Sunday, December 18, 2005

Monasticism Anyone?

As I contemplate the problems of our culture, secular and ecclesiastical,I find myself wondering increasingly whether an answer lies in monasticism. One problem is that I am not even sure what that means. Though I am from a Catholic background, I have had no exposure to monks or monasteries. What ideas I have probably come mostly from fictional accounts, and perhaps from "How the Irish Saved civilization" and Merton's "Seven Story Mountain," both read years ago. More specifically, though this page is named after a poem named after a Protestant religious community, I know almost nothing about such communities except that they almost universally failed in one or two generations. The nearby Ephrata cloisters are a case in point. A lovely tourist attraction, but no living community. There's a Moravian girls' school in Lititz, but apparently no Moravians.

Can anyone point me to any sites or books that discuss the foundational ideas of Protestant monasticism, especially of communities that survived for some time? I have found the following sites so far, but they don't provide much detail about the foundations:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Madman with bombs

I am always puzzled when I read commentaries like this one from Charles Krauthammer. There is an almost frantic tone of issuing a wake-up call, but one has to ask, wake up to what action? So there is a mad man in charge of Iran. He's about to obtain nuclear weapons. He was democratically elected. He paints, "Israel must be obliterated" on his missiles. So what are we supposed to do about this?

He acknowledges that the chances of anything happening in the United Nations is nil. Yet we are supposed to support the United Nations, and our lack of enthusiastic participation so far, or our taking measures into our own hands when the United Nations fails to act, has been considered bad behavior. We could bomb their nuclear facilities, as is Israel's wont, or take out their president in an assassination, but these would constitute military actions and lead to a war. But war is bad. It seems to me that if we do anything except ask very nicely in the United Nations, the same commentators will take us to task for militarism or being cowboys, and will start publishing the American body count on day two.

The same issue occurs with respect to a bad conscience about our actions or inactions in Rwanda. We feel badly, and wring our hands about standing by while Rwandans killed Rwandans, but what were we supposed to have done? The United Nations acted as the United Nations always acts. Nothing else could have been realistically expected. Does anyone really think that Americans would have tolerated the sending of American troops to rescue black Rwandans? Do we think that it would have been a quick in and out operation? Really, the murderers are on the street with their machetes, and what kind of effective action could have been taken other than sending troops?

I would love to know what Charles Krauthammer thinks we should actually do about the Iranian President.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

First Impressions of "Narnia"

Remember that unlike "Lord of the Rings" these were written for children and emphasize a child's sensibilities. "Always winter but never Christmas" exemplifies this difference. What could "Christmas" possibly mean to Narnians? Nothing, but it speaks concisely to a child's heart. If you are expecting "Lord of the Rings" you will cringe when Father Christmas shows up in a sleigh with reindeer, but that is in the book. One of the lead characters is a talking beaver, after all.

All this to say, the movie is faithful to the book in both content and tone, and the depiction of atoning sacrifice is clear. Aslan does not fly (as he does in the book) which is probably a good thing. He sounds like Liam Neeson which is OK, but a less recognizable voice may have been better. The talking animals were spotty: the beavers worked, the fox and wolves not as well. This probably has as much to do with the physical structure of beaver and canine skulls and jaws as with the animators' prowess; beaver faces are more human in proportion so their mouths can more convincingly mimic human speech.

The battle scenes also work. The gore of the Middle Earth battles is absent, as it should be in a children's movie, yet the scenes are well choreographed and engaging. The final battle between Jadis and Peter is especially well done, and demonstrates the cold masterfulness of the queen.

Overall, I predict success and sequels. If anything, this movie is more faithful to Lewis' book than Jackson's to Tolkein's.

Rice on our Mid-East Policy

See here for an interesting take on our foreign policy in middle east. Comments?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Left Behind" and the problem with targums

Rev 22:18-19 NASB
(18) I testify to everyone who hears the words of the
prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues
which are written in this book;
(19) and if anyone takes away from the words
of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life
and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

This would chill me to the bone if I were an author of the "Left Behind" series. Considering the fact that those authors certainly know this verse, I must conclude that they don't consider their several-volume expansive interpretation of Revelation, Thessalonians, Daniel and Ezekiel to be an addition or subtraction to the prophecy entrusted to John and thence to us. This despite the fact that they know, or should know, that for millions of people their books, and the movies, are the only interpretation of these texts they are likely to hear. The very title of the series, "Left Behind," is a substantial addition to the account of the so-called Rapture in the letters to Thessalonica, neither of which speak of anyone being left behind at Jesus' second coming, nor shows any concern at all to describe what, exactly, happens to the unsaved at that event. They go on to add volumes of speculative detail to events that are described apocalyptically and poetically in the text delivered to us through the Apostle.

The subtraction effected by the "Left Behind" series is more subtle but even more real: the narrowing of the imagination of God's people to this single elaborate account of the end times. I have taught the Revelation to adults several times over the last years, and believe me that this series has constricted their view of the future deeply and definitively. When they read Revelation, they do not wonder what it means, they do not engage their faculties of understanding of poetry and metaphor. No, they already know what it means. They've seen it at the movies.

But here I am most interested in the question, why does God find it necessary to explicitly prohibit the addition or subtraction of words to or from his revelation? And what does he mean by addition and subtraction?

Perhaps at one level God here prohibits the addition of fake text, of additional chapters or episodes. This is, no doubt, quite important. We can't have men or women adding their own uninspired text to the body of scripture and passing it off as inspired. Why not? This may seem like a silly question but, really, why not? Is it not because we need to preserve the ability to trace the expressed thoughts back to God, who is authoritative and sovereign, or to man, who is not?

What about expansive interpretations? Do they constitute additions in the sense proscribed?

This is a more difficult question, but we can at least begin with the need to preserve the distinguishability between God's words and the interpreter's ideas. This is admittedly not always a bright, clean line. All translation involves interpretation, which of course is why we generally require our preachers to read the original languages. Idioms, especially, require interpretation from one language or culture to another. Nevertheless, translation does not generally or frequently require expansion to be faithful to the original, and a translator seeks to match form with form, content with content, and connotation with connotation. There is a general one-to-one correspondence, and in this sense a translation is not inherently an expansion.

In "Colossians Remixed," Walsh and Keesmaat offer an expansive interpretation that they consider to be a "targum" of Colossians. They explain on page 38 that this is a form of interpretation arising during the Jewish diaspora, in which the rabbis did not simply translate the text, but "would update the text, apply it to the changing context, and put it into contemporary idiom." An accompanying footnote explains that a targum "could be commentary as well as translation, and impose a comprehensive interpretation on the original Hebrew." (p. 41) It is these latter aspects that may cause targa to fall afoul of the "no additions" mandate, in my opinion.

The fundamental problem that I believe underlies God's warning is that additions are subtractions. When one "imposes" such a "comprehensive interpretation" upon the text, it certainly can and often does exclude other appropriate interpretations that the reader, especially the Spirit-enlightened reader, might otherwise bring to it. It dominates and directs the imagination. It does so, I would submit, in proportion as it is an expansion; the more extensive the examples and cultural specificities supplied by the interpreter, the more restrictive is the targum to the reader's own mind.

Writers of targums (targa?) might object that the reader knows that their targum is merely an interpretation and hence not authoritative. Perhaps. I suspect the authors of "Left Behind" offer the same defense. What, in my opinion, makes them more pernicious than straightforward commentary is that they take the same form as the underlying scripture, and thereby enter the reader's mind by the same door as the scriptures would, and gain status thereby, so to speak. I think this is dangerous ground for any teacher to tread upon.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Not much time to write this AM, but let me make a few observations about abortion and minor consent from the point of view of a physician practicing emergency medicine for 25 years.
  • Current law forbids my touching a minor even to treat her sore throat without parental consent.
  • The two exceptions are a) the existence of any medical emergency that requires action before consent can be obtained, and b) a minor who is pregnant or has been pregnant, who is considered "emancipated"
  • Though I may treat the true emergency as clinically necessary, I must also be making an effort to inform the parents, except in the case of the emancipated minor
  • I see complications of pregnancy all the time. I have never seen one that required an emergency abortion. In the first trimester, the health-threatening conditions all involve fetal demise in any case, and treatment consists of" cleaning up" after the miscarriage or tubal pregnancy. This is true in the second trimester also, where complications involve the placental apparatus for the most part, or a weak cervix, both of which primarily threaten the baby's life. In the 3rd trimester, there are conditions like pre-eclampsia that do threaten the mothers life, but these are treatable by delivery of a now-viable baby.
  • The only maternal health issue that does not involve an inevitable fetal demise is "mental health." To my mind, these are precisely the cases in which parents need to be involved.

