Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Grace Has a Face"

This is a very good, relatively new Christmas song by the southern gospel trio Greater Vision:

I especially like the lyrics of the chorus:

Hope has hands.
Freedom has feet.
Truth will stand.
The Word will speak.
The Holy and lowly will finally embrace,
For Love has a heartbeat, and Grace has a face.

It takes a special kind of philosophy of religion geekery to take an interest in this dispute between Ed Feser and Dale Tuggy about Perfect Being theology and its relationship both to logic and to Scripture. I confess that I take some interest in it, enough to have read all of Ed's most recent (as usual, lucid, well-written, carefully argued, and altogether classy) post on the subject, but not enough to keep up with it from day to day and week to week. I do think it relevant, as Ed has pointed out, that Tuggy is not a Trinitarian. That's got to be a count at some level against Tuggy's rather robust dismissal of classical theism.

At the same time, I have something of a tendency in Tuggy's direction (though needless to say, not in the direction of his loosy-goosey approach to the Trinity), as evidenced by the mere fact that I can't get into the debate over Perfect Being theology all that deeply. If I agreed entirely with Ed, I would doubtless think the debate a good deal more crucial than I can find it in my heart to think it. Moreover, a long time ago Ed and I had a collegial but intense and long debate over the design argument in which Ed vigorously rejected the types of arguments made by intelligent design writers in science as, allegedly, incompatible with Perfect Being theology. And if that's really the case, then I'm inclined to say, "The heck with Perfect Being theology, because the evidence is what it is, and it says what it says." The more stratospheric flights of Perfect Being theology leave me gasping for air, and when I'm quite sure that I won't know what I'm talking about if I take a definite position, I'm just not going to take a definite position.

Okay, that all sounds like a rather strange paragraph either to follow or to precede a discussion of a Christmas song. Here's the connection: One point Tuggy brings up that Ed doesn't have time to address (Ed's post being quite long, careful, and detailed enough as a response to Tuggy already) is that, whatever we say about God aside from the Incarnation, Jesus was an individual man with a real human nature. Hence Jesus was undeniably a specific self among other selves, which is exactly what Perfect Being theology says God cannot be.

I knew already that Perfect Being theology has to make a big bracket anyway for the Incarnation, because Jesus underwent change (growing, for example, from a child to a man, weeping and then ceasing to weep, and so forth), whereas the changelessness of God, who has "no potentialities to actualize," is a linchpin of Perfect Being theology. So a lot of this is going to have to be "apart from the Incarnation" no matter what. That actually makes sense to me and doesn't seem to me to vitiate Perfect Being theology in itself. After all, even a non-philosopher should say, "God does not have literal hands, aside from the Incarnation." So it needn't be too much of a problem to say the same about God's having literal emotions or undergoing literal change, and I suppose there is some perfectly precise locution the theologian can use for a similar point concerning God's "not being a self among other selves"...aside from the Incarnation.

Hence the connection with the song: Even if one is committed to Perfect Being theology, the Incarnation forces one to admit that all those abstract and perfect Divine attributes which go beyond personhood--Truth itself, Being itself, Intelligence itself, Holiness itself--came down to us and became one particular person, one baby, one child, one man, with a particular face. Somehow, if God really is all those superpersonal and abstract things, this must be possible, for it is the core of our Christian faith that God became a man. Love has a heartbeat, and Grace has a face.

On this, it seems, the classical theist and the less philosophical or at least less classical theist must agree, if they are both Christians. God became man, and in becoming man, did not cease to be God. God, who sustains all the universe by the word of His power, did not take a break from sustaining the universe, a time-out while he went down for a little thirty-three-year episode of being a man. No, the Eternal Son could not cease to be the Eternal Son. (There's something for the one who wants to scoff at Perfect Being theology to ponder.) On the other hand, the Eternal Son, by whom and from whom and for whom are all things, really became a person with a particular personality, a Jewish baby in a manger, a child playing with other children, a boy talking with the rabbis in the Temple, a man weeping over Jerusalem, a man dying on a cross. This is a great mystery, one of the central mysteries of our revealed religion.

Someday, when we are in heaven, we will not only kneel and adore but perhaps also talk together: "Of course. It must have been this way. I understand it all so much better now." Not that our minds, being finite, will ever be able to understand it all. But since we are assured that then we shall know even as also we are known (I Corinthians 13), there is some hope of those conversations. In those heavenly philosophy get-togethers, I trust that Ed and I, and hopefully Dale Tuggy, too (if he gets his heretical views on the Trinity knocked out of him in some purgatorial fashion here on earth or beyond), can raise a glass of some heavenly wine and together love, with our minds, the God who is Perfect and who also, for us men and for our salvation, became a man.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Light and Darkness

It is quite likely that this will simply be my Christmas post. Apologies to the liturgically strict, since it is going up on the 22nd.

But I wish to tie it to a wonderful Advent hymn. I cannot seem to find a performance of this hymn anywhere on Youtube. I would post it if I could. It's very beautiful. The lovely, minor-key tune is Bangor, but as far as I can tell, hymns using it do not appear in any evangelical hymnals. The other text that I know of is for Passion Week and is "Alone Thou Goest Forth to Die." Try to find the tune somewhere. If nothing else, there's a simple midi here which gives you some idea.

The Advent words, which I already discussed here, are these:

O very God of very God,
and very Light of Light,
whose feet this earth's dark valley trod
that so it might be bright:

Our hopes are weak, our fears are strong,
thick darkness blinds our eyes;
cold is the night; thy people long
that thou, their Sun, wouldst rise.

And even now, though dull and gray,
the east is brightening fast,
and kindling to the perfect day
that never shall be past.

O guide us till our path is done,
and we have reached the shore
where thou, our everlasting Sun,
art shining evermore!

We wait in faith, and turn our face
to where the daylight springs,
till thou shalt come our gloom to chase,
with healing in thy wings.

As I noted in the older post, the association of Jesus' actual birth date with the darkest, coldest time of the year is probably ahistorical and is hence an addition of tradition. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Tradition is important, and this is one of the most powerful. I often think of that line from "Lo, How A Rose"--"She bore to men a Savior when half-spent was the night." It has so much richness to it. The literal middle of the night, the dark and wintry night of the year, and the deep darkness of human evil. The translation, too, adds something. The German simply means something like, "Halfway through the night," but the translation "half-spent" conveys not only the darkness but the exhaustion of human sin and history.

Which brings us to something that was not invented by man: The association of the Incarnation with light. That has been given to us both by Our Lord on earth and by the Holy Ghost in the inspired prologue to the Gospel of John. Just before healing the man born blind (John 9), Jesus says, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

John, echoing his Master's words, tells us again and again that Jesus is light:

"In him was life, and the life was the light of man, and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not."

"[John the Baptist] was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. That was the true light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world...."

And in John's first epistle, he says, "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

[Digression on just one of many reasons why I hate postmodernism: When I was in graduate school in English, I once received a high-falutin' lecture from a fellow student, who happened to be white, on how insensitive it had been for me to use the word "black" when describing evil in a class presentation on the problem of evil. We were studying 18th century literature, and I had made a presentation on Pope's Essay on Man. I used a tapestry metaphor, saying that dark colors may be used by the weaver as part of the beauty of the pattern. I pointed out how painful it is, nonetheless, to be the one actually suffering. I expressed this by saying, "But you probably wouldn't want to be the black," using hand motions indicating that I meant black thread. That was what was allegedly so offensive. She was, naturally, unmoved by my pointing out to her that darkness has long been a metaphor for pain, suffering, and evil. That came as no surprise to me by that time. It was always part of the raison d'etre of postmodernism in the humanities to tear down those stark dichotomies which are the very food of a sane man's mind. Good/Evil, light/dark, male/female, parent/child, Creator/creature, beauty/ugliness, truth/falsehood. Any powerful and true description of reality, especially any that has its roots in the very vitals of the human psyche, that speaks with rhetorical power to the way things are, must be torn up and destroyed. Postmodernism is evil because postmodernism lies and tells us that there is no evil. Postmodernism is dark because it tells us that darkness and light do not exist. Postmodernism is a lie because it teaches man not to believe in lies. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. Make sure your children know that, and know that there is light and darkness, and how to tell the difference, so that they can love the light and flee the darkness. End of digression.]

Those of us living in the north have a tangible symbol of the darkness of this world. But no matter what region you live in, if you are a Christian and have your eyes open, you can see spiritual darkness all around. If you live in Syria or other places where Christians are under physical persecution, you know it in one way. If you live in the West, you know it in a different way. We are surrounded by darkness. But we must not be disheartened by it. Jesus also told us that we are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). John points out that he that commits evil hates the light, because by it his deeds are reproved. (John 3) So we must expect disapproval and even hatred and real persecution from the world and should not marvel at it (I John 3:13). But that's not the end of the story.

Our Lord came to this earth to bring light. No matter how long it is, no matter how many thousands of years pass, He will come again, bringing the final light of judgement. And in the end, those who are His own will be with Him in that Land where there is no night, where Christ Himself is the light.

