Friday, February 24, 2006

Notre Dame and Academic Freedom

A friend of mine attends Notre Dame and recently sent a few of us this link to a story in the NY Times about some of the recent academic freedom/freedom of expression issues in which the campus is embroiled. One of the sparks to this controversy is t-shirts (shown in a photo in the story) which read, “Gay? Fine By Me.” I must say, given the sense of humor in our circle of friends, we have a lot of fun playing with that t-shirt idea. We have discussed the relative merits of t-shirts that read, “Necrophile? Fine by me?” or the oddly insignificant, “Steve? Fine By Me.” Anyway, you get the idea.

The article does a good job of presenting the lay of the land and some of the special issues involved with being a major University and religiously committed on a significant level at the same time. Does academic freedom/freedom of speech mean anything ought to be honestly presented? Does a Catholic or religious commitment mean that there are other priorities higher up the food chain than “freedom” of academic expression? Can or should some expressions be squelched in the service of these higher priorities?

I was pondering Aristotle and virtue this morning. (That sentence makes me sound smarter than I really am.) But I believe Aristotle would be in favor of excluding some forms of expression from education. If it did not serve the flourishing of the human, it probably served to debase it. Therefore, the best thing for any individual’s education is to avoid such base and animalistic things. Plato actually argues that in his Republic. So if these Greeks are right, the question now is, does “The Vagina Monologues” serve to increase virtue and human flourishing, or is it base and profane?

A couple of interesting quotes from the piece. From a student:

Some students said that the understanding of academic freedom at a Catholic university should be different from that at a secular university. "We have our own measures of what's good and what's right," said Nicholas Matich, 22, the politics editor of The Irish Rover, a conservative student newspaper. " 'The Vagina Monologues' is performed everywhere else in the academic world. It doesn't mean Notre Dame should do it, too."

From a former faculty member and current watchdog at the University:

"I think the real test of a great university," he [Father Hesburgh] said, "is that you are fair to the opposition and that you get their point of view out there. You engage them. You want to get students' minds working. You don't want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics."

Does a great University allow anything to be taken seriously, or does it allow only serious things to be taken seriously-including opposing points of view. Is a great University gauged by the number of voices heard on campus or in its ability to discern between voices?

Of course, many will object that gauging what is serious is wholly subjective, and therefore oppressive and given to censorship. I submit that that response may be given by those who need to read more of their Aristotle.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Moratorium on Theological Pronouncements?

I may have been out of the fray for a while, but I can still recognize a contentious issue when I see one. Brian McLaren has raised the pastoral issue of handling homosexuality in our churches in a rather provocative manner. As one might expect with McLaren, his intent is primarily pastoral, and for that I applaud him. Too often, because it is such a hot-button issue, Christians react callously instead of lovingly to homosexuality, and McLaren is right to provide a corrective voice in that manner.

The approach McLaren takes in the example in his essay is, I think, fundamentally right. Instead of reacting to the question, “what is your church’s stance on homosexuality?” with an immediate (and seemingly dogmatic) answer, it is wise to first ask questions and discover where the person is coming from.

But, as my regular readers might be able to anticipate, I am not comfortable with all of his positions. First, his fundamental conclusion:

Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides, but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.

Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection. After all, many important issues in church history took centuries to figure out. Maybe this moratorium would help us resist the "winds of doctrine" blowing furiously from the left and right, so we can patiently wait for the wind of the Spirit to set our course.

Maybe five years is an arbitrary figure, but I don’t think any length of time is going to convince McLaren or his sort of emergent minister of any actual position. It is inherent in the postmodern psyche to never actually decide on any proposition. That is why he doesn’t do so now, and it is why he probably won’t have any more answers in 5 or 10 years. And if 2000 years of theology-ranging over every possible position, political rĂ©gime, and social setting-can’t help them decide today, 5 more years ain’t gonna help.

McLaren is also worried that the political baggage surrounding homosexuality is too manipulative for him to cut through.

Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric—and we're pastors, evangelists, church-planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors.

That, honestly, is no excuse for not being able to come to theological clarity about an issue. I have found that those who think politically first and theologically second are the same people who are too frustrated by political concerns to be of any real theological value. And in my reading of McLaren in the past, I tend to think he is political first and theological second.

The fact that an issue appears in political circles has absolutely no bearing on its theological standing. The theological value of a belief is not changed one way or another if one political party adopts it or another abhors it, or if there is a great deal of “confusion” about it in the circles of Manhattan elite. The truth value of the statement “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” is not changed no matter how much political wrangling may occur over it. Or take the issue of pedophilia, which on one level is already a political issue. If it becomes a hot-potato, should we avoid calling it sin?

