Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another Blow to the Myth that Secularism is Neutral

While teachers in religious schools may be sitting on the edge of their seats, Christian counseling students are breathing a sigh of relief today. In part of what is becoming a trend of high-profile legal victories for religious liberty, the 6th District U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of an Eastern Michigan University student who was dismissed from her program after requesting that a homosexual patient be allowed to be transferred to another counselor.

Julea Ward, a student in the university’s graduate level counseling program, had only four courses remaining to earn her degree when she enrolled in a one-on-one counseling practicum in 2009. As part of the practicum Ward was assigned a potential client “seeking assistance regarding a sexual relationship that was contrary to her religious convictions,” explained the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the legal advocacy group that represented Ward in the case. “Ward recognized the potential conscience issue with the client, and asked her supervisor how to handle the matter.”

After directing her to turn the client over to another counselor, EMU officials informed Ward that in order to stay in the counseling program she would have to undergo a “remediation” program designed to deal with her unsatisfactory viewpoint regarding homosexual relationships.

"Remediation" was apparently not pretty, and after undergoing what her attorneys described as an ideology-driven flogging by unsympathetic members of the faculty, Ward was booted from the program. In spite of this, she has won the day, and while I obviously disagree with Christians finding recourse for justice in the legal system, I cannot help but be glad that this basic right of conscience is being preserved in the system. In its report on the ruling, the court issued an important clarification, one which I first encountered in Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy:

Surely, for example, the ban on discrimination against clients based on their religion (1) does not require a Muslim counselor to tell a Jewish client that his religious beliefs are correct if the conversation takes a turn in that direction and (2) does not require an atheist counselor to tell a person of faith that there is a God if the client is wrestling with faith-based issues. Tolerance is a two-way street. Otherwise, the rule mandates orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination.

This critique hits the mark squarely. What the counseling department at Eastern Michigan was insisting on was an adherence to a competing ideology, one which endorses certain behaviors without qualification. The problem is a persistent one in the counseling field, and--in the very few courses in counseling that I have been required to take--I have heard horror stories from professionals who have been turned out of jobs, schools, and professional societies for an unwillingness to compromise their values and encourage patients to engage in behaviors which they believe to be ultimately destructive. This stretches beyond questions of sexuality. One such counselor shared that he had fought most of his career against the prevailing notion that there are times when it is appropriate to counsel a couple to divorce. Taking the biblical prohibition on divorce seriously, he refused to budge and (according to his rendition) has suffered as a result.

Certainly there are greater challenges being faced by Christians, even here in the religiously comfortable climes of theologically temperate North America. Still, there should be a strong sense of victory here both for Christians and proponents of religious freedom. After all, anti-discrimination has been slowly creeping (though, at times, it feels more like a headlong rush) closer and closer toward positive pluralism as a litmus test for academic, social, and professional acceptability. People have incorrectly confused disapproval with discrimination and have been too quick to infringe on each other's freedom to disagree. Even everyone's government-given right to be an idiot. That means that Christians can take principled stands (with such offensive attendant actions as referring patients to therapists who do not share their moral qualms, thus benefiting both patient and counselor), homosexuals can have left-coast parades in leather thongs, Westboro baptists can ascribe hatred and vindictiveness to God, occupiers can stand up for their incendiary, binary view of society by squatting on public land, and birthers can stack conspiracy theory on conspiracy theory until their house of cards crumbles. If this country is really committed to the kind of blind, non-intrusive freedom it claims to be, then that includes not only your freedom to be a heteroromantic asexual but also Julea Ward's freedom to refer you for treatment elsewhere and the Lutheran Church's freedom to not employ people who, contrary to clear Christian teaching, choose to settle Christian disputes in secular courts.

At the End of January

Here are some edifying thoughts on the outset of a new year offered by Homer L. King in the Jan. 1, 1942 edition of the Old Paths Advocate:

The year, 1941, will have closed by the time this reaches our readers. Thus we are one year nearer the end of our earthly journey and the coming of our Lord to judge the world. How well have we used the time offered to us the past 12 months? Have we "redeemed the time," knowing the "days are evil," or has it been just another year of lost opportunities to us?

...As we contemplate the sacrifice, the trials, temptations, and battles, that, no doubt, will be ours in a world torn with strife, war, mass slaughter of human life and of property, we feel more and more the importance of walking closer to the Good Master and of being often in prayer. While there is never a time for compromise with error, and we must ever keep in mind to "earnestly contend for the faith once delivered," yet I do believe we should strive all the more to "endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace." May all bitterness, clamor, envy, gossip, evil speaking of one another, jealousy, especially preacher jealousy, and back-biting be put away from among us as brethren, and may we be bound more closely together by bonds of Christian love. Being thus prepared, we should be able to accomplish much, even in the face of apparent obstacles.

It is, undoubtedly, a better New Year's resolution than most.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!

When will the West act against persecution of Christians in the Middle East? That is the question posed in a recent Fox News article. The specific catalyst for the call to arms is the impending execution of Youcef Nadarkhani for his failure "to renounce his Christian beliefs and recognize the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger." Through the course of the article, however, the writer rattles off a laundry list of Muslim offenses against Christianity: attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt and their subsequent mass exodus, the targeting of Lebanese Christians by Syrians, not to mention the targeting of Syrian Christians by Syrians, the abuse of Christians in Saudi Arabia, Christians living in peril in the Gaza strip, and the hordes of Christian refugees that have come out of Iraq. The author seems to be peculiarly focused on the Middle East, apparently unconcerned by Muslim persecution of Christians in southeast Asia (for example) or state persecution of them in China. Nevertheless, the problem is real and one that warrants appropriate Christian attention.

Yet, if the question is when will the West "exert their muscle to help them," I hope the answer is never. Why should they? After all, the governments of the US and Europe are not Christian governments. The very fact that they would be enticed to display their coercive powers to end persecution is a testament to that. There is a fairly clear image in the Scriptures and throughout Christian history about how Christians respond to persecution. Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many more all provide stories of heroism in the face of state or religious tyranny that have a distinctly Christian flavor. They all draw their inspiration, curiously enough, from a prototypical martyr: Christ. His declaration from the cross was not "when will someone have the courage to stand up on my behalf" but "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." His vision of the Christian community was never "they will fight for my life" but, in direct contradiction to this, "they do not fight, because my kingdom is not of this world." And the proposition that "Christian nations" might withdraw humanitarian aid from countries who persecute Christians seems strangely at odds with the command "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you."

