Conservative Theology

November 21, 2008

Religion and Politics / Christianity and Conservatism, Pt 3

Between Constraints and Unlimited Potential

JB

In Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions he delineates between two basic visions of humans in politics - constrained and unconstrained

A constrained vision of humans views people as essentially being unable to achieve permanent moral progress for two reasons:

  • What practically constitutes good in any particular situation (as opposed to what we think will produce good) is difficult for even the most educated mind to know, and is not something we might expect individuals to be able to understand
  • The ability to perform good even when we know what it is can be very difficult.  Even the most moral among us have deep moral failings that prevent us from being able to do the good we want.

An unconstrained vision of humans, instead, views true moral progress as being achievable - either now or in the future.

From a Christian perspective, there are good and bad points to each of them.  The constrained vision has the advantage of being very similar to the Biblical concept of original sin.  Humans are simply unable to progress, no matter how good our intentions or well-reasoned the process.  Ultimately, however, Christians have a hope for the future in which the world is restored to goodness.  Thus, the unconstrained vision tickles our eschatological hopes.

Now, I have given up hope in trying to discern the end-times as portrayed in the Bible.  But one thing appears certain - the vision of the future in scripture cannot be obtained without God.  That is, whether we are able to achieve relative goodness before the return of Christ, or whether we will require the return of Christ to restore goodness in our institutions, scripture makes it clear that any sustainable progress within society will require God's help.

The constrained vision is too pessimistic and cynical.  The unconstrained vision is hubristic and self-important.

Thus, the conservative view of society has two components - a governmental component and a spiritual component.  The purpose of the governmental component is to provide the incentives necessary to maintain a base level of morality in a fallen world.  Thus, government itself should, in general follow the constrained vision of humanity.  On the other hand, the Church should not be so limited.  The Church should be the one which removes constraints by the power of God.  God will be the power to change lives and nations and governments.  Governments cannot do this, social action cannot do this, only God is qualified in this endeavor.

This, I believe, is the message of Christian conservatism in politics.  We must structure our governments in recognition of our fallen humanity.  But we must not limit our vision to what can be accomplished in government, but instead look to God to see what He has for us on the horizon, and seek His help as individuals, as people, as churches, and as nations to change our hearts towards each other.

November 16, 2008

Religion and Politics / The Emergence of Pro-Homosexual Hate Groups

JB

Ever since the group Bash Back antagonized a Church in Lansing, I've been reading up on the doings of the pro-homosexual hate groups.  I don't know how long these groups have been in operation, but it is clear that they are now invigorating themselves, largely in response to California's Proposition 8.

What amazes me about so many pro-homosexual organizations is the complete lack of thought that goes into anything they say.  Many of the things they say are either (a) obviously false, or (b) downright contradictory.  For instance, here are Bash Back's "points of unity":

  1. Fight for liberation. Nothing more, nothing less. State recognition in the form of oppressive institutions such as marriage and militarism are not steps toward liberation but rather towards heteronormative assimilation.
  2. A rejection of Capitalism, Imperialism, and all forms of State power.
  3. Actively oppose oppression both in and out of the “movement.” All oppressive behavior is not to be tolerated.
  4. Respect a diversity of tactics in the struggle for liberation. Do not solely condemn an action on the grounds that the State deems it to be illegal.

I don't know if anyone ever told them, but #2 is actually self-contradictory.  Capitalism is the removal of state power over the economy.  Maybe they were thinking of Mercantilism?  In any case, it is obvious that they have little education as to what the different forms of economy are that exist, especially since they don't have a destination economic system listed.

Second, if they are not shooting for recognition in marriage, what exactly are they trying to be free from?  If they are trying to force someone else's way of thinking, how is that not a form of state coersion?

What is amazing is how often these sorts of groups and websites call for action according to some grand ideal, but never list any specifics.  When people list specific egregious acts that have been performed against homosexuals, invariably the perpetrator is already in jail for the crime!  If this is a state oppression, the state wouldn't be the one sentencing the oppressors.  It's possible in some areas that law-enforcement is turning a blind eye towards crimes against gay people.  If that is the case, then that should be their message.  I think everyone can agree that selective enforcement and prejudicial action by police is bad for a society, no matter who is being hurt and who is benefitting - in the long run, we all lose out from that sort of problem.  But that is not the call, which leads me to believe that, mostly, crimes against gay people are followed up as just as much (or, perhaps, just as little) as crimes against everyone else.

Third, how can they say they oppose oppression?  That is precisely what they are doing!  That's the entire purpose of Bash Back - to engage in oppression against the people they don't like.  They should just be honest about that rather than hide it.

These points of unity are just as boneheaded as the reasoning in recent anarchist propoganda for proposition 8 domestic terrorism.  First of all, it's interesting because if a Christian group, no matter how small, put out stuff like this, it would receive national attention.  Anyway, the piece promotes sabotage and targeted vandalism. But what's also terrible is the reasoning behind it.  They don't like the fact that our society has "order givers" and "order takers", and that makes us undemocratic.  What kind of reasoning is this?  You will always have order givers and order takers in every type of society ever conceived of!  What is different is that in a democracy the order receivers have a say in who the order givers are.  And I don't know of any group of citizens who is being systematically denied that voice, nor is that being claimed.

