Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Ordering of Our Affections

I have recently started Naugle's new book, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, and am already excited. I enjoy good books that combine Christian spiritual formation and sound thinking, and this one falls smack in the middle of that category. So, unless I radically change my mind, this book is worth the price and a good, slow read!
The book's website is here.

Peter Singer: Both Right and Abominably Wrong

It is said by many that health care reform is a social justice issue - and I agree. As soon as the government takes over your healthcare, your name is forgotten and you are reduced to a set of statistics on a bureaucrat’s actuarial table. Government encouraged (read "counseled") euthanasia for the old and infirm increases as do abortions in tricky pregnancies (in all nations with government run health care), death rates for curable diseases and cancers rise because the medication is “too expensive” for the “people” to pay, doctors get paid less, lines increase at emergency rooms, and on and on.

Peter Singer, ethics professor at Princeton, recently wrote a long piece in the New York Times Magazine on “Why We Must Ration Health Care.” As a radical utilitarian, Singer believes that most, if not all, ethical decisions can and should be reduced to a kind of numbers game. If X number of people are benefited, a few less than X are hurt, and the cost is proportionate to X, then the action is ethical. Both famous and infamous for many things, Singer certainly has one thing right: decisions made on the governmental level are by their very natures utilitarian. People are stacks of numbers to be weighed against budgets and other stacks of numbers. I have argued in my ethics classes that this is not only the most feasible form of decision making for a federal government, it is likely the only one they use.

So Singer is right – a government run health care program would be utilitarian in nature, making health care decisions according to charts and graphs. And then Singer is wrong – this is not the best way to handle human beings.

Tellingly, Singer chastises President Obama for not using the word “rationing”:

In the current U.S. debate over health care reform, “rationing” has become a dirty word. Meeting last month with five governors, President Obama urged them to avoid using the term, apparently for fear of evoking the hostile response that sank the Clintons’ attempt to achieve reform.

You have to give Singer credit for telling it like it is. Then (ironically) Singer raises one issue that opponents of expanding government health care raise often. If the current government run plans are awful and bankrupt, what good will expanding them do?

In the public sector, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients and limits on payments to hospitals.

Then a couple of fundamental ideas from his argument:

Rationing health care means getting value for the billions we are spending by setting limits on which treatments should be paid for from the public purse.

If the U.S. system spent less on expensive treatments for those who, with or without the drugs, have at most a few months to live, it would be better able to save the lives of more people who, if they get the treatment they need, might live for several decades.

Singer agrees that deciding who gets the meds and who doesn’t is not an easy thing to do, but luckily he has an equation to help us.

Nevertheless this approach to setting a value on a human life is at least closer to what we really believe — and to what we should believe — than dramatic pronouncements about the infinite value of every human life, or the suggestion that we cannot distinguish between the value of a single human life and the value of a million human lives, or even of the rest of the world. Though such feel-good claims may have some symbolic value in particular circumstances, to take them seriously and apply them — for instance, by leaving it to chance whether we save one life or a billion — would be deeply unethical.

In other words, it makes us feel good to believe that every human life is of “equal” or “infinite” worth, but in reality we know better.

As a first take, we might say that the good achieved by health care is the number of lives saved. But that is too crude. The death of a teenager is a greater tragedy than the death of an 85-year-old, and this should be reflected in our priorities. We can accommodate that difference by calculating the number of life-years saved, rather than simply the number of lives saved.

The next several sentences go on to do the grim utilitarian math of ages of the patients, their average life expectancies, and how “we” get a bigger bang for our buck saving a 17-year old instead of a dozen 85-year olds.

Singer’s article is replete with half-truths, loaded language (all the bad guys are labeled “conservative” and all the good guys have no political monikers and work at respected Universities), and massaged conclusions. But here is what we can take away from what he writes. He is absolutely right that government run health care is by necessity the rationing of a scarce resource, and that disembodied bureaucrats will be making health care decisions for you. He is abominably wrong that this is OK.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The New Eugenics

And you thought eugenics died with the Nazis! You silly American. Eugenics not only has its modern roots in early 20th century progressivism, it is alive and well among, of all people, our new Science Czar. In some circles at least, his past published works supporting doping the water supply to sterilize entire populations and encouraging forced abortions are coming back to haunt him. Well, sort of.