Gotta run.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Empire and Postmodernism.

Though I believe the empire against which we struggle is Babylon, yet it is true that at this time and place (the West in the 21st century) Babylon is utilizing global consumerism as a tool of empire. Elsewhere, such as in the Islamic states, she uses other tools, older ones perhaps. But Walsh and Keesmaat are concerned with the West, so let us go forward and continue to follow their argument.

Empires seek stability by influencing every aspect of life, especially the intellectual and creative lives of its subjects. This can be seen in recent empires' concerns to control the curricula in schools, in the Hitler Youth movement, and the state-approved art of the USSR, the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution. All these examples may seem obvious, and crude, because they are not our current culture and so can be seen by us more objectively.

If global consumerism is the economic structure of the empire, postmodernism is its intellectual structure. Postmodernism "on the street" is a deep-seated skepticism of all grand metanarratives, all grand stories or accounts that claim to organize or explain all of life. It is the doubt that truth is knowable, perhaps even the doubt whether Truth exists at all. Instead of believing or acting out of the convictions of a single metanarrative, the postmodern individual notes the existence of a plurality of differing organizing stories. He or she feels free to choose among them, even to the extent of picking them apart and selecting an account of origins from one and an account of sexuality from another. It is like mixing and matching clothing and accessories at the mall. In this way it is the perfect match to global consumerism. It is, in a sense, a "marketplace of ideas," or global consumerism of the mind. Furthermore, just as no one is expected to commit to one outfit or one laptop or one cellphone brand, so it is seen as backward and naive to commit to any particular philosophy or metanarrative combo as finally authoritative.

In all this, I think W and K are right on. Postmodernism is the official and sanctioned philosophy of the empire in these her Western provinces. A large portion of the book is devoted to exploring how the truth claims of God's kingdom can be brought forward in a manner comprehensible to a postmodern citizen of the empire. As I am not myself a postmodern man, I found this portion of the book most challenging. More on this later...

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who is the Emperor?

Perhaps I was reminded of Plato when I read Colossians Remixed because the latter is, explicitly in places, a dialogue. The book is structured as a possible response to the questions or problems of four real people, William, Elanna , Eric and Anthony, all young postmodernists. At times, the authors address anticipated objections through explicit, Socratic-style dialogue with a fictional reader. These dialogues are very well done, and generally put the finger right on the objection that was forming in my mind. They did not set up straw men.

They begin with a premise that underlies the subtitle of the book: we, like Paul and Jesus, live in an empire. Our empire is cybernetic globalism, which involves consumerism, global corporations, militarism, and technological optimism. Like Rome, like all empires, our empire claims allegiance on the basis of its being the source of peace and all that is good in our lives, and extends its images and its viewpoint into every aspect of life. It is totalitarian and ultimate. It takes the place and claims the honors that rightly belong only to God.

This conceptualization of the consumerist culture of global capitalism is a very fruitful one, allowing all sorts of useful insights into our lives in the West today. I plan to think more deeply on the ramifications of this idea, and perhaps thereby fulfill, at least partly, Walsh and Keesmaat's purpose in writing this book. Nevertheless, there is a problem with drawing a parallel between the Roman Empire and global consumer capitalism. They are not in the same category. They cannot be made analogous.

Rome was an actual empire. The word "empire" has a tangible, geopolitical meaning, and Rome -- and Assyria, and Babylon, the Soviet Union and 19th Century Britain -- were empires in this sense. These had a hierarchical structure with a single sovereign at the top, even if that sovereign was an elected one. They had specific domains. They had an identifiable imperial army. They had specific written laws. In short, they were specific instances of a human sovereign having dominion over a specific, if broad, geographical territory.

Global capitalism is a different sort of thing, even if it has some of the same features. It is an "ism", so to speak. Communism is also not an empire, though it also shares features of totalism and manipulation of images and imagination. Global capitalism and communism are one sort of thing, empire is another sort of thing. Indeed, an actual empire, like ancient Rome or the British empire, may be globally capitalistic while another, like the old USSR, may be communistic.

This may seem like a quibble, but it is not. How one relates to a thing is limited by what sort of thing it is. Paul could, and did, appeal to Caesar. This was not merely symbolic, or metaphorical, but actual, because Rome was an actual empire. Who is the emperor of global consumer capitalism? If W and K had explicitly identified the Empire as the United States, the analogy to Rome would have been better, but it would have narrowed the scope of their critique.

A solution that occurs to me, that they approach occasionally but do not develop, and which I believe is quite biblical, is that the idea of totalitarian empire, of which Rome was an instance, and which our western culture and various eastern and communist cultures are instances, comes from the ancient enemy of God's kingdom, Mystery Babylon. Both Peter and John make explicit connections between their Rome and the ancient whore. If one examines the world's lament over fallen Babylon in Revelation, one finds all the totalitarianism and commercial features that W and K find in Rome and in our culture. If this is so, if the empire is today, and always has been, Babylon, then we have identified an emperor, one with many heads just as we may see today, perhaps.

So why didn't W and K take it to Babylon? I suspect because that would shift the reader 's focus to the heavenly or spiritual realms, and they wish to focus on earth, in a geopolitical sense. This, I fear, is an overreaction to a perceived unbalanced dualism that emphasizes the heavenly and spiritual over the earthly and physical. The biblical stories emphasize both. We struggle in both worlds. Paul struggled "not against flesh and blood" but against principalities and powers, yet a flesh and blood Roman soldier lopped off his head.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Subverting the Empire...

I just finished reading Walsh and Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed. (Subverting the Empire.) This is a book that warrants a second reading, not merely because it is relevant, but because its argument is complex and carefully constructed and hence its truthfulness is not immediately apparent, at least to me. Reading the book, I felt the same sense of being led to a particular foreseeable conclusion, by a series of questionable concessions, as I feel when reading Plato's dialogues. At each pivotal point, I feel that the argument has been a little contrived, that the theoretical choices have been oversimplified and therefore somewhat narrowed. Coming to the conclusion, one wants to backtrack and perhaps contest more carefully a point that one had granted while feeling just a little uncomfortable with the choices offered or with the accuracy of the underlying assumptions.

In any case, I want to go back now and carefully scrutinize their argument. I hope to reflect on that scrutiny here.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Prayer of Confession

From the Daily office of 11/18/05:

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Most holy and merciful Father:We confess to you and to one another,and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth,that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

This prayer of confession appeared in the Daily office at Mission St. Clare a few days ago. I presume it is from The Book of Common Prayer. How wonderful it would be if such a comprehensive and searching prayer were a regular part of most of our evangelical Protestant churches. What beautiful babies were thrown out with the Roman bathwater...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Intelligent Design: Not a Theory

Though I lament the derogatory tone of this Krauthammer editorial in the Washington Post, I believe he is right on. Intelligent design, which I believe to be true and correct, is not a scientific theory but rather a conclusion, drawn by many scientists, based on certain logical inconsistencies in the natural selection account of origins and also by remarkable coincidences found in both quantum physics and astrophysics.. As such, it should be taught in the schools. The fact that the data leads some world-famous scientists like Paul Davies to suggest that a cosmic designer does exist is out there and addressed by other world-famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. This is a conversation going on at the highest level of scientific philosophical discourse. Just read A Brief History of Time or any other of Hawking's coffee table books and you will find the question of a designer god in every chapter, and sometimes on every page. He is not arguing with the Kansas Board of Education, but with the likes of Paul Davies. They are not arguing about a theory, but about a conclusion. See my comment here.

It is disingenuous to say that this conflict was initiated by ID advocates. The reason these mandates from school boards arise at all is because fear of litigation by the likes of the ACLU has squelched all discussion in the classroom of the theistic conclusions or presuppositions that real scientists like Davies or Hawking ... or Behe...consider every day. It is safe for a teacher to say that natural selection based on unguided, random mutations explains all that needs to be explained about origins. They could even teach Francis Crick's conclusion of "panspermia", (the idea that space aliens seeded Earth with DNA and whatever was needed to jump-start life on this planet.) But they get sued for discussing the conclusion, actually drawn by many prominent and working scientists, that the data itself suggests purpose and even manipulation by nonrandom, non-chance agencies, because such agencies smack of "God" and hence may not be discussed in school. It is this prior stifling of any discourse with any religious content that leads school boards to feel the need to explicitly endorse or even mandate the discussion of Intelligent Design. If public school discourse were really free and open, the discussion of the possibility of an intelligent creator, a discussion that has engaged the minds of the best scientists for centuries, would be part of every upper-level science curriculum.

