Archived Posts September 2006 » Page 2 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

At the request of Andy Crouch, who is among other things editorial director for The Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today, I have taken a look at the editorial from The Economist’s special issue from Sept. 9.

To recap, Andy asked me, “what are your thoughts about The Economist’s special report on climate change last week, in which they conclude that the risks of climate change, and the likely manageable cost of mitigation, warrant the world, and especially the US, taking prompt action?”

He continues, “This is, obviously, a magazine with impeccable liberal economic (not to mention journalistic) credentials, and one of the sponsors of the Copenhagen Consensus that raised questions about the wisdom of prioritizing climate change. I believe they would not have taken this editorial position five years ago. Do you think they are mistaken in doing so now? What do you see as the salient evidence they missed, if so?”

The special report consists of a number of articles examining the issue of climate change and are available for purchase as a PDF set here. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On yet another day in a long season of bad news for Catholic schools in major urban areas, Chicago’s historic high school seminary is slated to close.

Michael J. Petrilli addresses the broader context of the problem in this analysis on NRO. The first part of the article lays out the by now familiar reasons for the epidemic of Catholic school closures in cities such as Detroit and Boston.

More interesting is the second part, in which Petrilli reveals that one of the main features of No Child Left Behind is failing because of “the loophole”—a provision that permits districts to maintain poor schools without implementing the radical reform that the federal act envisioned.

Petrilli’s analysis is right but he neglects to point out that such loopholes are inevitable in any such national legislation. Without political and institutional will at the local level, failing schools will not be improved or closed. This is why the longterm solution to educational mediocrity—and perhaps a simultaneous revitalization of inner-city Catholic schools—will not be found in congressional lawmaking but in a reassertion of federalism and a return of decision-making power to parents. The vouchers that Petrilli advocates are a good step, but only a step, in that direction.

Part II of our week-long series on the ethics of chimeras begins with an examination of the creation account in the book of Genesis.

Creation – Genesis 1:26–30

The creation account in Genesis provides us with essential insights into the nature of the created world, from rocks and trees to birds and bees. It also tells us important things about ourselves and the role of human beings in relationship to the rest of creation.

The distinctions between various parts of the created world—plants, animals, and humans—are critical to discerning the best use and attitudes toward them.

We find in verses 29 and 30 of Genesis 1 God’s creational purpose for plantlife. Plants are originally given and intended to provide for the life of the rest of creation, especially those creatures with the “breath of life.” In this way, the original purpose for plants was to be food for humans and animals and in this way to sustain life.

So the first distinction among living creatures is that between plants and those with the “breath of life,” animals and humans. The second major distinction is made among those creatures with the “breath of life,” between animals and humans, the latter created in the “image of God.”

Genesis 1:26–28 forms a complex and interrelated picture of the original state of humanity. Created in the image of God, human beings are placed in dominion over “all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Thus, verse 26 speaks to the placement of human beings as God’s earthly representatives.

Within the original Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of this passage, the language of “image-bearing” would have been immediately understandable. When a vassal or representative of the king spoke or acted with royal authority, he was said to “bear the image” of the king, a physical representation of the king and his authority. Verse 27 narrates the creation of human beings alluded to in the previous verse, and the placement as God’s image-bearers, representatives of the divine King.

There are, of course, no rights or privileges without responsibility, so on the heels of the creation of human beings and their placement in dominion, we find the corresponding responsibilities and blessings laid out in the following verse. Verse 28 is most often understood in terms of “stewardship,” and here again we run up against the political and social structure of the ANE. A steward was one who was in charge of a household or kingdom during the ruler’s absence. Humans, in exercising their exalted place of stewardship, are to be productive and creative rulers of the earth. This is the norm of human existence and the standard to which we are called.

An early exercise of this stewardly dominion over the animal world can be found in Genesis 2:19–20, in which the animals are brought to Adam to be named, “and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”

And so we have a tripartite division between plants, animals, and humans displayed in these verses. Plants form the base of the picture, created to give life to those creatures with the “breath of life.” Animals, as possessors of this “breath of life,” live off the plants, but remain distinct from human beings, who alone are created in the “image of God.”

This post will introduce what I intend to be an extended series concerned with recovering and reviving the catholicity of Protestant ethics.

Protestant catholicity? Isn’t this an oxymoron? It may come as a surprise in light of a common stereotype of Protestant theology, but the older Protestant understanding of reason, the divine will, and natural law actually provided a bulwark against the notion of a capricious God, unbounded by truth and goodness, as Pope Benedict recently pointed out in relation to Islam’s understanding of God. “In all honesty,” he states,

one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God’s “voluntas ordinata.” Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn [the representative of the Islamic doctrine of God] and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

What the pope is saying is that the relationship between God and creation becomes fundamentally distorted when God’s power and will are separated from the covenantal context of revelation. That revelational and redemptive context, in short, is the voluntary limitation that God imposed upon himself and vowed never to rescind. But there is more.

