etiquette that Catholics in public life should make our arguments in ways that our fellow-citizens, who may not share our theological premises, can engage and understand — which is to say, in our particular case, that Catholics should bring to bear in public life the moral truths we hold through arguments framed by the grammar and vocabulary of the natural moral law. ....

Religious freedom in full also means that communities of religious conviction and conscience must be free to conduct the works of charity in ways that reflect their conscientious convictions. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss the problems that have been posed by tying so much of Catholic social service work and Catholic health care to government funding — save, perhaps, to note that these problems did not exist before the Supreme Court erected a spurious "right to abortion" as the right-that-trumps-all-other-rights, and before courts and legislatures decided that it was within the state's competence to redefine marriage and to compel others to accept that redefinition through the use of coercive state power. What can be said in this context, and what must be said, is that the rights of Catholic physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals are not second-class rights that can be trumped by other rights-claims; and any state that fails to acknowledge those rights of conscience has done grave damage to religious freedom rightly understood. The same can and must be said about any state that drives the Catholic Church out of certain forms of social service because the Church refuses to concede that the state has the competence to declare as "marriage" relationships that are manifestly not marriages. .... [more]
"Defending Religious Freedom in Full"

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Making college worthwhile

It's quiet around here right now. I live near the University of Wisconsin campus. I'm surrounded by student housing and about half of those in my building are undergraduates or graduate students. Commencement was last Sunday so many of those students are now gone. The UW has, in the not-so-distant past, earned a place on one or another of those lists of top party schools. Consequently, this finding in an article in The Washington Post surprised me:
University of Wisconsin. The Madison flagship has an outdated reputation as a party school. But survey data show that freshmen at Wisconsin study 20 hours a week, and seniors study 18 hours a week. I could not find a single other public university anywhere in the nation that performed as high on that measure.
The New York Times several weeks ago told parents of college age students that if you "Want Your College Student to Party Less? Pay Less."
...[T]he group of college students least likely to report engaging in risky behavior (drinking, binge drinking, marijuana use and smoking) were those who contributed the most, financially, to their own education. Those students were also more likely to identify strongly with their future occupational identity — the ultimate goal of their degree.
So, if you are self-sufficient and goal-oriented, perhaps you might consider the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin...

Monday, May 21, 2012

All human desires become rights

Diane Ellis at Ricochet quoting from Milan Kundera's Immortality, on how the idea of "human rights" in the West becomes the right to have whatever is desired:
...[B]ecause people in the West are not threatened by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights. The world has become man's right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship, the desire to exceed the speed limit the right to exceed the speed limit, the desire for happiness the right to happiness, the desire to publish a book the right to publish a book, the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street.
C.S. Lewis, on how desires come to be rights and the baneful consequences: "Whatever men expect, they soon come to think they have a right to: the sense of disappointment can, with very little skill on (the devil's) part, be turned into a sense of injury."

Milan Kundera on Human Rights -

"Do right. Fear Nothing."

I really like Andrew Klavan's thrillers, whether intended for an adult readership or for young adults. The Homelanders series was so good that I had some difficulty waiting patiently for each subsequent book to get published [but if you want to read them they are now available in a single volume]. His most recent young adult thriller is Crazy Dangerous. It is on my Kindle but I have yet to read it. John Nolte's review leads me to believe it won't take long to complete once I get started:
.... Sam Hopkins is a PK, a preacher's kid living with all the baggage that entails in a small town in upstate New York. Like many high schoolers, Sam has an instinct to rebel, and this instinct at first gets him into the kind of trouble many of us got into as youths when he falls in with a gang of thugs and car thieves. Quickly, though, Sam realizes he's made a mistake and that he has to get out of this situation without getting himself killed. Every day he's in deeper and eventually the solution comes along in the form of what you might call Sam's uncontrollable chivalry.

Jennifer is a classmate of Sam's, a strange but innocent girl who requires saving in so many ways. Above all, she's the victim of terrifying visions of demons and worse. But is she crazy? ....

But best of all, with Crazy Dangerous, Klavan remains an example of what an artist with something to say should be. There is no message in Crazy Dangerous, just a simple theme of "Do right. Fear nothing.," wrapped in an exciting, page-turning tale that extols the virtues of self-sacrifice, chivalry, honesty, and admitting you're wrong in a way that doesn't hide the fact that there's a price to pay in this world for believing such things or that the price is worth the ultimate reward. ....
'Crazy Dangerous' Review: Andrew Klavan's Latest Young Adult Thriller

Themes in C.S. Lewis

I discovered C.S. Lewis at a very impressionable age, just when I was beginning to sort out a worldview, and he so influenced that worldview that I have difficulty remembering which ideas I have borrowed and am, I have no doubt, often guilty of unconscious plagiarism.