So, as you can see, the pro-homosexual hate groups are consistently putting forth nonsense for support of their positions (and, if you think this is bad, you should see their Biblical exegesis!).  This is different from, say, Communism, which, despite its being totally wrong, at least had a clear and self-consistent message about what the problems with society was and how they should be solved.  These groups are different - they are just full of hate.

Anyway, the pro-homosexual hate groups are starting to emerge and gain traction.  It is time to point out publicly both their idiocy and their hatred of their fellow human.  But remember, in all things, this isn't a personal problem, it's a Jesus problem.  Which means that the solution lies in Jesus more than politics or any other mechanism.  Certainly, politics is a valid course of action, but remember that unless the Lord builds a house, the builders work is useless.

November 07, 2008

Religion and Science / Missing Michael Crichton

JB

In memory of Michael Crichton, I'm linking to two of my favorite essays of his:

November 06, 2008

Religion and Politics / Religion, Politics, and the Democratic Party

JB

Democrats have been making a power play for the religious vote in the last few elections, and it appears that it is finally starting to take hold.  While we have begun to talk about the relationship between conservatism and Christianity, what we also need to do is to take a look at how the Democratic Party is using religion, and whether or not we want to be using religion in the same way.

Now that he is our President-elect from the Democratic Party, I am going to use Obama as a model for the use of religion in politics, based primarily on his speech on the subject that he gave to the Sojourners in 2006.

His main points seem to me to be the following:

  • Most people have a hunger for religion, and don't separate out their religion and their lives
  • Religious language is a strong motivator for change in the world
  • We live in a pluralistic society, which means that there is not one assumed standard of religion to use
  • Therefore, while we can appeal to religion in our messages, we cannot use religion as the foundational principle for a policy, unless it can be established on non-religious grounds
  • However, we can use religious language and argumentation in support of our principles that we have established on non-religious grounds
  • Finally, we should always deal in good faith with those who disagree with us

The problem with this is that it is a practical abandonment of Christianity.  If you look at the logic of what he is saying, then Christianity is not allowed any voice, except when it is the same voice as a secular argument!  Thus, while the religious right has its definite problems, the religious left has fundamentally, in its core reasonings about the relationship between faith and politics, decided that faith may only be in support of the party, it may never lead, contradict, or offer any substance on its own terms.

I can't say I'm surprised.  This is probably coming from theologians as much as anyone else.  Theology is one of those areas where its practitioners seem bent on making Christianity as irrelevant in the actual practice of life as possible, and to instead replace it with other disciplines such as sociology.  Obama's position about faith and politics is a practical outgrowth of the theology that has been spewing out of the academies for the last half-century.

Obama does seem to make a conciliatory note in the direction of religion.  He says:

So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This would seem to mean, at least on the face of it, that grounding legal traditions in faith-based reaosning is legitimate.  However, Obama refuses to continue to apply that same reasoning in the modern day.  For instance, he argues this about abortion:

I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. [emphasis mine]

So, while Obama indeed believes in putting together faith and politics, the way that he has done so makes it so that faith cannot have a legitimate role in the public square on its own terms, but must instead only play supporting roles to ideas found on the terms of other fields of endeavors.

This seems to be the general direction that the Democratic Party is moving in.  Obama, being the president-elect from the Democratic Party, has now solidified this as the means of interaction of faith and politics for the party.

Therefore, when you hear religious language from the Democratic Party, keep in mind that the party does not have any intention of putting any part of its platform under the authority of God, but only under principles which are accessible to people who don't believe that there is no God.  As someone who believes that the foundations of truth are in God, I don't think that is a sound way to handle the politics and faith issue.

October 29, 2008

Religion and Science / Nature's Witness and Christian Theology

JB

Evolution and the Church

A good friend of mine gave me a copy of Daniel Harrell's Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Christian Faith.  The book was an attempt to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Christian faith.  While there are a lot of negatives about the book, I thought I'd start off with the positive.

First of all, I absolutely loved the terminology of involvement.  Historically, God's interaction with the world has taken on the terminology of intervening or interfering, which would imply that Deism should be the norm, and that God intended to be far off.  That sort of terminology says that God acting in the world must be to fix something that went wrong, rather than a normal part of Creation.  Thus, the terminology of "involvement" reminds us that God wants to be involved in creation.  I certainly think I will be using that sort of terminology going forward.