President Obama's "science czar," John Holdren, once floated the idea of forced abortions, "compulsory sterilization," and the creation of a "Planetary Regime" that would oversee human population levels and control all natural resources as a means of protecting the planet -- controversial ideas his critics say should have been brought up in his Senate confirmation hearings.

Holdren, who has degrees from MIT and Stanford and headed a science policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for the past 13 years, won the unanimous approval of the Senate as the president's chief science adviser.

Maybe he has had a kind of conversion and now believes in your right to chose to have a child without a government permit? Not so. William Dembski weighed in on this issue making the point that he has not recanted. Our Science Czar still believes in government controlled eugenics – the act of deciding who gets to be born, who should be aborted, and who should be euthanized. It is, after all, for the common good.

But Dembski makes a further point. Scientists like Holdren consider themselves the priests of the new religion, Materialism. They alone see the problems of the world, and then proceed to act as our saviors. With cool scientific precision, they will (scientifically) solve our problems if we will only do what they say.

Holdren nevertheless represents the powerful new caste of scientists who have appointed themselves the guardians of humanity and the priests of a new social order. Their agenda and pretensions would be transparently obvious except that, with the mantle of their scientific expertise, they intimidate ordinary people from asking the right questions and thereby exposing their aims. Their strategy is always the same: Scientists have discovered a problem that, as their models and data (often falsely) demonstrate, is on the verge of getting out of control; now, if only we do exactly as they say, we'll avoid catastrophe.

Who knows exactly how much sway Holdren will have in the new administration, but the question has to be asked and answered, why appoint a eugenicist in the first place?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

ID Conference in Castle Rock, CO

The Shepherd's Project is hosting an Intelligent Design Conference on October 30-31 just north of the Springs. A slew of important thinkers will be there including Meyer, Behe and Dembski. For the registation price (wow!) you can't miss it.

HT: The Constructive Curmudgeon

Doing the Christian Life

Sometimes nobody puts it like George MacDonald puts it:

It is to the man who is trying to live, to the man who is obedient to the word of the Master, that the word of the Master unfolds itself. When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them: the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart, to the man himself, in the process of life-effort. According as the new creation, that of reality, advances in him, the man becomes able to understand the words, the symbols, the parables of the Lord. For life, that is, action, is alone the human condition into which the light of the Living can penetrate; life alone can assimilate life, can change food into growth.

From a sermon titled, "The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

God and Temptation

A little theological reflection on the nature of God as described in James 1:13-15. In essence the passage says we should not succumb to blaming temptation on God because he is not tempted by evil and cannot tempt anyone.

First of all, what is temptation? A working definition might be, “it is the seductive presentation of evil to my will through my mind or senses.” As “seductive” is it a lure, an attraction to me. It is something some part of my will wants to engage in. I may even see some benefit in it, exactly because it is seductive. There are evils that present themselves to me that are not seductive. Serial killing is in no way a lure to me – there is nothing within me that thinks that might be fun or beneficial. So temptation cannot simply be the presentation of evils, but of seductive evils.

As a “presentation of evil” it is something contrary to God’s moral will in my life that I become aware of through any set of means. I cannot be tempted by an evil I do not know about or am not thinking about. But if I see it, am told about it, reflect upon it, or become aware of it in any way, it is a potential evil that is presented to my will.

Is temptation itself a sin? I don’t think so. Dallas Willard states in Renovation of the Heart that, “Choice is where sin dwells.” If I choose to engage, I then sin. And I might add that if I chose to allow myself to be tempted, I sin.

So James says God cannot be tempted by evil. That is because by His very nature there are no seductive evils in the world. God, as omniscient, is aware of all evils - all thoughts and behaviors contrary to his moral will, but he is repulsed by all of them.