Here, Dr. Art Lindsley of the C.S. Lewis Institute discusses "Seven Key Ideas from C.S. Lewis." They are key to Lewis, and they are sound ideas:
.... What are C.S. Lewis’s key ideas? I have chosen seven to summarize in this essay:
  1. Chronological Snobbery
  2. Desire
  3. Imagination
  4. Objective Values vs. Relativism
  5. Myth
  6. Immortality
  7. Comprehensiveness
Here is Dr. Lindsleys' summary of Lewis's explanation of "chronological snobbery" [the title links to a much longer pdf discussion of the idea, and similar links exist at his post for each of the other six]:
1. Chronological Snobbery

One obstacle that C.S. Lewis had to overcome was what he called his “chronological snobbery.” By that he meant the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is thereby discredited. For instance, people might ask, “What does a 2,000-year-old faith have to do with me?” One of Lewis’s friends helped him to ask about ideas that seemed outdated. Why did an idea go out of date and was it ever refuted? If so, where, by whom, and how conclusively? C.S. Lewis later argued that reading old books helped provide a corrective to the blindness induced by our own age. We ought, he maintained, to read one old book for every new one or if that’s too much, then one old one for every three new ones. Otherwise, we may be easily enslaved to the ideas of the recent past. .... [more]
Seven Key Ideas from C. S. Lewis | WisdomForLife

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Stark raving mad"

W.H. Auden on the abandonment of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer by American Episcopalians [the 1928 Prayer Book was replaced in 1979, but the Auden letter was written in 1968 unwelcome innovations having already appeared ]:
I think our church has gone stark raving mad. We had the Providential good-fortune, a blessing denied to the Roman Catholics, that our Prayer Book was compiled at the ideal historical moment, that is to say when the English language was already in all essentials the language we use now — nobody has any difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s or Cranmer’s English, as they have difficulty with Beowulf or Chaucer — at the same time, men in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries still possessed what our own has almost totally lost, a sense for the ceremonial and ritual both in life and in language. Why, except in very minor details, any Episcopalian should want to tinker with either the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible, and go a-whoring after cacophonous and sometimes heretical new versions passes my comprehension. ....

Stand Firm | W.H. Auden on the Book of Common Prayer

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 1925-2012

I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
into my eager arms;
I have enough!
I have beheld Him,
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish, even today with joy
to depart from here.

"Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, German Baritone, Dies at 86"
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose beautiful voice and mastery of technique made him the 20th century’s pre-eminent interpreter of art songs, died on Friday at his home in Bavaria. He was 86. ....

Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:

“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle, and that is just about all there is to be said about it.” .... [more]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, German Baritone, Dies at 86 -

Friday, May 18, 2012


More from Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, about the conversion of W.H. Auden during the Spanish Civil War:
Following the example set by left-wing regimes from Mexico to Moscow, the Republicans had launched a campaign of persecution against the Spanish Catholic Church, and Auden arrived to find that all of the city's many churches had been closed and its priests exiled or killed. "To my astonishment," he wrote, "this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed.... I could not help acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me."

What he felt during his Spanish encounter with left-wing anti-Christianity was similar to his reactions to the anti-Christianity of the right. The "novelty and shock of the Nazis," Auden wrote, and the blitheness with which Hitler's acolytes dismissed Christianity "on the grounds that to love one's neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings," pushed him inexorably toward unavoidable questions. "If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?" The answer to this question, he wrote later, was part of what "brought me back to the church." When confronting the phenomenon of modern totalitarianism, he argued, "it was impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident. " Humanism needed to be grounded in something higher than a purely material account of the universe, and in something more compelling than the hope of a secular utopia. Only religious premises could support basic liberal concepts like equality and human rights. Only God could ask human beings, as the poet put it, to 'glove their crooked neighbor with all their crooked heart."

