Sunday, July 20, 2014

Encouraging words from Spurgeon

Via the Pyromaniacs blog, here are some wonderfully encouraging words from the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons Preached on Unusual Occasions:

For the moment our great Captain puts his hand into his bosom and allows the enemy to exult, but he is not defeated, nor is he in the least disquieted....Let us never be daunted by the apparent failures of the cause of God and truth, for these are but the trial of patience, the test of valour, and the means to a grander victory. Pharaoh defies Jehovah while he sees only two Hebrews and a rod, but he will be of another mind when the Lord’s reserves shall set themselves in battle array and discharge plague upon plague against him.
[snip]

To-day, also, the immediate present is dark, and there is room for sad forebodings; but if we look a little further, and by faith behold the brilliant future which will arise out of the gloom, we shall be of good cheer. My eye rests at this moment somewhat sorrowfully upon the battle field of religious opinion; truly, there is much to rivet my gaze.
It is a perilous moment. The prince of darkness is bringing up his reserves. The soldiers of the devil’s old guard, on whom he places his chief reliance, are now rushing like a whirlwind upon our ranks. They threaten to carry everything before them, deceiving the very elect, if it be possible. Never were foes more cunning and daring. They spare nothing however sacred, but assail the Lord himself: his book they criticise, his gospel they mutilate, his wrath they deny, his truth they abhor.
Of confused noise and vapour of smoke there is more than enough; but it will blow over in due time, and when it is all gone we shall see that the Lord reigneth, and his enemies are broken in pieces.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The wrong Mr. Spock

Old Star Trek fans will remember the episode "Mirror Mirror," in which some members of the Enterprise crew end up switched with their evil counterparts in a parallel universe. Mr. Spock is one of the switched characters. His counterpart is just as smart as the Mr. Spock we all know and (sort of) love, but this Alternate Spock uses his intellectual gifts in an amoral way to achieve wicked ends. Naturally, in the end, the real Kirk suggests to the evil Spock that the system of assassination and intrigue in his world is illogical.

Well, yes and no. Far be it from me to disparage logic. God is the source of all truth and reason, and true reason will lead us to God. However, there is such a thing as being merely consistent while starting with bad premises. If, in that case, one regards it as a virtue of logic (a false kind of logic) to refuse to admit any reductio ad absurdam, to be consistent with the premises one started with to the bitter end, then one will be in one sense logical (i.e., consistent with one's original premises) but not therefore rational in the broader sense of conforming to true reason. For true reason can never contradict true goodness. But logic, very narrowly conceived, can be one tool in a toolkit, as used by fallen man, that leads one away from true goodness. In that case, one can become the wrong Mr. Spock.

Now, I'm going to launch out here into the realm of speculation, being sure to offend as many different types of people as possible in the process: There are certain corners of the blogosphere (if you haven't encountered them, count yourself lucky) in which misogyny lives on, partly as a reaction to feminism. One will sometimes see conjectures in these corners, or in (as it were) corners adjacent to them, to the effect that perhaps men are naturally more virtuous than women because men are more logical. If one has ever tried to discuss the humanity of the unborn child with a ditzy, hysterical, pro-abortion woman who refuses to stick to the point, one will have some understanding of where such a conjecture might come from. Those conversations can get really wearisome really fast.

I'm a complementarian and by no means a feminist, so I don't entirely mind discussing virtues and vices as "more masculine" or "more feminine," as long as those concepts are sufficiently qualified. E.g., Many individual women manifest "more masculine" virtues (such as being logical, sportsmanlike, and professional) and many individual men manifest "more feminine" vices (such as being illogical, whiny, and manipulative).

But as regards the question of whether being more logical leads one to be more virtuous, an interesting point arises: Just as there is a "more masculine" virtue of being highly logical, there is also a "more masculine" vice of turning oneself into the wrong Mr. Spock. The ability to turn off one's emotions and one's instinctive reactions has some utilitarian value. For example, a soldier has to be able to turn off his instinctive aversion to killing people. A surgeon has to be able to overcome any instinctive aversion to plunging a knife into someone. But sometimes one's emotions and instincts are deeply important clues to the meaning of the universe. The instinctive aversion to strangling a baby, for example, is part of the braking system that God has placed into mankind. It's the good part of human nature, a manifestation of the image of God in man. It is that part of the imago dei that pro-lifers access when they show either beautiful images of babies in the womb or shocking images of aborted children. When one says that that instinct is "mere emotion" and turns it off in response to a false "logic," one becomes Kermit Gosnell.