There was a time when we realized that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Centuries of sloth and spiritual atrophy have caused us to begin to labor under the delusion that all people should and do have the right to the free exercise of religion. It's a nice vision of the world, but it is nonetheless a fantasy. It is time to regain something of the courage of Tertullian, so that we can once again declare that "you can't just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are" (though my preference has always been for Justin Martyr's phrasing, "You can kill us, but you can't hurt us"). We should take up the morbid jeer of Polycarp, "Death to the atheists" (with all it's ironic, near suicidal resignation). Most of all though, we need to remember that Paul taught us that if our enemy is hungry we should feed him, if he is thirsty we should give him something to drink. Finally, we must always cling to what Peter told his suffering flock: the appropriate response to persecution is neither muscle flexing nor victimization but triumph. "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Conservatives, Racists, and Journalists Are Idiots

Sensationalist titles are a journalistic standby, and my years as an editor on my high school paper taught me that they can be used liberally, provided the sensationalism goes no further than the title. So, when I saw an article in a news feed entitled "Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice," I expected to find the impression given in the admittedly engaging title quickly qualified. It's obvious, of course, what the catchy headline is trying to insinuate: conservatives are racists and idiots. After all, the actual phrasing--which indicates that racists are idiots and conservatives--is not nearly as interesting. Clearly the purpose is to draw in conservatives who are indignant at the idea that they could be branded idiots and racists and draw in liberals who are hoping that their deepest held beliefs about conservatives will be vindicated. The truth, of course, which we should all know from the outset is that conservatives and liberals are both idiots (a fact reenforced in the very act of buying into the title and clicking on the article).

To my disappointment (and, I admit, shock) the article gives every appearance of holding to the sensational idea, however, that there is a substantial and meaningful correlation between having a low IQ and being a conservative, being a racist and being a conservative. The writers hit you with gems like "Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, the study found" and "Polling data and social and political science research do show that prejudice is more common in those who hold right-wing ideals that those of other political persuasions." The article is more than halfway finished before the writers throw poor, dumb conservatives a bone:

Hodson was quick to note that the despite the link found between low intelligence and social conservatism, the researchers aren't implying that all liberals are brilliant and all conservatives stupid. The research is a study of averages over large groups, he said.

"There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals," Hodson said.

Even here, however, it is clear that the intelligent conservative is like a tall woman (an example the article actually uses), the exception not the rule. And so the writers plug euphemistically on, insisting, "Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world." Only in their final thoughts, do the writers think to mention that the study results show a correlative rather than causative connection between the three variables. A professor at the University of Virginia, who was in no way involved in the study, is brought in to play devil's advocate and present a more reasoned analysis of the data:

The researchers controlled for factors such as education and socioeconomic status, making their case stronger, Nosek said. But there are other possible explanations that fit the data. For example, Nosek said, a study of left-wing liberals with stereotypically naïve views like "every kid is a genius in his or her own way," might find that people who hold these attitudes are also less bright. In other words, it might not be a particular ideology that is linked to stupidity, but extremist views in general.

"My speculation is that it's not as simple as their model presents it," Nosek said. "I think that lower cognitive capacity can lead to multiple simple ways to represent the world, and one of those can be embodied in a right-wing ideology where 'People I don't know are threats' and 'The world is a dangerous place'. ... Another simple way would be to just assume everybody is wonderful."

Go figure. There may be a chance, however slight, that in actuality extreme political ideologies of all forms attract their own special kinds of idiots. Why not lead with that wonderful tidbit, or even just a token teaser that there are some who interpret the findings differently? It is just the tried-and-true liberal media bias, famed in song and story and Republican debate rant? Is it just bad journalism, an unfortunate ignorance on the part of the writer about how the article will be perceived? I don't pretend to know. I also don't know whether or not the average reader of either political persuasion will be clever enough to see from the start how slanted the presentation of the study is, though I would hope so. What I do know, or at least suspect, is that is a correlation between low IQ and believing that dumb people are primarily the residents of one political faction.

David Lipscomb on Animals

John Mark Hicks recently shared a quote from David Lipscomb that was so delightful for me that I simply had to repost it here. These are Lipscomb's thoughts, published in the Gospel Advocate, on the occasion of the founding of the Nashville Humane Society in 1887:

Some of the best citizens of Nashville are engaged in a good work in the organization of the Humane Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The Lord has given the animal to us and we are his protectors. We have no right to cruelly use them. Many a man will be punished for his inhumanity to the dumb brute. The genuine Christian will treat the animal humanely. It is a sad commentary on our people that there exists the necessity for the organization of such a society. Many people in our own beloved land need to become civilized.

This should function as a potent reminder to us that a concern for the welfare of animals is not some ancillary political agenda that has been grafted onto Christianity in the these latter days. In fact, it is a longstanding concern among Christians for whom it ought to be a natural outgrowth of our core theology of creation. While Hicks' tongue-in-cheek suggestion that yes, dogs do go to heaven is more rhetorical flourish than substance, the reminder that "Animals are not throw-aways" is a profound Christian truth which warrants regular repetition.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Revelation as History

History is fundamentally an exercise in hindsight, and, if you believe the old adage, it is always written by the winners. It is, at its heart, a looking back on the past in an effort to order it and interpret it based on a more perfect knowledge. The historian knows who wins and who loses, and can make judgment based on that knowledge. History, for example, allows us to see from the beginning what never could have been known at the outset of the Civil War, that the Union would prevail and that American society would be committed to personal over corporate liberty and national government over state governments.

It has been sometime since I finished my little devotional commentary on Revelation, and I think enough time has passed that I can safely muse about the book once again. It seems to me that the purpose of Revelation may best be understood by reading the book not as prophecy or even as the narrative of a past mystical experience but as history. Revelation takes the reader into the future (or, perhaps more accurately, into the eternity of God) in order to look at the past. (Of course, whether this is the past in a preterist or a historicist or an idealist sense is up for debate.) We are granted the perfect knowledge of a God who stood not only at the beginning of history but who is already standing atemporally at its end. Armed with that knowledge, we can look back at "the past," which includes our present, with the kind of "objective," critical eye that historians look at the past. We can know that God and His righteouness will prevail. We can know that our own deeds will be subject to judgment. We can know that a horrible defeat (more horrible than Sherman marching to see, for certain) awaits the devil and his cohorts.

It is history at its finest and its most ironic. It is wonderful because it allows us to look back into the past with a knowledge more perfect and more comprehensive than even the most learned historians. It leaves no ambiguity about the outcome; it has all the certainty of decided fact. Yet it teases our minds because the "past" which it writes so authoritatively about is not only our past, but our present and our future. It cannot properly be called prophecy because it does not say, "I predict this will happen" or even assume a tone of anticipation. It is history because it declares frankly, from the perspective of transcendent eternity, "This is what happens." Live accordingly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christ, Jain, and the Nature of Ethics

In one of the previous examinations of Jain and Christianity, there was an affinity observed between the way both Christ and the teachers of Jain both moved the ethic of violence beyond mere action into the heart of the moral agent. In this final comparative look at the two faiths, it will be interesting to notice that this shift in morality beyond the realm of action extends beyond just questions of violence. In fact, that may be the most potent quality of both ethical systems. In each, what makes a good or bad person (or more precisely a moral or immoral person) is more than merely the incidental fact of good or bad actions. The measure of a person is the heart (taken metaphorically) from which flows a wellspring of not only right action but right thought and right disposition. This is exemplified in the Mahavrata, or Five Great Vows, of Jain. These vows--intended as binding on Jain monks and as an ideal for the Jain laity--were handed down by Mahavira and form the core ethical canon for Jain. Briefly stated, they are:

  1. Renunciation of violence
  2. Renunciation of lying
  3. Renunciation of stealing
  4. Renunciation of sex
  5. Renunciation of attachment/possession

There are a number of interesting points of contact here with the Christian faith. Most obviously, they appear to form a kind of atheistic distillation Decalogue, with its laws against murder, dishonesty, theft, sexual impropriety, and covetousness. Beyond this lies a more basic commitment of each faith to ethical behavior, because both insist that what someone does in this life has eternal repercussions. The most interesting parallel, however, requires a fuller, closer reading of the text of the vows. Take the first vow, as an example:

I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable. Nor shall I myself kill living beings (nor cause others to do it, no consent to it). As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins, in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body.