Therefore, it is contrary to God’s very nature to tempt anyone. God is repulsed by all evil, and therefore cannot and will not attempt to lure anyone into evil. No action of God’s in my life is a temptation; they are all good. If, however, I sin as a result of what God is doing in my life or in the world, it is because I am drawn away by my own desires (James 1:14-15).

This takes us to a couple of important conclusions about Christian maturity. First of all, growth in the Christian life is not a matter of getting rid of temptations as such, but of the changing of our desires. As our desires change, it will be the case that fewer and fewer evils will be temptations, but to focus on getting rid of the temptations first is putting the cart before the horse, and becoming a bit of a works oriented legalist.

And secondly, how should our desires change? They should become like our Heavenly Father’s desires, for he is good and there is no change in his character. God in Christ is our example of the formation of our desires here on earth.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Direction for Bioethics?

In the past, I have mentioned my appreciation for the latest couple of incarnations of the President’s Council on Bioethics. If you read any of their reports over the last 10 years or so, it is clear they were a group of thinkers from across the ideological spectrum, and many of them I would consider world-class thinkers on these issues. One worry some watchers had with the new administration was that the Council would be disbanded and something a little less diverse put in its place.

As it turns out, at least the first part of that worry has come to pass. Colleen Carroll Campbell at the Ethics and Public Policy Center reports on the latest change and why it happened.

Last month, President Barack Obama quietly disbanded the President's Council on Bioethics, a deliberative body whose changing cast of erudite and ideologically diverse members had spent the past eight years thinking through today's toughest moral questions. Members received only one day's notice of the council's dissolution, forcing them to cancel a planned meeting and leave unfinished several major reports that were due to be released soon.

The stated reasons for disbanding the Council were interesting to say the least.

According to White House press officer Reid Cherlin, the council was "a philosophically leaning advisory group" and Obama wants a new bioethics commission that focuses less on discussion and more on forming consensus around "practical policy options." As University of Wisconsin law professor and Obama ally Alta Charo explained, the old council "seemed more like a public debating society," whereas Obama's new one will help him form what the Times described as "ethically defensible public policy."

Campbell shares my concerns about the possible new direction of a new Council. It is my view that these issues require intense and (sometimes) protracted philosophical discussion before reasonable public policy is put in place. So to disband an organization due to its philosophical nature that by its very nature is a philosophical endeavor seems a little disingenuous to me.

Campbell is also concerned that if a new Council is erected around public policies, it will be nothing but a rubber-stamp group of pundits for whatever policies are promoted by the administration.

Obama's desire to see his policies backed by expert "consensus" more likely will be realized with a new commission composed of like-minded political liberals steeped in utilitarianism than with the brainy, diverse and unpredictable crew that populated the now-defunct council. Ensuring uniformity of thought among one's ethical advisers may make the president's job easier, but it will do little to benefit the diverse nation that he serves.

We shall see.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge

I hope to blog a lot more as I read through this book, but I have to take this time to simply say that Dallas Willard's new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, is a tremendous read. Willard, who knows his way around both philosophy and spirituality, writes what I consider to be a foundational book for his work on spiritual formation and discipleship.

In what are fairly easy-to-read terms, Willard describes how spiritual knowledge has been lost in the academy and in our culture, what consequences that has for us all, and why spiritual truths count as knowledge as much as anything else does.

As a side note, I would like to see an emergent's reaction to Willard's clear stance for Christian particularity and his stance against epistemological relativism.

Who is More Catholic?

This is the kind of thing that can happen when you sell your soul to politics. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has written a piece reflecting on President Obama’s visit to the Vatican, pontificating (pardon the pun) on how Obama is more Catholic than the Pope.

Where, oh where, does one begin to mock such childish fawning? (And the article is full of the requisite fawning.) First of all, President Obama is not Catholic. The Pope is. Strike one. But of course she means that the President represents Catholic teaching and ideals better than the Pope does. Well, not exactly. What she means is that the President represents the polling data from American Catholics better than the Pope does.