We wait in faith and turn our face to where the daylight springs, till thou shalt come our gloom to chase, with healing in thy wings.

Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

A Merry Christmas to readers of Extra Thoughts.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Forgiveness is not excuse-making

I've been pondering lately on something that C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays on forgiveness. He has several. I'm not sure which one this is. It may just be called "On Forgiveness."

Anyway, he makes the point that forgiveness starts after we have made all possible excuses for the other person, found all possible extenuations. Strictly logically speaking, if some act of another really did simply arise out of a misunderstanding or really was not a fault, then the person doesn't need forgiveness. Thus, to the extent that we "explain away" things that annoy us from our friends (or our enemies), we aren't forgiving them but rather excusing them. Now, justice and truth demand that we should try to discern events accurately, so if we are truly finding extenuations that exist objectively (as opposed to manufacturing them because we are motivated to do so), then that is merely a matter of being fair.

Mentally, when one is angry, it feels as though the psychological movement to find explanations and extenuations for the other person's actions is the beginning of forgiveness. It may be a psychological preparation for it, but in fact it isn't forgiveness. Forgiveness is needed for an actual fault, for actual wrong-doing. So it's when you say to yourself, "Yes, but even so, my friend was still wrong" that forgiveness actually gets started. It's that "still wrong" part that you have to forgive him for.

For some reason I often find this reflection rather freeing. After all, if we were all either perfect or merely involved in misunderstandings or accidents, no forgiveness would ever be necessary. If I never did anything actually wrong, I wouldn't need to be forgiven either. All my apparent wrong-doings could be explained away. But of course, I do sometimes really need to be forgiven. And the same goes for others. So when one says, especially of a dearly loved friend, "Yes, but that was just not right!" one's mental reply to oneself should be, "Of course it wasn't. That's the part you forgive him for!" The temptation, instead, is to go on niggling away at it, trapped in a false dichotomy: Either I find an excuse for this, so it wasn't really wrong, or else I go on being angry, perhaps until and unless I get an apology acceptable to myself, an apology that propitiates my anger. Well, that's baloney. It's a false dichotomy perpetuated by the Devil, maybe even personally put into your mind by your own personal Screwtape. It is both unbiblical and untrue. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" has no room for it.

I throw this reflection out today in the hopes that it will catch someone at a moment when it can do the most good. Go ahead and forgive your friend (or your enemy) in your own heart and mind and before God, and do so precisely because you can't find any full excuse for his actions. Because you can be sure that there isn't any full excuse for your actions sometimes either, so forgive as you hope to be forgiven.

Gaudete Sunday

Today is Rejoice Sunday, in the midst of Advent. (It's rather a dark, cold, and snowy Rejoice Sunday, and Advent as a whole, where I live. One could call that "seasonal," but I just hope no family member has an accident on the roads!)

In honor thereof, I have a song that isn't really an Advent carol, because it is a Christmas carol. Christmas songs can't, technically, be Advent songs, because Advent songs have to be anticipatory. They can't include lines like "Christ is born," because in liturgically pure terms, we don't start saying that until after sundown on December 24.

Nonetheless, this is a cheerful Renaissance carol with the word "Gaudete" in it, so here goes:

Here are the words to a more "real" Gaudete hymn, based on Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins. "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers."

Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.
The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.
The Bridegroom is arising, and soon He will draw nigh.
Up, watch in expectation: At midnight comes the cry.

See that your lamps are burning; replenish them with oil.
Look now for your salvation, the end of sin and toil.
The watchers on the mountain proclaim the Bridegroom near.
Go meet Him as He cometh, with alleluias clear.

O wise and holy virgins, now raise your voices higher,
Until in songs of triumph ye meet the angel choir.
The marriage feast is waiting, the gates wide open stand;
Rise up, ye heirs of glory, the Bridegroom is at hand.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Thou Sun so longed for, over this benighted sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption and ever be with Thee.

I have not been able to find a good recording of the tune, Greenland, which is by Haydn.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A couple of manly songs

There are a lot of versions of "He Just Needs a Few Good Men" out there, some of them no doubt vocally smoother than this one, but I like the series of Gaither Vocal Band Reunion videos, so I'm picking this one. Larnelle Harris should probably tone it down a bit, but not toning it down is part of Larnelle's charm, so I'm inclined to be tolerant. The words are good. Just think of all the "fight" and "warfare" and "men" hymns that have been cut out of our hymnals, and you'll understand why this was written.

While we're at it, here's "Build an Ark."

Monday, December 02, 2013

Close the path to misery

The Advent hymn "Veni Emmanuel" contains the following lines:

"Make safe the way that leads on high,/ and close the path to misery."

The hymn is very familiar, and it's easy to blow right past those lines, but I was much struck by them in church yesterday. What do they mean? Admittedly, they are a bit obscure. Taken literally, they state a request that we really don't intend to make, presumably. That is to say, we presumably don't actually believe that God will or should override the free will of man so that man cannot go to hell, so that the way to misery is literally closed. That the path to misery is open to man's choice is one of the terrible mysteries of Christianity.

What I will give here, then, is more a personal application of the words than an actual guess as to what the author intended when he wrote them. There are many Christians who genuinely have good will, who want to serve God, but who are unsure what they ought to be doing at any given time. They may face difficult decisions and conflicting loyalties and priorities, not to mention conflicting advice from human counselors. One can make this request to God as a request for guidance: "Please, Lord, as I'm seeking your will, don't let me make any really fatal mistakes for myself or for others. Close the path to misery." The Psalmist says, "Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path." And elsewhere, "Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth. Unite my heart to fear thy name." This is a prayer we need to be praying both practically and spiritually. Practically, for all those daily decisions and life decisions, that they would be wise. Spiritually, when we are wondering whether to be stern or soft, whether our motives are wrong, whether we are encouraging in ourselves or in others the wrong spirit or attitude. In all these things, we can cry out to God to make safe the right way and close the wrong way.

This is at least one good application that one can make of the hymn lyrics, and I present it to my readers for what value it may have for them. And a blessed Advent season to you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tips aren't entitlements [Updated]

This story is doing the rounds on social media. The story is allegedly about a boorish and embarrassing Christian family who gratuitously insulted a waitress for her mannish appearance (see below for more on appearance) at the outset of a meal and then refused to tip her, instead writing her a note saying that they did not approve of her (presumptively lesbian) lifestyle and that this was why they were not tipping.

I have a somewhat different perspective, so hear me out. First of all, let me say at the outset that it's entirely possible that these people really were as rude and as much of an embarrassment to Christians as they are alleged to be. Perhaps, for example, their comments to the waitress were wholly gratuitous. Perhaps their comment was quite pointless, perhaps she did very little to put her "orientation" in their faces, and perhaps she gave them excellent service. Moreover, even if their side of the story turned out to be different than hers, even if there was more excuse for their behavior than the mainstream story tells us, and even if the story isn't faked (let's not forget that there are such things as faked "hateful incidents"), what they did was still foolish, because they should have known that it would do no good and would do harm to the reputation of Christians.

So I'm not condoning what they did from either angle.


Point 1: We have only her side of the story. According to her, she was a saint, and they were jerks from the get-go. Should we automatically assume that this was true? Is it possible, for example, that she made some reference to her "lifestyle" in order to test them, perhaps because she saw them look startled at her haircut, etc.? Her Facebook posts about what she wanted to do (spit in their food, for example) certainly don't show a saintly disposition, and one of her allegedly laudable supporters says (on a homosexual Facebook page) that the family and all their ilk should be wiped off the face of the earth. So...this is obviously an activist type of person with an in-your-face gay activist attitude, and I'm not entirely sure she is an unbiased reporter of what happened.

Point 2: Appearance. What the heck are those tattoos all over her hands? Are employers not permitted to take bizarre tattoos into account when hiring waitresses if they suspect the tats have something to do with being homosexual and if they are therefore afraid of getting in trouble for "discrimination"? Or are tattoos all over your hands out of bounds for employers to consider no matter who you are? The girl says, "The short hair and clothes just gave it away in her eyes." Well, it looks like "it" was in fact true, so maybe some combination of hair, clothes (What clothes? Do these waitresses not have to wear any sort of uniform? How weird were the clothes?) and the tats really did "give it away." Did it ever occur to this waitress or to anybody commenting on this that it's legitimate for customers not to want their waitresses to look bizarre and that having a deliberately bizarre appearance might be a legitimate cause for downgrading a tip, because that is rude, too? Yes, get a clue: Putting your "lifestyle" in people's faces by deliberately looking bizarre is rude. Rudeness on the part of a waitress or waiter is a legitimate reason for a customer's not tipping. But no, evidently not. Look at this preachy blog post, for example:

[The Bible] doesn’t say to leave them a note about what a miserable sinner they are; how disgusted you are by their obvious homosexuality, Goth appearance, tattoos, the enormous holes in their earlobes, or the bone in their nose;
Um, so lady, you're implying that it's perfectly okay for a waitress to have a Goth appearance or even a bone in her nose but that if I don't leave a Goth or be-boned waitress a full fifteen percent tip, I'm the baddie? I don't buy that. At all.