In addition to God’s covenant faithfulness, there is an analogy of sorts between God and us, between, as Benedict writes, “the eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason.” Herman Bavinck, the renowned Dutch Reformed theologian, uses the language of correspondence to describe the analogy: “There just has to be correspondence or kinship between object and subject. The Logos who shines in the world must also let his light shine in our consciousness. That is the light of reason, the intellect, which, itself originating in the Logos, discovers and recognizes the Logos in things. It is the internal foundation of knowledge. Just as knowledge within us is the imprint of things upon our souls, so, in turn, forms do not exist except by a kind of imprint of the divine knowledge in things. So, in the final analysis, it is God alone who from his divine consciousness and by way of his creatures conveys the knowledge of truth to our mind–the Father who by the Son and in the Spirit reveals himself to us” (Reformed Dogmatics, I, p. 233).

It is hard to imagine what Protestants like Bavinck would take issue with in this statement by Benedict: “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”

Yet, many Protestants and Catholics alike, believe that the fundamental postulates of the Reformation severed the correspondence between God and man, the divine intellect and the human intellect, faith and reason. Even the most recent Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “That They May Have Life,” acknowledges “long-standing differences on the capacities of human reason.”

To put it too briefly, Evangelicals (and the Protestant traditions more generally) have accented that human reason has been deeply corrupted by sin. Catholics, on the other hand, while recognizing that human reason has been severely wounded by sin and is in need of healing, have held a higher estimate of reason’s capacity to discern truth, including moral truth. We, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, affirm that the knowledge of God necessary for eternal salvation cannot be attained by human reason alone apart from Divine revelation and the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith’s response to Jesus Christ the only Savior. (These questions are addressed in more detail in our 1998 statement, “The Gift of Salvation.”)

We also affirm together that human reason, despite the consequences of sin, has the capacity for discerning, deliberating, and deciding the questions pertinent to the civil order. Some Evangelicals attribute this capacity of reason to “common grace,” as distinct from “saving grace.” Catholics typically speak of the “natural law,” meaning moral law that is knowable in principle by all human beings, even if it is denied in principle by many (Romans 1 and 2). Thus do we, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, firmly reject the claim that disagreements over the culture of life represent a conflict between faith and reason. Both faith and reason are the gift of the one God. Since all truth has its source in Him, all truth is ultimately one, although our human perception of the fulness of truth is partial and inadequate (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What I hope to accomplish in this blog series is to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as the pope referred to it), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth.

This has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 25, 2006

This week, University of Chicago faculty members Richard A. Posner and Gary S. Becker discuss and debate the relationship between DDT and the fight against malaria on their blog.

As a self-proclaimed “strong environmentalist” who supports “the ban on using DDT as a herbicide,” Posner writes first about the contemporary decline in genetic diversity due in large part to the rate of species extinction. (Posner has issued a correction: “Unforgivably, I referred to DDT as a ‘herbicide.’ It is, of course, a pesticide. A herbicide is used to destroy weeds and other plants.” Presumably enough DDT would kill plants, and also presumably Posner would oppose such a use. But even so, Posner’s clarification is duly noted.)

“The decline in genetic diversity–to which spraying crops with DDT would be contributing significantly if it were permitted–is alarming even from a purely selfish anthropocentric perspective,” says Posner, “Because such diversity, like other forms of diversification, performs an important insurance function.”

Even so, Posner notes, “The quantities of DDT used in spraying indoor houses in Subsaharan Africa (where 90 percent of malaria deaths occur) are so minute that the environmental effects are inconsequential.” Despite the ban on DDT as an herbicide, an exception allows its use in the fight against malaria. “The puzzle is why the exception is so rarely invoked,” says Posner, because the use of malaria in residual indoor spraying is so cost-effective when compared to many other tools in the fight against malaria.

Comparing the threat of AIDS versus that of malaria, Posner concludes, “Considering how much cheaper and easier it would be to (largely) eliminate malaria than to eliminate AIDS (which would require behavioral changes to which there is strong cultural resistance in Africa), the failure of the African countries, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and private foundations and other nongovernmental organizations to eliminate most malaria by means of indoor spraying with DDT is a remarkable political failure.”

I might also observe that at one point Posner comments, “Not that eliminating childhood deaths from malaria (I have seen an estimate that 80 percent of malaria deaths are of children) would be a completely unalloyed boon for Africa, which suffers from overpopulation.” A commenter rightly takes Posner to task for this statement, saying, “Economic analysis of social problems can be useful and even compelling. The foregoing, however, seems a bit cold-blooded even for an economist. I suspect and hope Posner doesn’t really mean it.”