In truth, though, Obama's pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists. When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they'll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won't care, because they know Obama's on their side. In fact, Obama's agenda is closer to their views than even the pope's.

So here is the rub: when politics trumps substance, substance and truth become the results of polls. Kennedy argues in her piece that the Pope and Catholic teaching ought to conform themselves to American Catholics and their latest polling data. And may I say how intolerant and culturally insensitive that is.

Why shouldn’t the Pope conform his views to African Catholics? Asian Catholics? Why not Mexican Catholics? Why do American Catholics have pride of place?

Yet polls bear out that American Catholics do not want to be told by the Vatican how to think.

Well, Kennedy is not actually interested in the views of American Catholics. She is primarily interested with their views as they align with her own elitist views. Her article becomes more and more myopic, selfish, and bigoted the more we think it through.

What Kennedy is unable to grasp is that there are truths, even theological truths, beyond the scope of her personal preferences. There are truths about the world which refuse to conform to her polling data, or the coffee-klatch of her cocktail circuit.

The beauty of the church is, in part, that it will outlast, out-think and out-influence such parochial relativism.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Stephen Meyer - Signature in The Cell

This is the video of Stephen Meyer discussing his latest work on Intelligent Design. If you haven't tracked the book down, it has a plethora of impressive accolades already.

Christians and Public Science

President Obama recently tapped Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health. This is a really interesting nomination for a few reasons. Collins is the author of the best-selling book, The Language of God, in which he makes an argument akin to and Intelligent Design argument for the existence of God. And he is no small-scale scientist. He headed up the Human Genome Project under President Clinton, which essentially mapped the human genome.

Add to that his hot-and-cold relationship with the Christian world. He is an outspoken Christian, but as a theistic evolutionist, he is on the outs with many who work on these scientific and cultural matters from the Christian worldview.

What is interesting, but not surprising, about the NYT article announcing his appointment, is that he is controversial due to his "very public embrace of religion." I still fail to see why that would make someone who has clearly done a great deal of ground-breaking scientific work controversial for a public post like this.

I know what the basic and over-repeated arguments are for this "controversy," but they remain very unconvincing. Collins could be a fascinating addition to the world of science on this level, in part exactly because he is a scientist committed to God's universe.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The gods of Our Age

In case you missed it, Michael Jackson died. If, on the other hand, you have read or watched or listened to a minute of news over the last two weeks any time day or night, you were aware of that fact. The hysteria and overblown coverage of his life and death is not only itself pathetic, it reveals where we are as a culture.

We don't have lives. We don't have lives of significance. We live vicariously through unhealthy, but famous, people. We don't know the difference between famous and important. We have no tolerance for substance because our diet is the sugary-sweet junk-food of style.

According to one report, Jackson's funeral "took a spiritual turn."

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Michael Jackson's public memorial started out more spiritual than spectacular Tuesday, opening with a church choir singing as his golden casket was laid in front of the stage and a shaft of light evoking a cross as Lionel Richie gave a gospel-infused performance.

Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the invocation, followed by Mariah Carey singing the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," a duet with Trey Lorenz.

"We come together and we remember the time," said Smith, riffing off one of Jackson's lyrics. "As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us."

Part of me is frustrated with the pedestrian blashpemy here, but another part of me is not at all surprised. Psalm 115 tells us that we become like the idols we worship. And, to extend the thought, we are ready to use the ultimate of all ultimate justifications to support our idol worship - God himself. It should not shock us that there are those who would use God to put their own stamp of approval on this gold-ensconsed circus. Afterall, nothing supports our own vanity like a god encased in our own little boxes.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Reality of Hate Crime Laws

I have argued here before that hate crimes legislation is an utterly arbitrary act of power, especially as it becomes a political reality. Even though we are able to point to legitimate and historical instances of systemic hate, as a matter of legislation, what groups get covered by hate crime laws is nothing but a matter of who is in power and the ideology they wish to impose.