Because of their adherence to a postmodern view of the world, McLaren and others are unable to accurately apply the injunction to “speak the truth in love.” If you are fuzzy on the concept of “truth” or are incredulous toward it, you will want to jettison it in favor of other concepts. According to so much they say and write, “truth” is oppressive and unnecessarily harsh, and “love” is what we need instead of truth. As I have said before on this blog, the most loving thing we can do as Christians is speak the truth into people’s lives in a way that brings them closer to Christ. And besides, throwing objective truth overboard in favor of love is a crystal clear example of a false dichotomy-one that Christ even rejected.

At one point McLaren declares the biblical passages concerning homosexuality as complex and difficult to interpret (putting aside the fact that plenty of great NT scholars completely disagree). If they are difficult, they are difficult for the same reasons passages on fornication and adultery would be hard (How accepted were homosexual relationships in that culture? Would a married man and a boy be deemed adultery? Fornication? How much sexual “power” did women have, and would their sexual relationships be OK?). So then using the same criteria McLaren uses, when adultery becomes a political third rail and people want the church to be accepting of adultery, we should propose a gag-order on ministers declaring it a sin against God and family.

To be so easily manipulated politically and culturally is a bad position to be in-Scripture and God himself become the play grounds of polls and political breezes.

Christianity and the Victory of Reason

BreakPoint The Victory of Reason

I was recently made aware of the author Rodney Stark and his historical work concerning the role Christianity played in the formation of civilization (Stark is not a Christian). To make a long story short, it is not what many today want you to think.

This article by Colson highlights this fact through one of Stark's books. Another of value (it has been recommended-I have not read it yet) should be For the Glory of God.

Great article-I encourage you to follow up on Stark's work.

Hearing God-The Still Small Voice

I have been a part of a Pentecostal tradition all my life, and am happy to still be a part of that same tradition.  One of the issues that arise among Pentecostals concerns the spectacular: revelations from God to certain individuals through dreams, visions, etc.  In fact, there are waves in the Pentecostal tradition that put an abundance of weight on those forms of communication from God to the point of almost ignoring what we might call the “still small voice” of God.

I have a theory, and I have expressed it a handful of times to friends and others who are burdened with the fact that Christ has not shown up in their bedroom to tell them what to do.  In short, because we have such abundant access to Scripture and the wisdom of the saints, we are responsible for hearing God through His Word and through a personal relationship with Christ.  The spectacular events tend to come to those who are relatively immature in the faith.

I was reading Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God this morning and fell upon the same idea.  In his words:

It would not be too much to say, however, that where these phenomena were the main, as opposed to occasional means of interaction, it indicates a less developed spiritual life both in the individual and in the church group.  I am not trying to be judgmental here; I am merely trying to be helpful in pointing out the kind of life with God into which we should expect to grow-a life in which one hears from God amid and within frequent times of conversational prayer. (pg. 111)

He quotes E. Stanley Jones as saying:

He [Jesus] got his guidance through prayer as you and I do.  That is, He got His guidance when in control of His faculties, and not when out of control as in dreams. (pg. 111)

Willard’s biblical occasion for these comments is fascinating.  In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron are complaining that Moses has taken an Ethiopian for a wife, and their grievance amounts to, “but God speaks to us in spectacular ways-how can Moses be so wrong!”  God’s reply:

And he said, "Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD.

All this to say that God wants us to live in an active and breathing relationship with Him so we are able to discern the voice of God even when it is still and small-and that represents a deepened and developed relationship representative of Christ’s relationship with the Father.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

An "Intelligent" Fork In The Road?

Some of the responses to Intelligent Design have been thoughtful and reasoned, others have been, well, a little shallow.  One set of responses coming from within the Christian community has been interesting, and is highlighted by this letter to the editor in a paper in Fort Collins, CO.  The original opinion piece was inaccessible.

This letter, though I may not assent to everything it seems to support, has one extremely good point going for it.  The author remarks:

Chorpenning [the original opinion writer-a minister] affirmed Judith Hannah’s (geosciences, Colorado State University) remarks that Christianity is simply faith-based stories with no connection to what is verifiable in our physical world. Many people are content with such a faith, but many others, including myself, are not.

I also affirm the statement Chorpenning made as he closed: “I claim with strong conviction that God is the source of life and Creator of the universe.” But for me, I need more than unverifiable faith-based stories for those strong convictions. So I welcome the fact that science is increasingly verifying that blind chance is not sufficient to explain this world.

The difference is between the two authors is telling.  Chorpenning represents a view in which Christians believe science debunks the Bible, but still want to hold to their faith.  In order to do so, they feel they must relativise the truth claims of Scripture and believe on blind faith that it is “true” is some kind of non-objective sense.  On the other side is the author of the piece I cited, and myself, who believe that Christianity makes truth claims about reality in the same sense that science makes truth claims about reality.

The more robust faith is the second kind.  The first kind hides its head in the sand and fails to take Scripture seriously while taking the “outside” world seriously.  The stronger faith is one that is able to take in the claims of skeptics and scientists who disagree with religious claims and work through them rationally and thoughtfully.  That process results in a deepened and strengthened faith-the kind of faith Scripture tries to encourage.