Waste Land Limericks...

Hannah Eagleson has alerted me to Wendy Cope's translation of Eliot's The Wasteland into limerick form. It's a hoot.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Of other flocks and grafted vines

(Joh 10:16 NASB) "I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

This verse has always captured my imagination. As a young Christian reading C.S. Lewis's fiction, I thought of other creations on other worlds, like Malacandra or Narnia. How exciting to have fellowship with other persons with substantially different histories and cultures, discovering the elements of truth vouchsafed to them and peculiarly brought forth in their own stories! What a sumptuous feast for the soul!

Later I came to understand that our Lord was most likely and most proximally speaking of the gentile nations. For a fan of fantasy and science fiction, this was at first a letdown. However, on deeper consideration I find it just as exciting. The cultures of the various Earth peoples and nations are strikingly different. They partake of vastly different cultural and intellectual histories. They have seen the work of God through different lenses. The feast will not be diminished even if all the fare comes only from the gardens of Earth.

Hence my aggravation as I continue to hear the currently popular teaching that, to properly understand God's word and world, we must return primarily, even solely, to the thought patterns and philosophical viewpoint of the ancient Hebrews. There is no doubt of the importance of God's initial self-revelation to this particular people in this particular language, just as there is no doubt that we must begin our study of the Messiah with God's word to Eve about her seed. But to begin at a place is not necessarily to end there, or to remain there. It seems particularly clear to me that God reveals himself progressively, and that He is and always was Lord of all the earth and all its history of all its peoples. He intended from the beginning to bring all the nations into his flock, and has therefore troubled himself all along to direct their particular cultural histories no less sovereignly than he did Israel's.

Not being vintners or nurserymen, we too easily misunderstand what grafting involves. A grafted branch indeed draws its life from the stem and root. But it bears fruit unique to its own nature, its own originating variety. Indeed, this is the purpose of grafting in the first place: To produce fruit with certain desirable characteristics that are not found in the native variety. A neighbor of mine used to graft walnut trees. He would begin with a locally native seedling, whose roots are suited to this soil and climate but whose nuts are unremarkable, even bitter. He would then graft the top of another seedling whose roots were weak or disease prone, but whose fruit was large and sweet. These branches would draw their life from the strong roots of the native stock, and the tree would grow tall and strong. The fruit, however, bore the flavor brought by the grafted-on branches.

I think we miss much of the intended richness of God's Kingdom by dismissing ideas brought into it by its grafted branches and conjoined flocks. God surely knew, for example, that Alexander would bring the richness of Greek thought into contact with Israel centuries before the coming of Messiah, so that the earliest branches grafted in would bear its flavor. Was it unintended by God that Augustine would imbibe of Plato through Plotinus prior to being grafted in and so, directly and indirectly through his influence on such giants as Aquinas, imparting that flavor through two centuries of Christian thought? I doubt it. Instead, I think God continues to shed light upon our understanding as each grafted branch brings its peculiar insights into the Kingdom. What else are the kings bringing into the Holy City?

Rev 21:23-24 NASB
(23) And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.
(24) The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Paris burning

This is deeply disturbing, as it suggests to me that a very deep fault in European culture is beginning to slip. Insofar as many of these minorities are likely of Islamic background, it supports Gideon Strauss's contention that two of the five top issues for God's people at this moment in history are modern liberalism and Salafiyyah Islam.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

No good divorces...

Generation X is continuing to debunk the myths of their parents the Boomers. In this article in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Marquardt debunks the myth of the "good" (amicable) divorce.She concludes:

Those of us who grew up in the first era of widespread divorce have a new sobriety about it. Yes, sometimes divorce is necessary, but the uncomfortable truth our culture has been hiding for too long is that often it's not, and there is definitely no such thing as a "good" divorce. If parents must divorce, it's good to get along afterward. But people in high-conflict marriages aren't usually successful at "good" divorce (divorce doesn't typically bring out great new communication and cooperation skills). Couples in low-conflict marriages may manage a so-called "good" divorce, but many of them could also manage to, well, stay married and spare themselves and their children a lot of pain.
This sobriety is emerging in movies, in studies, on blogs. I'm convinced there's more to come. Our generation's story needs to be told, because our society still strongly wants to deny just how devastating divorce really is. Too many people imagine that modern divorce is another variation on ordinary family life. Sure, there may be some discomfort, but doesn't childhood stay basically the same?
The answer is no.

I am encouraged.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"In Heaven"

I like watching pendulums (pendula, whatever). As I sit here I am watching the stately beat of the pendulum of our 1915 neo-Gothic grandfather's clock, and the slightly faster pendulum of an old regulator wall clock. However, I do not like being on a pendulum, whether an amusement park ride or a theological trend. It makes my head swim. I want to puke.

I do not believe truth is itself dialectical, though we often go at it as though it were. In the church, if we feel that there is a trend or a popular notion that is in error or insufficient, we tend to counter it by taking a stand that is just as far from the truth, but in the opposite direction. We justify this behavior as a type of balancing, and it often "works" in the sense that the mass of believers will come to be distributed between the two extremes and hence be "closer" to the truth. Problem is, this method requires distortion or overstatement, both of which are in themselves lies even if the effect is to temper an opposing error or lie.

For example, I have often heard it said at missions conferences that, "God has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no mouth but our mouths." Now, I understand the purpose of this saying, but it just ain't so! Some hearers will accept it as true, distorting their understanding of God's sovereignty and his great commission.

Lately, I have been hearing two ideas that are being stated as if they were established truth, but seem to be really counterweights offered against popular ideas that are perceived as unbalanced. One is monism or physicalism with respect to the nature of man, offered against a naive body-spirit dualism that is believed to lead to pietism or gnosticism. The other is the idea that there is no heaven-as-reward taught in the scriptures, which is offered to balance a perceived overemphasis on the afterlife to the neglect of this world in this life. I have heard it said, "The Bible doesn't teach that believers go to heaven when they die." Or, more carefully perhaps, "The Bible doesn't call us to seek heaven as a reward, but rather to seek God's kingdom on earth." This latter is subtle. It creates a tension, an opposition, between seeking rewards in heaven and seeking the penetration of God's kingdom on earth. Jesus seems to know nothing about this tension, and urged both explicitly.

The link above will take you to a list of all the verses containing the phrase, "in heaven." With regard to this issue,check out the verses from the New Testament, near the end of the list.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Focus Entails Elimination

Yesterday, at a conference featuring Steve Garber and Byron Borger, we noted that the Biblical concept of knowledge includes, necessarily, responsibility to and care for the beloved, and is not simply rational or abstract or detached "head knowledge." We watched U2's music video "Numb," and noted that the modern glut of information coming at us from all sides has the effect of deadening our concern for any of it. It is easy to say that we should be personally involved, and should care for that about which we have knowledge, but it seems that today we are presented with so much information that it is manifestly impossible for a human being to care about all of it.

Perhaps we need to make a distinction between knowledge and acquaintance, to preserve the deep Biblical concept of "yada," Hebrew for "knowledge." We are simply "acquainted" with those myriad facts or ideas that enter our eyes or ears each day in this modem world, but about which we care nothing. We might say that we only "know" those persons or ideas about which we care and with which we are personally involved. All the rest is not knowledge but mere acquaintance.

It would follow that a person who is truly knowledgeable in this Biblical sense, is therefore truly concerned and involved. It also explains the moral dimension that the Bible attributes to both knowledge and ignorance, in which knowledge is virtuous and ignorance blameable. It is hard to see how head-knowledge, in the modern abstract and detached sense, could be anything but morally neutral. But if knowledge necessarily entails responsibility and care for the known, then increasing knowledge means becoming increasingly responsible and involved, and ignorance means irresponsibility and carelessness.

There remains the problem of focus. Given that we are deluged with information, how do we select which items will enlarge our knowledge and which should remain facts about which we are merely acquainted? This selection process, it seems to me, is a matter of "attention" and is analogous to our normal human sensory function of the same name.

