Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Culture of Heredity

Still short on time, so only a few thoughts. I am intrigued by the idea of a "culture of heredity" discussed within this article in the the New Pantagruel. I have noticed that the Catholic students at St. John's seem to be more comfortable with and open about their faith than the Evangelicals. (I must credit Hannah Eagleson as first putting her finger on an observation that had not quite gelled in my mind.) I believe that part of the reason is that the Catholic students are somewhat aware that they stand at the end of 2000 years of conversation within their religious community, while the Evangelicals' theology might go back 500 years if they are Reformed and substantially less if they are not. The Catholics' culture feels "thick", while the Evangelicals' feels "thin". In fact, the Evangelicals have no sense of intellectual history at all, in my opinion. Each generation starts afresh with the Bible, without encouragement to recognize work that has already been done. Evangelicals are always reinventing the wheel.

I feel this somewhat myself. I worshipped for many years as a Catholic; you know, the same prayers and liturgy every week, anathema to most Evangelicals. But in the Confiteor I had a prayer that was really excellent and theologically sound, better than most of the touchy-feely confessional prayers I hear in my current church. Furthermore, our liturgy demanded a time of self-examination and confession every worship service, without fail, like breathing. One knew what was coming; one could prepare one's heart. I watched my father, who had learned from his father. One was quiet before the Lord, one kneeled reverently and covered one's face for shame while he confessed his sin to God, then accepted God's forgiveness and stood and lifted one's head and sang the Gloria Patri. Truths were caught.

But such heritable culture involves authority necessarily. To work, there has to be some measure of recognition of authority in the traditions themselves, else they slip and slide as each person, or each particular church, chooses to make whatever changes might please them. I do not think it is an accident that there has been such fragmentation in Protestantism in the past 500 years; it is inherent in "Sola Scriptura" as it is commonly understood, as it comes to be commonly understood. Don't get me wrong, I believe the Scriptures are the final authority, but the "Sola" part comes to mean we need not look elsewhere at all, only at the scriptures and finally only at our own interpretation of scripture. In fact, of course, we Protestants do rely upon tradition, we just don't recognize it or have any coherent approach to it. For us, a commentary by Luther or Calvin, or an exposition by Kuyper, holds an authority that is not initially based upon an informed personal opinion but rather on their recognition within our denominational subculture as reliable authorities and fathers in the faith. But we stop short of admitting it, and of passing it on consciously to the next generation. If we hope to develop a heritable culture, we need to be much more careful about jettisoning the ideas of our brethren in the past, and much, much more careful about admitting new ideas into our churches. We have to have a deeper and more self-conscious respect for the authority of the historical church in matters intellectual, theological, and practical.

(For an essay into the dislocations felt by some of our young people, you might check out Daniel's post dated today. It's a long one, though...)

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Silence is Broken

This is a nightshift week for me, so it may be difficult to get together any thoughts worthy of posting. However, my son Daniel has resumed blogging, after a silence that is explained in his recent posts. Check it out...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

For those of you with mp3 capability in your car or on your hip, check out this site. It has thousands of sermons in mp3 format. They can be searched by Bible verse, by speaker, by topic, by name it. Of most interest to me personally, they have sermons by long-dead preachers like Spurgeon, Edwards and Wesley (through the magic of time travel!) No really, they do! OK, maybe it's not actually Spurgeon, and maybe it's not read exactly as he would have preached it, but they're his words, and you can listen to them on the road or on the lawn tractor or treadmill. How cool is that? The link will reside on my sidebar.

NY Times Editorials Today

Today online, the NY Times has simultaneously featured their two columnists that I really respect, Brooks and Kristof. Neither are Christians, but neither are they (like Maureen Dowd) vituperative toward Christian viewpoints. Today, Brooks contrasts social liberals and conservatives on the Schiavo case, and finds both sides wanting, though offers no solution. Kristof writes about Christianity's ascendency in Africa and the East, noting that it is now probably stronger in the East than in the West, and that it thrives in adversity. Both are short interesting reads.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Reading up on Western Liberal Society