There used to be this sort of old-fashioned understanding that waitresses were expected both to behave and to appear pleasant. Presumably they don't want to be thought of as mere robots who bring you your food and are rated only by the speed with which they do so. Well, then, they have to be prepared to be docked if they wear unpleasant piercings or tattoos or in some other way deliberately, by their appearance, interrupt the pleasant nature of the customer's lunch. Which brings me to

Point 3: Contrary to the implication of said preachy blog post, a tip is not an entitlement. A tip has to be earned. Every single Bible verse quoted in our faces there (and aside--don't you love how progressive Christians are all against proof-texting except when they can try to shoehorn tipping flamingly lesbian waitresses into an Old Testament passage on paying your field hands or a New Testament passage on feeding and clothing our brethren in Christ?) implies that the customer at a restaurant is the direct employer of the waitress or waiter. Is this really accurate? Is the relationship "customer-waitress" really the same as the relationship "employer-employee"? If so, it's an extremely odd employer-employee relationship, especially since no wage has actually been agreed upon in advance, as it usually would be. That's why tipping is voluntary and falls on a sliding scale. Don't misunderstand me: I think one should normally tip 15 percent, and that's what I teach my kids. It should be the default setting, the prima facie case, that you'll tip at a restaurant where tips are left. (Some, like fast food restaurants, don't assign a particular waitress to your table, and tips are not the norm there.) But a default setting or a prima facie case is defeasible, and it's defeasible by a lot of different types of things. There isn't some moral rule, given by God, that if the food gets to your table in good time, if the waitress doesn't forget anything, if everything pertaining narrowly to the food and the food alone is okay, you owe the waitress a 15% tip. There are other ways in which the waitress could fail to earn that tip. By sitting down at the table, you don't tacitly agree to pay that tip. The entitlement mindset here is overwhelming, and it needs to stop. Sure, a customer could fail to leave a tip for unreasonable reasons, a customer can be a real boor, but we shouldn't start by assuming that a tip is an entitlement.

Point 4: The owner of the restaurant, eager to prove his progressive creds, is threatening not to let that family eat at the restaurant again. Really? That's interesting, is it not? Let's put this starkly: A lesbian couple could almost certainly waltz into that restaurant with their arms around each other and sit smooching from time to time at the table, and we can be good and certain that the restaurant owner would get the pants sued off him if he asked them to stop or even more shockingly told them they couldn't come there anymore. But a (putatively) Christian family that allegedly behaves rudely by leaving a snippy note instead of a tip can be told they aren't welcome? Well, presumably "non-tippers" are not a specially protected class under either New Jersey or federal law, so probably so, but to my mind there's something very strange about this set of priorities. What if they had tipped her but had also left a Bible tract explaining, in loving terms, the dangers of the homosexual lifestyle and offering contact information for groups that can help her leave that lifestyle? Would the restaurant manager then be threatening not to let them eat there anymore? To do so would skate pretty close to religious discrimination, which actually is allegedly illegal in public accommodations like restaurants. But I wonder if the restaurant manager would see the difference between that situation and the one that allegedly happened.

Let's not fool ourselves: Christians who hold traditional moral views are the last group that can be "discriminated" against. The same people who would usually imply that by golly a restaurant has a duty to serve anybody who walks through the door evidently think it's high and noble for this family to be blocked. Don't get me wrong: I'd just as soon go back to a world in which restaurants could refuse to serve anyone they wanted to refuse to serve. But that includes present liberal mascot groups as well, and you can be sure the liberals wouldn't like that compromise, either. No, they like things right where they are: Be open about your non-PC beliefs, get slammed. Put your sexual perversions in everybody's face, get fawned over.

So, while I think what the customers did was foolish at best and unnecessarily rude at worst, I'm rather inclined to say, "Cry me a river" for the mannish waitress who is arousing so much outrage and sympathy. I imagine by this time, assuming her story to be true, she has more than made up the lost tip in lavish outpourings from others. I'm pretty sure she hasn't learned anything from the experience, which is yet another reason why the customers shouldn't have done it.

But Christians, don't just jump on this self-hate bandwagon. It's not worth it, and it's a little more complicated than you might at first think.

Update: Aaaaaaand it looks like this was another hoax. Really glad I at least put that in the original post as a possibility and pointed out that we have only her side of the story! The inductive case that these things are hoaxes more often than not is adding up, so caveat lector next time you see a story of this kind. Please remember this before writing a "This is why they hate us" blog post or status update.

Also, Christians: If somebody guesses you are a Christian at a restaurant, they may fake a hate incident against you. Might be a wise idea always to tip via credit card from now on so as to be able to refute such lies. That was what this family appears to have done.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Far from the kingdom

Here is a self-styled honest atheist telling us how he would react if, after death, he turned out to be wrong and actually met the Christian God.

Several points strike me about this. First of all, it is very noticeable that nowhere does he refer to repenting of his sins if he were to turn out to be wrong. Does he believe that he has no sins? It almost sounds like that. His sneering references to the conversion of rapists, etc., and his statement that God would "know why he thinks he's led a good life" do seem to indicate that. Aside from any questions of the epistemology of religious belief, this is not the attitude of an ethically mature person. The only duty he seems interested in is one which he is very proud of having fulfilled--namely, the duty not to believe without sufficient evidence. He even goes so far as to say that he believes that God, if he exists, would be proud of him! Who says that? Even a Christian who believes his sins are covered by the blood of Jesus doesn't imagine standing up to God and telling God that God should be proud of him! Yet this young man has had every opportunity to know, given the research he claims to have done, that if God exists then we are all sinners before Him, we all have things that we need to repent of, and we will all be awed and struck to our knees by His holiness if and when we see Him face to face. Even by the natural light this young man should have some things that he is ashamed of or regrets having done, yet he is completely unfazed by the thought of God's existence in relation to his own wrong-doing. On the contrary, he has a positively pharisaical attitude towards "really bad" people who have "accepted Jesus as their personal Savior before they died." This reminds me of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable: "I thank thee that I am not as this Publican." Jesus said that those who are healthy don't need a physician. If an atheist can contemplate even the existence of God without thinking that then he would need a physician...that's a bad sign.

Second, though he says that he is taking seriously what it would mean for God to exist and for him to be wrong, he isn't taking seriously the character of the Christian God as he must know it to be postulated by Christianity. If God really does exist, God is worthy of worship, is one before whom we should bow, is all-good, and so forth. He says he's envisaging the possibility that the Christian God exists and that he is wrong, but as the end of the video makes clear, he's really holding out instead the possibility that "the Christian God" is merely vain in wanting to be worshiped, is petty, is unjust, and hence is someone he would have no duty to bow before and someone he would not want to spend eternity with. Yet given the amount of research he says he's done, he has every reason to know that in the very nature of the case the Christian God is One by whom and for whom we were made, is Goodness itself, is the true end of all men. If the Christian God exists, then worshiping Him is our true end, and attributing mere vanity to Him is an absurdity.

If he were taking this point seriously, he would take seriously the imagined conversion of those hypothetical rapists. He has had opportunity to know that anyone who truly believes and accepts Jesus has repented of his sins, that something profound has happened when these previously evil men "accepted Jesus as their personal Savior," that their doing so wasn't some trivial sop to God's vanity, yet he sneers at their conversion and sets up, to knock down, a petty and vain God.

Third, by this attitude towards God-if-God-exists, he is gearing himself up to tell God, "Non serviam," which is precisely the attitude of hell. At the outset of the video he says something good. He says that if he turns out to be wrong, he'll want to know where he went wrong in his reasoning. Great! But as he continues it sounds very much like he's absolutely sure that God would simply be dumbfounded by this request and wouldn't be able to tell him anywhere that he went wrong in his reasoning! Given that God does exist, it's entirely plausible, especially for someone who has has access to as many resources and has looked into this matter as much as this fellow says he has, that he has indeed gone wrong somewhere, that his motives hasn't been as pure as he advertises them to be or that he hasn't tried hard enough to get answers to his doubts and questions or that he has not properly prepared himself by following the light that he does have. So why not anticipate that God will show you that if God turns out to exist?

It would be quite different to say that if God exists, he will at that point be glad to fall on his knees and worship God, even if he doesn't understand everything, that he will humbly accept God's correction. But there is no trace of that attitude. Yet he says that his motives are pure and that he wants God to exist. Really? Then why would such a meeting at death not be a cause for humble joy?

Instead, by the end, he's envisaging not wanting to spend eternity with God, because a God who isn't proud of him and doesn't vindicate him would be a God who makes him sick.

There may indeed be tough questions about how God deals with those who genuinely have not had the opportunity to know about Jesus Christ--those who have been isolated from all Christians or even those with mental disabilities. But my own opinion is that people like the young man in the video are not the ones who create some kind of "problem of hiddenness" for Christians. They, rather, are the ones to whom God is likely to say those terrifying words: "Thy will be done."

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Not far from the Kingdom?