As you sit reading this, the nerves carrying sensory information from your trunk and extremities, your ears and nose and even some of your internal organs, are all still functioning, sending information continually to your central nervous system (CNS). You are ignoring nearly all of it. Even in your visual field , as you look at these words, you are getting visual input from the edges of your monitor. Perhaps you can see the keyboard at the bottom of your visual field. But the attention function of your CNS is filtering out all the data that isn't pertinent to your reading this article.If you wish, without moving a muscle, you can note the precise position of the fingers on your left hand, or the sounds coming from outside, or the fullness of your bladder. If you do, you will decrease the attention you are devoting to the reading.

Attention -- focus--entails elimination. Persons with attention deficit disorder have difficulty ignoring sensory input that is not pertinent to the task at hand. Even those without such disorder regularly eliminate distracting elements from their environment when they wish to focus. We understand this. The crowd is hushed as the golf champion makes his putt.

I would suggest that in this modern age, if we wish to truly know the things and persons that should be known, we will have to do some eliminating. This elimination will not be the same for everyone, of course. Perhaps less time reading the paper. Less time on the computer. Less time with the cell phone on. Less time reading and more time praying, thinking and doing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Notes on the Lord's Prayer

At Kairos, we are studying the Lord's prayer. This will take you to some notes on the first words, "Our Father" .

Monday, October 24, 2005

"First Things": The Journal

My son recently gave me a gift subscription to "First Things," a publication of an organization called The Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, whose purpose is, "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." I am finding it very interesting, reading almost every article in each issue, which is unusual for me. The articles are scholarly but approachable for the well educated generalist. It is edited by Richard John Neuhaus and has a distinctly Catholic flavor which may put off some on-fire Protestants. Recent contributors include Antonin Scalia, Avery Cardinal Dulles and John Haldane.

One of the things I appreciate is that First Things now puts its past issues online in their entirety. The website includes a blog by Neuhaus. While I enjoy being able to refer readers to articles online, such publication clearly compromises their ability to sell subscriptions. I would recommend, as a way of materially supporting Christians engaging the culture, that those of us with means to do so patronize journals and artists by actually purchasing their work if we find it good and would like to see more of it.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


What a wonderful word is "Amen."

The Daily Office used by the Northumbria community and printed in Celtic Daily Prayer has us pray,

"Who is it that you seek?
We seek the Lord our God.
Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Amen, Christ have mercy."

How could we answer an unqualified "yes" to these questions? I do not even know what is the real extent of my whole heart, soul, mind and strength. I doubt that I have ever applied myself entirely to anything. I know, not only from scripture but also by experience, that my heart is deceitful.

Yet I wish it were not so. I would like to be better than I am. As I kneel and consider the query, "Do you seek Him with all your heart?" I say, "Yes, I wish it were so, I want it to be so, but I fear it is not completely so." I say, "Amen", "so be it", "may it be so truly." My affirmation carries within it a petition, an expressed wish that this intention become a reality. It expresses the tension between the now and not yet, the Kingdom that is here and yet still coming, my love that is present but not perfected.

A great word for those living in the Kingdom, on Earth, between the two Comings.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Prayer as Watershed

(And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.) T.S. Eliot

Heading west from Downingtown on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one passes a sign that reads,"Now entering Chesapeake Bay watershed." From this point west, until the beginning of the Mississippi watershed, any drop of water -- (or toxic spill) - -that falls to the ground will find its way into the distant Chesapeake Bay, in another state. I find the idea compelling. There is a line, real but invisible, to one side of which all water flows to the Chesapeake, and to the other side of which all flows to the Delaware. The place itself is very nondescript, without any remarkable ridges or elevations apparent. It's just a slight rise in a meadow. It isn't even the highest point between Philadelphia and the Susquehanna. Its nature as a watershed is a function of its elevation relative to its immediate surroundings, and in turn of those surroundings to the terrain surrounding them. The drop of rain falling on that spot doesn't know anything about the extended terrain, yet because of the nature of that terrain will inevitably end up in the Chesapeake, not the Delaware.

As we consider the topic, "Prayer'', in our Kairos study group, I am struck by the extent to which one's approach to prayer reveals the larger topography of his or her conception of reality as a whole. When one begins to talk about prayer, and even more when one sets out to pray indeed, she must confront the shape of her world, as that world is structured and represented in her mind. Is the future fully determined or open? Is the world simply matter-and-energy or is there real personal agency? How does God relate to us? Is He concerned only that we come to desire what He desires, or does He allow our desires to influence His own? What does it mean for God to change His mind? What is the nature of Time, chance and causality? What do we make of the irreducible imprecision of language? Why would God use such a medium?

At the point of prayer one finds practical implications of virtually all theological and philosophical categories and questions. The natures of God, Man and the cosmos. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. What it means to know anything, to hope or desire, to imagine and dream. Time and eternity.

Let us go often into this field, and see how the land lies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Daily Office online

For those of you who enjoy utilizing the Book of Common Prayer in your daily worship, but find it distracting to have to flip back and forth between sections, or find it difficult to decide just where in the church calendar we happen to be just now, here is an easy solution. This site provides the whole morning worship online, (including karaoke music to accompany the hymns!) I pull it up on my handheld tablet, together with E-sword for my prayer-list, and am ready to go.
(By the way, the completely free E-sword is one of the best computer-based Bible resources available. You have to pay a little to load a copyrighted Bible like NASB or NIV, but the searching, commentary indexing and study-note taking features are great. I now use it to develop all my lessons, as well as sermon-notes, etc. Combined with a tablet PC, it's like having a library in one's hands.)

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Call: Chapter 4

Several brothers and sisters in our Kairos group have decided to read and discuss Os Guinness' The Call. Derek has suggested that we do some journalling based upon our readings, and I thought I might do so here, both because I can type faster than I write, and because, if the journalling is to be somewhat public, then this is a good venue for it.

I thought it interesting that this chapter echos one of the themes I touched on below, that God is a Namer and consequently so are we. God's naming is a type of calling into being;
Thus in the first chapter of Genesis, God called the light "Day" and the darkness he called "Night". This type of calling is far more than labeling...such decisive, creative naming is a form of making. Thus when God called Israel, he named and thereby constituted and created Israel his people. Call is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be. Thus "naming-calling" the fusion of being and becoming.
When God calls each of us into being, he calls into being our entire story, our entire life, which according to Ps 139 he sees in its entirety before there is yet one day of it. In this sense, His "call" comes to us simultaneously with our creation, and is always "there" before God. His call is what He has created us to be, and from His perspective does not change, and will certainly be accomplished.

From our perspective, living in these sequential dimensions of time and space, it may appear to us that our "call" changes. I have spent thirty years training to become and then practicing as a physician, and have no doubt that that was my true calling, for those years. It is not clear to me that, for the rest of my life, I am to continue to function primarily as a physician. Perhaps, when God called me forth, he saw me practicing medicine for thirty years and then teaching for twenty.

In this chapter, Guinness elaborates some on what he calls the "Catholic Distortion" of calling. This is the two-tier, higher-lower, sacred-secular, perfect-permitted dualism that sees the life of spiritual contemplation as the highest or most perfect calling, and the life of action in the world as merely permitted and second-grade. He notes that this dualistic view was present at least as early as Eusebius, and is found in Augustine and Aquinas. Luther seems to have rejected it, teaching that "all works are measured before God by faith alone."

While I agree that, so stated, this is a distortion, and one that is very prevalent today, I am always troubled by the ease with which nearly everything that is wrong with the Church can be attributed to some sort of "dualism". Any overemphasis of one end of any concept that exists in a continuum can be critiqued by positing a "dualism" that opposes one extreme to the other in an obvious manner, demonstrating that either extreme, taken alone, is wrong, and therefore that the only things to do are to either affirm the whole continuum equally or to collapse it.

In this section, we seem to be heading toward the idea that no calling is higher than any other. I'm not sure I can agree with that. Perhaps the "higher-lower" dimension runs along a different line than the sacred-secular dimension, but I have no problem acknowledging that Mother Theresa (to take an extreme example) had a higher calling than I, not because her vocation was spiritual and mine secular, but perhaps because hers required a much deeper attained sanctification than mine does. Likewise I honor as doing a higher work than myself those physicians who forego safety, honour and riches to practice among the devastated peoples of Africa or Haiti. I am struck by Paul's noting in Romans that God is free to create some vessels for honour and some for dishonour and destruction, and that suggests to me that He might also create some vessels for particularly high honor and some for less honor.