Till yesterday, I was never suspected of being a liberal. I was therefore rather intrigued by Caleb's diagnosis in his comments on my blog from yesterday. Somewhere down the comments, near the end, he suggests some remedial reading, which I have done, and which I recommend to others. (Was it a ploy to increase the readership of tNP? I had not bothered to read these articles, though now I have...). Very interesting points, about which I mostly agree, having lamented (perhaps not here, though) many elements of our culture that are probably traceable to the Enlightenment assumption of individual autonomy as the only basis for civil society. (Ironically, my reading at St. John's these two weeks has been Hobbe's Leviathan and Locke's Second Treatise, both of which start at this premise and both of which are obviously foundations of our current Western democracies.)
While granting, for now, his diagnosis (in this sense), it remains to be seen whether anything can be done about it. Some things are irreversible; the opening of Pandora's box cannot be undone; the native American's will never have their land or culture back, etc. Can we go back to tradition (heritable culture), as opposed to simply "adopting" traditions, which is really just individual choice exercised in the area of quaint practices?
I have my doubts. There is much talk of monasticism these days, even among protestants. I would and have considered monastic orders, but then I come from a Catholic background. I was intrigued when John Michael Talbot and his wife entered the Franciscan (I believe) order when I was much younger. However, I cannot see this movement as having any real chance to change the culture, though it may allow some to escape it. This site is named after a failed religious community in England (Little Gidding). The monasteries and cloistered communities are already out there, and have been for a long time. Lots of people read Merton but few join the Cistercians. We Bobos all have Shaker furniture, but where are the Shakers? I live a few miles from the Amish, and I see no movement to adopt their lifestyle or to be attracted to Christ through their witness. I don't know. I don't think there is any going back, though I'd be willing to try if someone provided some credible vision of how to do so.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

An invitation to commit...

In reading the various blogs regarding the Schiavo case, I have felt that there have been some unspoken background stands that some bloggers seem reluctant to "out". I would like to provide an opportunity to commit to specific, somewhat simplified questions, so that we may know what are the underlying assumptions of your other writing. I specifically invite Moon, Caleb, whoever the Anonymous writer from tNP may be if not Caleb, Brian, Paul, Derek, Christie...anyone who has blogged about this in this interconnected group, to answer these two questions, without dissembling:

1) If Terri Schiavo's own wishes could be known (for example, a credible document or living will were found), would you allow her to refuse placement of a feeding tube, if that were the only means to provide her with food and water? Think of this as a thought question, if you will...please no arguing about whether such a document could be credible now, or whether she could be fed by mouth. (Assume she can't be, because some people certainly can't be.) Assuming that she could foresee her current state, or its possibility, would you allow her the right to refuse tube feedings under these circumstances?

2) If you, yourself, were in her exact medical situation, excluding the current intrusion of the public, and even assuming your own family situation if you like, would you want the tube placed into yourself?

Here's my answer. 1) I believe that refusing the placement of a feeding tube is one of Terri's acceptable moral choices. I believe that she has the right to prescribe that no person take such liberties with her body as to insert a latex, or plastic, or metal appliance into her mouth or nose, much less cut a new hole into her abdomen, if she does not wish it, and understands at the time of making the decision that such a proscription will eventuate in her own death under these circumstances. 2) I would exercise this choice in my own case. I unequivocally would refuse the placement of this tube, were I in her condition. I can, at this time, understand her condition and can comprehend the possibility that various events could lead to my being someday in a similar state. Under those circumstances, I would not want the tube placed. To me, regarding myself and my own family, it isn't even a difficult question.

Please do commit here. I feel we will be able to better understand your reasoning on your blogs if we know how you stand on these two questions.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

One paper down...

Well, one paper down (on Aquinas' Summa) and one to go (tomorrow, on Aeschylus' Agamemnon). Anyone interested in Aquinas on law, or in the kind of essays required at St. John's, or just having trouble sleeping as I am right now, can find it posted at my notes-style web page, in the link above. All St. John's essays are simply reflective, so there aren't any citations except from the work itself. If you don't know the works involved, the essays will mean little. bed and try to sleep again...

Monday, March 21, 2005

A worthwhile blog on the Schiavo case.