Gary Becker provides an excellent narrative of the relationship between DDT and malaria in his post. He also points out, “One unintended consequence of the DDT ban was a devastating comeback by malaria and some other diseases after they had been in retreat. Other pesticides that replaced DDT have been much less effective at reducing malaria and other diseases transmitted by insects.”

“I am an ‘environmentalist’,” says Becker, “But I do not believe that all reasonable cost-benefit analysis should be suspended when discussing environmental issues. The ban on using DDT in houses to fight malaria is an example of environmentalism that lost all sense of proportion.”

For more on the campaign to bring back DDT to the malaria-fighting arsenal, check out Acton’s Impact ad project.

This week will feature a five part series, with one installment per day, putting forth my presentation of a biblical-theological case against the creation of certain kinds of chimeras, or human-animal hybrids. Part I follows below.

Advances in the sciences sometimes appear to occur overnight. Such appearances can often be deceiving, however. Rare is the technological or scientific advance that does not follow years upon years of research, trial and error, failure and experimentation.

The latest news coming from the field of biology and genetics hasn’t happened “overnight,” but things are advancing quickly. Some of the more interesting, and indeed troubling, developments have to do with what are known as “chimeras.”

The Chimera, of course, is a fire-breathing creature from Greek mythology, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. In the scientific community, however, chimeras are organisms most often created by the intermixing of species.

We are faced now with the possibility of new technological advances giving humans the ability to do radically new things. A scientific pragmatism is at work, which reduces elements of the material world to their practical uses, and ignores the basic structures of creation. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, September 22, 2006

A਋it of green conservative politics for your Friday – You’ll see why in a minute.

First, read this blog post by the Sierra Club on Linc Chafee (Republican, RI), and then this:

Meet Wayne Gilchrest, Republican member of the House of Representatives, First Congressional District of Maryland, former house painter, teacher, Vietnam veteran — and past, present and future canoeist who has yet to find himself up that well-known proverbial creek without a paddle, though he must think at times the current and wind is against his flimsy craft. For years, I’ve wondered what the real Wayne Gilchrest was like, this congressman from the Eastern Shore where the words ecology, environment and conservation aren’t spoken much with positive fervor. From what I’ve read, he’s a maverick Republican, doesn’t hesitate to part from the party line; he paddles his own canoe, and sometimes on a collision course with the thinking of many constituents.

But when we lunched, he was unopposed in the primary.

Over at E/E we’ve been chronicling conservative folks of faith as they begin to find momentum in ecology.ꃯforts to get ecology into the pulpits of San Antonioਊre a good example. Apparently this has been going on in conservative political circles as well. 

I recently came across a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP). Jim DiPeso, REP policy director, has a਋log here. After scouring their website, I initially saw a lot of stuff that quite frankly seemed no different that most progressive political groups: global warming, endangered species activism, etc. I wanted to see if they were interested in folks like me (and perhaps you) who were both conservative and faith-filled in their views on these things.

I emailed REP President Martha Marks with these concerns, and she not only assured me that the “tent was big enough for me,” but gave me some names of folks who shared my ecological and faith values. Based on her response I think they’re worth bookmarking, and may be worth considering your membership, for at least three reasons.

First, I’ve become aware over the past several months of some Christian environmental programs in different areas of the country that will take political influence within the Republican party to move them forward. Specifically, there are Republican political actors in decision-making positions that view these Christian conservatives in ecology as sellouts to the green agenda. In terms of rendering to Caeser and honoring those in government appointed over us, we have an obligation to both pray for and influence our elected leadership in a proper way. What could be more appropriate/Biblical?

Second, Republicans need to regain the moral high ground on conservation nationally. Conservation and conservative share the same root for a reason. It seems like it’s been since T.R. (or since Nixon’s signing of EPA and other legislation) that we’ve had an outdoorsman/conservationist in office. Not talking about touchy-feely hug-the-earth sort of ecology here, but credible, effective stewardship and management of our valuable, God-given resources. And even those areas where the current administration is doing good work (Clear Skies is one that comes to mind) the good stuff is overshadowed by our anti-green reputation.

Third, my experience is the vast majority of conservatives, and Americans in general, view conservation as a good thing. The old saws that ecology must come at a price (jobs, taxes, etc) aren’t overcome by ignoring them, but rather by confronting them with green business models and reasonable legislation that balance environmental, human and economic needs. If the GOP wants to survive in the 21st century, it will have to do what the rest of industry (politics, etc) is already doing and green up.

And hey – If you need yet one more reason, how ’bout doing this because liberals absolutely, positively abhor the idea of being co-opted by Republicans on the environment.

The folks at REP say we need to make the GOP the “Green Old Party” once again. 

I like that a lot. 