I conjecture that men are somewhat more likely than women to stifle their instinctive aversion to doing bad things by way of reasoning consistently from faulty premises. For example:

1) This being in the womb of this woman is not a person. (Because I studied personhood theory in ethics class, and there I learned that the fetus has not attained personhood.)

2) It is not always wrong to kill non-persons. In fact, non-persons can be killed for sufficient reasons of convenience as determined by persons.

Therefore,

3) It is not always wrong to kill this being in this woman's womb.

4) This woman is a person and has a sufficient reason for wanting to kill this non-person in her womb.

Therefore,

5) It is not wrong now to kill this non-person in this woman's womb.

6) I am a professional technician who can help this woman to kill this non-person without doing harm to her, the person.

Therefore,

7) It is not wrong for me to kill this fetus in this woman's womb.

And proceeds to carry out the procedure, however bloody, stifling all his horrors and qualms as simply something he needs to get over to be consistent with "logic."

Don't misunderstand me: There are plenty of women who go through this reasoning process as well. But I conjecture that this sort of false use of logic is somewhat more common among men, especially the sort who pride themselves on being logical (as does Mr. Spock).

Something similar is at work in the thinking of the ethicists that I discuss in this post. They argue that it is legitimate to dehydrate some people to death even if they are asking for water, because the patients lack "true capacity" to change their minds and ask for something they previously refused. As I pointed out in that post, this position is consistent with the ethicists' own premises regarding food and water, autonomy, and so forth. But that doesn't make it any less crazy. The ethicist who argues for dehydrating a woman to death even when she verbally asks for water has become the wrong Mr. Spock. A good dose of yuck factor and human compassion could cure the craziness and would be in an important sense more rational to follow than the argument they are using, but they have deliberately cut themselves off from that source.

What all of this means is that human nature is a many-orbed thing. God has given us various ways of getting access to moral truths, and we should not despise instinctive responses as simply unreliable as a guide to moral truth while elevating logical reasoning from given premises as simply reliable. At that point, it all comes down to the premises, doesn't it? What this means about men and women is that, if it's true that men are in general more logical and women in general more emotional, we are given to one another to complement one another, and this complementary value can sometimes carry over into the realm of morals, where we should each value the other's gifts. Women should value logic, and men, especially men who enter philosophy, should watch out for the danger of becoming the wrong Mr. Spock.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Whenever you leave me to myself

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne's dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. "Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?" he thought. Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. "Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness? Is there a whole Belbury inside you too?" The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. "And thus," he quoted from Brother Lawrence, "thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself."

C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength, p. 224

The original, from The Practice of the Presence of God, second conversation:

That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to GOD, I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself; ’tis You must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.

I Need Thee Every Hour - Randy Owen & The Isaacs from rlmelco on GodTube.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

On Dating--Getting to Know You




I'm going to venture here into the tricky realm of dating philosophy, especially as it concerns Christian parents of young women. This typically blunt post by Matt Walsh has been doing the rounds on Facebook, and I like it. I have one reservation about it, which I'll get to in due course.

First of all, what I like about it: Walsh is right that "hanging out" should not be a male-female relationship category. It is so vague as to be postmodern. It typifies the unfortunate and baffling paralysis that seems to have descended upon American young men, including even Christian young men who want marriage. It is insulting to a young woman for a young man to be unwilling to admit that he is even somewhat interested in her while at the same time it is obvious that he is interested in her. It puts her in the position of not knowing what is going on. "Hanging out" as a category in itself embodies this type of insult. It says, "I want to say that this girl and I have something, but God forbid I should say that I'm dating her, or even that we have gone on one single date. That would be way too committal."

Moreover, "hanging out" as a category is, in the secular world, tied sociologically to the hook-up culture, which is an abomination. You hang out in groups and then you have sex with strangers or near strangers. The ultimate anti-relationship. Walsh is, it goes without saying, right to deplore "hooking up."