Each of the vows conforms to this same basic pattern: "I shall neither speak lies, nor cause others to speak lies, nor consent to the speaking of lies by others," "I shall neither take myself what is not given, nor cause others to take it, nor consent to their taking it," and so on even down to attachment to material things, so that the Jain monk commits never to offer even consent to others being attached to worldly possessions. For the practitioner of Jain, it is not enough merely to avoid theft with the body. Theft must be excised from the mind. It is not enough to merely avoid dishonesty in speech. Dishonesty within oneself or dishonesty with one's actions are no less lies than those which are spoken. Chastity is more than merely going one's whole life without having sexual intercourse. The Jain monk must be chaste not only at his own core, but he must also not incite or consent to impropriety in anyone else.

Taking this final example, we can see that--in a less concisely stated way--Christianity offers a similar picture of ethics. The New Testament presents a very definite picture of an ethical system which is committed to a very narrow definition of sexual propriety. Overemphasized as it is today within the larger scheme of Christian moral thought, it is still undeniable that there is a basic vision of sexual ethics in Christianity which is indisputable: sex belongs between a single consenting man and a single consenting woman within the institution of marriage. This, in behavioral terms, excludes a host of sexual sins, including but not limited to rape, premarital sex, homosexual sex, and extramarital sex. These, however, are only the bodily manifestations of sexual impurity. As with Jain, the chastity extends far beyond that. For Christ, sexual purity is no less important in the mind. In fact, Jesus famously insists that the desire to have sex with a woman in a way which is inappropriate is the same as committing the act. The moment the heart wills the sinful behavior, whatever prevents it from actualizing that will is incidental. What is necessary of thoughts and actions Paul will expand to include speech as well, counseling Christians against engaging in any kind of lewd talk. As with Jain, Christianity takes the commitment to chastity and applies it to body, mind, and speech, or, more appropriately given the obvious merism at work, the entire human person.

The Christian understanding of sexual propriety, as with Jain, extends beyond merely the individual moral agent as well. The New Testament also presents an ideal of Christian behavior which echoes the Jain commitment to neither incite nor consent to sin. In fact, much of the commitment to modesty in Christian ethics should be understood in these terms (though it should be noted that "modesty" in the New Testament has a much broader meaning and application which does not always neatly collapse into a rejection of sexually provocative dress and behavior). Christians commit not only to resisting the temptation to be sexually inappropriate but commit to not being that temptation for others. What is more, out of a concern for communal purity, Paul makes it very clear that Christians cannot offer their tacit approval (their "consent" in Mahavira's terms) to improper sexual behavior in their midst. It must be opposed, at least as it appears in the context of a church.

Christianity suffers (if that is not, perhaps, too strong a term) from not having the comprehensiveness of its ethic as neatly concentrated as does Jain. Nevertheless, it is important for Christians to realize that, for example, a Christian sexual ethic is not just being faithful to one's wife or taking a purity pledge as a teenager. It certainly isn't making sure that you scream the loudest to prevent homosexuals from getting married. It is a holistic understanding of ethics which grasps that God created sex with a purpose, and that the church is a place in which that purpose is both joyously celebrated and fiercely guarded. The same spiritual process of cutting to the heart of an ethical concern and then marveling at the depth and breadth of its impact can and should be carried out on any of the above moral maxims or any moral impulse within Christianity. Taking the cue from Jain, Christians need to realize that a commitment to honesty, chastity, non-violence, charity, or any other guiding ethical principle of the faith is more than just a legal concern, a commitment to compliance. It is a richer statement about the way the world was intended by the One whose intentions formed it. In broadening the understanding of Christian ethics, their scope and their interrelatedness, Christians can better understand that the moral precepts of Christ are not a guidebook to technical propriety but an invitation into a perfect kingdom in which all people are at harmony with themselves, with each other, with creation, and with the Creator.

Pope Benedict: In Praise of Silence

As part of an annual message on communication, Pope Benedict XVI spoke yesterday on the value of silence for communication:

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.

Just as the pope rightly stresses that understanding in silence is a prerequisite for meaningful communication between people, Anthony the Great (at least according to the traditional attribution) points out that silence is also primary for true communication with God: "Through silence you come to understanding; having understood, you give expression. It is in silence that the intellect gives birth to intelligence; and the thankful intelligence offered to God is man's salvation."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hart Casts More Pearls Before Swine

David Bentley Hart has a new article out in the January edition of First Things, so naturally my heart is all a-flutter. My first impulse is obviously to take this brief thousand-or-so word article and compose a voluminous, multi-part series on its many strengths and weaknesses. Since, however, I only just completed one such exercise in shameless intellectual fawning, I will try to condense my reflections on "The Precious Steven Pinker" to a single entry.

As the title suggests, Hart's article is responding to Steven Pinker's latest effort, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. At its core, this work is essentially the antithesis of Hart's earlier Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Pinker's aim is to demonstrate how, contrary to popular perception (and Hart's academic conclusion), the world is actually a safer, less violent place than in dark times past. Further, Pinker wants his readers to believe that the cause of this improvement has been the rise of "reason" and the abatement of religion. Hart deftly identifies three core problems with this assessment.

1) The Myth of the "Dark Ages"

Pinker, being himself a psychologist and not a historian, falls all to easily into the common fable in the popular canon of historical myth that there was such a time as the "Dark Ages" when everything was horrible, all the advances of classical civilization were lost, and blind, corrosive faith reigned supreme. In Hart's own words, Pinker's "almost cartoonish" treatment of the Middle Ages consists in him presenting them "as a single historical, geographical, and cultural moment" easily encapsulated in the caricature which dominates vulgar discourse. In truth, the Middle Ages (inappropriately so-called) were a diverse time both of great progress (whatever that may mean) and great tragedy, depending on when, where, and of whom we are speaking.

[Pinker] says nothing of almshouses, free hospitals, municipal physicians, hospices, the decline of chattel slavery, the Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, and so on. Of the more admirable cultural, intellectual, legal, spiritual, scientific, and social movements of the High Middle Ages, he appears to know nothing. And his understanding of early modernity is little better. His vague remarks on the long-misnamed “Wars of Religion” are tantalizing intimations of a fairly large ignorance.