I think I like Luther's formulation, at least as it appears in this chapter: what matters is the faith with which one's activities are pursued. The value judgement of higher or lower does not attach to the job description itself, but to the person's relationship to God in the doing of it. This is what renders the work straw or stubble or silver or gold, of passing or eternal significance.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Great Good Place

Derek Melleby, always concerned to improve my mind, has given me Ray Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place about so-called "third places" like pubs, cafe's, coffeeshops and barbershops (think Jayber Crow or Malcolm X). I've just begun reading, but it already has me thinking, again, about creating such a place myself. My wife and I own a small house about a quarter mile from our home, at a country crossroads which is in the midst of yet more suburban development, which has attached to it a 1500 square foot building previously operated as a country store. Right now, the house is an income property and the store is used as a shop for renovating the house, and as furniture storage (we rent the house furnished.) It is in walking distance of perhaps a hundred homes, but otherwise not on the way to anything, hence is not an ideal commercial property. For about 80 years it was operated as a store by the family that lived in the house, and the son of that family, now in his 80's himself, operates a small barbershop in one corner of it to this day.

I'm interested in determining what features my readers would consider attractive enough to actually warrant their incorporating into their daily lives some visits to such a place, to meet friends and neighbors. Tomorrow, I plan to create a little five-question interview like the "Books" interview, and answer it myself, then "tag" some others to answer it. Think about it: What kind of place would you actually go to once or thrice a week, spontaneously, on the way home from work or after dinner or on the weekend, to hang out with friends and meet neighbors? What would it take to interest you in such a public, informal place?

Still the best TV ads in a while...

First seen during Superbowl 2005.


During our recent visit to San Francisco, my wife and I visited a cafĂ© and boulangerie in Japan Town each morning for coffee, tea and pastries. One morning a young man with his two- or three-year old son sat at a table near ours, and the little boy kept up a steady stream of age-appropriate babble to his father as he picked apart his pastry and ate the sweetest parts first. I was not listening closely, of course, but I did notice that he interrupted himself twice to say the seemingly random words, “fire truck.” Only then did I notice that, in the background city noise, there was indeed a siren sounding (though it was certainly a police siren.) It had nothing to do with his conversation, and he did not talk about it or seem at all excited, but simply named that sound which he recognized.

During the same trip, down by Ghirardelli’s at the waterfront, a little girl walked by with her family, pointed to a street sign and said, “Golden Gate Bridge”. I looked, and the sign was one that used a stylized logo consisting of one of the pylons and a portion of the main span to symbolize, indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge. She recognized it and named it, addressing no one in particular. No further conversation followed, just the moment of recognition and the name called forth.

These observations brought the memory of an incident that struck me years ago as my wife and I stood by the sidelines of an intramural soccer game, together with other young parents and their young children. It was a still summer evening, and a little girl pointed up into the sky past my ear and said, “Balloon is up.” She said it twice. No one but me heard her or responded, but she did not appear to be seeking a response. She seemed quite satisfied to have made an observation of a hot-air balloon hanging in the sky above us, and having all the words necessary to describe the situation: “Balloon is up.” She turned away to look for other interesting things amidst the grass and blankets.

I remembered wondering at how content she seemed to be with her knowledge of the balloon. It was up. She got it. ‘Nuff said. She had no further questions. She was exercising her human capacity to name things, to attach sounds to objects and ideas. She was delighted as only very small children can be. Her knowledge was sufficient. She had a word for the object, and a word for its relative position, and (though she could hardly yet conceive any of these categories as categories) a word asserting its existence and the predication of its position.

How much more could be thought about the balloon! How many questions could be asked about it! Why does it rise? Because the air inside it is “warm”. Why does “warm” air rise? Which is to ask, what does it mean for air to be “warm”? Why did the maker of the balloon go to such trouble to make it colorful? Why do the people inside want to fly it? So many questions, so many concepts of which the child had no idea, and so was unaware that she had no words for them.

We are those who name. Adam’s first assignment on awakening in Eden was to name the animals. Primitive cultures, and ancient cultures including the Hebrew, attach a much deeper and almost mystical significance to names than do we moderns. To know a name was to know something deep about a thing, and to such knowledge was attached power over the thing named. In some cultures a person would have a public name and also a private name known only to friends and intimates. We see a hint of this in the white stones given to the saints in Revelation, on which is his own name known only to each saint and to God. Names, good names at any rate, contain knowledge and power. I think the ancients were right about this.

In the children I observed the satisfaction and pride we take in naming things, and in attaching words to ideas. Knowing a word for that shape in the sky, for that sound in the background, allows us to appropriate it as our own in some sense. We have a symbolic bin into which to place the memory of the thing, for our own future reference and for communication with others at some distant time or place. The children were appropriately pleased with themselves.

But our fascination with words and our sense of accomplishment in naming things hides from us the great depth of our ignorance. We tend to believe that if we can describe a thing well, using words or other symbols, then we have understood it, we have encompassed it about with our understanding. In what fundamental way is the statement, “The speed of light is the same in all frames of reference” (the kernel of truth underlying Einstein’s special theory of relativity) different from the statement, “The balloon is up”? For me, the working through of Einstein’s premise takes me pretty much to the end of my adult ability to comprehend and express, whereas the observations that satisfied the children are so apparent that I no longer even think to myself, “The balloon is up.” Why do we believe that the understandings and formulations that we construct as adult humans approach knowledge significantly more closely than those of our own children? Can we not easily imagine an intelligence for whom Einstein’s theories are as elementary and apparent as a child’s observation, “Fire-truck”? When we say, “God is eternal”, what, exactly, do we really know about what we are saying?

We must be careful when we use words lest, when we have constructed a complete sentence, we believe like the little girl that we have understood something. We rarely have; we have simply named it or collected a bunch of named concepts to describe it. Such knowledge is indeed wonderful, and is one of the ways in which we share the image of Him who Names, but it is, after all, like a child’s gathering a collection of beautiful smooth stones on a riverbank and feeling that he thereby understands the river.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Natural Family Manifesto and Liberalism

In the course of a conversation about liberalism, Caleb Stegall referred me to this Manifesto by Carlson and Mero, as an example of the type of position that he favors, and presumably that he considers non-liberal (since that is the context of the argument). I would recommend it highly.

I believe that Caleb considers this document to be non-liberal because it lists among its goals the limitation of certain "rights" that are currenly enjoyed by members of our American society, such as the right to abortion, to no-fault or easy divorce, and to government-sponsored daycare. If this is so, then I am decidedly non-liberal, as I endorse all the goals in this document. Furthermore, I would suggest that nearly all the folks he has accused of being incurably and unconsciously liberal would endorse this document and its goals. True libertarians, for sure, should have difficulty with this document. But it strikes me as odd that Caleb could have missed that most of those taking issue with him are on record elsewhere as opposing gay marriage, abortion, modern feminism, and divorce. The document's view of capitalism seems muddled; the authors seem to like small-scale, family-business capitalism but not large-scale, corporate and global capitalism. Some of his readers might disagree with the Family Wage concepts discussed therein, but I suspect that most would agree (again, including myself.)

My difficulty with Caleb may be that he seems to find fault with the modern liberal democracy in its processes, and does not distinguish this from its ends. He does not seem to like the process of sitting at a common table with representatives of antagonistic (to the goals of the Manifesto, for example) groups and foregoing coercive methods in favor of seeking consensus, seeming to believe that to procedurally grant equal discursive weight to contradictory beliefs or goals is tantamount to reducing those beliefs or goals to mere preferences or styles. If this is his view, and I am by no means certain that it is, it seems a willful ignorance about the depth of commitment by his blogging colleagues to many of these non-liberal, rights-limiting goals of political discourse and action.

This manifesto uses the formula, "We will...(recognize, allow, empower)." It nowhere states the mechanism by which these changes will be made. It is presumed that the Manifesto envisions such changes in the law of the land to occur through the processes of our modern liberal democracy. Interestingly, it traces the origin of our problem back to the French revolution, but not to our own. Is our own liberal democracy not deeply founded upon the thought of John Locke? It is undoubtedly so. If the Manifesto were to suggest that these changes are to take place through a military coup, or that after gaining political power through the means of liberal democracy we should abolish that democracy, and that process, in favor of rule by the church and an active suppression of dissenting opinion, then I would be against not the Manifesto's goals but its methodology. I see nothing in the Manifesto to suggest that it has anything but the highest regard for the process of modern liberal democracy. It merely makes the assertion that the smallest political unit is the family, not the individual.

