Friday, September 26, 2008

Quote - Bono on Financial Priorities

From here (via Looking Closer), Bono:

It’s extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


As this semester has kicked into high gear, it has come to my attention (read: my wife keeps reminding me) that my time spent reading and writing online is significantly cutting in on my studying. The trouble is not just the time actually spent online, but the fact that I am constantly distracted by what I have read, written, or would like to write, particularly when in the midst of the frequent discussions that spring up around here.

Don't worry, though, I'm not giving up blogging or commenting. Rather, I'm going to limit my internet reading and writing to the evenings only, in hopes that this will reduce my distraction throughout the day. For the time being, therefore, don't be surprised if I don't respond to comments as quickly as I have been. On the other hand, if you'd prefer that your criticisms go unchallenged for as long as possible, feel free to post them really early in the morning! ;)

In any case, thanks to all my readers and commenters. It's your own fault, you know; you're just too darn interesting and engaging!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sex and Speeding Revisited

In my last post I made a comparison between speeding and promiscuous sex. Such a connection, however, leads to an obvious objection: Are not speeding laws—and by analogy moral proscriptions against promiscuity—fundamentally arbitrary? Well, no actually. Apart from a few draconian or libertine exceptions, most traffic laws are based on immutable physical principles which cannot be ignored without harm. You can try to take a hairpin turn at 100 miles per hour if you wish, but you are almost certain to crash. You can try to haul a trailer with an economy car, but you are liable to ruin both. You can try to cram 20 people into a pickup—you might even reach your destination safely—but if you do crash, a lot of people are going to die. The fact is, vehicles are built to serve specific purposes and can only safely operate within certain tolerances; to ignore this because “it’s my car and I can do what I want,” is to invite disaster, not just for ourselves but for many others as well.

The same is true of us as sexual beings. Just as certain uses of a car respect its design while others do not, certain uses of sex are appropriate to its design while others are inherently dangerous (and this is true whether the “design” in question derives from God or “the blind watchmaker,” or both). The figures given in the last post make clear that sex can go very wrong, and it is not hard to see when and why this happens. For even leaving aside the question of God’s intention for sexuality (though, if we are created beings, this question is vital), it is pretty obvious that the primary purposes of sex are procreation and pair-bonding. Though we all want to add another—pleasure—this is clearly a secondary purpose of sex that cannot legitimately be separated from the other two. Speaking evolutionarily, the pleasure of sex is meant to make us want to do it, precisely so that we will reproduce and pair-bond, for it is these two functions which ensure the survival of the species.

To seek to separate the pleasure of sex from these purposes is dangerous because it is not actually possible. Like trying to separate the thrill of speeding from the danger of car accidents and fuel costs, it is an unattainable goal which is used to excuse the risks involved. For try as we might to reduce the “risk,” pregnancy is virtually always a possibility when having sex, so to try and have it when you are not willing to accept that possibility is fundamentally irresponsible and often directly justifies abortion or abandonment. Similarly, to properly raise a child is a highly labor-intensive affair, which is trouble enough even for a loving couple, much less for one person to do alone. Nor is abortion a solution to this, for even leaving aside the moral question and (debatable) claims of psychological harm, abortion carries its own physical risks, including sterility or death. Finally, to have sex with multiple partners, even if not concurrently, opens one to the significant risk of getting and spreading STDs, which can themselves be not only painful but, at times, can lead to sterility or death.

In contrast, it is clear that permanent monogamy between two people who truly love each other and willingly embrace at least the possibility of children provides the best fit with the proper functions of sex. Monogamy almost completely eliminates the risk of STDs and ensures the most stable living situation for both the couple and any children they might have. It also teaches commitment, self-sacrifice and unconditional love, to name just a few examples. Thus, to separate sex from this context is risky at best, and at worst an invitation for disaster. Granted, not all abuses are as dangerous as others. Though “serial monogamy” is in various ways less stable and more risky than marriage, it at least maintains the connection between sex and committed relationship. Hooking up and prostitution, on the other hand, deny both primary functions of sex. If serial monogamy is like driving without a seat belt, those latter choices are comparable to driving drunk: You may get lucky and make it home in one piece, but many do not, and the life you take may not be your own.