It is difficult to write a history of violence without at least some firm grasp of history.

2) The Myth of the secular "Enlightenment"

Pinker will make the same error of two dimensional thinking with his reconstruction of the Enlightenment. He sees "not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on." There is a greater error that Hart exposes in Pinker's treatment of the Enlightenment, however, and that is the assumption that its positive advances (and there were many) were somehow purely secular. He ignores that many of the ideas of the Enlightenment had their root directly and relevantly in religious, "unreasonable" concepts which preceded them. Pinker acknowledges know sense of continuity, no genetic association between the thought of the "dark ages" and that of the Enlightenment.

Pinker’s is a story not of continuous moral evolution, but of an irruptive redemptive event. It would not serve his purpose to admit that, in addition to the gradual development of the material conditions that led to modernity, there might also have been the persistent pressure of moral ideas and values that reached back to antique or medieval sources, or that there might have been occasional institutional adumbrations of modern “progress” in the Middle Ages, albeit in a religious guise.

Polemicists--particularly those who are not historians--make this error in almost every attempt to marshal history to an ideological cause. Consider the ongoing argument in American politics about whether or not the country was founded on Christian ideas. The question should not be--though it too often is--was Benjamin Franklin an agnostic or James Madison a deist? The issue is with the proximate and ultimate cultural sources of ideas such as "perpetual peace" and "the rights of man" which characterize the Enlightenment and encapsulate the core principles of the American experiment.

3) The Flaw in Comparative Statistics

Perhaps the most pernicious of Pinker's errors is not historical but statistical. There is an ongoing debate which centers around whether or not to adjust statistics about violence to account for population figures. Pinker is of the school of thought that violence should be measured statistically as a figure of violent deaths per capita. This certainly has an objective reasonableness to it. After all, it would not due to say that the total combined wealth of the United States in the 1920s was ten billion dollars, that it was one hundred billion dollars in the 2000s, ergo people are ten times wealthier now than they were then. That is, however, precisely the problem. Pinker's argument understands human life in the same way that it does money. In truth, we intuitively realize that a single human life has an absolute value which cannot be comparatively reduced. Pinker's statistics leave no room for this distinction.

But statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens...In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion.

Hart points out other flaws in Pinker's statistical methods as well, including the increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, each of which Hart believes skews the numbers in support of Pinker's theory.

The most enjoyable part of Hart's article is certainly his surgical evisceration of Pinker's argument, but Hart concludes on a milder note, praising the stream of Pinker's thought for not succumbing to the crushing weight postmodernism. He waxes poetic, as he so often does, about the beautiful, inviolable faith of those who pretend to be faithless. In truth, the above does not begin to mine the riches which I believe are embedded in all of Hart's prose, but I will leave it to interested parties to read the remainder of the article. It is certainly well worth it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno Has Died

After having one of the most trying years imaginable, legendary sports icon Joe Paterno has died. I hold the Penn State board of trustees personally responsible. Sure, you may say that is an irrational, knee-jerk overreaction, but who are they to judge?

Late Breaking News

Dr. Richard Oster, HST professor of New Testament, recently unveiled a blog he calls "Seven Subversive Letters." Based upon research and ideas for a manuscript he has sent off to a publisher, the blog looks at Revelation 1-3.

So says a bulletin which, through a mail mix-up, only very recently reached me. The blog, which began in September, might have saved me a great deal of work, as it treats much of the same material I did. Without intending to in any way implicate him in my interpretations, I received much of my perspective on Revelation from Oster. For those who are interested, both in Revelation and the sociocultural context of the New Testament (which is Oster's specialty), the blog appears to be regularly updated.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness

The previous conversation between Jain and Christian thought focused almost entirely on the negative aspects of Jain's approach to the material world as it related to the transcendent and life's ultimate destiny. As a counter balance, the question of forgiveness and particularly the universal stress on mutual forgiveness offers a delightful point of overlap between Christianity and Jain. The Jain focus on forgiveness is an extension of the goal of practitioners to be at harmony with other living beings. There is a semi-liturgical rite known as the Vandana Formula in which a member of the Jain laity approaches a monk and has the following interchange:

Layperson: I wish to reverence you, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, with
intense concentration.
Monk: So be it.
Layperson: You will have passed the day auspiciously with little disturbance.
Monk: Yes
Layperson: You make spiritual progress
Monk: And you also.
Layperson: I wish to ask pardon for transgressions.
Monk: I ask for it too.
Layperson: I must confess, ascetic who suffers with equanimity, for lack of
respect and day-to-day transgressions of the mind, speech, or body;
through anger, pride, deceit, or greed; false behavior and neglect of the
Teaching; and whatever offense I have committed I here confess, repudiate
and repent of it and set aside my past deeds.

This ritual ought to resonate strongly with Christians, particularly as it so nearly resembles the practice of some traditions with regard to confession. There is a clear sense of the inequality of the two people with regard to spiritual progress, and at the same time they meet on the level playing field of their mutual inadequacy. The laity ask for forgiveness and the monk responds "I ask for it too." There is no illusion that one can come to the other for forgiveness, and yet there is spiritual power in the act of seeking it from one another.

The Vandana Formula is by no means peculiar in Jain. In the Kalpasutra, the teachings of Mahavira once again speak to this central place of mutual forbearance and forgiveness among practitioners of Jain. In this text, it arises in the context of a yearly retreat for monks and nuns. Knowing that such a congregation will ultimately give rise to conflict, Mahavira gave the ascetics the following advice:

If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.

It is almost too easy to find parallel concepts in Christianity. Jesus' hyperbolic reply to Peter that we ought to forgive one another seventy times seven times springs immediately to mind, as does the command in the Sermon on the Mount to seek forgiveness before making a gift to God. More interesting than merely an emphasis on forgiveness, however, is the parallel idea that exists in both religions that mutual forgiveness is not ultimately about our ability to expiate one another's sins. There is something else going on in each. For Jain, the forgiveness is an attempt to live at harmony with other living beings, to be released from the burden of the illusion of guilt and the corruption of anger. In Christianity, we forgive not because our forgiveness is somehow necessary in order to free one another from sin but because we serve a God who forgives. It is ultimately Christians' own attempt at harmony, but not necessarily with one another (though that is a penultimate goal) but with a God who is overflowing with forgiveness.

The unfortunate truth, I suspect, is that both Jain and Christianity suffer from the same flaw: confession and mutual forgiveness are more readily found in their holy texts than in the lives of modern practitioners.

Episcopals are at it again

In an ongoing effort to tie up courts with lawsuits among believers, the Episcopal Church (USA) has won yet another court battle which affirms the national hierarchy's rights to the property of local congregations who have voted to split from the denomination. It is, once again, a proud day for Christianity.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


In keeping with time honored tradition, this three hundredth post commemorates the great quotes that have appeared here over the last hundred entries. Below are my personal top ten notable quotables, though you are welcome and encouraged to disagree.