I believe the kind of faith that needs to hide Scriptural truth claims behind a veil of religious relativism is a kind of sin-it is an act that completely misses the mark of loving God with all our minds, souls, and hearts.  It leaves believers in the position where they think they can believe one thing “in the church” and a completely contradictory thing “outside” the church.

In all honesty, the point of view represented by Chorpenning is, I believe, a direct result of two schools of thought-Higher Criticism and Postmodernism.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Worldviews Clash Over Embryos

60 Minutes recently did a special on embryonic stem cell research.  The piece was interesting for a couple of different reasons.  First of all, it completely failed to mention the recent scandal involving Korean scientists and their forged research results promising great advances in embryonic stem cell research.  Since the field has been dominated with that news in recent weeks, it is extraordinary that 60 Minutes did not mention it.

The second reason was the clash of worldviews apparent in the piece.  On one side of the debate was Robert George of Princeton and the President’s Council on Bioethics, and on the other was Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.  The first move in favor of embryonic stem cell research by Caplan was the appeal to pity, or an appeal to possible utilitarian advances.

"You got people in wheelchairs. You got people trying to understand how to cure cancer," Caplan says. "You know, people who want to understand genetic diseases and you have embryos frozen that no one will ever use for any purpose whatsoever. There’s a moral equation here, too. And it seems to be to lead toward research, not just perpetual freezing."

On the other side was George arguing for the inherent value of embryos:

Asked why the embryos slated for destruction shouldn't be made available for research, George says, "The principle that the president laid down and which I support is one that says all human beings, irrespective of age or size or stage of development or condition of dependency, possess the same human dignity, because human dignity is inherent."

One of the problems with Caplan’s appeal to a sense of pity-there are sick and needy people who need this kind of help-is that it obfuscates the real issue at hand-the moral status of embryos.  Now, in fairness, Caplan has certainly already decided that embryos are not persons, and therefore not rightful bearers of human rights.  Another problem with that kind of appeal, is that if it is pressed to a deeper level of pity or utility, almost any action can be justified to reach good ends.

I believe the biology bears out George’s position, however.  And if that is the case, then an embryo is a human whether it looks like a 12 year-old or not.  Thus, it demands our respect and the protection of its rights.

But it doesn’t look like a 12 year-old.  And that was the next move the host of the program, Lesley Stahl made.   This is a great exchange between Stahl and George:

"Are you equating these embryos, these frozen embryos, with a full-grown man or woman?" Stahl asks.

"I’m saying they have the dignity of a human being, the way a full-grown man or woman has the dignity of a human being," he replies.

"And you’re equating them?" Stahl asks.

"Oh, sure," George says. "Yeah, I’m equating them in terms of human dignity."

What does he mean by "dignity"?

"I mean, shouldn’t simply be thrown out in the trash. Should be treated respectfully, the way we treat the remains of human beings at later stages of development," George explains.

"Like what? Like have burials?" Stahl asks.

"Buried or burned," George replies.

"You’re saying, take these little bunches of cells, and have burials for them?" Stahl asks.

"Well, you say bunches of cells in order to make burials sound weird," George says. "But those bunches of cells are very unique bunches of cells. Those are human beings in the earliest stages of their natural development. You were one once; I was one once."

If Stahl’s reasoning were pressed, you could replace each reference to embryos or bunches of cells with “really old people” or “people without arms and legs” or “people in comas” or “people much uglier than me.”  The appearance of a person is not the necessary condition of his or her personhood.  Appearances are contingent properties of persons; they are not a part of the substance of the person.

This raises a deeper worldview problem in our culture.  We no longer think in clear categories, so the kind of mistake Stahl makes seems right to us.  We typically cannot tell the difference between properties and essences, and thus we end up labeling things improperly.  Embryos in their essence are persons, and their contingent set of properties will arrive given maturity.  Therefore, whatever set of contingent properties they have or fail to have at some level of development is irrelevant.

I Have Been Away...

I first of all feel I need to do a little explaining regarding my absence recently.  I have been busy with work recently in the kinds of ways that distract me from just about anything else.  These are the kinds of seasons in life in which it is hard to grow spiritually for me, but they are the times that inevitably produce the greatest growth if I pay attention.

The reason the blog has suffered is because these kinds of seasons block out just about everything “else” in my life while I try to get the pressing matters figured out.  I apologize for being so absent for so long.

A passage of Scripture that has brought me a great deal of comfort in the past couple of weeks is in Proverbs 3.  The first half is familiar, but the last half is what brought it home to me recently.

5Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
   and do not lean on your own understanding.
6In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.
7Be not wise in your own eyes;
   fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
8It will be healing to your flesh
   and refreshment to your bones.

That last word, “refreshment” cam mean “medicine.”  I love that: trust in God can be healing and medicine.

Soli Deo Gloria