This was actually the subject of one of my oral exams (which are really discussions led by the student) at St. John's: whether Locke's system requires the individual to be the smallest unit, or whether its account of government could be developed from some larger unit, such as a family or clan. It was my premise that it could be developed from a presumption of families or clans as the smallest unit. supported by the observation that Locke develops his sytem from individuals already organized as families (as opposed to Hobbes, who sees his state of nature as being mate-in-the-woods and move on.) For Locke, the family and clan were precursors of the larger state, very close to the state of nature, and not identical with the organization of the state of course. (He eschewed the argument for monarchy based on patriarchy). Nevertheless, all such formulations with the family as the smallest unit have difficulty comprehending the renegade individual. Just as biology, while recognizing the organism as a unit in some circumstances, must recognize the cell as a unit in many other circumstances. One cannot ignore the individual cell, simply because all larger tissues are, in one very important sense, simply organized collections of them. About half of us will die from the consequences of a single cell losing control of itself and escaping from the surveillance of the collective's systems to replicate itself, commandeer resources, and ultimately destroy the whole organization (cancer.)

Anyway, the Manifesto is an excellent document, somewhat simplistic perhaps in some of its macroeconomic ideas. The rights it proposes to curtail are not rights of access to the "public square", or to a "seat at the table", but only "rights" to behave in certain ways or to have one's property taxed or not taxed based on one's position in society and families. All this seems to me to be totally consistent with Locke's system, and hence with the modern liberal democracy, with the sole exception that this document asserts (though without working it out) that the family, not the individual, is the smallest political unit. Perhaps it is therefore crypto-patriarchal, but I don't think so. I'd like to see someone work through, as I tried at St. John's, a representative form of government based upon families. Would adult unmarried children vote? If so, would they have to vote like their father? Mother? If not, isn't this individualistic?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Books tag.

Derek Melleby has tagged me to answer the Books questionaire...

How many books do you own?
Counting only books on the shelves or on the floor next to shelves (ie, not in cartons in the attic), and only books thick enough to have titles on the spines, we have over 1,400 titles. Keep in mind that we homeschooled four children, so have many juvenile titles (think Newberry titles.)

What was the last book you bought?
I'm not certain, but in the "read next" pile are Lauren Winner's Real Sex, Guinness' Unspeakable, McIntyre's After Virtue, and Nahim's An Imaginary Tale: The Story of i (square root of -1).

What's the last book you read?
The last book I completed was Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack. Almost finished Colson and Cameron's Human Dignity in the Biotech Century.

What are the five books that mean the most to you?
This is really hard. As if one book I will list all the essays of C. S. Lewis, especially those in Weight of Glory and The Problem of Pain. If there is one writer whose thoughts and examples I quote or contemplate most often, it would be Lewis. In fiction, I suppose the Lord of the Rings might be best beloved, together with Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. Very influential in my appreciation of poetry was Carl Sandburg (when I was very young) and T. S. Eliot (especially Four Quartets) when I reached middle age. My favorite Biblical commentator would be C. H. Spurgeon (or possibly Boice), and my favorite book of the Bible would be Ecclesiastes. I realize that I have not specified many titles, but I guess I orient more to authors than specific titles.

I do not have a very wide blog world, and most of those I know of have already been tagged. I'd be interested in hearing from my sons who have public blogs, David and Daniel, and a near-son, Justin Cave.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Ecclesiastes and air travel

Flying to a distant city is an experience that affirms the observations of the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

This person here is a millionaire; he owns more and makes more than 98% of Americans, which means more than 99.9% of human beings. But look, from way up here you can barely see his house. In fact, if that house were bulldozed into dust, together with all his possessions, you couldn't detect a change in the landscape at all. The dust would barely reach the end of his street. He is part of a barely perceptible layer adherent to the great sphere of the earth, a film that could be scraped off with a fingernail. From here in the sky, not even very high up, I can look over the habitats of literally millions of his fellow creatures, his great cities merely a sort of excrescence, a scab upon the curve of the earth below. The smallness of his life, of his influence, is appalling. Truly man is dust, he is of yesterday and knows nothing.

I land in San Francisco. I make no difference whatsoever. Not one person in the city cares where I am from, who I am, what I do. I could be murdered in the Tenderloin and the city would grind on without a twitch, without a thought for my demise, because, truly, I mean nothing to it, I am completely inconsequential. I am not even visible from passing airplanes.

Considered from a viewpoint of a cruising 757, "under the sun", between the heavens and the earth, we are individually nothing, and even collectively, one senses that we could all die from plague and the earth would go on, the mountains would remain covered with snow, the desert foxes would hunt their prey, we would not be missed by this planet that is so huge, upon which we are such an insignificant smear. Yet our God knows each of us. It is a measure of the smallness of our minds that we work it backwards; we appreciate how small we are by contemplation of the size of the earth and its population. We do not think, because we cannot comprehend, how large God is to know, utterly, each one of those billions of souls as if she alone existed, to know each one better than I know my wife and children. What is man that thou considerest him? A smear on the earth, thinner than the the smear of mold on a tomato, yet each one a real person in God's eyes, known by Him. Let us enjoy our work under the sun, for that is God's gift to man. Let us not think it is particularly important in the grand scheme of things, or that we understand our place and the meaning of our lives. We do not. Yet that knowledge is not required of us; all that is required is that we remember God, that we attend to the relationship that makes us human and makes us significant apart from our miniscule effect upon the planet. We are known by the only knower that matters.

Monday, July 04, 2005

God is so personal...

There are various reasons for my not having blogged for the past is a big decision about where to go next with the embryology series, and a need to read some more before proceeding. Another is that my wife and I have been in San Francisco for the past week or so.

One reason for our trip was the duty to scatter my sister-in-law's ashes in the Pacific, as she had requested. She died two years ago, at age 52, of lung cancer, a few days after confessing her faith in the Lord Jesus, and the latter after over 30 years of faithful prayer by my wife. Susie loved the coast of the Monterey bay and peninsula, and especially loved the sea otters there. I found myself with 14 days off in a row, and we decided rather spur-of-the moment to fly west and do it.

Barb and I drove south from 'Frisco to a peninsula near Monterey and began to hike around looking for a good place to put the ashes into the sea. The vistas were gorgeous, with waves crashing on a rocky coast, twisted cypresses leaning against the wind, millions of nesting cormorants and other sea birds. We spent hours hiking the trails, looking for a spot that was private and had access to the water. Though it was unspoken, we both knew that Barb was also looking for sea otters. We knew that this area was a refuge for otters, and that, of course, there would therefore be otters around somewhere, or sometime, even if we didn't actually see one today. Still, Susie wanted otters…Barb wanted otters. We saw lots of seals hauled up on rocks or swimming around, but no otters. Finally, as the day waned, we had to just go somewhere and do it.

We had found one area of sandy beach that would do, though it wasn't, clearly, what we had in mind. We were thinking crashing waves with sea otters. There was one area we had not explored, and I had one of those odd, easy-for-a-scientist-like-me-to-dismiss-as-insignificant hunches that we should go there, and hike south, and if we didn't find "the spot", we would eventually end up at the beach which was at least acceptable. So that's what we did.

We parked and hiked out to the shore. There it was, the private rocky surf-carved place we were seeking. The surf was dramatic and a little scary, and the tide was coming in rapidly. We prayed, we cried, we thanked God for saving Susie at last, and committed her ashes to the sea.

As we rose to leave the rocks, I used the binoculars for one last scan of the kelp-fields. There, on his back smashing mussels on his belly, was a sea otter. Barb was delighted; this was the final touch, the personal touch of a God who cares about his children. I was moved again by the amazingly personal nature of God.

I realized that God frequently acts this way towards my wife. She prays, under her breath as it were, “It would be really nice if, on my fortieth birthday, God sent me a bluebird in the back yard. No big deal, but it would be nice.” And he does. “It would be really special if, when we scatter Susie’s ashes, there were sea otters.” And despite our efforts and hours of hiking in the “right” place, we cannot find a sea otter. Then, immediately after committing the ashes, there is a sea otter.

God does not act this way toward me, because I am not the same kind of person as my wife. I would not appreciate it, perhaps. I would write it off as coincidence, as silly, as beneath God’s attention. We do not relate in this way, God and I. But my wife has a collection of such personal touches in her life, the “insignificant” detail that was just the thing she was looking for as sign of God’s touch.