10) The last hundred posts began with one of my first comparative series, this one examining points of contact between Christianity and absurdism. As a near rabid fan of Albert Camus, it was difficult to select only one quote. Nevertheless, here is a thought of his from The Absurd and Science:

And here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes -how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanisms and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning. I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.

9) More recently, we find ourselves int he midst of a comparative examination of Christianity and Jain. While there are still many great quotes yet to come in this series, the following excellent excerpt could have easily been from any number of Byzantine Christian mystics but is in fact a saying of Mahavira, posted in Christ, Jain, and the Material World:

...there is no analogy whereby to know the transcendent; its essence is without form; there is no condition of the unconditioned. There is no sound, no color, no smell, no taste, not touch--nothing of that kind. Thus I say.

8) The past hundred posts has seen an unusual output of advice to parents, including from such notable figures as Stephen Prothero and the inimitable David Bentley Hart. Still, none left quite the impression as J. C. Ryle, who proved that some child-rearing wisdom is timeless. While there is much to commend the meat of his teaching, the most memorable quote came from The Wisdom of J. C. Ryle: An Appendix:

Never listen to those who tell you your children are good, and well brought up, and can be trusted.

7) I find the news deeply frustrating, as so many of us do. No story has so grated against my sensibilities for the last hundred posts than has the unceremonious dismissal of Joe Paterno. Still, the best quote here has come from the relatively minor Rep. Brad Drake, with this profoundly nonsensical, self-defeating comment posted in the Oct. 19th edition of In Other News:

I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.

6) I never seem to be lacking in pithy, inspirational thoughts from great pacifists. Last time around it was J. W. McGarvey. This time, let me offer one from J. D. Tant in The Wisdom of J. D. Tant:

I would as soon risk my chance of heaven to die drunk in a bawdy house as to die on the battlefield, with murder in my heart, trying to kill my fellow man.

5) Without a doubt, the past six months in the United States has been completely dominated by the American electoral process. More important than anything the candidates might be saying is this sentiment from Stephen Prothero offered in Knowledge and Franchise:

Few Americans are able to challenge claims made by politicians or pundits about Islam’s place in the war on terrorism or what the Bible says about homosexuality. This ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth (the press).

4) Pope Benedict XVI has done more shocking things this year than kissing an imam. In addition to renewing the Catholic Church's stand against capital punishment, he had this to say about the Christian use of war in history, in Pope Shocks World by Doing the Right Thing:

"As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith," he said in his address to the delegations in an Assisi basilica.

"We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature."

3) In a post which happened to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks which launched the world headlong into two prolonged multinational wars, I shared a Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

And after it became obvious that the strange rain would never stop and that Old Soldiers never drown and that roses in the rain had forgotten the word for bloom and that perverted pollen blown on sunless seas was eaten by irradiated fish who spawned up cloudleaf streams and fell on our dinnerplates

And after it became obvious that the President was doing everything in his power to make the world safe for nationalism his brilliant military mind never realized that nationalism itself was the idiotic superstition which would blow up the world

...The President himself came in

Took one look around and said

We Resign

2) On an anniversary which personally touched me a little more dearly, On the Anniversary of David Lipscomb's Death, I shared these thoughts of Price Billingsley on the great man who was so influential in his own day and continues to touch the hearts and minds of Christians who read his works:

I then got my first sight of the dear old Brother Lipscomb dead. I was amazed to see how fine looking and tall he was when straightened out in the casket. I saw him when he was dying, and a more abject object of decaying senility I never before beheld - body and soul distraught in the parting! But did I pity him? I pitied myself for not being as ready to die as he!

1) The recent past has had more than its fair share of high profile deaths, from entertainment stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Harry Morgan, to intellectual celebrities like Christopher Hitchens. The more important loss for many, however, was a completely overlooked Bible professor at a small Arkansas university. Before offering my own eulogy concurrent with his memorial service, I shared this quote from Amelia Burr on the day of his passing:

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

Here's looking forward to another eventful hundred posts with even more memorable thoughts to share in the months to come.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Obama Brings Rape into the 21st Century

And gets a gold star from me for doing it. After more than eighty years of the federal government inadequately defining "rape," the Obama administration has updated the definition. Under the old understanding, rape was the "carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will." The new and improved definition is much more expansive:

Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.

Why is this better? The most glaringly obvious improvement is that the FBI now recognizes that men can be the victims of rape, which has been one of the most dastardly oversights in the decades old dispute over equal rights for the sexes. By removing the specification that a rape victim must be "female," the government finally acknowledges what should have been self-evident all along: it is possible to sexually violate a male. Additionally, the new definition expands rape to include the variety of sexual acts which, in our perverse excellence, we have perfected in modern times, including object rape, vaginal or anal penetration with body parts other than the penis, and forced fellatio.

It is important to remember, however, that this change does not affect penal codes--state or federal--in anyway, though thankfully most already included the full range of offenses in their rape and sexual assault laws. It does, however, bring the statistical analysis of rape into the 21st century, which is an important step. Many state and local organizations use the official rape statistics put out by the FBI to assign funds and other resources to rape prevention and awareness programs as well as victims' services. The greatest victory, however, may still be the moral one. It is encouraging to know that our government is still nimble enough to change patently absurd conceptions of crime, even if it takes eighty-five years to do it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Answers" Given in JoePa Firing

Finally, in the wake of an angry town hall meeting, the powers-that-be in the Joe Paterno firing have offered (what they considered to be) answers to the pressing questions on our minds:

According to the statement, after Paterno announced Nov. 9 he would retire at the conclusion of the 2011 season, the board decided that "given the nature of the serious allegations ... and the extraordinary circumstances then facing the University, ... Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status."

"Therefore, the Board acted to remove Coach Paterno from his position as Head Football Coach effective as of that date," read the statement issued by board chairman Steve Garban and vice chairman John Surma.

Let's pretend for a moment that the above is even a defensible cause for dismissal. The "answer" is still unsatisfying on so many levels. Why did you dismiss him over the phone? Why have you consciously distanced yourself from his image? Why is Joe Paterno merchandise no longer being sold by Penn State retailers? Also--and we can stop our pretending now--what on earth would make anyone think that an interim would "effectively perform his duties" any better than Joe Paterno could, especially since the authorities specifically said that Paterno was not an object of the investigation? It seems we are destined to be less and less satisfied the more and more information we get.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Compelling Morality: Our Redundant History

It is in no sense an overstatement to say that Gaines M. Foster's Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920 is a near perfect blend of historical insight and timeliness. Foster's simple book has simple scope: the examination of the rise of the Christian lobby in late nineteenth century America and the moral legislation it pursued. He makes clear, however, from the first sentence of the introduction that this is not intended to be a purely academic exercise. The rise of the Christian right in the late 1970s has made matters of the origins and precedents of religious lobbying and moral legislation issues of extreme importance for contemporary American moral polity. Foster convincingly suggests that the strongest, most germane parallel to the modern movement for moral reform is the late nineteenth century campaign to revise the moral character of the nation. The rise of the Christian lobby was more than merely a political shift or, as the lobbyists undoubtedly believed, an awakening of the American moral conscious in the face of some novel evil. It was a dramatic cultural and philosophical shift away from antebellum theories of states' rights, personal liberty, and moral suasion into new concepts of nationalism and corporate social responsibility. In this, and countless other nuances of Foster's book, there are striking ideological parallels to more recent impulses in American politics. In the interest of brevity, however, there are two points from Foster's work which stand out as especially noteworthy for reflection.