Moon has referenced what seems to me a very useful blog on the Schiavo case, which even includes a CT image of her brain. I had not seen these before. There is a lot of talk about her need for an MRI. Sorry, guys, I view CT's of heads every day, of normal folks and folks with advanced dementias from strokes or Alzheimers,, and this is the most pitiably degenerated brain I have ever seen in my 25 years of practice, and that by a very long shot. I can't begin to guess what anyone thinks an MRI will add. There is nothing there. This is not going to be one of those cases where Uncle wakes up and walks out. Ms. Schiavo has already awakened. To be awake requires only a brain stem, not a brain. In medical school we had a horrible cat whose cerebral cortex had been surgically removed. The cat still ate, stood up, walked, was "slinky" like a cat...all that, with only a brain stem and spinal cord. It did not have to be "kept alive" by "extraordinary means". I guess it was still "a cat". It was a miserable, pitiable thing nontheless.

Mr. Hilzoy makes the point (in the blog referrenced) that this is not about the state "killing" someone, and never was. It is about withdrawal of treatment and about consent issues regarding an incompetent patient. Michael Schiavo, like him or not, has been enabled by the courts to make decisions on Terry's behalf. Again, this is done all time, every day, and decisions to not resuscitate or to withdraw treatment are made every day in this way, and must be. If I tell my wife (as I have) that I don't want to be kept alive with a feeding tube, and if I subsequently lose my ability to elaborate on that verbal directive, you better be sure that I don't want anyone else out there preventing her from pulling my tube, especially not to make me a poster boy for the pro-life political agenda. (Which, by the way, has already lost this one, no matter how it goes for Ms. Schiavo. They have turned the eyes of the Leviathan toward this issue, and now there will be no end to legistative and judicial mucking about here.)

In the Nursing Home

She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.

She has stopped running the wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed's dry.

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

(By Jane Kenyon)

Placing this poem on a blog is probably a copyright violation, but I will assuage my conscience by highly recommending this poet as a delightful, gentle Christian voice who has gone out of this world. Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Congress and Terry Schiavo

I have two papers to write for school, one on Aeschylus' "Agamemnon" and one on Aquinas on Natural Law, so not much time. Yet I wanted to submit the proposition that you all really don't want the Congress getting too mixed up in the Schiavo case. It can only complicate matters.

The pro-life carrying-on that is in all the newspapers now is, in my opinion, quite inappropriate and short-sighted. The last thing we want is the government weighing in more heavily in these issues. What the non-medical public seems to be forgetting is that decisions to remove feeding tubes, or to not put them in, or to not resuscitate, or to not treat in other ways, are made every day by families and physicians and individuals all over the country, and there is rarely any problem. Right now, somewhere, a feeding tube is coming out. Right now, some ER physician is deciding not to attempt to resuscitate someone. People die every day, and everyone has to die of something.

I am pro-life, have always voted pro-life...just to get my "credentials" out there. Yet, if I were Terry Schiavo, I would NOT want that tube put back. And I put feeding tubes in every week. Most of the time, I hate myself for doing it. I shove some smelly rubber tube through a weeping hole in some completely debilitated human being's abdomen, and wonder, "Why can't we accept that this person's race is run? Why can't we let her go in peace?" For, you see, I believe quite strongly that just as God placed within us certain mechanisms by which we are born (such as the foramen ovale and the ductus arteriosus that close at birth to allow us to become air-breathers), so He placed within us certain mechanisms by which we die when we are sufficiently broken. We stop eating. We stop breathing, or breath inadequately. We dehydrate. We die. That's how Grandma used to die, in her room off to the side. She "went off her feed", had insufficient oral intake of calories and water, weakened, and died, perhaps of an infection that today we would aggressively treat. This is dignified. This is the proper end of life.

Want to treat Grandma with respect and dignity? Keep her at home. When she is unable to feed herself, feed her, with a spoon. When you are unable to feed her enough, when she refuses food, (and it is not simply...and I say simply...depression) then make her comfortable, for she is in the process of dying. Clean her, keep her comfortable, and wait. It is the way we have been dying for millenia.

It is the same with devastating accidents. We have a built-in shut-off mechanism. I have seen a man cut in half, across the pelvis. Could such a man be saved? There is a chance. Would I honor such a man's request to let him go? Most certainly. These are admittedly more complex decisions, but my point is that they are not the kind of decisions that a government can make. Usually they are made in the midst of flashing lights and squirting blood, often by gut feelings about what is salvageable. Sometimes by a soon-to-be widow or widower standing by in tears.