There is a recent movie whose identity escapes me, in which one character says to another, “It’s nothing personal.” And the other character wonders, “What does that mean? Everything is personal!” It is perhaps peculiarly (fallen) human to segregate events into personal and impersonal. Perhaps everything, literally, is personal. My relationship to my children is entirely personal; I regularly distinguish between them, love them differently according to their natures, and treat them differently according to their differing persons. In our home, we have always eschewed the concept of “fairness” as applied between parent and child among siblings. We do not pretend to treat all our children the same way; they are not the same persons. They have not grown up in the same home. One was an only child of parents in their mid twenties; one was a child with three older siblings and more experienced parents in their thirties. Everything is personal. In our home, the argument, “But you let so-and-so do it” carries almost no weight. You are not so-and-so, and my responsibility and relationship here is to you, not him. “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”

Perhaps we act impersonally because our minds are too small to act entirely personally. We have generalizing laws because we cannot manage case-by-case justice, every case taken absolutely on its own terms. We revert to custom and convention because we cannot attain to the complexity of really considering every person and every situation as entirely distinct and different. But God, of course, can and does.

If God is entirely personal, and if persons are the most fundamental things in the creation (which I suspect they are), then we cannot expect God to behave entirely “consistently”, i.e., he will not always do the same thing in what appears to us to be the “same circumstances”. They are not, of course, the same circumstances. They are only the “same” in a general way, a generalization required by our limited intellects, but not required in fact. This may be why scientific analyses do not reveal God’s activity; His activity does not follow what we would recognize as “natural laws”, which are fully generalizable predications. It may be, however, that the laws we do recognize simply “emerge” from God’s personal activity toward each of the billions of persons in his creation insofar as each of those persons do require certain consistencies of context to interact with each other and with Him. But this is to enter upon another topic, as well as to travel pretty far out a speculative branch.

In summary, I am overwhelmed by the deeply personal manner in which God relates to each of us, by the contemplation of the size of the heart and mind of a Being capable of such individuated concern for each of us. The whole world is transformed into a more deeply beautiful and mysterious place by these thoughts

Friday, June 10, 2005

Zygotes, Embryos and Narrative

(This is part 5 of an ongoing series that starts here…)

To be human means to have a history. Our histories have profound effects upon who we are and what we are like. This is so evidently true that all languages have hundreds of words that make distinctions based upon personal history. A widow is physically indistinguishable from a divorcee. A father from a bachelor. A victim from a perpetrator. An orphan from an heir.

Our histories also affect our legal status. Immigrants have different status by virtue of origin. Seniors have certain rights by virtue of age. Victims have standing in a court while non-victims do not. Debilitating accidents may cast our self-determination upon others.

At least in my reading, most evangelicals writing about beginning-of-life issues make the assumption that “an embryo is an embryo is an embryo.” All embryos with human DNA are “human beings”, period. There is no recognition whatsoever that embryos themselves have narrative histories. There is the assumption that whenever an embryo exists, “someone’s” personal life history has begun. I am not certain this is true.

What are the salient features of the narrative of the beginning of life in the Bible? Adam was formed directly by God, (body from the earth) and then inbreathed by God as a separate, remarkable action. But prior even to this, God determined to make Man. Man existed first in the imagination of God, as an end of his forming of man. When God made Eve, the same elements are found: imagination, purpose, forming of matter, but not, this time, the separate breathing. God then commands them to reproduce and "fill the earth." But for Biblical man, this was never a matter of simple determination like it is for God. Man couples, but it is always understood that God opens the womb. The life narratives of adult husband and wife do include attempts to beget children, but do not include the actual beginning of any of their offspring’s' lives. These lives begin in secret, in the dark womb, as God's action. This is a deeply important concept in the scriptures, worth emphasizing. Children are not simply made, by the will of man or woman, but are given by God, originating in his mind just as did Adam and Eve, where is known their entire narrative, "all their days, before there is yet one of them." We see this over and over, from Sarah and Rebecca to Hannah, Bathsheba and Mary.

The narrative of each of our lives, then, originates not in those of our parents, but in God's. Our parents' lives are the setting, or context, but not the source of our own lives. The story of one's life originates in God.

This is the point made in Psalm 139, which is commonly reasoned backwards by evangelicals. The adult psalmist traces not only his origin but also his entire life story back to the mind and purposes of God. He is marveling not at the power of his own embryo to self-assemble and develop into a baby, but at God's sublime action in purposefully forming him through all the stages of his physical development. He sees his life as coming from God, who conceived him in His mind before he was even a single cell, and formed him in his mother's womb (of stuff he couldn't begin to understand; but the nature of that stuff is not his point, the Builder is.)

To close today: The zygote or embryo is not the origin of the narrative of any human life. That narrative begins in the purposes of God. This, I think, is the witness of all the Bible narratives, and meditations, from front to back. This distinction has several implications for how we view embryos, which I’ll begin to develop next post.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Traditionalist Conservatism

Just finished this interesting article in "The New Pantagruel." It is a little slow starting, but became pretty interesting to me about halfway through. I suspected I might be a neoconservative, but now think I am actually a traditionalist conservative. Some highlights:

  • The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.
    So drenched in the progressive spirit is American political discourse (how could it be otherwise in the novus ordo seclorum?) that the backward glance is usually rejected out of hand, and with the most facile of arguments.
  • While in possession, we take our good for granted and, so, often fail to recognize it. But in the face of loss, the human good is vividly revealed to us. We lament the loss of goods, not the loss of evils, which is why lament illuminates. Is it not striking that whereas antebellum Southern writers championed both the economic and moral superiority of the “peculiar institution,” post-bellum Southern conservatives typically did not lament the loss of slavery, but rather lamented the loss of gentility, gallantry, domesticity, and the virtues of yeoman agriculturalists? While it may be true that nostalgia views the past through “rose-colored glasses,” such a criticism misses the point. To see the good while blinkered against evils is, nevertheless, to see the good. This is a source of knowledge, as well as a moral source.
  • Whereas the Enlightenment “builds down” from politics to morals, the conservative “builds up” from morals to politics. Perhaps it would be fair to say that the liberal tradition even today has not yet generated a credible account of moral life. Perhaps it would be similarly fair to say that the conservative tradition has not yet generated a credible account of political life.

Check it out.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Good Question...

Perhaps persuasion is now the role of the blog... At least, it has that potential.

What is Cloning?

(This is part 4 of a series, which begins here...)

“Cloning”, in general, refers to the production of an exact copy of a living organism. Generally, when nature creates a clone, a large number of copies are made. The term is used to describe the normal process within our own body whereby a certain type of immune cell is made. Something to which we are becoming immune will change one of our immune cells, which “recognizes” the foreign substance as foreign and constructs an antibody to that substance. Then this cell that “knows” the foreign substance is replicated by the body over and over again, so as to generate an army of identical cells, all of which can make the new antibody. (Palpatine’s Clone Army writ small…) Likewise, most cancers are “clones” of one or a few cells that somehow lost their ability to govern their own reproduction and have begun to replicate themselves endlessly. The huge colonies of E. coli and other microorganisms that are used to produce human insulin and other human protein medications are clones of a bacteria cell into which was inserted a human gene, the “blueprint” for human insulin for example, and then that cell was “cloned” into billions of identical cells, all of which have the gene for insulin and make insulin along with their normal products. When we do bone-marrow transplants, or grow skin tissue on Petri dishes to treat burn victims, we are relying upon types of cloning processes, using adult stem cells in the case of the bone-marrow transplant.

The cloning that is controversial is the reproduction of human tissues from “embryonic” cells. I have used quotation marks to indicate that the term “embryonic” can have different meanings, which may be philosophically as well as technically distinct. We already clone bone marrow stem cells to replenish cancer victim’s cells that have been wiped out by chemotherapy or radiation. We already grow layers of skin on culture medium to treat burn victims. We already swap whole tissues and organs from one individual to another, from corneas to livers to hearts and lungs. We therefore have not evidenced a theological problem with “tissue ownership” or with growing tissues outside the body to be returned to the body of a victim as “repair” tissue, even if the tissue was not one’s own. The problem resides in the concept of “embryonic”, because we identify the embryo as being an individual human being, so that any manipulation or destruction of the embryo is seen as human mutilation or murder.

Let us look closely at this type of “cloning”, considering the reasons people are interested in it, and the processes involved at this time in the development of the technology.