And in point of fact, there’s no excuse for these behaviors. There are plenty of safer ways to get your thrills, and it’s simply a myth that we have some unalterable “need” for sex. I assure you, it is entirely possible to wait until marriage; I and millions of others have done so. Some people even go there who lives without sex and are not harmed by it, so there is no reason a person cannot go a few years. Don’t get me wrong, permanent abstinence is not nor should be the ideal for most people—just as cars are not made to be left in the garage—but to dismiss the risks and social consequences of casual sex because we are too impatient or want a thrill is no different than dismissing the risks of reckless driving because one’s commute is too long or the adrenaline rush too tempting.

So the next time someone suggests it’s “unreasonable” to expect people to be monogamous, why not try some safer alternative, like snow boarding, jet skiing or even sky-diving? They’ll give as much of a thrill as sex, and probably last longer as well.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Private Vice and Systemic Evil

Human nature being what it is, we almost never admit that something we do habitually is wrong. We might condemn others for doing the same things, or critique our own vices in the abstract, but if it is something that we do not want to give up doing, we will pretend we are innocent, and either deny it’s a vice at all, or pretend that we don't do it. It is for this reason that moral arguments can place very little stock in claims that come in the form: “I’ve done such and such for years and it’s never done any harm.” Such claims are rarely credible and have been used to justify of all manner of systemic evil.

To see this, consider an example that may at first seem trivial, but turns out to be anything but: Speeding. Most of us consider speeding a minor vice at worst, and could give a thousand reasons why it really isn’t that bad, how it has never done me any harm, how it is sometimes more dangerous not to speed, etc., etc., etc. But the truth is these are just excuses. We enjoy speeding, it gives us a thrill and, supposedly, saves us time, so it’s tempting to dismiss it as harmless and acceptable. Thus, even when we do get in an accident, this rarely convinces us to make a consistent or concerted effort to change. We just do not want to make the sacrifices necessary, even though an honest appraisal would recognize that speeding doesn't actually save as much time as we imagine, and adds a great deal more stress than we usually admit.

For the truth is that speeding is not harmless at all. It directly contributes to auto accidents which injure or kill over 50 million people a year and cost untold billions in property damage. Though we like to tell ourselves that speeding is a private choice, that we are adults who know the risks and have the right to take them if we wish, speeding does not just affect the people who do it; it impacts everyone around us: other drivers, pedestrians, the families of those hurt or killed, businesses and insurance companies, health care providers, law enforcement and other government agencies, and through them, all of us. Though we, as individuals, may be lucky enough not to be seriously harmed by it, every individual choice to speed carries these risks and encourages others to speed as well.

Moreover, even when it doesn’t cause an accident, speeding uses more fuel, which costs more money and contributes to the energy crisis and all the attendant evils that has wrought, environmentally, economically, geo-politically, and more. Therefore, while as individuals, it is easy to tell ourselves that our own speeding does no real harm, this ignores both the small-scale risks and the large-scale impact that our actions have on the world around us. Of course, there are various technical solutions offered to these problems—seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, etc.—and the development and use of such things should be encouraged, but if allowed to excuse speeding as a choice then they can only be self-defeating, for they do not address the real issue, which is moral, not technological.

As this example illustrates, self-focus and private vice, even in “trivial” matters, can sometimes lead to massive evils beyond any one person’s control. And this is not just true of speeding. Most vices, even those widely considered “private,” are defended with the same kinds of excuses, yet they result in similar large-scale tragedies when they become broadly accepted. For instance, and to take up an example from recent discussions, promiscuity falls into just this category. Though everyone knows the dangers, these are dismissed on a personal level with the excuse that “it’s my body and I have the right to do with it what I wish.” But as with speeding, promiscuity creates both potential risks and large-scale tragedies.