The end of life is as holy a time as the beginning, and just as mysterious. Perhaps more so. To pretend to understand it, to regulate it like traffic or interstate sales, is to tread where we should not tread.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Colson - Wallis Exchange

I found the following recent exchange between Chuck Colson and Jim Wallis very interesting, especially considering Colson's practical credentials. For thirty years he has been helping the most desparate and hopeless in our society, those in prison and their families. When he speaks about the basis for social justice, I listen.

Start with this recent Breakpoint commentary by Colson. Then you can read Jim Wallis' open letter to Colson, in response to this commentary. Finally, read Chuck Colson's open letter to Wallis.

I gotta say, I'm with Chuck.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Physicality of Evil: Shaking Hands with the Devil

Just thinking out loud here. The link above will take you to an interview with Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda before and during the genocide. I recommend listening to it (can stream if you have a high-speed connection.) Toward the end of the interview, Terry Gross asks him about the title of his book, "Shaking Hands with the Devil". The general feels that there were certain individuals involved in the genocide that were, in a very real sense, "the devil". He seems a little embarassed by the claim, but does not seem to be speaking metaphorically. He does not elaborate.

In my thinking about the ethics of early life, I have had to consider the issue whether we are souls in a body, or simply a unified "nephesh", a simple thing. I have not decided yet which is a better account or way of expressing our understanding about human nature. But if the latter is true, if we are our bodies, then it seems we cannot think of evil as something only "out there", disembodied, but as likewise, at least sometimes, bound to bodies. If we do good only in our bodies, we do evil only in our bodies. I remember being intrigued and somewhat shocked by C. S. Lewis' "Perelandra", in which the embodied Ransom realizes that he cannot defeat the evil Weston by discourse alone, but must actually physically kill him to remove the evil from the new planet. It is only the embodiment of evil that allows this solultion. He must physically wrestle with the enemy, to the death. Only when Weston dies is his voice silenced. This is still a startling idea to me, but an emphasis on the physicality of our existence would seem to require a physical struggle against embodiments of evil, at least at times. The Hebrews certainly identified the enemies of God as physical persons who could and should be removed. I see no "love the idolater, hate the idolatry" in the Old Testament. This separability of the sin and the sinner seems to be a New Testament development. Can it be the case that sometimes a purely physical remedy...kill the one bent upon required? Watch "Hotel Rwanda" and listen to Dallaire and tell me what you think...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

Some events should never be forgotten, and they are precisely the ones that we wish to forget. If we wish to pass to the next generation the knowledge necessary to sustain anything like a civil society, we must be certain to place within their cultural memory the great failures and horrors of which mankind is capable, and teach them that these are not the exceptions but the rule. We hear about the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler. When you add up all the human beings slaughtered in conflicts or by totalitarian states in the "modern"20th century, the number is closer to 110 million. You want to see the face of natural man? Go see "Hotel Rwanda", or "Schindler's List", or "Saving Private Ryan", or "Dirty Pretty Things".

Some members of our Kairos group went to see the movie Hotel Rwanda last night. This is a movie that we should support by paying to see it or rent it or buy it. It is a tale that needed to be told in the way we Westerner's hear, on the screen. It is dreadful to watch, not because there is any explicit or gory violence, but because of the hate and fear and threat of death that is in every setting, that pervaded the entire land of Rwanda for a time. There is also a deep shame that came upon me as an American, as a white Westerner whose country refused to get involved, with full knowledge that civilians were being systematically dragged from their homes and hacked to death with machetes and scythes in their own front yards, with children especially targetted so as to wipe out the next generation of Tutsis. We did nothing. The UN did nothing. We pulled out, evacuating white tourists and pointedly leaving the Tutsis to their deaths. The UN soldiers left behind were not even allowed to fire their weapons.

I am not a pacifist if being a pacifist means that we should not be willing to take up arms and defend the innocent when such a calamity comes. I would gladly go, and would gladly send my sons to fight and die in an effort to stop such evil. I hear people say, "We can't be the policemen for the world" and I ask, why not? It seems to me that this is the only type of conflict we should get involved in. Not for increase of our own territory, and not for our "own national interests" (I am so sick of this selfish concept) but for justice simply. These elements of a just war--justice and retribution for injustice--have completely fallen out of our vocabulary. We now only fight for our own interests, directly or indirectly. As long as we thought there were WMD's in Iraq that might come our way, it was OK to fight there. The fact that a despot was slaughtering and torturing thousands of his own people was insufficient reason to get involved, since that, like the Rwandan genocide, was an "internal affair of a sovereign country." How cold.