The type of cloning we are considering is called somatic-cell cloning. A somatic cell is a cell that comes from body cells as opposed to reproductive cells. If we wanted to generate a whole group of identical persons, for example, we could start with a zygote fertilized in the normal way, by combination of sperm and egg, and then keep separating that little ball of cells over and over again to get identical twins, then identical quadruplets, then identical octuplets, etc. These individuals would all be identical to each other, but different from everyone else outside their birth-group because their genetic material came, originally, from a sperm-and-egg fertilization and is hence unique. This is not somatic-cell cloning, because it starts with the germ cells.

In somatic cell cloning, a nucleus is taken from some non-reproductive-system cell in a developed organism, and “reset” to the original pluripotent status characteristic of a zygote. That is, all the “librarians” in the library are instructed to close all the open drawers, and now unlock only those drawers with those blueprints that are opened to begin development of the whole body from scratch, ie, those drawers which are open in an embryo at the ball-of-cells stage. It is like pressing the “reset” button, so that now this cell, which previously could only develop into a bone or muscle cell, could now develop into any and every tissue in the body. Because this cell came from a certain donor individual and has all that individual’s genetic material, this means that any tissue that developed from this cell would be genetically and immunologically identical to the donor’s tissues, hence it would be accepted back into the donor’s body in the same way that his own skin cells can be accepted back after being grown in tissue culture. It is the promise of being able to grow such identical replacement tissues that makes somatic-cell cloning such a hot research item.

So, the goal in human cloning is to take a donor's differentiated, determined cell and reset its nuclear material back to the embryonic state, so that it can then develop into any human tissue that is needed. How might this be done? How to convince the “librarian” proteins to reset the library to Day 1? Scientists reasoned that there might be something in the environment of an egg that sets the nucleus to behave as an embryonic nucleus, so they began removing the unfertilized nuclei from eggs, sucking the nucleus out of a donor’s somatic cell (a skin cell, for example), and injecting it into the enucleated egg. I am simplifying greatly, but the idea is to use the cell-constructing machinery of the egg cytoplasm (the cell organs outside the nucleus that do the building) together with the instruction set of a particular donor’s unneeded somatic cell nucleus. Whatever molecules or combination of circumstances that obtain within an egg cell, they serve to reset the genetic code in the nucleus. One day, almost certainly, the exact identity and mechanism of action of these “resetting” proteins will be discovered, and at that point the somatic nucleus may not have to be placed into an empty egg cell, but perhaps “reset” in a test tube, within its own original cell membrane. It is important to understand that the use of evacuated eggs is, at this point, simply a crude technique to accomplish an intranuclear event: the un-determination of the somatic cell, a reversion to an earlier state in the developmental program.

One can easily see the cause of the most serious alarm among evangelicals: the status of the reset nucleus-egg cell as “embryonic”. If indeed this technique creates a “fertilized egg” that, if implanted in a womb, would develop into the donor’s twin, does it not become a separate “human being” at the moment the nuclear program is reset? Is it not just the same as all the other in-vitro embryos that are created in the various processes of technologically-aided fertility? Is it not the donor's "twin"? More next time….

(This series continues here...)

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Differentiation and Determination

(This is installment #3 of a series on cloning. The beginning of the series is here.)

After fertilization, the zygote begins to divide, duplicating all 46 chromosomes faithfully each cell division so that every daughter has the same genetic material. At first there is no growth, and all the cells are the same, so that the size of the cells gets progressively smaller as their number increases. The cells keep dividing until there is a ball of cells. At this stage, every cell is pluripotent, meaning that any one of these cells, if separated from the others and placed in a nurturing womb, could develop into a normal baby. This means that the cells are not yet determined to become a particular type of cell, and since they are all the same, and not specialized yet into any particular type, they are also not yet differentiated. Identical twins occur at this point when something causes the undifferentiated, undetermined small ball of cells to come apart into two, each of which then continues to develop normally. Since all the cells have the same genetic material, the resultant individuals will be genetically identical. One could take this ball of cells and separate it into three parts, getting identical triplets. One could separate it into four parts, and get identical quadruplets. The point is, each of these cells, and any group of these cells, is capable of building an entire, normal individual. They are pluripotent stem cells, one of the types of embryonic stem cells you have heard so much about.

As the cells continue to divide, the ball begins to hollow out, and soon the hollow ball loses its complete symmetry as one side pushes into the interior of the ball so that some of the cells are on the “outside” of the ball and some of the cells are on the “inside”. At this stage, the cells begin to be determined, meaning that their instructions in their nuclei begin to be “set” irreversibly so that they become destined to become a certain class of cell, and lose their original capability to make every possible type of human cell. If you think of each type of cell deriving from some other type of cell, like branches off a tree with each smaller branch representing a more particular type of cell, the zygote (fertilized egg) is the trunk, and has the capability of developing into every type of human cell. It is therefore the ultimate “stem cell”, since all other cells “stem” from it. At very early stages, when the embryo is still microscopic, some of those cells become committed to become skin and lining cells, some commit to becoming nerve tissue, and some commit to becoming bones and muscles, though at this stage they still all look the same. The fact that they are committed means that they have become determined, and cannot go back to being pluripotent zygote-like stem cells. They are still stem cells, because they will give rise to yet more specific cells and retain the capability of being several types of cells, just not ALL types of cells. They might, for example, become a bone cell or a muscle cell, but can’t any longer develop into skin cells or brain cells. Since they aren’t yet actually bone or muscle cells, they are not yet differentiated, but their internal program is now set for a certain pathway of development, so they are determined.

The rest of the development of the embryo is a matter of continually narrowing capabilities of the stem cells, as they become more and more narrowly committed to a certain type of tissue. Also, the cells begin to look and act differently from one another, becoming differentiated into specific mature cell types. By the time of adulthood, the individual still has many stem cells scattered throughout (probably) all his tissues, which serve to heal injuries and replenish losses. Most of these stem cells are still very determined (that is, they are committed to a certain type of tissue), however, and very hard to isolate. The different types of blood cells are being continually formed from stem cells in the bone marrow, but these stem cells can only “branch” into specific types of blood cells, and couldn’t become skin cells. There are other stem cells scattered in our skin that can regenerate a few types of skin cell. For example, it is now thought that there may be some stem cells even in the heart, so that under the right circumstances cardiac muscle might be regenerated. Our livers already do a pretty good job of regenerating themselves, presumably from residual stem cells that are capable of becoming the various types of liver cell.

Returning to our metaphor of the nucleus as blueprint library, we can think of the librarians (the regulatory proteins that "tend" the DNA) as controlling very tightly the set of blueprints that can be accessed in each cell. One can think of them unlocking and locking various drawers, so that only certain blueprints are available in that library (that cell nucleus). At fertilization, they gather together the filing cabinets from the father and the mother's germ cells, and begin to open certain drawers that contain plans for molecules and building materials needed for formation of the ball of cells, and they lock up the drawers that have plans for very specific cell structures like nerves and bone and skin, that are not yet needed. As the contractor molecules come in for plans, they can only get those that have to do with being an embryo and setting up the framework for the organism as a whole. At some point, for reasons we do not completely understand, having to do with size and age of the embryo and with the position of the cell within the embryo, some of the librarian molecules in some of the cells open some new drawers, and lock up some old ones. The new drawers have plans for new structures, new molecules, new cellular machinery that will make the cell differentiate into a particular kind of cell, and the locking of the older drawers means that there is no going back now; the cell has been "determined" to the extent that the drawers for the earlier functions are now locked and inaccessible. As the cell divides and the "libraries" are duplicated, the librarians are duplicated also, so that the daughter cells will have the same drawers open or locked. An adult stem cell is a cell that keeps some of the earlier drawers open, in case injury necessitates the small-scale regeneration of some particular tissue.

The interest in stem cells derives from the observation that some animals, such as salamanders, can regenerate entire limbs, while we cannot. Why can we not? It appears that whatever stem cells we have retained, there are none “primitive” enough, none close enough to the original embryonic stem cells, that can recapitulate the original process and generate and direct the whole set of cells and processes needed to reconstruct the damaged limb or organ. The irony, of course, is that we know that the whole instruction set is “in there” in the DNA, we just don’t know how to push the “reset” button, so to speak. Those early blueprints, the parts that originally constructed our nervous system, musculoskeletal system, GI tract and skin all from a single featureless cell, are somehow there but “locked up”. Stem cell research is all about trying to learn how to turn these organ-construction programs back on again. It is about identifying those circumstances that push the "librarians" to return a given cell back to a pluripotent state, unlocking the very early file drawers and undoing its determination as a particular type of cell.

(This continues here...)