This inspiring story tells of a secular Jew in Boston, Lee Eiseman, who has been babying along an historic organ in a Catholic church for several decades. Finally it looks like the parish is going to scrape together the money to give the organ the full restoration it has badly needed all along. The organ wouldn't still be working today if it weren't for Eiseman, who has kept it going all this time with the proverbial chewing gum and string. Even on the evening of the concert announcing the beginning of the restoration project (for which some of the money still needs to be raised), Eiseman was up inside it with a miner's lamp on his head, fixing a sticky key.

I was especially struck by the briefly told story of how Eiseman came to be committed to this particular organ. At the time that he moved to Boston in the 1970's, he happened to be acquainted with a great organ builder and restorer, Charles B. Fisk. Fisk specially asked Eiseman to look after the organ at St. Mary's Church.
“Look after it and keep it alive, because it’s very important,” Fisk asked after Eiseman moved into the neighborhood, just a few blocks from the church.
So Eiseman agreed, and he kept his word, as a volunteer, even though it's doubtless turned out to cost him a lot more time and trouble than he ever imagined.

If one believes in the things that are valuable in themselves, how can one not be moved by that? "Look after it and keep it alive, because it's very important." I believe that. Eiseman obviously believes it too, as did Fisk, from whom he received his commission.

The news story says that Eiseman likens his surprising success in keeping the organ alive to the story of Hanukkah, in which God miraculously keeps the Menorah burning through eight days on an amount of oil that should have been far too little.

But there's an odd thing: Eiseman is a secular Jew, so presumably he doesn't really believe the Hanukkah story. Ah, well, perhaps it's just a sort of literary allusion.

Last evening I had a spirited and enjoyable discussion with a bunch of friends about the fate of virtuous non-Christians. What provision does God make for them? What does it mean to say that a person knows about Christianity and rejects it? How much does he have to know for his disbelief to count as rejection? What sort of grace can people receive who act on the light they presently possess even though they do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior? It was all conducted with that combination of humor and earnestness that make for the best of discussions of important things. I'm sure much heresy was uttered all around, including by me, and many conjectures were put forward.

I do not believe that Lee Eiseman is somehow a Christian without knowing it. But I will say this: The fact that he sees the value of that organ and has committed himself so faithfully to taking care of it must be, to him, a means of the grace God gives to all men who know and love the good, the true, and the beautiful. By means of his faithful service and his love of what is worthwhile, Eiseman may, we can hope and pray, be preparing the soil of his own heart to receive the Word of God. If that were the case, it would be no small matter.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The National Debt is bad [Updated]

Call me simple-minded if you will, but I think this is a brilliant video:

I have listened with some frustration and some puzzlement to fellow conservatives of my acquaintance who evidently don't think things are this bad, or don't think it was a good idea for the Republicans to try not to raise the debt ceiling, or don't think that America's continually going deeper and deeper into debt is a big deal.

It seems to me that the only way that you can think that things are not this bad and that it is not insanity to keep not only borrowing more but even increasing the amount we borrow each year as a country is because you think there is something so different about "being a country in debt" from being an individual in debt. Of course there are plenty of differences, but as far as I'm concerned, these differences only make matters worse. As, for example, that the actual individual people making this decision don't actually have to have their individual lives ruined by it. Or consider that the debt is denominated in currency which is controlled by the entity (the U.S. government) that owes the debt. This means that in theory the government could utterly trash the currency and monetize huge chunks of the debt to "get itself out of debt." Oh, joy. That actually should mean a duty for more fiscal restraint, not less. It should cause us to resist the temptation to think that our government can just borrow money, use the money to pay for real things--real goods and services--and then print (or e-print) "money" out of nowhere to pay back the debt for the money borrowed to purchase or manufacture those real things. And that we can do this indefinitely. If that isn't pretending that something comes from nothing, I don't know what is.

One "argument" I heard was that Congress had to vote to raise the debt ceiling because Congress already passed an appropriations bill previously that assumed the availability of an amount of money that required that we borrow more money than the then-current debt ceiling would allow. That's a terrible argument. If Congress passed such an appropriations bill, the obvious thing to do is go back and fix it, to pass a different appropriations bill instead that doesn't assume that we're going to go even deeper into new debt than last year. This seems obvious, but evidently not to everybody. Are we really just resigned entirely to the idea that our government should be permitted to borrow money on our behalf without upper limit for whatever the heck they want to spend it on? That not only must our country take on new debt with every year that passes, not only must it never pay down the crushing weight of debt it already has, but that it must increase the degree to which it takes on new debt with every year that passes? Otherwise WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! Speaking for myself, I'm not resigned to any such thing.

The final argument was just that making even the smallest baby steps towards minimal fiscal responsibility is politically impossible, that the Republicans would just lose and be blamed, and that this would have large, negative political consequences which conservatives should want to avoid. But that assumes that fiscal responsibility has no importance in itself whatsoever and hence isn't worth taking any kind of a stand for. In fact, it assumes that conservative politicians should be active enablers of wild fiscal irresponsibility just to avoid getting (admittedly unfairly) voted out of office, since their presence in office is for the greater public good. That amounts to a pretty disturbing implication that the fiscal insanity, not to mention the cruelty to later generations, highlighted in the above video is not very important after all.

So I'm with Cruz on this one, and America will have cause to rue the day that he lost his fight.

If this be simple-mindedness, make the most of it.

Update: Further research, motivated by correspondence with my blog colleague at W4, Paul Cella, has made clear to me that what Congress gave in and agreed to raise was not, as I had thought, the deficit limit for a particular year (i.e., to allow a bigger deficit and more borrowing this year than last) but rather the debt limit--that is, a limit on the total amount of U.S. debt. Such a vote would arise in any year in which there was any deficit. Partly because the deficit in immediately previous fiscal years has been astronomical, it turns out that the deficit in fiscal 2013 is actually somewhat less than in immediately previous years, contrary to implications in the above post. I'm glad to correct the error. However, the video does not seem to suffer from the confusion that I was under. Raising your line of credit simply is being allowed to go deeper into debt than you already are without paying down any of the debt you currently have. Naturally, my position is still that Congress should have gone back and balanced the budget instead, at which point pirouetting pigs would have appeared to perform an aerial ballet over Washington, D.C.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Community" and altar rails

Being an Anglican, and not a very good one either, I'm venturing into strange territory by giving an opinion on this subject, but here goes: I understand that it's common in the Novus Ordo Mass in the Roman Catholic Church for the priest to stand facing the people and also for there to be no altar rails. The people instead come up and stand in lines and receive the Host while standing. As I understand it, one point of both practices is to increase a sense of "community" among the people and to emphasize the fact that the original Last Supper was a meal and that the early Church combined the celebration of the Lord's Supper with a meal.

Both of those latter facts are undeniably true as an historical matter. But it's not at all clear to me that they imply that our current liturgical practice should be a self-conscious attempt to "encourage community," still less that this is best done by having the celebrant face the people rather than facing the east and praying on behalf of both himself and the people to God. And how does having people stand in line to receive the Sacrament make them feel more connected to one another?

For whatever this is worth as a fact of personal psychological experience, it occurred to me this morning that, when I go up to the altar rail and kneel with other members of my own small congregation, this gives me a very strong sense of community. It is not a self-conscious thing, not forced in any way. It's just that, in fact, we are going and kneeling together, different though we all are from each other, to receive the Eucharist. Our commonality, our sense of community, does not come from celebrating that community per se. Rather, it comes from a shared focus on God, on our need for God, and our need to kneel before God and receive Holy Communion.

This seems to me to be a fact of human life which C.S. Lewis referred to as "them that asks don't get." What I think he meant was that when we demand a certain feeling as an end in itself, we don't get it. Hence, joy comes not from insistently demanding that life be enjoyable but from focusing on something worthwhile outside of oneself. If we go around demanding peace we probably won't feel peaceful. And so on through the whole gamut of human emotion. And so with community. Esprit de corps is not going to arise from saying, "Okay, folks, we're all one community. What can we do to emphasize that?" Rather, it's going to come from having something that, in fact, we really are all trying to do together.

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir if I tell any of my Catholic readers that you have my sympathy if you don't have altar rails. I hope you get them back again. And if you have anything to do with the decision, definitely plump for the altar rails and for having a bunch of people kneel at them together to receive. Among other things, it's good for community, because it's about Something Else, something much more important, than community.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday guessing game

Taking a leaf from Bill Luse, who occasionally does guessing games of this sort:

Without looking it up via Google or any other method, can you name the following song and singer given this snippet?
Have you been half asleep
And have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound
That calls the young sailor?
The voice might be one and the same.
Hint: These lyrics are surprisingly profound given their source. Also, if you can identify them without looking them up, you will probably enable other people to peg your approximate age.

I admit, I'd forgotten all about the song and its source until reminded by a Facebook friend yesterday.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Anti-evidentialism and Christian Science

Among other things, Christian Science adherents believe that evil is an illusion. It is quite clear to the rest of us that their belief that evil is an illusion does not make evil disappear. It simply mires them in the illusion that evil is an illusion.