So the black Africans died, but no Americans, and the slaughter burned itself out, leaving only one million dead. And, I am afraid, if it happened tomorrow, we would likely do the same thing. Easier to wring one's hands afterwards and lament someone else's calamity than to put oneself or one's loved ones in harm's way.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Ignorance and Mystery

We are sadly unaware of the magnitude of our own ignorance, and we fail to reckon that we are called to live with mystery.

For Lent, I purposed to spend in silence half of each drive to and from Annapolis each week, about four hours a week. I usually listen to lectures or books on CD, but instead I turned off all audio and just meditated as I drove through Pennsylvania and Maryland between Hershey and Annapolis. I hoped that I could better hear what the Lord might be saying about the decisions that lie before me.

What He laid upon my heart that first day was the immensity of my ignorance. As I breeze along the roadway I intersect the lives of millions of beings of which I know, essentially, nothing. My eyes scrape the surface of a long tunnel of perception, catching the photons reflected from the outer few molecules of the trees and leaves, trees I will see several times a week but never in my life touch or know. In the distance a farmhouse I regularly admire, but I know nothing of its inhabitants, nothing of the loves and angers and disappointments that surely go on within those walls that I shall never enter. Houses everywhere, marking the habitations of persons and families I do not know. Closer at hand, cars pass me. I recognize their brands, can guess at their ages, but what do I really know of them? That minivan that just passed has a piece of plywood cut to cover its rear window. There is a story there, a history of error or accident, of loss and disappointment, perhaps the last straw that broke up a marriage and left children confused and hurt—but I do not know it. Someone knows it. The woman driving the minivan knows it, but she knows nothing of me, does not know what makes me drive to Annapolis to study the books of men and women long dead. She drives away. I will never see her again. Thousands of lifelines pass each other this ordinary Monday evening, thousands of souls thinking their own thoughts, living real lives that are not mine.

I turn the eyes of my mind to consider the structure of this world. I can imagine the xylem and phloem of the trees that pass by, idling now in winter, awaiting the rush of sap upward in the spring. I know that there are subtle clocks there, already preparing the buds. I know that there are animals out there, hidden in those trees, with their own clocks running to awaken them when spring comes. I know that there are millions of cicada nymphs in the ground beneath, sucking their own life from the roots of those trees, their clocks awaiting the seventeenth year to come forth, mate and die. What do I know of these? Nothing much. I cannot even comprehend the numbers involved.

I think inward, into my own body. As a physician, I “know” how this works, surely. But of course, I don’t, not really. I cannot comprehend the fact that billions and billions of my own cells in my GI tract and in my bloodstream will die today. Or that perhaps one, or many, will not die, but will shake itself loose from its nuclear control and begin to grow uncontrolled, one day to bring the rest of me down to the grave. In my mind, I can acknowledge that it has probably already begun, but I do not know. I do not know whether a plaque in my coronary artery is about to rupture and clot. I know almost nothing about my own actual body. I understand some theory, but I do not know the particular thing.

Even my own history I know only slightly. My parents are gone now, and there are things that happened in their lives that affected mine, that I remember only as sounds through the door, as sadness in their eyes, a photograph here, a sketchy note there. I have no objective vantage point from which to know any of this. It is mostly gone, and is completely unknowable now. “Dark, Dark, they all go into the dark…and we go with them.” (Eliot)

In discussing Genesis and the placing in Eden of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Derek Melleby pointed out that this tree shows that we were meant, even before the Fall, to live without knowing all, to live, in fact, knowing that we did not know all. To be content while knowing that God knows things that we do not. To live with Mystery. “We are but of yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:9) I think this is one reason I love Ecclesiastes, because it states plainly that the ultimate meaning of it all is hidden from us “under the sun”, so we need not feel that we are missing something when we cannot make sense of it all. It is why I love it that God did not tell us what the Seven Thunders said, but did tell us that they said something, so that we would know that we do not know. Even after the resurrection, I am convinced, we will not know “all”. We will know Him face to face, but we will never know all that He knows.