The second good thing in the book, was his treatment of randomness as being a potential good thing.  I don't think he brought this home as well as he could have (of course, he's not an engineer), but I think he was on the right track.  In fact, I have a paper coming out next month in CRSQ about that exact subject - showing the possible uses of randomness within Creation Biology.  However, one distinction I made which Harrell probably was not able to make (since his background is not mathematical) is the difference between philosophical randomness and statistical randomness.  These are very different things which tend to be conflated into the "randomness" concept.  I'll cover that more when my paper comes out.  Now, his point is a little different than mine, but I think it's good as well.  Here's how he spells it out:

Rather than viewing the will of God as akin to a tightrope (one false move and you're doomed), what if instead God's will resembles a one-way, six-lane highway?  The direction is determined, but the manner of getting there (what you drive, which lane you travel, and how fast you go) is a function of creaturely freedom...what ifGod is like a grand master chess player playing with an eight-year-old novice?  The game has its rules and regularities (created by God), such that whatever move the eight-year-old makes, the grand master already knows its outcome.  There is no doubt who will win in the end...Likewise, with human freedom and evolutionary processes...[God] can make [any of the possible scenarios that occur] work for his victory. (p. 80)

Now, past those two topics, there wasn't a lot to like about this book, except to get a glimpse of the problems that exist with the current set of evangelicals and their approach to science.

Let's start with a quote from page 46:

But what if you interpret Scripture correctly only to have science say that you still have it wrong?  Well, you could say that science has it wrong.  And science may have it wrong.  This has been the crux of the debate between Christianity and evolution.  Given what we know the Bible to say, has not science clearly deciphered nature wrongly?  The problem here is that scientific methods tend toward a precision that theological methods cannot attain.  Not that scientists are never wrong; it's just that scientific misinterpretation can't last very long.  Due to science's rigorous scrutiny, experiment, and replication, mistakes eventually yield to the facts...You can say "evolution is just a theory," but that doesn't make it any less accurate in its description of the way life on earth works...Theories make it possible to trust medicines...[to] type on computers and drive our cars and check weather forecasts... (italics in original, bold mine)

There are several problems with this argument.

The first problem is what is written in bold print.  "Tend toward a precision" is actually probably more true than the author may have intended.  There is an important difference between accuracy and precision - and Harrell hit it on the head when he said that scientific methods tend towards a precision.  Accuracy is how close a given measurement is to its true value.  Precision is how similar our measurements are to each other.  For example, if I have a ruler whose markings are flat-out wrong, I may have very precise measurements, but they won't be very accurate.  On the other hand, if my ruler's markings are all correct, but it is missing all markers smaller than a foot, then my measurements may be accurate, but they are not very precise.

So, let's say that we are measuring the velocity of a car.  We can make very precise and very accurate measurements of that car's velocity.  But let's say we want to know where that car was an hour ago.  Then, using our velocity measurements, we may be able to attain a precision for our estimate, but our accuracy is dependent on whether or not we know the history of the car's velocity changes.

Second, for any science to apply, especially as Harrell defines science (as naturalistic), this only works if God has chosen not to act within history.  Again, if God has chosen to act, then the scientist's work moves from being accurate to only being precise, because science (as Harrell points out) does not have the methodology to incorporate non-material causation (note that I think that it could, but only if it allows in ID - but I'll leave this topic alone for the rest of the review).  So if non-material causes occur, then that simply invalidates the frame of reference used by science.  If science uses a frame of reference which has been invalidated by God's involvement, then it is simply wrong.

Third, Harrell doesn't seem to realize that there are multiple types of scientific methods, each with their own epistemological (epistemology is the study of knowledge and its limits) restrictions.  For discussion purposes, I'm going to focus on three of them. 

  1. The deductive method is used primarily in Math or in elucidating phenomena according to an already-given theory.  The deductive method is logic-based and can tell you, given a certain set of premises, whether a conclusion is valid.  In deductive reasoning, the conclusion is as good as the premises on which it is founded.  However, given those premises are correct, deductive reasoning (if used correctly) gives you close to 100% truth.  The problem is that deductive reasoning cannot validate our premises, though it can sometimes show them to be inconsistent or paradoxical.
  2. The inductive experimental method uses multiple experiments to isolate a phenomena.  The experimenter tries to control for every conceivable variable to establish the workings of a system.  This is the method most often thought of when we talk about science.  The reason why it is so heralded is because it does not rely on having valid premises.  Anyone can perform the experiments themselves, try alternate variables, and see how isolating different variables affects the result.  Note, though, that because we aren't relying on premises, that this methodology doesn't imply anything about the ontology (ontology is the way of being) of what we are looking at.  For example, if we believed that everything that happens occurs because it is what God likes to do (rather than laws in nature itself), then we would say (just as validly as using 'law'-language) that God really enjoys moving masses closer together, proportional to the product of their masses.  The difference between it being a law, or it being operated by God directly, or by an angel, or a Nymph named Troy are all actually equivalent from an inductive perspective.
  3. The inductive historical method is the method used by historians, including historical biology (often known as evolutionary biology - though there are parts of evolutionary biology that work in the present not in the past).  The fact is that we can't reconstruct the past.  There are too many variables.  We can't isolate variables and test for them, except in limited cases, and that is only true if the premises are agreed upon!  The inductive historical method has all of the epistemological problems of both methods.  This is historical reconstruction, not experimental science.  But what makes it more problematic than normal historical reconstruction, is that it relies entirely on circumstantial evidence.  While historians are checked by what people who lived in that time describe, evolutionary biologists have no such checks and balances, but instead believe that their subject is beyond history, and therefore only use circumstantial evidence to validate their claims.  What makes it "scientific" is that it is assuming naturalism, and using the results of inductive science to aid in the historical interpretation.  As Christians, we don't assume naturalism.  So we can see that historical evolutionary biology, as it is practiced, is not of the same type of knowledge that brought us physics and engineering products, and is much, much, much more problematic, and that is compounded by resting on assumptions that Christians should not be holding. 