Unfortunately, anti-evidential theories regarding Christian belief and apologetics are rather like Christian Science. For example: The evidentialist will be told that his view of Christian belief is defective because it does not "give" people absolute certainty, whereas on some other theory we Christians have absolute certainty of, say, the truth of the Gospel. But a metatheory about what we have cannot give us that thing! Saying that we have absolute certainty doesn't give us absolute certainty. The question is whether the theory is true. If it is false, then saying that we have absolute certainty is simply pretending that we can dismiss residual decimal points of uncertainty by disbelieving in them, rather as a Christian Scientist thinks that he can make evil disappear by disbelieving in it.

To be clear, I think that sometimes the problem is at least partly terminological. The evidentialist can and does often say that we can have what used to be called "moral certainty"--that is, that my belief that Jesus rose from the dead can be overwhelmingly strongly justified. After all, I don't have absolute, Cartesian certainty that I had a cup of coffee for breakfast this morning or that the sun will rise tomorrow. That doesn't make these things uncertain in some invidious sense--that is, it does not make them shaky. But such assurances are usually not enough for the advocates of "absolute certainty," who think that we are somehow short-changing ourselves as Christians by not declaring ourselves to have absolute certainty.

In a related vein, I was asked recently about the alleged problem that, on an evidential view, some Christians are not in fact well-justified in their Christian faith. I find the objection puzzling. Can I simply make it the case that all Christians are well-justified in their Christian belief by declaring it to be so? That is a kind of epistemic magical thinking. You don't make people well-justified by adopting a gerrymandered theory that says that they are all well-justified! Again, just as Christian Science doesn't make evil an illusion by declaring it to be an illusion, one cannot make people's lack of good justification for the Christianity they hold disappear by declaring that deficiency to be an illusion. I cannot make fideism into rational belief by waving a magic wand over it and declaring it to be a Good Thing.

To a large extent, Christians' lack of good reasons for Christianity is a result of contingency. (So is non-Christians' lack of good reasons, for that matter.) They haven't happened to come across the people or the books or the websites that tell them about the good evidence for Christianity. Sometimes they've been taught wrong, taught to base their belief on private experience or blind faith. To use somewhat more Catholic terminology, their "formation" has been defective. That isn't their fault, but it is a tragedy, and declaring it to be no problem doesn't make it no problem. It's entirely possible to have a shaky basis for your Christian faith, not because the evidence available is shaky (see previous paragraph), but because you haven't happened to be told the evidence.

One final note. We must not confuse epistemic justification with theological justification. The evidentialist who deplores the widespread fideism and lack of information in the church today is not saying that all these people are going to hell even though they think they are going to heaven. God doesn't say, "You can't be saved if you don't have a good argument for believing in me." God, in His infinite humility, accepts the saving faith of people who, through bad teaching, think that He has given them far less evidence than He has really given.

Unfortunately, people do far too often deconvert from Christianity when their faith is not well-grounded in fact. This is even more likely now in the age of the Internet, nor are the young the only ones who are vulnerable. So if you have any worries or doubts about the ultimate salvation of the man who changes from being a self-styled Bible-believing Christian to being an outspoken atheist, you should be concerned about evidences. This, however, is not because God doesn't allow people to go to heaven if they believe in Him on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

More from Lizette Woodworth Reese

I finally got my copy of Lizette Woodworth Reese's Selected Poems through interlibrary loan. [Digression concerning silly bureaucracy: I got no notification that my ILL book was in at the branch where I'd chosen to pick it up. Eventually I called the main library and asked. The extremely nice and helpful reference librarian informed me apologetically that it had been sitting and waiting for me at the branch for so long that it might have already been sent back to its home library. The reason that I had not been notified? I had set up notifications by telephone rather than e-mail. As it turns out, ILL notifications go out only by e-mail. So if you don't have e-mail notifications enabled, in effect you can't really use the interlibrary loan service, because your requested books will just be sent back without your knowing they ever arrived. The reference librarian quite agreed that this is a senseless procedure. When I went to pick up the book and was musing with the librarian at the branch, however, she cheerfully advanced the hypothesis that perhaps telephone notifications aren't sent on ILL books because they are sometimes unreliable. You know, sometimes people's numbers have been disconnected. Um, I see, so sending no notification at all is preferable to the unreliability of telephone? Makes sense to me. Anyway, I rescued it before it was sent back to its home library. End of digression.]

The book has many real gems, and I ought to write up a longer appreciation some time. Here is one:


BATTLES nor songs can from oblivion save,
  But Fame upon a white deed loves to build:
From out that cup of water Sidney gave,
  Not one drop has been spilled.

Here is another:

                                     Wild Geese
The sun blown out;
The dusk about:
Fence, roof, tree--here or there,
Wedged fast in the drab air;
A pool vacant with sky,
That stares up like an eye.
Nothing can happen. All is done--
The quest to fare,
The race to run--
The house sodden with years,
And bare
Even of tears.
A cry!
From out the hostelries of sky,
And down the gray wind blown;
Rude, innocent, alone.
Now, in the west, long sere,
An orange thread, the length of spear;
It glows;
It grows;
The flagons of the air
Drip color everywhere:
The village--fence, roof, tree--
From the lapsed dusk pulls free,
And shows
A rich, still, unforgotten place;
Each window square,
Yellow for yellow renders back;
The pool puts off its foolish face;
The wagon track
Crooks past lank garden-plot,
To Rome, to Camelot.
A cry!
One of the best things in the book is a single stanza of a poem that is otherwise not as strong, the poem "Growth." Here is the stanza, which deserves to stand by itself:

Nor is the last word said;
Nor is the battle done;
Somewhat of glory and of dread
Remains for set of sun.
That one has appeared in my latest post at What's Wrong With the World. The post is on the subject of the glory of lost causes.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

CPS post at W4

Just in case I have any new readers here who don't regularly check the group blog I belong to, What's Wrong With the World, here's a nudge: I have a new post just up at W4 (short for "What's Wrong With the World") about the "forced home visitation programs" you may have been hearing about in Obamacare. No time to cross-post here, but do go and read it if interested.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Walk On

Continuing in my never-ending quest to bring more unexpected things together, here's a quotation from C.S. Lewis paired with a song by the Isaacs, one of Gospel music's most musically talented groups.
No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Egalitarian anti-materialism [Updated]

[Update: See commentator Chris's remark below. Turns out the comic was drawn by an admirer of Watterson, based on some comments Watterson gave in a speech, not by W. himself. My apologies. I do, of course, stand by my point that the comic is tacitly, in fact almost matter-of-factly, feminist in its view of the relations of the sexes and that Christian conservatives should at least make some objection to this in approving of the comic.]

A couple of my friends on Facebook have linked this cartoon recently, apparently with approval. I don't quite have the 'net savvy to figure out how long ago Bill Watterson drew it. Is it new or old for him? Don't know.

Now, the reason everybody, including my Christian friends, likes this cartoon is because it glorifies staying home with the kids and because it warns against materialism. In the abstract, these points do have value.

But it bothers me a leetle bit that the evangelical world, at least, has become so inured to feminism that the unstated egalitarian/feminist message of this cartoon goes unnoticed and isn't even permitted to color their enthusiasm for it. Not even to the point of putting a little caveat at the beginning to the effect, "It would have been better if it were the wife that quit her job to stay home and have the baby, but I still like the message." And one friend did put a caveat when he posted it, but only about the phrase "invent your own life's meaning." I will grant that that has an ominously "sweet mystery of life" sound about it, but c'mon, what about the elephant in the room?

Let's parse this: I won't even call the man in the cartoon "Bill Watterson," though I presume it's supposed to be autobiographical. But let's just call him "the guy." So the guy is bored in his job drawing for a big advertising company. He's tired of climbing the corporate ladder. His co-workers are shallow, and people expect him to work his tail off doing stuff he doesn't care about and then get drunk with the boys at the office at the end of the week. (I don't know if getting drunk the minute the clock strikes five is really all that common in the corporate world, but I'll take Watterson's word for it.) So he quits his job to "create his own meaning" by drawing dinosaurs. Thing is, his wife is pregnant. Heavily pregnant. But not to worry. The wife doesn't say, "You what? You quit your job to draw dinosaurs? But we're just about to have a baby!" No, his quitting his job to have a baby (ahem) is apparently just the same as her quitting a job to have a baby. We're supposed to ignore the fact that, y'know, he's not actually having a baby; she is. No, she puts on her power suit and trots happily off to her job. Apparently her job doesn't bore her like his job bored him. The baby's neonatal infancy is tactfully skipped over. Presumably Mom was able to get back into her power suits lickety split after the baby was born and felt not the slightest tension with her maternal instincts about going off and being the breadwinner. After all, Mr. Mom was at home drawing dinosaurs and taking care of Baby.

We're supposed to applaud all of this as anti-materialist just as we would presumably approve it as anti-materialist if a woman quit her job to focus on her family. Ain't that sweet? Nobody says, "Look, buddy, your wife is pregnant. Man up and draw the jeeps, already. What? You expect her to have the baby and support you, too?" Nah. That would be crass and, I guess, materialist. Not to mention insufficiently egalitarian. I guess his income was just providing unneeded extra cash or something.

I fully understand that perhaps the guy's marriage really is egalitarian, and perhaps his wife really would not have wanted to quit her job, and perhaps they really could do just fine as far as supporting themselves on her income alone.