Perhaps a key lies just here. Perhaps knowledge of persons is not the same thing as knowledge of events or things. I am always drawn back to the hunch that the world is fundamentally personal, that when the sky is rolled up, we will see that all that was fundamental was personal beings, and all the rest merely created context. There is mystery enough here to keep me still a long time.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Dangers of Discourse

If ideas have consequences, then discourse can be dangerous.

I am a teacher in the church of Jesus the Messiah. As such, I am held to a higher standard (Jas 3:1-12) because of the broader influence of my words. Most teachers in the church know the first line of this paragraph in James, but I think we forget that the whole section following, on the tongue, is connected to this first sentence. We often quote the section on the tongue as if it applied to anyone’s tongue, which in some sense it may, but we need to note that it primarily amplifies the first line, and is discussing the leverage of a teacher’s tongue. We should be reluctant to become teachers, “for we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” Then James elaborates on the leverage of the teacher’s tongue, how it acts like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or like the rudder on a ship. How much damage is done if that directive force is applied incorrectly, and how hard it is to not stumble!

As I contemplate pursuing a discussion on the Biblical view of abortion and other beginning- and end-of-life issues, I must consider the dangers involved. The Christian church is currently mostly aligned against abortion and against euthanasia, as I believe it should be. The average Christian on the street simply equates abortion and euthanasia with murder, and is motivated thereby to act politically to curtail, if not completely outlaw, these practices. Likewise with the homosexual agenda to legally endorse that lifestyle as an equally moral option against which no individual can speak or discriminate: the average Christian simply sees homosexual practice as wrong and hence will vote against it. In moving people to act, simple enthymemes are best. Long and nuanced arguments are hard to hold in the mind, and people tire of them easily.

The danger of engaging in nuanced arguments in public places is that the overhearing church may become confused. Specifically, there is the danger that upon hearing long and esoteric discussions about fine distinctions in meaning, they will come away with the impression that the issue is not established even in its overarching form, that there is no sense in having a position on the subject because “no-one can agree anyway.” If the church is already acting correctly, but based on a simplistic understanding that may not be correct in all its applications, should one leave well enough alone, or risk replacing action with muddled apathy?

If an alternative Christian understanding of the issues surrounding the beginning of life turns out to remove the simple abortion-equals-murder paradigm, will all the steam go out of the church’s opposition to this practice? If so, is it worth going there? Is it patronizing to avoid difficult subjects in the public sphere, or responsible?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Geocentrism and Hermeneutics

The church (here considered as the visible church) has had many embarrassing moments down through history, but a few are still remembered well and tossed up to us by our detractors. One of these was the Galileo affair, in which the seventeenth-century church insisted that it was a matter of clear biblical teaching that the earth was the unmoving center of not only the solar system but of the entire observable heavens. The doctors of the church were able to find many verses in the Bible that spoke of the sun’s rising and moving across the sky, even of its stopping once and moving backwards, and of the earth’s immovability. They could find no verses even suggesting that the earth was moving. Furthermore, Ptolemy’s earth-centered (geocentric) mathematical system for predicting the exact position and movements of the planets was actually more accurate than the emerging Copernican system, so even the accuracy required by science was on the side of the geocentrists. To the church fathers, both science and scripture taught that the Earth was at the center, and everything else revolved about it in circles within circles. Problem was, they were wrong.

As I think about the issues pressing upon us by the advent of genetic and reproductive technologies, I find myself turning to the scriptures with this unfortunate stand in mind. We want to determine what the scriptures say about the nature of man and about when human life begins, just as our forefathers sought to find out how the universe worked. We must be careful not to make the same mistakes they did.

To my mind, the geocentrism fiasco suggests that we must be particularly wary of two hermeneutical practices: 1) taking the words of the Bible literally except in clearly non-literal contexts and 2) reasoning from the original Biblical writer’s understanding of his own words. These days, in Reformed circles at least, we feel pretty safe from errors arising from the first principle, as we believe we can tell what is literal and what is not. (Of course, so did the 17th century church…) And we positively love the second principle, applying modern linguistic and cultural historical discoveries back into our understanding of the Old Testament in particular. We are busy searching the rabbinic writings and long-buried scrolls for insight into the ancient Hebrew mind, so that we can better interpret scripture. I smell danger in both principles.