    Added to this, evolutionary biologists are not able to see if something cannot be produced by natural causes.  They must either assume that a currently-known cause is doing something more than it usually does, or that an unknown-but-still-physical cause is involved.  In either case, this is what often lends evolutionary biologists to regard the "fact of evolution" - of course it's a fact, otherwise it would require non-naturalism!

Of course, Harrell believes in naturalism, though I don't think that he is aware of the results.  If you truly believe in naturalism, then that literally removes the possibility of choice from nature.  If you hold to the same worldview that the evolutionary biologists do, then that means that true choice is non-existent.  This is why I am saying that naturalism is not a Christian assumption.  It denies choice.  Harrell makes a big deal about integrating body and soul.  I don't have so much of a problem with that, except that he does so on the basis of naturalism!  Harrell doesn't see it, but in doing this he actually removes choice from humanity.  If body and soul are integrated (my own mind is not yet made up on this one), then the only way it could happen is if we imputed the non-natural elements (i.e. choice) onto the material body.  This is just as non-naturalistic as the body/soul split, but it just works it differently. 

But here is my big rub - scripture.  Harrell believes that the precision of science means that we should take science's word over scripture.  This is terrible.  What is so great about Scripture is that God reveals to us the larger-scale involvements that He has done with His creation.  Therefore, while the evolutionists proceed without being checked by history, on the basis of naturalism which we do not assume, and on the basis that God has not made any moves in history, Creationists instead are able to use Scripture to understand when God has involved Himself in important ways, and therefore alert us to when we need to step outside of our materialist framework in Earth history, and provide for us a historical record against which to check any of our suppositions.

So now, if you're still reading, we'll get to the tragic portion of the book - Harrell's wrestling with evolutionary theory.  You will see why I call it "tragic" towards the end.  Harrell has believed in science over and above what Scripture has revealed.  Therefore, Harrell must wrestle with evolutionary theory in order to fit it into his faith.  But which evolutionary theory?  On the Researching Creation blog, I've pointed to several different ones.  The one that Harrell chooses to wrestle with is Natural Selection.  But why?  My guess is that he's bought into not only science, but the media's portrayal of science.  The fact is that Natural Selection is being phased out as an evolutionary mechanism.  I forgot where, but Harrell has also said that Macroevolution is nothing more than a lot of Microevolution.  Even PZ Myers does not believe that this is the case.  His view of evolutionary theory is woefully colored by Dawkin's 1980s version of it, a version of evolutionary theory that does not match what biologists are doing today (in fact, if you want a book that wrestles with modern evolutionary biology and faith, by a working Paleontologist, I would suggest to you Life's Solution by Conway-Morris).  The recent Altenberg conference was the prelude to redefining evolutionary theory where natural selection has a much smaller, maybe insignificant, role.  Some of the attendees of the conference (all of whom are top-level evolutionary biologists) think that natural selection is "wrong in a way that can't be fixed".  How tragic is it that Harrell was convinced by someone to give up his faith in scripture to a theory of evolution that is being abandoned by biologists, because he thinks that it is true because it is scientific?  In 10 years, will Harrell be defending Natural Selection against the scientists who say that evolution happened a different way?  How bizarre would that be?  Or will Harrell simply have to redefine his theology every few decades when science turns a different direction?

Or perhaps God gave us Scripture so that we wouldn't be lured into chasing after the wind of man's opinion?

For more discussion on the book, you might check out the conversation that's been happening on Jesus Creed.  I planned on commenting on that conversation, but maybe another time.  This post is already too long.

October 23, 2008

Religion and Science / What is meant by the "Fact of Evolution"

Many times the phrase "The Fact of Evolution" gets thrown around without any further explanation.  Most people don't understand that there are several different things meant by "The Fact of Evolution", and the problem comes in when we just assume that they are correct, or unintentionally read more than one of these meanings together.

Meaning #1 - There are dead things in the ground at a lower strata than ourselves and they look different from us.  In addition, there are clearly discernable strata which tend to produce similar fossils.