Each year, there are more than 340 million new sexually transmitted infections (virtually all of which derive from promiscuity) and 42 million abortions (at least a significant portion of which derive from the same). The widespread acceptability of promiscuous behavior has also drastically increased the rates of illegitimacy and single-parenthood, which in turn result in poverty, abuse and increased crime rates. This impacts not just the people choosing to be promiscuous, but their families and communities, local businesses, insurance companies, health care providers, law enforcement and other government agencies, and through them, all of us.

Additionally, by fostering a widespread belief that sex can legitimately be separated, not just from reproduction but from relationship, these have in turn increased the demand for and acceptability of prostitution, leading to a worldwide system of sexual slavery and human trafficking. As with speeding, of course, there are technical and legal methods of reducing some of these risks, but to appeal to the availability of contraception or some hope for better goverment control to justify promiscuity is rather like appealing to seat belts and traffic cops to justify speeding.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Quote - Rowan Williams on False Religion

Rowan Williams, in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (cited by A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, pg. 19):

The dark night is God's attack on religion. If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your “religious” world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games. (pg. 82)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Romans 2 Remix

With apologies to Saint Paul:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.... God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: Not only for non-Christians, but also for Christians; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: Not only for Christians, but also for non-Christians. For God does not show favoritism....

Now you, if you call yourself a Christian; if you rely on the Bible and brag about your relationship to God; if you claim to know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the Bible; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, a “religious right,” or a “moral majority,” because you have in the Bible the embodiment of knowledge and truth--you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the Bible, do you dishonor God by breaking its commands? As it is written: “God's name is blasphemed among the non-Christian world because of you.” (Modified from Romans 2:1, 6-11, 17-24, based on the NIV. Partially inspired by James McGrath)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Contraception Article...

I’ve mentioned before that I was writing an article on contraception for Salvo Magazine, provisionally titled: “Sex, Drugs and Reproduction: Is Birth Control a Blessing or a Curse?” It was published this week (you can read it here), but the version you will find in Salvo is very different than the version I submitted.

As originally written and accepted for publication, the article attempted to balance and hold in tension two opposite aspects of the social impact of the rise of contraception. On the one hand, it discussed some of the more disturbing social results of widespread contraceptive use (though it also, more briefly, recognized the positive goods that modern contraception has provided). On the other hand, the article discussed the long and tragic history of reproductive coercion whereby far too many women have had their rights and dignity curtailed “for the good of society.”

Unfortunately, just days before the magazine went to print, I was informed that the Editorial Board had thoroughly rewritten the article, with the title: “Sex, Drugs and Reproduction: Birth Control Is a Messy, Messy Business.” As the new title implies, this draft stripped the article of every positive argument made for contraception and, worse in my opinion, removed the entire argument concerning sexual coercion. The result is an article that seems much more like a polemic against contraception than the balanced discussion I intended. With only days to review it, I had little choice but to allow them to print the new version (though they did allow me to make a handful of minor revisions), and the result may be read here.

In response to this matter (and other longstanding concerns that I will not detail), I resigned my position as a Contributing Editor on the 3rd of this month. I wish them all the best, but I doubt I will be writing for them again. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to post the original version of my article (if for no other reason than that that my contract forbids reprinting an article for at least three months), but I did want to post the original conclusion, in hopes that it will provide some context for understanding my view of the published version:

Such observations cannot rule out all contraceptive usage – indeed, comparing our present array of birth control options with those available to pre-moderns, it’s hard not to feel thankful – but they all point to an underlying problem: the impossible attempt to solve a fundamentally moral set of issues – abuse, oppression, sexual immorality – through purely technological means. Promiscuity, absent or abusive fathers, abortion – these are perennial moral concerns that cannot be solved merely by reducing a few of their physical consequences through contraception, nor even by passing better legislation. Unless we are willing to change ourselves – our choices and lifestyles – contraception will never be more than a stop-gap measure, maintaining the illusion that we needn’t become better people; all we need are better technologies. Such is an inevitably self-defeating attitude, since our use or abuse of technology itself will always be a direct correlation of the kind of people we are.