Recently the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about the latest form of the law before Congress. Among the presentors was Attorney General, Eric Holder. His actual report is on the Senate website, and the Q&A in his testimony is in the web/video link.

He received a question from Senator Sessions about who is covered in this bill. The hypothetical situation went like this:

"[A] minister gives a sermon, quotes the Bible about homosexuality, is thereafter attacked by a gay activist because of what the minister said about his religious beliefs and what Scripture says about homosexuality."

Is the Christian minister covered under this law? AG Holder responded:

“Well, the statute would not -- would not necessarily cover that. We're talking about crimes that have a historic basis. Groups who have been targeted for violence as a result of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, that is what this statute tends -- is designed to cover. We don't have the indication that the attack was motivated by a person's desire to strike at somebody who was in one of these protected groups. That would not be covered by the statute.”

So, the long and the short of it is that speech derived from the Christian worldview is not covered because it does not fit into the agenda upheld by Holder and the lobby groups behind him. This is a perfect case in point for the arbitrary and subjective nature of these laws. They are not aimed at protecting victims, but at suppressing certain kinds of speech through acts of power.

And it raises another important question for the practicality for these kinds of silly laws: who wins when competing victim groups are involved? Rationally, this kind of politicized victimhood should make it clear to us this is a ridiculous path to tread down, but in reality, some lobbying group has enough money and influence to make themselves the most victimized of the victimized.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Augustine and Missional Theology

I have been thinking a lot lately about the “missional” trend in evangelicalism. On the whole, I think the drive is right: we need to see our communities in North America more and more like missions fields and approach our cultures with the sensibilities of missionaries. In that light, our LHC book club has been reading Augustine’s Confessions, and I was struck by his own account of his conversion. There was a lot more there than I recalled. So in the spirit of thinking about how people (especially those completely outside the circle of influence of Christianity) come to faith in Christ, here are a few reflections on Augustine’s conversion.

First, he was passionately devoted to truth. Though he wasted over a decade of his life stuck in systems he knew were unsatisfying, he stayed in them for their security (and income) before he had the wherewithal to leave. So what are people passionate about, and do they belong to systems of thought they are not entirely satisfied with?

Second, he had a praying mother. This may be the most well-known fact of his conversion, but it cannot be passed up. Prayer is indispensible.

Third, he had an authoritative Christian figure in his life who was different than anyone else. Whereas Augustine was wholly disappointed with the Manichean elite, Bishop Ambrose genuinely impressed him with his devotion and command of life and theology. Are we these kinds of “aliens” to the unsaved around us or do we look and sound and smell exactly like everyone else?

Fourth, he had a circle of friend who were on the spiritual journey with him. I had completely forgotten this important fact. The chapter Augustine devotes to his conversion begins with his retelling of friend who were either just “behind” him on the path to salvation, or who were just “ahead” of him and how it moved him toward Christ. We cannot neglect the power of spiritual journey with people!

Reality TV and You

This is a great little piece by Colleen Carroll Campbell at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The garbage of reality TV not only degrades the people involved and reveals the thinness of our culture, it degrades us as well. Speaking specifically to the debacle that is the “Jon and Kate Plus 8” show, Campbell writes:

The excruciatingly public marital troubles between Jon and Kate Gosselin reached their predictable denouement Monday when the reality television stars announced their impeding divorce before an audience of 10.6 million. After 10 years of marriage and two years of filming "Jon & Kate Plus 8," the parents of 8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets denied that the constant intrusion of cameras into their private life had precipitated their split or exploited their children. And true to form, the couple assured viewers that the divorce would not interfere with their hit cable series. As Kate Gosselin said gravely, "The show must go on."

It is very telling that the TV show carries more weight to these people than does a marriage or the health of a home in trouble. But this is emblematic of our own lack of personal substance. Not only do we live vicarious and dysfunctional lives through TV people, but we find our own substance through them. The fodder for our daily conversations and perceptions about relationships, language, work, politics, comes through TV.

An uncle to the children on this TV program (Kreider) had a great piece of advice:

"So please," Kreider said, "stop watching."