Meaning #2 - Everything now living (a) has parent(s), and (b) is slightly different from its parent(s)

Meaning #3 - The universe operates mechanically

The problem is that most people stating "The Fact of Evolution" never seem to be able to separate out Meaning #1 and Meaning #2, and therefore consider that Meaning #2 is not the causitive agent for Meaning #1.  Even if you assume evolutionary timescales, there is nothing in the pattern of fossils in the record which would recommend it over, say, progressive Creationism, unless of course you also mixed in meaning #3.  If we assume other possible causes for the layering and the ordering, then #1 and #2 could be completely different phenomena altogether!

The problem is that most evolutionists will not disambiguate what they mean by the "Fact of Evolution".  The idea that you should read #1 and #2 together is so engrained in their thinking that the possibility of splitting them sounds insane to them.

October 23, 2008

Religion and Politics / A Short Critique of Niebuhr

JB

I was very impressed (if you couldn't already tell) with Niebuhr's discussion of theology in politics.  However, I think that Niebuhr was lacking in a few areas:

  • While Niebuhr talked a lot about irony in history/politics, he failed to talk adequately about the fact that many government programs simply do the opposite of the intention.  Irony means that what you do to get ahead ultimately contributes to your problems.  However, there are many situations and policies which not only contribute to problems, they fail even to solve the problem that they were set out to do.
  • Niebuhr seemed to think that the government was the sole source of unity for a people.  What he left out was that leadership can come from many sources.  Likewise, the president and other national politicians have sway with the bully pulpit that doesn't have to involve governmental action.
  • Niebuhr seemed unaware of the ability for capitalism to accomplish social equity in and of itself.

I think these were the mistakes that led Niebuhr to being a democratic socialist, rather than a democratic capitalist.  What gives democratic capitalists a bad name is that we often tend to emphasize the role of government (which should be very little) but neglect to point out that there should be a strong role for non-governmental parties to play a regulatory role through informational campaigns and the like. 

The third point - capitalism's ability to accomplish social equity - was probably not knowable to Niebuhr, but Sowell's Basic Economics makes a good case that capitalism can accomplish social equality faster than just about any policy.  If the government is supporting a business, then it doesn't have any incentive to hire the best workers - it doesn't cost the people in charge anything to be racist, sexist, whatever.  But when running a business, if you don't hire the best person, that costs you money, and if the guy down the street hires him instead of you, it may mean that you go out of business.

Many conservatives have made the mistake of saying that capitalism makes greed good.  I believe that those espousing this should be shot.  Greed is not good.  However, capitalism at least makes greed less harmful to the rest of society.  It is still totally self-destructive, and if completely unchecked, could lead to societal harm, but in the normal case, free market capitalism restricts the negative impact of greed on society.  All societies have greed, it just hurts less in capitalistic countries, because we don't give our greedy people governmental authority (if we did we would no longer be capitalistic!)

October 21, 2008

Religion and Politics / Niebuhr's The Irony of American History - Summary and Quotes

JB

I just finished reading Niebuhr's The Irony of American History.  It's a fascinating read.  Basically, Niebuhr's point is that history can be understood much better if we reintroduce the concept of "original sin".  Basically, he criticizes the Communist view of history by criticizing their doctrine of sin/evil.  They place "evil" entirely onto the property system.  Therefore, by removing the property system, they have removed "evil".  Likewise, liberal democracies have tried to remove evil through education - thus their doctrin of sin/evil is based on a lack of understanding and education.  Therefore, by educating everyone to the largest extent possible, and through technological and scientific innovation, we can irradicate evil.

Niebuhr criticizes both of these by saying that the correct doctrine of sin is the traditional conception of "original sin" - that is, sin is a permanent part of each and every one of us.  It can't be externalized on any other entity.  Therefore, any view of history or governmental system which is based upon an externalization of sin is bound to fail.  He says that the reason America has not failed where other people have is simply because we don't hold our bad doctrines as closely as others :)

Anyway, I've put together a collection of quotes for you from the book.  Happy reading!  Most of these are at least somewhat peripheral to the main arguments, but all have powerful insights.


p.23 - But these reservations of Christian realism in our culture cannot obscure the fact that, next to pretensions, we are (according to our traditional theory) the most innocent nation on earth.  The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.

p.29 - For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy.  This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice in terms which will not differ too greatly from those which the wisest nations of Europe have been forced to use.

p.38 - No powerful nation in history has ever been more reluctant to acknowledge the position it has achieved in the world than we.  The moral advantage lies in the fact that we do not have a strong lust of power, though we are quickly aquiring the pride of power which always accompanies its possession...we have been so deluded by the concept of our innocency that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us.

p.39 - All nations, unlike some individuals, lack the capacity to prefer a noble death to a morally ambiguous survival.

p.52 - ...the descent from Puritansism to Yankeeism in America was a fairly rapid one.  Prosperity which had been sought in the service of God was now sought for its own sake. [Niebuhr then compares Deuteronomy 6:18 with Deuteronomy 8:7-17, which he had thought had been overlooked]

p.59 - But it cannot be denied that a bourgeois society is in the process of experiencing the law of diminishing returns in the relation of technics [technology] and efficiency to the cultural life.  The pursuit of culture requires certain margins of physical security and comfort; but the extension of the margins does not guarantee the further development of cultural values.  It may lead to a preoccupation with the margins and obsession with the creature comforts.

