Category: Bible and Theology

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.

But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.

One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)

This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.

Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.

This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.

And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
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Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

I recently finished How to Argue Like Jesus (Crossway, 2009) by Joe Carter (The Evangelical Outpost, First Thoughts) and John Coleman. I would have loved to have had this book to assign during the 13 years I taught college composition and rhetoric. So many of my fellow evangelicals think rhetoric is a dirty word, as in “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric.” But as this primer makes clear, Jesus was a master of rhetoric, a master of principled persuasion.

Happily, How to Argue Like Jesus doesn’t act as if Jesus created a completely new rhetoric during his earthly ministry. Aristotelian categories serve as the basis for the first three chapters: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. And in two other chapters, the comp/lit teacher will encounter many of the usual suspects found in standard overviews of poetic and stylistic devices (metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, etc.).

Chapter 5 focuses on the persuasive power of what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons.” Chaper 6 is a helpful summary chapter. And the final chapter provides three case studies, two taken from a Hollywood movie and one from a notable political speech from the 1960s.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. The brief discussion of Jesus’s use of parables is generally solid, but Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners. I would have liked to have seen the book explore this curious feature of Jesus’s rhetorical strategy more adequately.

Also, while the book’s writing style is generally solid and engaging (as one would expect from the creator and sustainer of The Evangelical Outpost), can we declare a global evangelical ban on the adjective “impactful” and “impact” used as a transitive verb? Mercifully, the terms aren’t a common fixture of the book, but it does crop up in a few places, and it doesn’t impact me. No, it hurts me. It moves me to tears.

Thus, I urge my fellow evangelicals everywhere to stop talking about “impactful” things that “really impacted” us. And while we’re at it, let’s declare a global evangelical ban on the cancerous overuse of “just” in the sense of “simply.” I mean, when you’re praying, just reach down into your bag of prayer words and just yank it out of there. Just do it. Carter and Coleman didn’t let it infect their book. If they can do it, so can we.

But I digress. How to Argue Like Jesus serves as a highly effective primer on rhetoric. By taking readers on a lively journey through the many persuasive techniques Jesus used in his earthly ministry, the book promises to hold the attention of young evangelicals more effectively than a typical comp/rhetoric textbook. I can enthusiastically recommend it for both Christian high school English classes and as supplementary text in college composition and rhetoric classes. I know we intend to assign it to our homeschoolers in the Witt household.

Dr. David Murray of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary investigates the concept of “biblical fundraising,” reasons to continue to give in the midst of difficult economic times, in the latest edition of his vcast, “puritanPod.” Dr. Murray uses 2 Corinthians 9 as the basis for his brief but valuable message.

Check out the video here.

The ius gentium, or law of nations, has an important place in legal history. Variously conceived, the law of nations often referred to the code of conduct for dealing with foreign peoples according to their own local, national, or regional standards. As a form of natural law, the ius gentium has often been appealed to as a basis for determining what has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone. It’s an approach used, for instance, with some qualification by C.S. Lewis in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man, “Illustrations of the Tao.”

It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (it includes input from Brad Pitt on the question “Can I Answer My Cell at a Movie if It Seems Urgent?”) and risqué (to be generous), but the editors at Wired magazine have developed a set of rules for digital behavior, in conjunction with a group of social scientists who determine descriptively what the proper etiquette for life in the 21st century. In “How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans,” the feature takes a “scientific approach” in determining the “new rules.”

As NPR’s All Things Considered reports, Wired editors faced the problem of determining normativity. “There was a lot of subjective opinion on how to behave,” Wired editor Nancy Miller says. “We sort of decided that the best way to go about this was the Wired way, which is try to find a scientific approach … to explain why and how we behave like we do, and what makes sense in this new era of technology.”

What we have in this Wired magazine article is something like an attempt to articulate the ius digitus, the law of the digital world as gleaned from its own sources. Potentially, at least, such a method might prove helpful, if not comprehensive. Awhile back I sketched out a framework for ethical digital discourse, and interacting with the established or not-so-established norms of digital behavior seems to be an important line of development.

Today marks the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth. Over at the First Things site, I take the occasion to pay special attention to Calvin’s concern for articulating the antiquity, and therefore the catholicity, of the Reformation.

Among the factors that converts from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism very often cite as major influences on their move is the novelty of the former compared with the antiquity of the latter. This is, undoubtedly, an important point that ought to be addressed by concerned Protestants.

But I argue, in continuity with the Reformers, I think, that this concern is best answered in the first place not by discounting the value or the importance of antiquity, but rather by doing justice to the claims of the Reformation itself to representing the ancient and catholic faith.

Sometimes the Reformation is summed up by reference to the five “solas,” and Calvin is associated with the saying, “Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere.” (“I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”)

But the motto of the Reformers might just as well have been (as a colleague has put it), “Expellete nova, impellete vetera!” (“Out with the new, in with the old!”)

As one would expect with an encyclical from Benedict XVI, its strength lies in its use of theology to re-orientate Catholics and other Christians away from thinking in a merely secular — and sometimes hyper-politicized way — about questions such as economic and political questions.