Walsh is also right that marriage is a good thing and that both men and women should value marriage and should seek it, unless called to singleness or unable to marry for some overriding reason.

Walsh is also right in his tacit complementarianism. He implies the shockingly anti-feminist idea that the young man is responsible for the course of the relationship and should pursue the young woman, rather than vice versa.

My one hesitation about the post is this: Walsh implies that the men who are "hanging out" with women rather than dating them actually know what they want and should be actively courting one particular woman instead of "hanging out." Perhaps in some cases that is true, but in other cases, they may in fact need to get to know a girl better before they know if they should be, or want to be, courting her.

I'm certainly not going to say that there was some golden age of dating in which this was all perfect, but it does seem that a category is getting left out here. Unfortunately, it's a category that young men nowadays seem to be encouraged to leave out both by the secular crowd and by some in the Christian crowd, though for vastly different reasons. That category is the getting-to-know-you date. It's perfectly legitimate for either a man or a woman to be somewhat interested in a member of the opposite sex but to want to get to know the other person better before deepening their relationship. If you have regular group activities where you can just chat casually and be friends, that's great, and it doesn't need any special label. In fact, it would be (as implied above) insulting to a girl to tell her, "I'm a tiny little bit interested in you, but I just want to continue hanging out with you at church. I don't want to take you out, because I'm not sure I like you enough to take you out." If that's how you feel, and if you see her so frequently at church, then just be normal and friendly with her at church and make up your mind whether you want to take her out! But also, don't overlook the fact that you can take a girl out to dinner without putting a ring on her finger! Taking a lady out can be a way of getting to know her better. In fact, it seems that some such category is extremely useful, because it gives two people a chance to talk to each other in semi-privacy and find out more about one another without making others feel excluded. E-mail could serve that purpose to some extent as well, but it really is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.

What seems to have happened is that some Christians decided to emphasize extremely serious courtship rather than dating at an unfortunate time in social history. They decided to tell young men to get very serious very fast about a young woman, to talk to her father before so much as taking her out to dinner, to treat a date as an extremely heavy thing, just at the moment when the hedonistic secular world was also telling the young man that a date is an extremely heavy thing. But the secular world has a different agenda. The secular world's agenda is, "You don't need to have a relationship with a woman to have sex with her."

Good Christian young men are, by definition, not part of the hook-up culture. (If they were, they wouldn't be good.) But they can nonetheless hear and accept the message from the secular side of society that a date can't be used to get to know a girl and to admit merely some degree of interest, short of very serious interest. When that message is fully internalized (to use a bit of jargon), it contributes to a debilitating paralysis in the development of further relationships between the sexes. There are many factors at work, of course, including feminism. Feminism would teach that it isn't one person's role in a male-female relationship to ask the other out (or to pay) any more than the other's. So why not wait for the girl to ask you out? Then you don't risk rejection.

The fear of rejection has always been a difficulty to be gotten over for men asking women out, but now it seems to have grown to a monstrous size, aided and abetted by both secular and Christian attitudes that getting-to-know-you dating is out of fashion and is not an option.

Let me be clear: I am not saying, literally, that a date, even a casual date, has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. Such an extreme statement is false. If that were the case, there would be no problem with a married man's taking out a woman other than his wife on a date! Obviously, dating has, or ought to have, something to do with marriage, if only as a possibility "out there." That is why in my generation Christian girls were carefully enjoined not to date non-Christians--because dating has something to do with marriage.

The courtship idea in Christian circles developed in part as an understandable negative reaction to the complete divorce (if I may use that word) of dating from marriage. Young couples could be "dating," even "going steady," for five years without anyone's so much as breathing the m-word. Or worse, ten-year-old girls had "boyfriends" whom they thought of themselves as "dating." (And then the parents wondered, after years of encouraging early sexualization and childhood romance as cute, why their unmarried daughters became sexually active at fifteen!) In fact, I gather that both of these phenomena still go on as well, parallel to the secular hookup culture and the Christian courtship culture.