p.59 - Television may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.

p.59-60 - Yet we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach.  The constant multiplication of our high school and college enrollments has not had the effect of making us the most "intelligent" nation, whether we measure intelligence in terms of social wisdom, aesthetic discrimination, spritual serenity or any other basic human achievement.  It may have mad us technically the most proficient nation, thereby proving that technical efficiency is more easily achieved in purely quantitative terms than any other value of culture....No national culture has been as assiduous as our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences...the result is frequently a preoccupation with the minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems.

p.63 - Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.  Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

p.74 - ...a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America...The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast webb of history.....[to] hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.

p.78 - The institution of monarchy, shorn of its absolute power, was found to possess virtues which neither the proponents nor the opponents of its original form anticipated.  It became the symbol of the continuing will and unity of a nation as distinguished from the momentary will, embodied in specific governments.

p.88 - ...modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.  It is a drama in which fragmentary meanings can be discerned within a penumbra of mystery; and in which specific duties and responsibilities can be undertaken within a vast web of relations which are beyond our powers...  [discussing two opposing views of man - overemphasis of spirit vs overemphasis of nature] man as the spectator and manager of history imagines himself to be freer of the drama he beholds than he really is; and man as the creature of history is too simply reduced to the status of a creature of nature, and all of his contacts to the ultimate are destroyed.

p.107 - There is an element of truth in each position which becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.

p.116 - However, even the most grievous injustices of the feudal world are not as responsible for the abject poverty of its agrarian poor as the low efficiency of its economy.

p.133 - [quoting someone else] "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself."

p.158 - Divine jealousy is aroused by man's refusal to observe the limits of his freedom.

p.159 - ...Israel, the righteous nation, [is reminded] of the judgment which waits on human pretension.  The great nation, Babylon, is warned that its confidence in the security of its power will be refuted by history.

p.160 - Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law.

October 17, 2008

Religion and Politics / Christianity and Conservatism, Pt 2

Economic Classes

JB

We've heard a lot about the "middle class" in pretty much every election.  However, I don't think that the "middle class" is a distinction that Christians should be in the habit of making.  There are two reasons for this - the Christian view of classes and the economics of the United States.

Let's start with the Christian view of classes.  Here are some verses (certainly not exhaustive), I'll simply list them out and then I'll discuss their implications:

Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Collossians - "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord....Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven..."

2 Thessolonians 3:10 - "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

James 2:2-7 - "For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

2 Corinthians 9:11 - "You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God."

Luke 6 - "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."

Luke 12 - The rich fool

Luke 16 - The story of Lazarus (sorry, not going to copy it)

Luke 18 - Rich young ruler

Luke 19 - Zaccaeus

In the gospels, especially Luke's, it appears that Jesus really has it in for the rich.  This is somewhat true.  In Luke 6, there is a clear distinction between what happens to the rich vs the poor when the Kingdom comes.  However, as Luke develops, I think the story gets more nuanced.  It isn't just that every rich person is bad and will be punished and every poor person is good and will be rewarded.  I think Luke 12 epitomizes the problem with the rich - it is not their income, it is the fact that they store it up so no one else can use it, and then it becomes worthless to them when they die.

In the story of Lazarus, it was pretty clear that the rich man had been ignoring Lazarus who basically lived on his doorstep.

In Luke 19, you actually have a rich person who is lauded by Jesus.  Note that he does not get lauded by Jesus for becoming poor - he only gives away half of his possessions.  But what he does do is (a) move from stinginess to generosity, and (b) repent for any possible wrongdoing he has done to the poor. (just as a note - parts of this story are unclear, as I may blog on in the future, but these two points appear to be what elicits Jesus' response no matter what the rest of the story means). 

Note that although Jesus asked the Rich Young Ruler to give away all of his posessions, he is clearly fine with Zaccaeus only giving half. 

So here's what I get from the gospel message:

  • The rich should be generous, and quick to repay for wrongdoing
  • The rich should employ their wealth to good use, and not just keep it socked away
  • When the Kingdom comes, your wealth will be of no use to you, and might even be a disadvantage

Now, if you imagine further on, the early Christian community has to figure out how to live out these sayings.  Thus, the apostles further develop the theology of economic classes along the sames lines as Jesus.

Paul is an interesting study - for he says both that there is no difference, and that we should each be faithful in our differening positions. 

So here are my take-aways from all of this:

  • Your status as a Christian should be in no way modified by your wealth status - therefore, we should not have economic classes within Christianity - "have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"
  • This lack of class within Christianity does not mean that there is an equality of economic distribution.  That is, some in the community have more wealth than others.  There is nowhere condemned, nor is it called upon to be righted.  Likewise with authority.
  • Those with wealth have additional responsibilities with regards to their wealth, including the need to be generous (generosity is expected of the rich, and it is a special tribute if it is of the poor).  God gives us riches for the express purpose of being generous with them.
  • The poor have a responsibility to work and be productive, at least as far as they are able
  • Envy is regarded in even lower terms than being rich - while being rich is not in and of itself a sin, envy is (sorry, didn't have space for all the massive references against envy - try Mark 7:21-22 for starters). 