But I think that Christians who also happen to be political conservatives should at least notice the cartoon's assumption that men and women are simply interchangeable in their roles in the home and in the workforce. It's certainly true that we conservatives applaud if a woman quits her job to stay home with her kids and the family is supported on the husband's income alone. And it's also true that it would be tacky under those circumstances, when hearing the wife rhapsodizing about how much more fulfilling it is to be home with the baby than to be climbing the corporate ladder, to ask how her husband is enjoying climbing the corporate ladder himself. Why? It would be tacky because he's the husband, and she's the wife. She's supposed to stay home with the kids, which of course plenty of women don't think is fulfilling. We're glad to hear of one who does think it's fulfilling. And, yes, that may mean that the husband has to do something that isn't his "dream job." We applaud him for that, too. We don't suggest that he should have stayed home instead, or that they should have flipped a coin to decide which one would continue to work at the boring job. That's because men and women are different.

Watterson thinks of the whole thing solely in terms of the anti-materialist meme, and he presents it as such. It's true that conservatives have rightly appropriated that meme to advocate the one-income traditional family, the family that tightens its belt so the kids don't have to go into daycare or public school. But when we start mindlessly holding on to the anti-materialist meme and cheer heartily for the one-income non-traditional family, and worse, don't even seem to notice that we're doing so, then we have a bit of a problem. Then we're veering towards becoming the semi-conservative, pro-family feminists.

The Watterson cartoon is nice. It's sweet. Really. I say that without intending snark. Better for the little girl to be home with Daddy than to be in daycare. And hey, maybe he'll even home school her. I suppose the feminist, semi-hippy, anti-corporate types might have something in common with us countercultural conservatives after all. But one still has to feel it a bit odd that Mommy is apparently not working in a hippy-owned natural foods store. She looks like she's working in the despised, materialist corporate world! Well, maybe somebody has to in their family to put food on the table. Maybe there'd be a problem if they tried to go back to the land. I'd be the last one in the world to blame them for drawing that conclusion. But at that point the question, "Why the mom and not the dad?" cries out to be asked.

Watterson cheerfully evades that question by having it serendipitously turn out that both parents can "follow their dreams." Not to mention the fact that back in the real world those Watterson dinosaurs proved to be pretty successful in material terms after all. A happy surprise.

Lots of people in the real world don't get to follow their dreams. So they have to ask who works the job and who stays home and changes the diapers. Which means they can't evade the gender role question forever. We might as well face that question now, even if it means not being entirely enthusiastic over Watterson's high-quality, pro-family, anti-materialist cartoon.

O Lamb of God Still Keep Me

Time for a hymn. We sang this in church this morning. It goes to the tune of "Beneath the Cross of Jesus."

O Lamb of God! still keep me
near to thy wounded side;
'tis only there in safety
and peace I can abide.
What foes and snares surround me!
What lusts and fears within!
The grace that sought and found me
alone can keep me clean.

'Tis only in thee hiding,
I know my life secure;
only in thee abiding,
the conflict can endure:
thine arm the victory gaineth
o'er every hurtful foe;
thy love my heart sustaineth
in all its cares and woes.

Soon shall my eyes behold thee
with rapture, face to face;
one half hath not been told me
of all thy power and grace:
thy beauty, Lord, and glory,
the wonders of thy love,
shall be the endless story
of all thy saints above.

I love those words, and they are sung so much less often than "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" that they are still fresh to me.

Related: Tony Esolen has this column about some unimaginably bad songs that, he assures his readers, are actually sung in some churches. (These happen to be Catholic bad worship songs, but that doesn't of course mean that the Protestants don't have examples too.) Just reading it made me thankful beyond measure to attend a church where we sing real hymns.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"From the grave to the sky" is not correct

There is a somewhat flat "worship song" called "Lord, We Lift Your Name on High." Don't get me wrong, there are much worse worship songs out there. Much, much worse. But I've always found this one a bit dull.

I flipped on Christian radio the other day and heard just a snippet of this one and turned it back off. The snippet I heard was "from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky. Lord, we lift your name on high."

It suddenly struck me that in reaching for a rhyme there the lyricist has said something that is just not true. Jesus most certainly did not go from the grave to the sky. He rose again the third day and spent the next forty days on earth with his disciples, offering them what Luke calls "many infallible proofs" of his truly being risen from the dead. Only then did he ascend into heaven. That's why the Feast of the Ascension is forty days after Easter.

I don't think the lyricist was trying to make any heavy point. I'm sure it was just a chance result of the rhyme scheme. But I would say that the statement that Jesus went from the grave to the sky, however one happens to make it, is rather importantly wrong. Whatever some works of art may seem to portray, Jesus didn't float up out of the grave into the sky without being seen. The grave was, of course, not a hole in the ground. It was a tomb with a doorway. The angel moved the gravestone, and presumably Jesus walked out. From subsequent events when Jesus entered the upper room through locked doors, we know that he didn't actually need the stone moved, but the more important point is that he walked at all after the resurrection. He walked on earth. His feet left real footprints. He ate (and cooked) fish. He was real and tangible, not a ghost or a vision.

Some theologians actually do seem to believe that Jesus went directly "from the grave to the sky." They have evolved what is known as the "objective vision theory" which quite clearly conflates the Resurrection and the Ascension and has Jesus going on to "another plane of existence" or something like that with his Father in heaven at the resurrection. All the disciples' experiences after that are put down to some kind of visions connected with heavenly telegrams being sent down to them from the resurrected Christ. But that is not biblical doctrine at all. I discussed the objective vision theory and the conflation it embodies between the Resurrection and the Ascension here at What's Wrong With the World. I also got in a few whacks at the objective vision theory in my article in this volume. (Yes, the volume is disgustingly expensive. I don't get a penny from that fact.)

Anyway, the purveyors of the objective vision theory are a lot more to blame than a lyricist just trying to write a rhyme. The former, after all, are theologians, and people are likely to take their solemn theological pronouncements seriously as (supposedly) the results of special scholarly knowledge. Be not many teachers, knowing that they shall receive the greater judgement.

Still, it doesn't hurt to get our song rhymes right, too.

So--not from the grave to the sky. From the grave to the earth. Back to the earth of dust and water and bread and fish. Back to the earth to show his closest friends, and through them all of mankind, that he is risen. He is risen indeed!

(This Easter message was brought to you in the middle of Trinitytide for no  particular reason.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Tears" by Lizette Woodworth Reese

WHEN I consider Life and its few years— 
A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun; 
A call to battle, and the battle done 
Ere the last echo dies within our ears; 
A rose choked in the grass; an hour of fears;         5
The gusts that past a darkening shore do beat; 
The burst of music down an unlistening street,— 
I wonder at the idleness of tears. 
Ye old, old dead, and ye of yesternight, 
Chieftains, and bards, and keepers of the sheep,  10
By every cup of sorrow that you had, 
Loose me from tears, and make me see aright 
How each hath back what once he stayed to weep: 
Homer his sight, David his little lad!

I've just come upon this poet and am much impressed. I intend to look for and read more of her work.

Here is another, which I don't fully understand:

In Time of Grief

Dark, thinned, beside the wall of stone,
The box dripped in the air;
Its odor through my house was blown
Into the chamber there.

Remote and yet distinct the scent,
The sole thing of the kind,
As though one spoke a word half meant
That left a sting behind.

I knew not Grief would go from me,
And naught of it be plain,
Except how keen the box can be
After a fall of rain.

Readers, I admit my ignorance: Why does the box have a strong scent? How is the box related to the speaker's grief?

And yet it's a beautiful poem.

A Song for Candlemas

There’s never a rose upon the bush,
And never a bud on any tree;
In wood and field nor hint nor sign
Of one green thing for you or me.
Come in, come in, sweet love of mine,
And let the bitter weather be!
Coated with ice the garden wall;
The river reeds are stark and still;
The wind goes plunging to the sea,
And last week’s flakes the hollows fill.
Come in, come in, sweet love, to me,
And let the year blow as it will!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The dangers of the reactionary Right--a moderate example

As a general rule, I have no particular urge to go linking to posts and comments that illustrate what I wrote about here. That's because most of the best illustrations are so unpleasant and dark that it's better not to read them, much less get involved in trying to answer them.

This example falls into a middle zone. It's a fusty and not terribly well-argued article that tries to defend Christianity from the charge of being the fountainhead of leftism. The defense takes the strange form of, inter alia, pointing out with historical triumph that it was mostly the Unitarians, Socinians, and other heretics who didn't believe in the Fall and such who were the American abolitionists. The orthodox American Christians actually supported slavery! (Or at least some of them did--the ones the author cites, including Samel Morse.) Why, then, that'll show whoever-it-is that accuses Christianity of being the historical fount of liberalism. The real, orthodox Christians were pro-hierarchy and even supported slavery. Ergo they weren't the source of American liberalism. QED.

Well, that's really helpful. Talk about "out of the frying pan into the fire."