Courtesy of today’s Zondervan>To The Point comes this announcement, replete with extensive related links:

The MacLaurin Institute is sponsoring a conference at the University of Minnesota through tomorrow exploring what it means for people to demonstrate a Christian perspective as they live their lives at the interfaces of three “worlds” — natural, engineered, and human. It will also study how Christian virtues ought to influence public and private policies regarding the interaction of these worlds.

Here are a couple of the talks that look interesting:

  • “Genetic technologies promise us greater control over creation and its creatures than at any time previously. From a Christian perspective, how do we seek good and avoid harm as we pursue shalom for God’s creation?” From Rev. Dr. Rolf Bouma, “Rules for Intelligent Tinkering: Should Nature Be Engineered?” There will be more on this topic here at the Acton PowerBlog next week, as a I launch a five-part series providing a biblical/theological examination of the creation of human/animal hybrids, or chimeras.

  • John Nagle of the University of Notre Dame Law School will be giving a talk, “The Evangelical Debate over Global Warming” (PDF abstract here). You can still expect a response from me to Andy Crouch on this topic early next week.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 22, 2006

In a way, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford recognizes a fact that Ron Sider has written on and I have thought about for a long time. In “A New Take on Tithing,” Claude Rosenberg & Tim Stone write:

Too often, individuals make decisions about how much money to donate to charitable causes on an ad hoc basis. As a result, many people give less money than they can actually afford. If the affluent contributed as much to nonprofits as the authors believe they can, charitable giving in the United States would increase by $100 billion a year – enough to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems.

Sider has previously written: “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.”

The Stanford estimate is about one-third higher than Sider’s estimate with regard to how much extra charitable income there might be if the tithe were rigorously implemented. Part of the difference might be due to the fact that there are somewhat different sets of people under examination. The Stanford estimate is primarily based on “the affluent,” while Sider is talking about “American Christians” in general (clearly there is significant but not complete overlap).

But another aspect of the difference might in fact be the nuance of the Stanford piece’s analysis, and one of its key points: charitable giving should not be based simply on take home pay. Under what they call the “old tithe,” the following seems to be the case, “When people tithe, they typically base the amount they give on their income alone, not on their income and investment assets.”

Of course, assuming that at first the investment asset seed money was take home pay, the tithe would have already been applied to those funds. In essence, the “new tithe” is a double application of the tithe, the second time pertaining to profits earned with money to which the tithe had previously been applied.

Whether or not you think this sort of double tithe is appropriate, the Stanford piece does raise the important question of the responsible stewardship of investment profits. And while at first Sider’s estimate may seem more conservative than the Stanford estimate, if you take into account Sider’s endorsement of a graduated tithe, Sider’s model would end up being much more stringent in terms of its expectations (the graduated tithe is the idea that as income increases, so should the percentage of giving increase, eventually to 100% above a certain threshold).

Some may object that the new double tithe or the graduated tithe, or even the old tithe itself is too legalistic, too stringent, or both. To that I have two things to say.

First, let’s put the level of giving in perspective. Whether or not you think the tithe is a biblical requirement, it is valid as a consistent baseline measure. According to Barna’s research, “The proportion of households that tithe their income to their church – that is, give at least ten percent of their income to that ministry – has dropped by 62% in the past year, from 8% in 2001 to just 3% of adults during 2002.” In addition, “9% of born again Christians tithed their income to churches in 2004,” and “When contributions are examined as a percentage of household income, giving to religious centers represents about 2.2% of gross income.”

Second, even if you agree with Russell Earl Kelly, Ph.D., that the tithe is not a biblical requirement, it is a far more difficult case to make that the tithe is “unbiblical” or anti-Scriptural. The category of adiaphora would apply here, I think. So, for example, the assertion that the New Testament does not explicitly endorse or teach tithing does not necessarily mean that Christians cannot practice it or that it is “wrong” to tithe.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, September 21, 2006

The debate has not been confined to Catholic circles, but it has been concentrated there. Many (most?) American Catholic moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era have been enamored with one form or another of “proportionalism,” a theory of morality that eschews the traditional Catholic focus on the “intrinsic” goodness or badness of human acts. (Bad acts must be avoided always.)

Proportionalism’s critics have accused its adherents of being simply consequentialists by another name. Consequentialism, which permits using evil means to achieve a good end, is more clearly antithetical to Catholic orthodox theology and, therefore, proportionalists were concerned to deny the connection.

Though criticism—including magisterial criticism—of proportionalism has not been wanting, it might be argued that sustained scholarly criticism from within Catholic academia has. But that seems to be changing as notable young theologians and moral philosophers take up the question anew. First, there was Christopher Kaczor’s Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition. Now, there is Patrick Andrew Tully’s Refined Consequentialism, in which the author examines closely the work of the best known American Catholic proportionalist, Richard McCormick, and concludes that it cannot escape the charge of consequentialism.