So, yes, it's important to be mature about dating and not to pretend it is nothing at all. But the opposite confusion is to bind burdens on men's backs by telling them, "You must never take a girl out until you are ready to court her seriously." My one caveat about Matt Walsh's post is that it might encourage that idea. I strongly support telling men to man up, but it's perfectly understandable for the best of young men to want a period of discernment in which to get to know a woman better. If we can restore the delicate, in-between category of the getting-to-know-you date, we give young people an additional tool for that purpose so that they can move by reasonable steps towards marriage and the formation of Christian families. That is a goal that all Christians should support.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses

My title is taken from the prayer of consecration in the Book of Common Prayer. The context goes like this:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We are utterly unworthy of all that we have received, whether it be the gift of the Blessed Sacrament or what the Prayer Book elsewhere calls "all the blessings of this life."

We want to be duly grateful, and this raises an interesting dilemma for those of us who are, at the moment, not suffering and for whom things are going fairly well: On the one hand, if one says, "I am so grateful to God for all His many blessings," it could easily sound like one is implying that God has specially endowed one's precious self with good things that He has deliberately withheld from others. If I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful husband, for example, how might this sound to women who have not been blessed in that way? Might it sound proud or smug? It easily could. This is the tension that arises from the "feeling blessed" phrase (accompanied by smiley icon) one sees on Facebook so often. Does it sound smug? Or is it just the temptation to envy that makes one think so?

On the other hand, we must never fail to thank God. Scripture is adamant on this. We are told again and again to receive all things with thanksgiving and in particular to thank God for our earthly blessings. I could scarcely make a dent in all the passages enjoining thankfulness for our blessings if I listed twenty of them. Psalm 100, Psalm 136, I Timothy 4:4, Colossians 3:17, and on and on and on.

We as Christians must acknowledge God as the giver of all good things (James 1:17).

Interestingly, the Book of Common Prayer shows not the slightest squeamishness about thanking God for our material blessings. The general thanksgiving thanks God for "all the blessings of this life," though it adds that "above all" we give thanks for "thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." In the section of the American Prayer Book called "Thanksgivings," we find the following:

Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew, we yield thee unfeigned thanks and praise for the return of seed-time and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of the fruits thereof, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people....

And this:

We give thee humble thanks for this thy special bounty; beseeching thee to continue thy loving-kindness unto us, that our land may yield us her fruits of increase, to thy glory and our comfort. 

For Rogation days:

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth; We beseech thee to pour forth thy blessing upon this land, and to give us a fruitful season; that we, constantly receiving thy bounty, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

It seems to me that the secret to feeling blessed without feeling smug must lie somewhere in that phrase "humble thanks." If you simply hold the Prayer Book in your hands and flip through it and read at random, the atmosphere of (in the best sense) piety and true humility arises like incense. Most of the prayers in the "Thanksgivings" section are fairly specific: "For a child's recovery from sickness," "For a safe return from a journey," "The thanksgiving of women after childbirth," "For rain," and so forth. The picture is not of ease and comfort but rather of human life, fraught with all its pains and perils. The one who prays these thanksgivings is one who has turned to God in his deepest need and now turns to God with due relief and gratitude in the time of deliverance. And the very next section after the thanksgivings is the Litany:

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us....
Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of ours sins: Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us forever.
Than which nothing less smug can be conceived.

Part of the trouble with conveying due gratitude to God for one's personal blessings lies in the poverty of language, and especially the poverty of personal language. The first person plural is more dignified than the first person singular. To say, especially in the course of corporate or family prayer, that we have been blessed beyond our power to express and far beyond our deserving has a ring of solemnity to it that simply cannot come through if one replaces "we" with "I." And it is difficult, with a straight face, to associate solemnity with Facebook updates. Unless, perhaps, one simply quotes the BCP on one's Facebook status, which isn't such a bad idea.

My life is a gift. It would be a gift, I must acknowledge, even if it were nasty, brutish, and short. For God would still be God in that case and would still love all men, including my unworthy self. But it is much easier as a weak human to see that my life is a gift when it is filled with gifts, with specific gifts.