Yet many who have considered these matters have feared that emphasizing such broad-brush dangers and social consequences risks stripping real men and women of the rights and dignity to make their own reproductive decisions. If history is any guide, this fear is warranted, as society has often justified the reproductive coercion of individuals on such grounds. But the dangers inherent in forcing people to live morally are too often allowed to excuse immoral living as a choice. Liberty requires the freedom to decide for oneself (within reasonable limits), but it does not free us, as individuals, from the obligation to choose well. Beneath all the risks and statistics, therefore, the real questions we each must face are these: Will we treat contraception as a means of living better, more ethical lives, or simply as a fruitless attempt to undo the consequences of our actions? Will we choose to treat our fertility as a disease or a gift, our children as a threat or a blessing? Will we view birth control – however we choose to pursue it – as an aid to virtue, or a substitute for it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Abortion and Moral Equivalence

From Inhabitatio Dei (a great blog I just discovered), Moral Equivalence, War, and Abortion:

I am utterly against the liberal platitudes that would seek to minimize the importance of abortion within our public discourse. But likewise I am utterly against the sort of ethic of innocence that is utilized to establish abortion as an utterly unique instance of horrific violence that trumps all others. What makes forms of violence morally serious cannot depend on the innocence or non-innocence of those who suffer them. What makes violence morally serious is not that it falls on people who are innocent, but that it falls on persons who are human.

As such I get uncomfortable at the way many conservatives seek to elevate the issue of abortion to a pedestal above all other issues of violence and coercion in our culture. To use the seriousness of abortion as a shield against having to think about the moral severity of militarization, torture, and genocide is just as reprehensible as those who use such issues to downplay the seriousness of abortion. John Paul II was correct to include all of these horrors within his indictment of the “culture of death.” Seeking to do some sort of moral algebra within the culture of death to determine which is the “worst” seems like an utterly wrong question.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is Death Proud?

It must be going around: I missed this post of Ryan Dueck’s from last week, which looks at death from a different angle. He points to an article in the New York Times by Theresa Brown, a nurse, which takes issue with John Donne’s famous line:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

Describing her first encounter with sudden death, Theresa wants to insist that death is proud, and deeply unsettling. Since most of the article is a story, I won’t try to summarize it, but it does remind me of a line from the pilot episode of House:
Our bodies break down, sometimes when we're 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. I don't care if you can walk, see, wipe your own butt. It’s always ugly. Always. You can live with dignity, we can't die with it.
Though I can’t agree that there can be no dignity in death, death is always a tragedy no matter how old or young we are. There is no escaping it and there should be no downplaying its horror. Some ask how God can be good if he allows some "innocent" people to suffer terrible things, but the truth is we all face a terrible fate. Death is inherent to our existence, and this would be no less a tragedy if we all lived to a hundred years old. All we can ask is whether there is any hope in the midst of it. Here is Theresa’s conclusion:
What can one do? Go home, love your children, try not to bicker, eat well, walk in the rain, feel the sun on your face and laugh loud and often, as much as possible, and especially at yourself. Because the only antidote to death is not poetry, or drama, or miracle drugs, or a roomful of technical expertise and good intentions. The antidote to death is life.
This is, as Ryan says, a good start, but his own response is better:
From a Christian perspective, life—both in the present and in the age to come—certainly is properly conceived as the antidote to death. But among the many more things that could be said on the matter, I would want the word “together” to come shortly on the heels of “life.” The antidote to death is not just any kind of life, because many lives are lived poorly and in isolation. The kind of life that is the antidote to death is a life where we give ourselves to others in love and trust (and receive the same in return, hopefully) and determine to walk together through the complexities and ambiguities that death’s shadow casts over our individual and collective experiences.
But even this is only half the story. As one of Ryan’s commenters notes, if this life is all we have then death will still be the victor in the end, and there is no true antidote to its sting. But if love and community—with one another and with God—truly are the deeper reality, then perhaps death shall not have the last word, after all.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Life and Death