One of the most striking features of the Christian lobby, which Foster deliberately emphasizes in his narrative, was that even in its successes it understood and respected (or at least conceded to accept) the Constitutional limits of the federal government. There is little debate any longer about whether or not the federal government has some role in structuring national morality. As Foster will admit in his conclusion, few people object to the federal government having a hand in, for example, protecting children from the sexual advances of adults. In truth, most Americans probably do not even think of this in terms of the government legislating morality, though that is certainly what is occurring. As desensitized to the concept as modern Americans are, the idea that the government should make any universal laws regarding any morality was entirely foreign to early Americans. In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment represented something of a strange and wonderful novelty to nineteenth century Americans. They accepted that slavery was wrong (though some, only after being compelled by force of arms to accept that opinion), but that the government could seize the right to make that qualitative judgment was unusual. The Thirteenth Amendment would prove to be the justifying precedent cited most frequently by moral reformers.

Even with this powerful antecedent, the Christian lobby was forced to respect that most Americans understood the federal government to be restricted to a very small number of jurisdictions: interstate commerce, international treaties, administration of the military, and direct governance of the District of Columbia and the territories. In view of these limitations, the moral reformers were forced to pursue their agenda of national moral legislation within the confines of a traditional view of a limited federal government. They focused their efforts initially on enacting Sunday laws in DC, stricter divorce rules in the territories, prohibition in the military, and the restriction of interstate distribution of obscene materials (e.g. information on birth control). They understood that they could not make adultery illegal, but they did eventually convince the government that it had the power to make transporting a woman across state lines for the purpose of adultery should be. Even when the moral reformers did make their final push to outlaw the production and sale of all intoxicating beverages, Prohibition came with two important concessions to the limits of federal power. First, reformers readily admitted and accepted that Congress could not simply pass a law to achieve prohibition. A constitutional amendment would be necessary, as the Constitution did not give Congress the kind of sweeping moral power to outlaw behavior that the Christian lobby required. Second, in spite of initial attempts to include it, the provision which made possessing and consuming alcohol in one's home was removed from the wording of the amendment. The country was not ready to accept the idea that the government had the right to regulate moral behavior within one's own home. What authority it had, stopped at the domestic threshold. The home was a fortress, even if it was a den of wicked vice.

In addition to recognizing and working within the constitutional limits of the federal government, the history of the moral reformers teaches contemporary reformers and important lesson about the impermanence of moral reform. When the Volstead Act finally took effect, enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, the reform periodical American Issue triumphantly declared, "The future historian will accord to January 16, 1920 a place second only to that of the advent of the Redeemer." Historians have a funny way of defying predictions. No one would today suggest that the onset of Prohibition in the United States was an event of permanent and global magnitude. Few school children know anything more than a passing quick fact about the Eighteenth Amendment and even less about the myriad moral reforms which preceded it. Even to the most conservative modern critic, the goals of the Christian lobby in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seem antiquated if not comic. While many still oppose, largely futilely, ready access to abortion, on the most marginal members of society think it ought to be illegal to distribute information about birth control. Boxing, while not America's proudest past time, is legal to stage, promote, record, and distribute. (Imagine what the moral reformers would have thought of the mixed martial arts craze which has gripped the popular imagination.) The film industry not only escaped government content controls, but modern technology has made it possible for anyone and everyone to pipe any number of genuinely obscene pictures onto their computers, televisions, and telephones. Perhaps most notoriously at all, Prohibition was a miserable failure and social drinking (unlike boxing) is among the great American past times. From a historical perspective, efforts at national moral reform appear to have been the most dismal failure. Only a select few reforms from the period persist in any recognizable form: higher age of consent laws, laws against selling cigarettes to minors, and the end of mail delivery on Sundays. In his conclusion, Foster suggests that "the story of moral reconstruction provides no sure lessons to be applied to the renewed debate over legislating morality...but it does provide a historical context." Yet this historical context may in fact be the sure lesson which moral reformers need to learn; history has proved that it will be infinitely easier to repeal moral legislation than it was to pass it. It took the reformers nearly sixty years to enact prohibition through a constitutional amendment and only thirteen years for Americans to collectively regret and reject prohibition through another amendment.

There can be few complaints about Foster's work. Admittedly, it is dry, deeply encyclopedic reading which at times carries with it the uneasy feeling that one is actually just reading the congressional record. This impression is reenforced by the final eighty pages (or one quarter) of the book which is consumed by extensive appendices, notes, and other scholarly apparatus. At the same time, this exhaustive treatment reassures the reader that Moral Reconstruction is among the most well researched treatments of the period and subject that has yet been written. Though not a page turner for the average reader, the book is worth a second glance and more for professionals or dedicated hobbyists interested in grasping the historical context of ongoing movements among Christian especially to legislate a better moral polity for America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is Shame a Cure for Obesity?

Georgia's Strong4Life has been creating controversy recently with a series of pointed ads intended to raise awareness about the childhood obesity epidemic. And there is no doubt; childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. In the nation as a whole, the Center for Disease Control states that one in five children is obese with nearly that many adolescents obese as well. For children, that number has more than doubled in the last thirty years; for adolescents it has more than tripled. Georgia, and the Deep South as a whole, are at the center of the problem, with the Peach State ranking second in the nation in childhood obesity rates with approximately 37% of children being overweight or obese. This ranks behind only Mississippi with a obesity rate of more than 44%. Given that childhood obesity continues to be on the rise in Georgia (up 5.6% from 2005 to 2007), it is understandable why the people of Georgia would feel the need to take an extreme approach to combating the problem. Here is the course they've chosen.

Shocking, yes. But the people of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta say that shocking is precisely what is needed to jar Georgians out of their torpor and inspire positive action. Unsurprisingly there are countless detractors, including some notable academics. NPR spoke to one such detractor:

According to Rodney Lyn of Georgia State University's Institute of Public Health, "This campaign is more negative than positive."

Based on his research, Lyn says, the ads can hurt the very market they're targeting. "We know that stigmatization leads to lower self-esteem, potential depression. We know that kids will engage in physical activity less because they feel like they're going to be embarrassed. So there are all these other negative effects," he says.

ABC spoke to another:

"Blaming the victim rarely helps," said Dr. Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "These children know they are fat and that they are ostracized already."