The main post gives the distinct impression that Christian orthodoxy really is pro-slavery. The author, one J. M. Smith (his real name), a professor of geography, cannot be bothered to stop and say in so many words whether he thinks that Christian orthodoxy really is naturally pro-slavery, though that is the implication of his article.

As I point out in the comments, Justinian (who was anti-slavery) was hardly a New England Unitarian. And I doubt that all the Presbyterians and Baptists who were abolitionists in America were non-Trinitarian. Does Professor Smith know for a fact that William Wilberforce was a heretic, or does that not matter because Wilberforce was in England in the early 1800's? (Yet the English abolitionist movement was by no means unconnected from the American abolitionist movement.) Then there was Wulstan, who preached against slavery as long ago as the 1000's. Commentator Skeggy Thorston also mentions Gregory of Nyssa. I seem to recall that St. Patrick was no fan of slavery. So even historically, it's highly dubious to say that all the orthodox Christians were pro-slavery and left the anti-slavery cause to the heretics who believed in the "natural goodness of man."

Given the opportunity to clarify as to whether he defends the "peculiar institution" of antebellum slavery or even whether he is saying (as he appears to be) that Christian theological orthodoxy is really, as a matter of logic and the connections of ideas, naturally pro-slavery, Professor Smith has so far taken refuge in the "I wasn't addressing that" response rather than answering either of those questions. He does, however, manage to hint even in the comments that the anti-slavery position really is somehow ideologically connected to all the rest of progressivism and liberalism, including sexual libertinism.

The whole thing is highly distasteful. It's a good example, though linkable, of the accuracy of my warnings about the dangers of the non-mainstream right. In fact, commentator Bonald (who is also a contributor at the Orthosphere where Smith's post appears) even defends Smith on the grounds that "we reactionaries don't cringe" and so forth. Yes, as I've said before, it's that attitude of being so darned tough and willing to shock that creates the potential problem. In any event, Professor Smith seems to be neither fish nor fowl. At least Bonald tells us outright what he thinks. (He's moderately pro-slavery though he thinks slavery should probably be abolished as a matter of prudence.)

It's enough to make one sigh. Really, is there no place where people are sensible reactionaries, reactionaries within limits? (Other than W4, of course.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Most Gracious Lord"

This song used to be sung by the large college choir at my alma mater. I still think it incomparably beautiful today and have many fond memories of singing it, especially in a rotunda area that had lovely acoustics. The words are sobering--none shall falter, none shall shrink. I suspect that if it were translated into Latin those "none shall" phrases would end up in the murderously difficult subjunctive. We are asking God to grant us living faith so that as we walk His chosen path none shall falter, none shall shrink. But whether we falter or shrink remains up in the air, as it were. It's our prayer, our aspiration, our fervent hope, but by no means a sure thing.

May God indeed grant us that living faith.

If any readers happen to have access to the sheet music for this piece, I would love to have a copy. Google has not turned it up anywhere. I believe the composer is named Berntsen.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The dangers of being part of the non-mainstream Right

No doubt, if you identify yourself as politically conservative in the United States, the majority of your acquaintances who also identify themselves as conservatives are more or less mainstream. They are, hopefully, socially conservative on issues like abortion. They tend to have a very strong admiration for documents like the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes they are bound and determined to co-opt iconic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., for their conservative causes. They may be reflexively pro-military, which makes it a little difficult to criticize even the extreme left-wing aspects of the military without triggering a defensive reaction. They are extremely sensitive on the issue of race. They are foreign policy hawks. And they may have at least somewhat of a tendency to make excuses for the Republican Party, even when the GOP lets them down. (Though in my opinion the GOP has pushed its luck even with the mainstream about as far as it can or even farther and is starting to lose them.) They know that Barack Obama is a disaster and can usually tell you why in some detail, though the details may vary a bit.

The whole package deal is a great deal better than dealing with leftists, and if one had the opportunity to choose, say, a child-in-law (son-in-law or daughter-in-law), one would if one is wise far, far rather have a mainstream conservative than almost any other option.

Be that as it may, there are often areas of disagreement and even friction between those on the mainstream Right and those of us, among whom I include myself, who aren't quite in the mainstream Right. In fact, we are often to the right of the mainstream Right. The issue of race makes a pretty good example: One is always debating internally about whether to come out and say, "You know, MLK wasn't really a good role model. We shouldn't idolize him so much." Even a statement like, "Black culture in America is too often dysfunctional, and this, far more than any residual white racism, is the major cause of current disparities to the disadvantage of blacks in the country" can be explosive. It's likely, at a minimum, to make many of one's mainstream conservative friends or family uneasy.

I've found that saying that the military isn't a good career decision for a Christian and/or conservative young man can provoke quite an angry reaction.

Then there's feminism. Quite a number of social conservatives have made their peace with feminism. They're too busy telling us that Susan B. Anthony was pro-life (which appears to be true) and that feminism has been "hijacked" since the 1960's by "radicals" (which in my opinion is false) to have any really negative things to say about feminism. Sarah Palin, after all, was a proud member of Feminists for Life. Which doesn't mean that I would never have voted for her under any circumstancess, but for an Eagle Forum type like me it was a little bit of a let-down.

You get the picture.

However. I've come to realize that anyone who is Right but not mainstream Right, especially if proud to be to the right of the mainstream Right, faces some unique dangers in that position, and it seems like not such a bad idea for us to admit them outright and be on guard against them.

So here's some unsolicited advice. Prologue: Let me just say right now that if you take violent exception to this advice, please never mind. Quite frankly, if you get that upset, you are probably beyond being able to profit from it. Just go somewhere else and fume quietly or whatever, but don't try to post vitriol on this thread, because it won't be published. My intended audience here is an extremely narrow one, as is so often the case: It is those inclined to "hang with" some sort of non-mainstream Right, either in person or on the Internet, but still able to see the way back to the mainstream and still able to feel a little uncomfortable about where they might end up if not careful. To you, and here I include myself, I would suggest that we watch out for the following:

--The addiction to shocking for the sake of shocking. Yes, I know, it's kind of fun to say or to read someone else saying, "Women aren't on average as analytical as men" or "Racial profiling isn't always wrong." Nor am I saying that those are false statements. But beware the little thrill you get (you know that you do get it) from seeing or envisaging the look of shock on others' faces when you say it. That is addictive. And the further you go, the more often you seek that thrill of shocking, the more likely you are to say things that are overstated or false. (Compare, "The police should be able to stop blacks on the street just for being black, and that would be good because it would reduce crime" and "Women are dumber than men." Both of which are false.)

--Also, as you seek that thrill of shocking, you are in danger of falling in with extremists who are out first to shock you and then to transform you into talking and thinking like they do. Real extremists. Kooks, in fact. Beware of this. Not everyone that sayeth, "Feminism is bad" or "The word 'racism' is overused" is a good candidate for a bosom Internet companion, much less a mentor. Great surging seas of utter nut-ballery surround the small island which is the non-kooky but non-mainstream Right. If you don't end up finding that your "new friends" are silly and borderline seditious hyper-authoritarian monarchists (whose handle initials are MM), you may find that they are misogynists, anti-semites, eugenicists, or outright racists with no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Or some combination of the above. Or worse. Friends, including Internet friends, influence friends. Be careful with whom you hang out, even electronically. If you feel uncomfortable in some company, get out. Don't tell yourself that it's just the residual effects of political correctness making you feel strange. Stop going to those sites and commenting and interacting at them.

--The miserable "satisfactions" of gloom and despair. Despair is a sin. Those of us who think that things are worse than other conservatives think they are are in great danger of committing this sin. If you find yourself constantly, unremittingly talking about negative things, just stop for a while. Talk about something else. Talk about and think about something beautiful, good, true and of good report. Especially avoid the deeply dark and bitter.

--Which brings me to...bitterness. Bitterness is somewhat different from despair. Among other things, bitterness is likely to be directed at those nearest to you ideologically who don't happen to be just exactly where you are. When some mainstream conservative says something like, "Hmm, I really think there's something awfully extreme about the homosexual agenda," resist the urge to sneer, "No, duh! Where have you been all this time, Sherlock? Have you been living in a cave?" Bitterness is rife in the non-mainstream Right. I will let you think of your own examples. Sometimes it verges on hatred for those (deemed traitors) who don't happen to have all the same hobby horses that the bitter person has or even who hasn't ridden all those hobby horses for as long as the bitter person.

--Coarse language. Maintain high standards in your writing and speaking. This, of course, is related to the love of shocking but is a special aspect of its own. The idea sometimes seems to be that there's just too much darned niceness in the world, that we need to send a wakeup call, and that throwing around coarse language is a good way to do that. Well, it isn't. Remember that if we aren't for something instead of just being against everything, we have lost our hold on a good raison d'etre. And if you have a high and positive raison d'etre (for your blog or your organization, for example), you won't need foul language to promote it.

--Coming around and just agreeing with the Left. For example, if you think that marriage was severely compromised long ago by no-fault divorce (which is certainly true) you will be likely to come under influences that tell you not to bother to oppose homosexual "marriage," because now, who cares? (See above on despair and bitterness.) If you think that "the game is rigged" and our entire political system is lost in corruption through a conglomeration of big business and big government (which has some plausibility to it, though overstated), you might, if you keep talking, come to start sounding like a member of Occupy Wall Street. That should bother you.