The Christian understanding of truth and love and Catholicism’s careful integration of these theological and moral realities lifts us up and out of what the Pope calls the false ideologies and utopias that disfigure our minds and actions. Though they are mentioned sparingly, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are clearly two of the major influences upon the theology informing this text, alongside sacred Scripture.

In these respects, Benedict XVI is being faithful to his theological method of “ressourcement,” pioneered by figures such as Henri de Lubac, S.J., which involves renewing the Church through returning to the primary sources of Christian inspiration. This helps to explain, for instance, the language of gift that permeates the encyclical and reminds us that the model of Christ the Son as God the Father’s gift to us has implications for economic and political life.

Obviously, there will be intense debate about some of the prudential judgments about questions of economic policy expressed in “Caritas in Veritate.” Here we find an element of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” which is not always coherent. I would also suggest that the often-negative relationship between extensive wealth-redistribution and the prior necessity of wealth-creation have not been sufficiently considered.

Concerning the global economy, there is nothing new about the encyclical’s reference to a world political authority from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching. In fact, some argue that it represents a logical extension of natural law reasoning about the political order.

The problem is how a world authority could possibly manage the global economy — i.e., billions of economic choices by billions of people and institutions on a daily basis. The principle of subsidiarity provides us with some guidance, but the encyclical may underestimate the tendency of state and international bureaucracies to pursue agendas that have everything to do with their own interests and nothing to do with the poor.

Of course, there are many economic and cultural observations in the encyclical that bear repeating. Benedict XVI’s dismissal of dependency theory as ” erroneous,” his warning against protectionism, and his affirmation that it is people rather than the market economy per se that creates economic evils should be welcomed as helpful correctives to particular ideas that often prevail among social justice activists.

Above all, the insistence upon permeating commercial and economic life with Christian truth — especially moral truth — and Christian love represents a bold challenge for us to apply the Catholic faith to every aspect of our economic lives.

In this regard, Benedict XVI is neither an anarcho-capitalist from the pages of “Atlas Shrugged,” nor a socialist straight out of “Das Kapital.” He is nothing more and nothing less than a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Published July 9 on Zenit
, the Catholic news agency.

As the squabbling continues over the at-times contradictory policy-suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, there’s a risk that the deeper – and more important – theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected.

For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was – and remains – an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the Church’s engagement with modernity.

Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians – including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez – maintained that the Church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. It was on this basis that they thought the Church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues. They were certainly not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as physics or economics. They were, however, convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message was bound to be lost.

Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting-point. They argued that Church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.

The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature.

In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with Divine Revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as somehow summarizing the content of Revelation. In effect, whatever is considered to be modern – and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity – becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian. (more…)

Pope Benedict XVI’s much anticipated economics encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is scheduled to be released early next week, according reports. For a good sense of this pope’s thinking on economics, we offer an article the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger presented in 1985 at a symposium in Rome.  The Acton Institute published it under the title “Market Economy and Ethics.”  As indicated by the following quote, the pope believed in integrating morals into economics in order to have sound and successful economic policy:

This determinism, in which man is completely controlled by the binding laws of the market while believing he acts in freedom from them, includes yet another and perhaps even more astounding presupposition, namely, that the natural laws of the market are in essence good (if I may be permitted so to speak) and necessarily work for the good, whatever may be true of the morality of individuals. These two presuppositions are not entirely false, as the successes of the market economy illustrate. But neither are they universally applicable and correct, as is evident in the problems of today’s world economy.

Without developing the problem in its details here — which is not my task — let me merely underscore a sentence of Peter Koslowski’s that illustrates the point in question: “The economy is governed not only by economic laws, but is also determined by men…” Even if the market economy does rest on the ordering of the individual within a determinate network of rules, it cannot make man superfluous or exclude his moral freedom from the world of economics. It is becoming ever so clear that the development of the world economy has also to do with the development of the world community and with the universal family of man, and that the development of the spiritual powers of mankind is essential in the development of the world community. These spiritual powers are themselves a factor in the economy: the market rules function only when a moral consensus exists and sustains them.

According to the Catholic News Agency, an Italian newspaper claims to have acquired some parts of the upcoming Caritas in Veritate encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.  Some of the quotes published by Corriere della Sera are claimed to be from the encyclical and align with the predictions that the Pope will be advocating for morality to be the basis of solving our economic crisis. Here is a quote:

Without truth, without trust and love for what is truthful, there is no conscience or social responsibility, and the social action falls under the control of private interests or logics of power, with the destructive effect on society, even more on a society on the way to globalization, in difficult moments like the current ones.

Corriere della Sera also says that the encyclical will address a number of global issues, including world hunger.  The Italian paper pulls a few other claimed quotes from the Pope’s encyclical: Charity in truth requires an urgent reform to confront courageously and without hesitation the great problems of injustice in the development of the nations; Food and water are universal rights; [and] the development of all nations depends above all in recognizing that we are one single family.

Despite all of the rumors, predictions, and claims to know what the Pope’s encyclical actually says, we are going to have to wait until to release to finally hear the Pope’s words.  The PowerBlog will continue to cover the encyclical prior to and after its release.