There are countless others, but I think the outrage is largely inappropriate. Labbok, for example, claims that the ads are blaming the victims. Hardly. The ads are blaming the perpetrators, and quit powerfully at that. In one of the video spots (embedded below), an overweight boy and his overweight mother are placed opposite one another. The boy, clearly overwrought, asks his mother, "Why am I fat?" The mother has no answer. It is obvious who the victim is here and who is the "criminal." The ads--all of the ads--are targeted at the parents who, through various forms of negligence and ignorance, are responsible for their children's poor health. Some of the ads are followed by a startling statistics: 75% of parents with overweight children were unaware there was a problem. That sort of willful blindness borders on unconscionable. It takes the faces and voices of overweight children confessing to their parents and to their communities "It's hard to be a little girl when you're not" and "Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid" and "I don't like going to school, cause all the other kids pick on me." It should hurt to watch that. It should eat us up inside because, overwhelmingly, it is within the power of parents and teachers and community leaders to improve if not solve the obesity crisis among children.

The campaign doesn't shame the victims. It shames parents, and they should be ashamed. It is shameful that children are plied constantly with junk food simply because their parents are unwilling to fight the domestic battles necessary to make them eat their vegetables. It is shameful that children's desires for fast food are regularly gratified as we continue to bow to the altar of convenience. It is shameful that we are too lazy to hide the PlayStation or computer power cord and force our children (or ourselves) outdoors for exercise. It is shameful that, as in the case in Georgia, community priorities are so skewed that cutbacks in education target areas like school nutrition, physical education, and recess. There are other culprits. Advertising groups that market unhealthy, inexpensive foods to children stand out. The problem begins and ends at home and in the schools. It is a problem of our making and one of which we ought to be greatly ashamed.

So if you're going to be outraged, why not be outraged that it has come to this? We are at a point as a culture where this kind of melodramatic public spectacle is necessary to shock parents and communities out of ignorance and apathy. If it works and Georgians begin to take control of the obesity epidemic in their state, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is to be congratulated. If it doesn't, well that is just one more thing of which we should all collectively be ashamed.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Christ, Jain, and the Material World

Perhaps the most constant--and, in the opinion of many, damning--critique leveled against Eastern religions by Westerners is their negative view of the world and their apparently escapist approach to soteriology, borrowing from Christian theological jargon. There is a perception, right or wrong, that Eastern religions see the world as a fundamentally broken place which must be fled and that flight from the world involves the absorption of the self into a cosmic consciousness or nothingness or both. Jain is certainly at least as open to this criticism as any other Eastern faith. While the commitment to life that is apparent in ahimsa would suggest a profound respect for the world, Jain religion does not actually protect life because it believes it is in some sense enduring, sacred, and intrinsically valuable. Instead, the respect for life is, in some sense, merely a subtle act of self-interest, a necessary ethical step on the path toward liberation, an escape from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Included in this escape is an escape also from the confines of materiality and anything which is in any sense associated with the world. In the Acaranga Sutra, the reader encounters once again the teachings of Mahavira which here describe the nature of existence after liberation is finally achieved:

The liberated is not long nor small nor round nor triangular nor quadrangular nor circular; he is not black nor blue nor red nor green nor white; neither of good nor bad smell; nor bitter nor pungent nor astringent nor sweet; neither rough nor soft; neither heavy nor light; neither cold nor hot; neither harsh nor smooth; he is without body, without resurrection, without contact of matter, he is not feminine nor masculine nor neuter; he perceives, he knows, but there is no analogy whereby to know the transcendent; its essence is without form; there is no condition of the unconditioned. There is no sound, no color, no smell, no taste, not touch--nothing of that kind. Thus I say.

The idea certainly has an aesthetic appeal. The idea of a conscious, non-corporeal existence has such an appeal to the Christian mind that it has been adopted (from Greek philosophy rather than Jain) into Christianity's own escapist soteriology in the form of the soul's flight to heaven. While that expression of Christian thought is deeply suspect, there is admittedly a strong affinity between the way Mahavira speaks of the transcendent and the way orthodox Christian thinkers have spoken of it. Consider this roughly parallel thought of Gregory Palamas:

Every nature is utterly remote and absolutely estranged from the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature, but if each of the other things is nature, he is not nature: just as he is not a being, if others are beings; and if he is a being, the others are not being. If you accept this as true also for wisdom and goodness and generally all the things around God or said about God, then your theology will be correct and in accord with the saints.

Gregory describes transcendent reality--in this case, God--in many of the same terms as Mahavira: real and aware, but invisible, non-corporeal, and fundamentally indescribable. There is, in both, the bare minimum agreement that philosophical materialism must be rejected. It is part of an intuitive function of human psychology that scientists explain as evolutionary attempt to grapple with and quantify the unknown but which theologians more liberally suggest may be an innate sense of the divine common to the species. Beyond this, Jain and Christianity diverge in their understanding of the relationship of the transcendent to the divine. In spite of what many Christians have suggested about Orthodox theology, for example, there are no Christian bodies which believe that humanity's ultimate goal is to become that transcendent reality which is non-corporeal and indescribable. The essence of the transcendent God, in Christianity, is what all reality is defined against; at the moment when the creation is absorbed wholesale into the Creator, both cease to exist in any meaningful sense as Christians conceive them.

More importantly, and with significantly less flavor of the esoteric, the Christian view of the transcendent and its relationship to the material world reveals an essential disagreement with Jain about the value of material existence. In creating the material world, God declared it good, and, whatever evil occurs in it, His handiwork has never ceased to be good at its core. That would explain why the Christian picture of redemption is not one of the transcendent calling people out of the material but of the immaterial taking on physical form in order to redeem creation. The Christian story of salvation has never been one of Christ leading people out of the world (in the sense of material existence). Just the opposite: the promise of Christian salvation centers around the idea that humanity will be resurrected into a new body to enjoy the presence of God on a new earth. A Christian respect for life and for creation is centered, therefore, not on a self-serving ethic but on a commitment to the eternal value of God's creation. Christian liberation is not a liberation from the world (again, in the sense of materiality) but liberation for the world. Christians have been freed from sin so that they might free the rest of the creation from the consequences of sin and so that all creation might then share in the experience the transcendent, not in ceasing to be creatures but as creatures were intended to experience the Creator.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Press for the NIV

The fourth quarter edition of the Magnolia Messenger includes a surprisingly balanced, level-headed critique of the new NIV under the relatively inoffensive title "Not Your Father's NIV." It is by no means the kind of thoughtful, scholarly analysis that should be given priority in the discussion, but it does, at the very least, rise above the level of frothing invective. Go figure.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christ, Jain, and the Ethic of Non-violence

It would be blatantly dishonest to suggest that my attraction to Jain was not closely tied to Jain's most conspicuous ethical feature: ahimsa (the symbol for which is pictured on the left). Ahimsa, as a principle, corresponds closely to Western ideas like pacifism, non-violence, or non-harm, though--as with all peculiarly foreign concepts--it would be wrong to simply equate it with any of these. It is, in some respects, a richer and more comprehensive understanding of nonviolence than is found in many Western streams of pacifist thought. At other times, however, it lends itself to a shallower and more thoroughly material understanding of non-violence that Christianity may, at times, legitimately critique. The primary text to be examined on the question of ahimsa is the Sutrakrtanga written by Sudharma, a sixth century B.C. Jain monk.