It is clear that Christianity is not the introduction of or the calling for equality of outcomes, but of equality of personhood - recognizing the full image of God in each person.

Therefore, as Christians, I do not believe that we should recognize economic class, but rather economic income ranges.  That is to say, as Christians, we are all in this boat together.  We shouldn't consider ourselves a distinct group from the "rich" or the "poor" - we may have a joining economic location, but that is so little of a reason for division.  Instead we need to recognize that God's grace is for everyone, and that God has removed the distinctions (actually, they were probably never there to begin with).

There are in fact economically disadvantaged people, but again, they are not a class.  We should in no way be treating them as a class.  Note that this is the same thing that annoys me with the race-baiters - they continually want to divide us up into classes, and start class warfare between the groups.  This is not the way Christ taught. 

Likewise, because Christ never taught the equalization of assets, there is never any reason at all to care about the "gap" between the rich and the poor.  The gap is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that the needs of the poor are taken care of.  It makes no difference whatsoever, from a Christian standpoint, it is the standard of living of the poor, not the gap between the poor and the rich, that is our concern.

Now, the economic issue.  The fact is that "the poor" is not a static group of people in the United States.  Maybe in other countries, but certainly not here.  When people talk of "the rich" and "the poor" in the country, in many cases they are talking about the exact same people - just in different phases of their lives.  If I start out working at $30,000 a year, get a mortgage on a new house, and save 10% per year, and have an annual raise of 3%, then I will start my work life being "poor" (no savings or assets and $30,000 a year), and at age 65 be "rich" ($103,000 per year, $245,000 in savings, and probably a $100,000 house, plus other assets - this would actually be a lot more if you converted the house payment into savings after the house was paid off). 

So, when we look at the "poor" and the "rich", we may just be looking at the "young" and the "old".  This gets especially amusing when you hear politicians engage in class warfare about how the "rich" should be paying "their fair share", followed by saying that we need to be protecting our senior citizen's retirement accounts - THESE ARE THE SAME PEOPLE THEY WERE TRYING TO STEAL MONEY FROM IN THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE!

Note that none of those numbers assume that anything special happened in someone's life.  Also, $30,000 is a perfectly livable income (at least in Middle America) for a starting family, and is achievable at just about any job in the US with two incomes, and still many for just one.  Calling such households "poor" is a huuge stretch, especially when you remember that many of our "poor" are living at about the same living standards as the rich are in Jesus' day.

But not only that, in America, there is often opportunity.  And many people take it.

For more on the economics of social mobility, I encourage you to check out Thomas Sowell's three-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3).  Here are some quotes from them:

If this is a class-ridden society denying "access" to upward mobility to those at the bottom, why is it that immigrants can come here at the bottom and then rise to the top?

One obvious reason is that many poor immigrants come here with very different ambitions and values from that of poor Americans born into our welfare state and imbued with notions growing out of attitudes of dependency and resentments of other people's success.

The fundamental reason that many people do not rise is not that class barriers prevent it but that they do not develop the skills, values and attitudes which cause people to rise.

The liberal welfare state means they don't have to and liberal multiculturalism says they don't need to change their values because one culture is just as good as another. In other words, liberalism is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

...

Many comparisons of "classes" are in fact comparisons of people in different income brackets — but most Americans move up from the lowest 20 percent to the highest 20 percent over time.

Yet those who are obsessed with classes treat people in different brackets as if they were classes permanently stuck in those brackets.

The New York Times series even makes a big deal about disparities in income and lifestyle between the rich and the super-rich. But it is hard to get worked up over the fact that some poor devil has to make do flying his old propeller-driven plane, while someone further up the income scale flies around a mile or two higher in his twin-engine luxury jet.

Only if you have overdosed on disparities are you likely to wax indignant over things like that.

...

Sometimes it seems as if liberals have a genius for producing an unending stream of ideas that are counterproductive for the poor, whom they claim to be helping. Few of these notions are more counterproductive than the idea of "menial work" or "dead-end jobs."

Think about it: Why do employers pay people to do "menial" work? Because the work has to be done. What useful purpose is served by stigmatizing work that someone is going to have to do anyway?

Is emptying bed pans in a hospital menial work? What would happen if bed pans didn't get emptied? Let people stop emptying bed pans for a month and there would be bigger problems than if sociologists stopped working for a year.

...

The real chumps are those who refuse to start at the bottom for "chump change." Liberals who encourage such attitudes may think of themselves as friends of the poor but they do more harm than enemies.