Somehow, it must be possible to express humble gratitude without being shallow, sentimental, and maudlin. Until we have the power of our own language to do that, we could do far worse than to start with the language of the Prayer Book, which reminds us, in all our gratitude for the blessings of this life, of that which is eternal:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Daniel Dennett on disarming and caging

This is a quotation that I thought I had posted on this blog years ago. Since I apparently didn't (according to Google), and since I just went to the trouble to look it up, partially type it in from Google books, and send it to a friend, here it is for posterity:

Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world. According to a recent poll, 48 percent of the people in the United States today believe that the book of Genesis is literally true. And 70 percent believe that "creation science" should be taught in school alongside evolution. Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to "opt out" of materials they didn't want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.
A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes. It is not a gentle process in either case. ... It's nice to have grizzly bears and wolves living in the wild. They are no longer a menace; we can peacefully co-exist, with a little wisdom. The same policy can be discerned in our political tolerance, in religious freedom. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the Earth together, and we have to learn some accommodation. The Hutterite memes are "clever" not to include any memes about the virtue of destroying outsiders. If they did, we would have to combat them. We tolerate the Hutterites because they harm only themselves–though we may well insist that we have the right to impose some further openness on their schooling of their own children. Other religious memes are not so benign. The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strain of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for.

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 516, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Those naturalists are real sweet guys.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns

If you search this site for posts on the Ascension, you will find quite a few. It's a holy day that I rarely miss at least mentioning, even if I fit a post only into the octave (as in this case). The feast of the Ascension has always seemed to me one of the most unqualifiedly joyful of the church feasts. It's like the great ending to a story. The author of the epistle of the Hebrews says,

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:4)

And then there is the Psalmist:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. (Psalm 24:7)

St. Paul:

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
We all know that, in terms of the history of God's work here on earth, there is a lot more to the story. But every story has chapters or sections, and when Jesus ascends to heaven to sit down at the right hand of the Father, to take up His place in His human body as the king of glory, that is a good ending to a huge and important section.

It occurred to me today to wonder what exactly it looked like when Jesus entered into heaven at His ascension. I mean to be precise here: As far as we know, the second Person of the Godhead is now permanently incarnate. That seems to have been the point of Jesus' resurrection in a glorified body. It seems to be an implication of Paul's teaching about Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead (I Corinthians 15).

If this is correct, this means that Jesus continues to exist in some sense in time. (Naturally this question occurred to me given my recent work on God and the philosophy of time.) If one has a body, one is automatically in time. We don't know for sure whether angels are strictly disembodied. I gather Christian tradition has varied on whether angels are always disembodied except when they take on bodies to carry messages to human beings and do other work on earth for which a body is required, or whether they always have bodies. But Scripture is clear that angels can have bodies, if only temporarily. So now we have Our Lord incarnate, in a body, and merely created beings, the angels, capable of being embodied. And we also have the holy dead from the time up to Jesus' ascension. They would not be embodied, because the resurrection has not yet taken place for them. But they would be temporal creatures who naturally experience sequentially by way of the senses, and it is entirely reasonable to think of their existence as having some sort of form and sequence to it. Indeed, Jesus seems to allude to Abraham's knowledge of the Son prior to Jesus' incarnation when He says, "Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad."

We can even take it that there must be some place where Jesus, incarnate, now exists and reigns, though in an important sense it must be "another world," a different space-time realm, from our own.

Putting all of this together, one can conjecture, though it is only a conjecture, that there may have been some sort of grand coronation scene at the Ascension, involving angels, the souls of the blessed dead, and Our Lord Himself in His incarnate body. I would love to have been there.

As usual, it is impossible to find a really strong choral version of some of the greatest hymns, but here are a couple of "The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns."

Even though it's only forty-five seconds long and doesn't include the first verse, I am charmed by the whole idea of a group's getting up at seven a.m. to go to the top of a tower in London and sing this hymn in honor of the Feast of the Ascension. So kudos to this British church choir:



Here is a fuller version:



And here are the wonderful words by Thomas Kelly:

1 The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty Victor’s brow.
2 The highest place that heav'n affords
is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
and heav'n’s eternal light--
3 the joy of all who dwell above,
the joy of all below,
to whom he manifests his love,
and grants his name to know.
4 To them the cross with all its shame,
with all its grace, is giv'n,
their name, an everlasting name,
their joy, the joy of heav'n.
5 They suffer with their Lord below,
they reign with him above,
their profit and their joy to know
the mystery of his love.
6 The cross he bore is life and health,
though shame and death to him;
his people's hope, his people's wealth,
their everlasting theme!