Timothy Mills, a secular humanist, just posted an article of his on donating one’s body to science, which is worth reading:

People's fear in contemplating such donations is immediate and profound. The fear of death cannot be set aside with a quick dose of reason; the prospect of having their body (or the body of a loved one) treated other than how they wish after death can cause true emotional distress. I would be a poor humanist indeed if I were to ignore such pain just because it isn't rational.

Nevertheless… [t]he gift of one's body suits every bit of humanist philosophy: care for others, value for education, and a dedication to reality over superstition and wishful thinking. I can think of few better epitaphs than on the marker of the plot used to inter the remains from the anatomy lab I visited: "To those far-sighted people who have contributed to the advancement of medical science & research."
Though I am a Christian, I find this perspective very interesting. After all, even if we are to be physically resurrected, it wont depend on reanimating “the same molecules” that composed us previously. Regardless of interment method, those will have long since dispersed. Our identities are not defined or limited by the molecules that make up our bodies (which are constantly replaced even while alive). Indeed, for a Christian to think otherwise is to accept the very physical reductionism that leads many to reject resurrection not just as unlikely, but absurd.

That doesn't mean, however, that we should be flippant with the body as though it were unimportant (nor does Timothy imply that we should). To treat it as a mere shell that may be discarded at will is a profoundly un-Christian view, though far too common among Christians. The body is sacred because the world is sacred. Flawed and broken though it is, the world is the “good” creation of God and is neither to be exploited nor rejected. It is not our duty to seek escape from world but to play a role in renewing and remaking it. The body is, after all, called “a temple of the holy spirit,” a locus of God’s presence on earth. And if giving one’s body to science might perhaps advance the goal of remaking the world (though certainly in a way St. Paul never anticipated), it is worth considering.

But there is another question to consider. This month’s issue of Touchstone just so happened to include its own series of articles on Christian burial. Though agreeing that burial is not a prerequisite for the Christian hope of resurrection, they do note the importance of having physical and respectful reminders of the dead. We live in an age with a profoundly unbalanced view of death. Though our entertainment is full of violence and death, we work harder to hide from its reality than probably any previous culture. We spend billions on cosmetic products and surgeries intended to keep us looking young. We hope for scientific breakthroughs and medical treatments to extend our lives ever longer (even while we grow steadily more comfortable with abortion and euthanasia, so long as they are done privately and out of sight). Meanwhile our elderly are shuffled off to nicely manicured rest-homes, until they are finally removed to nicely manicured graveyards in which we spend little time. Even our churches are no longer built with cemeteries nor other reminders of the dead.

Perhaps it ought not to surprise then, that when we are faced with the reality of death—when a hurricane strikes, a suicide bomber attacks or a loved one falls ill—we are shocked, as though we had forgotten the most undeniable fact of our existence: Everybody dies. However we might try to deny or delay it, death is inevitable. Science and medicine, diplomacy and law, these may hold death off for a time, but none of them can offer ultimate freedom from it. Young or old, suddenly or with ample warning, we will all die, and we must ask whether our treatment of the dead recognizes this fact or blinds us to it.

What this means for a Christian’s consideration of donating their body to science (or even just cremation), I’m not certain. On the one hand, doing so risks becoming another symbolic denial of death, another means of hiding its horror and perpetuating the myth that science can save us—or at least our successors—from the inevitable. But on the other hand, symbolism is not the only important matter. Burial is, without a doubt, expensive and impractical, and in many circumstances these latter concerns are significant. Moreover, though neither science nor medicine can support the ultimate hope many place in them, they are noble and important pursuits worthy of support. If through one's death it might be possible to save lives, that is not a possibility to be rejected lightly.