The geocentric interpreters of the Bible were right about two things: 1) The Bible does literally say that the sun moves, and that the earth shall not be moved. Furthermore, 2) the original writers themselves believed that the sun moved, and that the earth was still. All the passages that we no longer identify as literal, all those passages about the sun rising, were not understood as figures of speech at the time they were written. We understand them so now because of our science, because, eventually, the Copernican idea was able to explain the observed world better than the Ptolemaic. The church made whatever adjustments were necessary in its theology, and found that the word of God still made sense. In fact, Psalm 8’s question, “What is man that thou considerest him?” is even more poignant in a universe containing billions of galaxies. The church did take a serious hit, however, in its reputation as a repository of truth and knowledge. The harm to the church came not by the discovery that certain verses in the scripture were not literally correct, but by its own insistence that it knew things it did not know. We have clearly set ourselves up for the same fiasco today through the agitations of the young-earth creationists and the Left-Behind series.

So in considering beginning-of-life issues we must be careful not to repeat these errors. We must not insist upon ideas that are not required by the Biblical text, and we must not simply rest in explanations based upon the ancient writers’ understanding. The ancient writer might have understood one thing, while God intended us to understand something more. We accept this already in most of the so-called Messianic verses in the Old Testament; the Psalmist meant A, but pointed to B in a way unknown to him. I believe strongly in both the historical sovereignty of God and in his self-revelation being progressive, so I cannot simply rest in some ancient Hebrew’s understanding of an issue. The world, God’s world in every way, has moved on, and we know more now than they did then. Both Paul and Moses “saw” God in some manner, but Paul knew more about him.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Maclaurin Institute Lectures

Wow! A great new (to me) resource for the road! Thanks to Gideon Strauss for pointing to this site full of MP3 files of interesting lectures. I have placed it on my sidebar. Check it out. Something good for your iPod...

Precision in Ethics...A Problem

“It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits.” So says Aristotle at the beginning of his "Nichomachean Ethics", and he returns to this theme several times later in the work. “It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.”

I cannot think of a similarly concise expression of the problem in Scripture, but I believe it is acknowledged in the structure of Scripture. There are no ethical discussions there that could be described as philosophical demonstrations, but instead we find narratives, then laws, then judgments and prophetic exhortations, poetic reflections, and collections of proverbs and wise sayings. There is an emphasis in the scriptures upon kochma--Wisdom, or literally “skill”—that involves practice as much as, or possibly more than, simply knowledge.

Precise demonstrations, like geometric proofs, require unassailable first principles to build upon, and are only as certain as those first principles. Furthermore, each subsequent step in the chain of reasoning must be likewise certain and unassailable if we wish to have certainty in the conclusion. When such a demonstration is used to convince another person, the attempt fails at whatever point the hearer cannot or will not grant either the premise or the basis for reasoning. Even when the chain of reasoning is not used to convince others, but simply to increase one’s own understanding, our conclusions can only be as certain as our first principles and each step we used to get there.

It’s actually even worse than this. Each incorrect assumption, and each invalid or non-necessary step in the reasoning, will actually drive us off-course, so to speak, and the errors will multiply their effects down through the entire course of reasoning. If we are unable to know just exactly what each error is, we will have no idea how far off course we are. It may be that we periodically arrive at a location that we “recognize” and can do a course correction, but even in this case it is important to realize that the need for such correction demonstrates that at least one error was made in the reasoning up to that point.

Now for a quick and dirty demonstration of the problem. Suppose we are “75% certain” that our first principle is correctly understood by us. (This might mean that, among people whose opinion we respect, about 75% agree with us about this principle, and 25% think we are wrong.) For the first step in our reasoning, let’s assume we have 90% agreement. At this point, only 66% of people we respect will agree with our conclusion (90% of the original 75%). If we get 90% agreement on the validity of the second step, we’re down to 60% agreement, and after only three steps we’re down to 54%, a little better than a coin toss. If at any step we encounter the need for some certain knowledge that we do not have, we have no way of assessing how big the resultant error will be. We could be completely wrong.

In ethical reasoning, then, we must make every effort to be as certain as possible about our very first premise, and about each step of reasoning based upon that premise. Given that we are rarely 100% certain about any abstract idea, we must keep our chains of reasoning very short. To expand the navigational metaphor, we should never, if possible, go out of sight of the land, so that we will always have fixed and knowable landmarks by which to correct our course. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a trackless sea, arguing with each other about how we got there and what to do next.