The serious, even extreme, nature of Jain non-violence is immediately apparent both to the casual observer of Jain monks and to the casual reader of Jain texts. Sudharma specifies that the principle of "non-killing" should extend to all "living beings whether they move or not, on high, below and on earth." He criticizes Buddhist monks for not following this principle: "Eating seeds and drinking cold water and what has been prepared for them, they enter upon meditation, but are ignorant of of the truth and do not possess carefulness." The true practitioner of Jain strives not to destroy even the microscopic life that exists in water or to unthinkingly consume life simply because it has been offered as alms. Even admitting that some inadvertent killing is inevitable in life, the Jain monk takes extreme measures to avoid it and is penitent when he falls short. This is reflected in the First of the Mahavrata, or Five Great Vows, of Jain: "I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable. Nor shall I myself kill living beings (nor cause others to do it, nor consent to it). As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins, in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body."

One of the most interesting common focuses of ahimsa and Christian non-violence is the way each faith explicitly extends the definition of violence beyond mere action. Both in the Mahavrata and the Sutrakirtanga, Jain teachers emphasize that it is not enough merely to avoid killing. One must vow to neither cause it nor consent to others doing it; "Master of his senses and avoiding wrong, he should do no harm to anybody, neither by thoughts, nor words, nor acts." This translation of active sin into the heart of the sinner was the ethical revolution which Jesus brought to Judaism in the Sermon on the Mount. In his initial volley with the Pharisees and their legalistic application of the Law, Jesus takes up the question of murder: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." In the strongest possible terms, Jesus insists that it is not enough to merely not act in violence, which may be avoided simply for fear of the consequences or cowardice or lack of opportunity. As he will explain in the next passage with regard to lust, the very inclination to violence is a spiritual act of violence. In both Christianity and Jain we find a more comprehensive form of non-violence than contemporary political forms of pacifism offer. To commit to non-violence requires a total transformation not only of what one does but also how one thinks and how one experiences the world.

The most most substantial practical difference between Jain and Christianity should be obvious: Christians, overwhelmingly, don't have a problem killing, cooking, and eating animals. Jain, in contrast, takes its version of the golden rule and applies it indiscriminately to all life: "...a man should wander about treating all creatures in the world so as he himself would be treated.” It is here where the Jain tradition offers its most pertinent critique of Christianity. Let me immediate clarify that I am by no means commending the wearing of protective masks, the methodical sweeping of the ground wherever one walks, or even thoroughgoing vegetarianism. Jesus was almost certainly not a vegetarian, and he certainly didn't insist that his followers practice it. Quite the opposite. There is, however, an extent to which Christians have historically taken too great a license with the teaching that humanity has "dominion over" creation. It is critical that Christians remember that humans were not created distinct from creation but distinct within creation, and that our dominion is intended to be as regents of God. There is no reason that Christians should adopt the Jain version of the golden rule and follow it down the path toward ethical vegetarianism (among other applications of ahimsa), but we may appropriate reformulate it as to heighten our own sense of duty within creation: rather than "treat all living things as you would want to be treated," perhaps, "govern creation as you would expect God to govern it."

The reason Christianity does not accept the Jain understanding of the at least apparent scope of non-violence is because Jain has, in some sense, a more superficial understanding of what violence is and at what it may directed. Jain seems to understand ahimsa as applying to primarily acts of physical violence against biological life. Ahimsa is not as stridently applied to issues, for example, of economic, social, environmental (in a non-biological sense), and institutional violence which Christianity has stressed with varying degrees throughout its history. Peace is, for both Christianity and Jain, among the highest if not the very highest ideal, but in Christianity, the idea of peace is much more than merely non-harm toward life. It is an image of physical and metaphysical harmony where all creation is finally it accord with the Creator. Peace is the narrative of Micah 4, where in addition to the cessation of war all people flock to the mountain of God to receive instruction there and obedience to God becomes the hallmark of human existence. In this vision, as in so many other images of eschatological peace, the earth still gives up its fruit for the sustenance of all life as God had always intended it to, and in the eating of it there is no hint of violence. Thus, even while the Jain emphasis on peace as the ultimate goal appeals to Christians and teachings such as "the enlightened ones that were, and the enlightened ones that will be, they have Peace as their foundation, even as all things have the earth for their foundation" resonate, it must always be remembered that the peace of God is something more than non-violence. It is a peace which surpasses understanding, one which is better summed up in the parallelism of the psalm "Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it" than in the teaching of Sudharma, "He should cease to injure living beings...for this has been called the Nirvana, which consists in peace."

Monday, January 2, 2012

Music for Life

The motivation behind the debut album of Matt Hammitt is gut wrenching to say the least. The lead singer of the well known Christian band Sanctus Real decided to pursue his first solo effort after receiving some terrible news about his unborn son. He and his wife were devastated to learn that their baby boy had hypoplastic left heart syndrome. In layman's terms, he would be born with only half his heart. His chance of survival, even with multiple surgeries, was negligible. Hammitt turned to music as a vehicle for the overwhelming emotions he and his wife were coping with. The baby, Bowen Matthew Hammitt, was born on Sept. 9, 2010. Within a week, he would undergo open heart surgery, suffer cardiac arrest, be resuscitated, and finally be hooked to life support. As the weeks past, he would also endure a stroke.

What began for Matt as a means of working through his emotions became something more. According to an AP story, while Bowen was still confined to the hospital in his early days,

the couple played demos of the songs Hammitt had written "so Bowen could hear his dad's voice," his wife said. Night-shift nurses often turned up the music when most families would leave for the evening.

"They felt it was good for all the babies to be soothed," Sarah said. "We'd come back in the morning and it'd be really loud."

Hammitt recorded the songs for the album soon after the family brought Bowen home to suburban Toledo. His only unease was that they might be critiqued like any other work.

"Originally I just wanted them recorded for us at the hospital," he said. "I realized they're meant to comfort other people too."

So far, the response has been what he hoped for. They've even received notes from parents who've played the songs at their children's funerals.

Now, the Hammitts want to take their work a step further by starting the Whole Hearts Foundation, a source of financial, emotional and spiritual help for families with children suffering from congenital heart defects. They see the foundation becoming their life's work.

The now one year old Bowen has more trouble ahead. There are still more surgeries planned for next year, and, even in the best scenario, he will likely need an entirely new heart once he reaches adulthood. For those who are interested in keeping track of the Hammitt family as Bowen continues to struggle and grow, the family is keeping the world updated. The album, Every Falling Tear, was released in September.