No matter what we decide, however, it is a valuable exercise to stop and consider the issue from time to time, and to reflect on the meaning of our choices. We must ask ourselves whether, in our treatment of the dead and our own plans for the future, we are unwittingly supporting our culture’s denial of reality, or reminding of both the essential goodness of this world and its inevitable dissolution.

Which reminds me: I really need to make a will.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Something I Need to Remember

The late Henri Nouwen was a Catholic who left his teaching position at Harvard to work with the developmentally disabled at L'Arche. He had this to say in his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership:

I have the impression that many of the debates within the church around issues such as the papacy, the ordination of women, the marriage of priests, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and euthanasia take place on a primarily moral level. On that level different parties battle about right and wrong. But that battle is often removed from the experience of God's first love, which lies at the base of all human relationships.

Words like "right-wing," "reactionary," "conservative," "liberal," and "left-wing" are used to describe people's opinions, and many discussions then seem more like political battles for power than spiritual searches for the truth.

Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance. (pgs. 44-45)
Far too often, I am more concerned with establishing moral principles or trying to defend truths about God than I am with loving people or seeking God himself.

And Now For Something Completely Different...

In the interests of maintaining my non-partisan credibility. Here's how political satire should be done (again, HT Mark Shea):

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

This is Just Pathetic

Mark Shea:

Yesterday, Googling "Sarah Palin" and "retard" got you 126,000 hits.

As of this post, the same search now gets you 1,090,000 hits. [NB: When I do this search, I get 135,000 hits.]

In light of recent discussions about the connection between violence and disrespect, note that today in America, more than 90% of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. May God have mercy...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jamie Smith on Faith and Knowledge

James McGrath posted a short review today of a book I definitely need to read: What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?: A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious by Delwin Brown. As I noted in the comments, the book reminds me of James (or Jamie) K.A. Smith's interesting book The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, which argues that limited perspective and interpretation are inherent to the biblical picture of humanity as created by God (not just "since the fall"), and that this means faith is necessary to knowledge. Here are a few quotes:

There is always already interpretation in every relationship, which means that there is also room for plurality, or rather, plurality is the necessary result of irreducible difference.... But if interpretation is part of being human, then its analogue is a creational diversity: a multitude of ways to "read" the world. (pg. 156)

[I]n the end I would argue that every hermeneutic judgment is a kind of leap of faith, a certain trust or commitment, a belief that gropes beyond mere presence. Every interpretive judgment, then, should be accompanied by a corresponding hermeneutic humility or uncertainty. (pg. 157)

Before knowledge there is acknowledgement; before seeing there is blindness, before questioning there is a commitment; before knowing there is faith.

While blindness is the condition for the possibility of faith, there is also a sense in which faith is blinded because it sees too much, blinded by bedazzlement, "the very bedazzlement that, for example, knocks Paul on the ground on the road to Damascus." (pg. 183, quoting Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, pg. 112)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Significant Results?

Sorry to disappear this week (I know, whatever did you do without me?). Every spare minute has been devoted to getting as far on my thesis as possible before the new semester starts next week. Nevertheless, I still feel like this most days:

Monday, September 1, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIII

Michael Halcomb is hosting this month's Biblical Studies Carnival, and has done a great job collecting an extremely broad range of posts from the past month. Among them is my post asking What Does It Mean to Trust the Bible? Along the same lines he also points to an interesting post at Dunelm Road on Scripture and Tradition, and I especially wanted to point to Alan Knox's brilliant Scripture... As We Live It series, which reminds me of a great quote by G.K. Chesterton:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
There's a ton there to read, so do take some time to poke around.