--A yen for destruction. If you want it all just to come tumbling down because "they," unspecified, "deserve it," or because you hope for Something Better to rise out of the ashes if only the present corrupt structure can all be brought tumbling down, if you even find yourself thinking this for a moment, something is wrong. Conservatism is not about destruction. Conservatism is about preserving, loving, and maintaining what is good and valuable. But more than that. The lust for destruction is just plain bad. When you find yourself loving destruction, you aren't just being a bad conservative. You're risking becoming a bad person. Don't listen to those voices.

--Distancing yourself every which-way, including interpersonally, from those "embarrassing" and allegedly "shallow" mainstream conservatives. You can't afford it. This world is lonely enough for, say, pro-lifers. Don't isolate yourself further because some pro-lifers don't seem to you to have a deep and nuanced enough understanding of, I dunno, the American Founding. (Many other examples could be given.) Enjoy cordial friendships with other social conservatives and acknowledge mutual goals. You might find yourself humbled, too. If this advice seems prima facie at odds with the advice above about not hanging out with nuts, well, such is the difference between wing-nuts and mainstream conservative people who maybe don't happen to dot every i of your personal alternative-right agenda or set of (alleged) special insights. One group is actually less dangerous than the other to your immortal soul, not to mention your sanity and your normal human relationships. Guess which is which?

I'm sure I could dream up more to say on this topic, but that will do for the moment. This is actually a serious matter for people, real people, in certain tiny little corners of the Internet. I'm quite serious when I say that I'm speaking to myself inter alia.

Perhaps what a lot of this has to do with is hubris. Being part of a tiny embattled clique is a very tempting self-image for some of us, but by that same token it can be a very dangerous one--the idea that we alone have the gnosis, that we alone have seen through what all these others who think they are conservatives are still trapped in.

Let's not go there. Let's stop and think instead.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Criticisms of "capitalism"--in search of a contrast class

A persistent problem that I see in criticisms of "capitalism" is the unclarity in the use of that term, which in turn seems to be a result of the absence of a clear contrast class.

Let's take, for example, a criticism to the effect that "Capitalism over-values efficiency to the detriment of other important goods."

What does it mean? I ask this question in all seriousness, because the more I think about it, the more sure I am that I don't know.

What, precisely--and I do mean precisely, is this "capitalism" being personified in the criticism? Capitalism as opposed to what?

Here are some possible meanings:

The criticism could mean that people nowadays who tout the free market or laissez-faire economics (such as myself, for example) are more prone than the general public, or are more prone than those who advocate a more heavily regulated economy, to over-value efficiency to the detriment of other important goods. This interpretation at least gives the criticism a meaning, but it makes it very hard to decide that it is true without begging the question on particular matters of policy. After all, the person who brings the criticism presumably disagrees with someone like me on whether and how this or that business should be regulated. One can guess that he would characterize our disagreement by saying that I overvalue efficiency to the detriment of other important goods. But in that case, we might as well just debate the particular policy issues where we disagree. The generalization that involves personifying an entity called "capitalism" really adds nothing to the discussion.

Another point, if we give this interpretation, is that we social conservatives ought to agree among ourselves that some of the most egregious examples of valuing what is said to be efficiency at the expense of other important goods come not from the advocates of the free market but, emphatically to the contrary, from the advocates of central planning. Here I am thinking particularly of the area of health care. Who is it that speaks blithely of "our" healthcare dollars and tells us that "we" need to spend them more "efficiently" and "rationally" and therefore need to rid ourselves of the elderly and dependent? Answer honestly: It isn't the American Enterprise Institute, the Action Institute, or the Mackinac Institute. And it certainly isn't individuals cheering for the free market like Lydia McGrew. No, it's those who are panting and yearning to centralize the entire healthcare industry so that panels of "experts" can impose their ideas of "efficiency" on all the rest of us by getting rid of the "life unworthy of life." It's the free marketers who think that such plans are utterly disastrous, for a whole slew of reasons.

No doubt other examples could be given. For that matter, even the use of eminent domain to force people to sell their land for the building of an electric dam in the name of efficiency is going to meet with a somewhat ambivalent response from someone with libertarian sympathies like myself. We happy moderns, cheering the movement of progress, may be all in favor of electric dams, but those of us who get queasy about government power are not exactly excited about forced purchase for the sake of bringing them into existence.

Let's try another interpretation of the criticism. One could take the criticism to refer to industrialism and to mean that people in industrial societies are likely to overvalue efficiency more than people in pre-industrial societies. I doubt that this is true, but it's at least meaningful. However, it then has little or nothing to do with free market economics. For Communist countries have been highly industrialized, while some tribe still working with stone knives and bear skins can and often probably does have a highly unregulated and laissez-faire economic approach.

Another interpretation might be the claim that people living in countries with more unregulated economies tend to over-value efficiency and that more regulation seems to produce a greater ability to value other things. It would be difficult to say what evidence someone might bring to bolster such a claim, but it certainly seems disconfirmed by the history of America itself. As we look at the past 150 years of American history, we see the loss of social capital and the growth of cold-heartedness along with ever-increasing government regulation of business, a level of regulation that makes it harder and harder even to start a business.

Nor am I saying that this coldness of heart and failure to value intangible goods is caused by the government regulation of business. That's not the point one way or another. The point is that there really doesn't seem to be any good evidence that increasingly poking and prodding the money-making goose that lays the golden egg has the beneficial effect of somehow making people value the intangible finer things of life.

I hope that this short series of examples will show how very difficult it is to pin down attempted criticisms of a shadowy entity known as "capitalism." In my opinion it's salutary for would-be critics to discipline themselves by trying to think of a contrast class, to ditch the personification of "capitalism," and to ask themselves exactly what they really mean, followed by asking themselves what concrete evidence they have for the now-clarified claim.

A few further points: Sage indicates that perhaps fans of the free market are uncomfortable with the question, "How much economic efficiency is too much?" To tell the truth, I'm simply baffled by the question. What does it mean? Efficiency in what area? "Too much" in what sense? And so forth.

I would say that in general, it seems to be extremely elusive to decide that some process is "too efficient." For example, is driving a car "too efficient"? Would it be better if cars were banned and if everyone were forced to use horses instead? Obviously, that's an extreme example, but it illustrates the baffling nature of the question.

In such elusive areas, it seems to make the most sense to allow individuals to decide for themselves to a very great extent how much efficiency they want.This cuts both ways; it also amounts to a defense of the person who prefers to be inefficient relative to some currently available technology. For example, if someone wants to do without e-mail, more power to him! I have no ambitions to force him to use e-mail! But on the other hand, I don't think the agrarian should have ambitions to try to chivy me not to use e-mail or a cell phone or what-not.

An important point is that I shouldn't assume that I know better than anyone else "how much efficiency is too much" in every area or even many areas. This isn't false modesty. Sometimes I do think I know better than others. But in a nebulous area like this, it behooves us to take a lighter-handed approach. If indeed society works better, as Sage hypothesizes, with a certain amount of what will look to some people like inefficiency, then perhaps we should count on other people to recognize that as well. In that case, the free market system will take that into account.

"Inefficient" (the scare quotes are deliberate, as it isn't clear that they are always really inefficient) ways of doing things can easily be catered to by the market when there are people who want them. We already see this in many hobby areas, with everything from scrap-booking to micro-brewery to growing "heritage grains" (not to mention far more important things like home schooling) made possible by the prosperity and leisure time which are the gifts of free enterprise itself.

All of this seems to me to be counterevidence to one final possible interpretation of the above criticism--namely, that a materially prosperous people (as opposed to a poorer people or country) values efficiency of production too much, to the detriment of other intangible goods.

Comments on this post have been closed at What's Wrong With the World and redirected to this cross-posting at Extra Thoughts. This is for a very specific reason, and here, without being angry in any way, I would like to address a specific W4 commentator: Nice Marmot, I'm sure you mean well, but you are positively the worst offender recently at W4 in the area of bringing criticisms of something you call "capitalism" (or sometimes "corporate capitalism") without specifying your meaning. At times I really think perhaps you are not capable of being more specific, but it tends to get frustrating and can waste time. You also have a tendency to criticize advocates of free market economics like myself of things we have expressly disavowed, which is also frustrating and time wasting. By no means am I saying that I will not approve your comments here at Extra Thoughts, where full moderation is enabled. I may do so. But I think the discussion will be more profitable if the discipline I've enjoined in this post is enforced--that is to say, if you have to do more than make generalizations and repeat yourself, and if you have to define your terms and specify a contrast class. It's an excellent exercise and I think often could force those who are used to talking to people who agree with them and used to dealing in sweeping generalizations to recognize, if only in the privacy of their own minds, that they really do not have a very clear idea of what they are saying and what their criticism amounts to. Sweeping history of ideas that deals in lofty generalizing terms, not to mention psychoanalysis of those who disagree with one, can be addictive.

I would like to challenge the critics of the free market to go cold turkey.