So, as a Christian, I reject class distinctions and especially class envy, but fully embrace the need for those with wealth to be generous (note that taxes aren't the same thing as "generosity" - the Bible is just as forceful about the need to give from a good heart as it is for tgiving itself), especially to the poor.  Also, there is a bottom requirement to receive help - you must work if you are able.  Interestingly, you see the same values reflected in Conservatism - the red state/blue state divide of the 2004 election matches almost perfectly with the top and bottom of the "generosity index" - meaning that conservative states tend to reflect the responsibilities of the rich - to give more. 

The system of class warfare and envy is anti-Christian and leaves everyone in poverty.  The system of generosity and peace with your fellow man is the system described by the New Testament, and by most measures it appears to be one which offers a very high standard of living even to its poor, and provides the mechanisms to allow the poor to rise out of their poverty.

October 12, 2008

Religion and Politics / Conservatism and Christianity

Pt. 1: Christian Social Justice

JB

Many people think that conservatism is somehow against the principles of Jesus.  That loving your neighbor, giving, and social justice are antithetical to free markets and conservative forms of government.  So, I'm going to spell out the reasons, theologically and practically, why you should be conservative.  In fact, I'm going to show why even theologies centered around social justice are more compatible with conservatism than liberalism.

So, in this first post, I'm going to cover some social justice issues that I think make conservatism a better choice for socially conscious Christians.

Can Righteousness be Outsourced?

The first question to consider is whether or not righteousness can be outsourced.  I would contend that, on a general basis (with many exceptions), righteousness cannot be outsourced.  Even more so, I would also argue that helping out your neighbor is a specific act of righteousness which you should never outsource to others.  If your neighbor is in need, then it is your job to help them.  Liberalism allows us to simply outsource the helping of others to the government.  Therefore, we don't have to bother with it ourselves.  We don't have to do the messy job of helping the poor, the downtrodden, or worst of all, the sick.  We can leave that to the government.  They will do the work of Jesus themselves, and we don't have to worry about a thing.

Can Social Justice Happen Without Jesus?

So, let's say that we decide to outsource our righteousness to someone else.  Which would you rather outsource it to?

  1. A person who carries out the work of social justice in the name of Jesus, who ministers to the person's soul as well as to their body
  2. A person who only ministers to the person's physical needs, and ignores their spiritual ones, or worse, treats spiritual problems as if they were psychological

I don't know about you, but I would pick the first person.  But, now, remember, the government (or at least congress) is not allowed to encourage any sort of spirituality or religion with its laws.  Therefore, by outsourcing to the government specifically, I have already rules out the most effective and comprehensive means of administering social justice!  If you decide to outsource social justice to the American government, you are in fact saying that faith plays no part whatsoever in the reconciliation of social justice.  Using the government might make some sense (assuming we were fine with outsourcing righteousness) if we lived in a theocratic state (note - I am not advocating this), but since we live in a theologically-neutral state, outsourcing to the government is simply counter-productive, because it cannot by its very nature address the spiritual problems that go along with the social problems (and which often lie at the root).

What do you get when you raise someone out of poverty without helping them spiritually?  A materialist consumptionist.

What do you get when you give health care to someone without healing their soul?  A heartbroken nation.

What do you get when you regulate businesses without teaching spiritual values?  Loopholes, and people who will leverage them to further their own greed.

If you, like me, believe that the physical problems that people have are real, but are overshadowed by the even larger spiritual needs of our nation, then why would you even think to outsource the righteousness of the nation to a group who cannot, by their own proclaimed nature, perform the most important tasks?

What About Sin?

One of the problems with outsourcing righteousness, is this - what happens when the organization you outsource righteousness to becomes corrupt?  If you believe in original sin, then this means that all people are capable of sin and corruption, whether government or non-government.  Therefore, what do you do when the government itself, intentionally or accidentally, becomes itself the problem?  Note that simply not keeping up with changing societal parameters can move a given policy from being helpful to being hurtful, so not only do we have to trust the members of the government not be corrupt, we also have to trust them to stay on top of things.

If we outsource righteousness to a non-government agency, then, if it becomes corrupt or out-of-touch, we can simply stop outsourcing to them, and outsource to someone else.  However, if we outsource to the government, here's what we've done:

  • Transferred the responsibility of being righteous to a group which cannot acknowledge God
  • Hoped that the ones who aren't allowed to acknowledge God don't themselves become sinful or even accidentally create social injustices
  • Left ourselves with no other alternatives, since the government has already forcibly confiscated our money and used it to promote its own agenda
  • Transferred and concentrated money and power to those who have the easiest capability to construct social injustices, and have (historically speaking) been the ones most likely to abuse it

So, if you outsource righteousness to the government, there is a very good chance that, not only will they be incapable of ministering spiritually to those in need, they will wind up perpetuating more social injustice, and be in a better position to do so because you just gave them all of your money.

Personally, I think we should try to minimize our outsourcing of righteousness and help each other on a daily basis.  This would be a lot easier if a third of our labor didn't already go to ineffective government programs.  In a later post, we'll also talk about the practical economic reasons why the "social justice" agenda of the liberals actually tend to produce more poverty, even in the short run.