Auden being Auden, all of this was later summarized in verse, in two stanzas from his 1973 poem "Thanksgiving."
Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.
The details of his pilgrimage were distinctive, but in its broad outlines, Auden's story was emblematic of his era. The disillusionment with the utopias of left and right, the sense of religion as a moral bulwark against totalitarianism, the influence of a generation of brilliant apologists and theologians, even the physical migration from the Old World to the New—these elements in Auden's return to Christian faith were also crucial elements in the larger postwar revival of American Christianity, which ushered in a kind of Indian summer for orthodox belief.

That age is lost to us now, almost beyond recall. ....
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2012.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Continuing to read Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Again from his Prologue, he describes much of what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity":
This consensus includes the basic dogmas of the faith: Christ's incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life. It includes a belief in the divine inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected. It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity. It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists "a faith once delivered to the saints," and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself.

What defines this consensus, above all—what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta—is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament's God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God's Kingdom for all the extremes of human life—fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

Time and again, in the early centuries Anno Domini, the councils of the Church had the opportunity to resolve the dilemmas and shore up the fragile syntheses—to streamline Christianity, rationalize it, minimize the paradoxes and the difficulties, make it more consistent and less mysterious. They could have joined the movement that we call Gnosticism in attempting to minimize the problem of theodicy—of how a good God can allow evil to endure—by simply declaring this pain-filled world the work of a foolish or wicked demigod, and portraying Jesus as an emissary from a more perfect deity than the one who made our wounded earth. They could have fallen in line behind the second-century theologian Marcion's perfectly reasonable attempt to resolve the tensions between the Gospels and the Hebrew scriptures by abandoning Christianity's Jewish roots entirely. They could have listened to the earnest British moralist Pelagius instead of to Saint Augustine, and replaced the mysteries of grace and original sin with the more commonsensical vision of a God whose commandments can be obeyed through straightforward exertion.

In each instance, and in many more as well, they chose the way of mystery instead—or else they were bullied and arm-twisted into it, by mobs and emperors and polemicizing intellectuals. The process seemed haphazard at the time, but in hindsight it looks providential. In the choices they made and the arguments they rejected, the Fathers of the Church forged a faith whose doctrines speak to the intuition, nearly universal among human beings, that the true nature of the world will always remain just beyond our grasp. But they accomplished this without surrendering to an unintelligible mysticism or a crude anti-intellectualism. Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest Christian paradox of all—that the world's most paradoxical religion has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals....
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2012.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Christianity that justfies sin

I've just begun reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. I have no doubt that I will find fault with aspects of his thesis [I always do]. But he certainly begins well. From his Prologue:
.... It's an America that remains the most religious country in the developed world, as God-besotted today as ever; a place where Jesus Christ is an obsession, God's favor a birthright, and spiritual knowledge an all-consuming goal. But it's also a place where traditional Christian teachings have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed.

In this America, the ancient Christian teaching that the Scriptures are simultaneously divinely inspired and open to multiple interpretations has become an either/or choice instead. You're either a rigid fundamentalist who believes that dinosaurs just missed hitching a ride on Noah's Ark, or a self-consciously progressive believer for whom the Bible is a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry, awaiting rearrangement by more enlightened minds. As a result, the Jesus of the New Testament, whose paradoxical mix of qualities and commandments presents a challenge to every ideology and faction, has been replaced in the hearts and minds of many Americans with a more congenial figure—a "choose your own Jesus" who better fits their own preconceptions about what a savior should and shouldn't be.

Likewise, in this America the traditional Christian attempt to balance the belief that God desires human happiness with the reality of human suffering has been transformed into the simpler teaching that God wants everyone to get rich—that your house or car or high-paying job was intended for you from before the foundation of the world, and that the test of true faith is the rewards that it reaps for believers here on earth. The result is a country where religion actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produced our current economic meltdown, rather than serving as a brake on materialism and a rebuke to avarice.
In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes "healthy self-esteem," vanity becomes "self-improvement," adultery becomes "following your heart," greed and gluttony become "living the American dream."

Finally, in this America the Christian view that God desires justice but that it's wrong to expect utopia in this lifetime has given way to a more optimistic vision, in which the spread of democracy is part of the divine plan, the doctrine of American exceptionalism is a kind of Eleventh Commandment, and political leaders are expected to achieve an approximation of heaven here on earth. The results: an overreaching foreign policy under both Republicans and Democrats, a domestic government that tries to be all things to all people no matter which party is in power, and a polarized mood in which the two political coalitions oscillate between messianic delusions and apocalyptic fears depending on whether or not they control the levers of government.

This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today's United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics. ....
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2012.