Archived Posts November 2007 | Acton PowerBlog

In stating his opposition to a proposed ban on the creation of human-animal hybrids, or chimeras (the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2007), Wired blogger Brandon Keim writes, “People — and, for that matter, animals — can’t be reduced to a few discrete biological parts. An embryo is not a person. Strands of DNA do not contain our souls.”

I’m not sure that human eggs and sperm aren’t comprised of souls in some sense, or at least aren’t made up of soulish bits (I tend to lean toward viewing a traducian account of the origin of the human soul as plausible. A traducian view may also explain more than a purely materialist account with regard to the transmission of non-material realities, such as culture).

But the crux of Keim’s argument is that because embryos aren’t “persons,” they can be treated in a instrumentalist/utilitarian fashion. This is one of the reasons that debates about embryonic stem cells, chimeras, and other bioethical matters so often break down into the traditional pro-life/pro-choice lines concerning abortion. There is a disagreement over the first principle of when life begins, when personhood begins, and so on.

Jacques Ellul identified what he called the plague of a technocratic society—doing something because it can be done, not because it should be done (HT).

In a series attempting to explicate a biblical-theological approach to chimeras, I argue that because animals do not have a purely instrumental value, we cannot simply make utilitarian judgments about how and when to use them for experimentation. And this is to say nothing of the objectively higher value that is placed on human life in the biblical account.

I’m increasingly sure that the answer to “what it means to be human” needs to be put in such a way as to emphasize ultimate capacities “for thought, feeling, consciousness and active volitional power,” and therefore to positively value the teleology of a thing, not simply the current form of its development or existence. See for example, Moreland and Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, p. 25 et passim. Embryos are persons if you define personhood in terms of ultimate capacities.

See also: “Hybrid Test Drive,” on the rather more advanced situation in the UK.

It’s called Spe Salvi, or “In hope we were saved”, and was released this morning, the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. The title is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:24; the theme is, of course, Christian hope. This second encyclical follows Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI’s reflections on Christian charity, which was released in January 2006. You can find the English version of Spe Salvi here.

I’ve only had time for one read, not nearly enough for a full summary, but here are some of the highlights.

There are two sections, “Is Christian hope individualistic?” and “The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age”, that should be of particular interest to PowerBlog readers. In the latter section, the pope refers to Francis Bacon’s project, “the triumph of art over nature” and faith in progress. This is followed by reflections on reason and freedom, the French Revolution and Immanuel Kant’s reaction to it, and Karl Marx. In his analysis of Marx, the pope writes, “His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.” (n. 21)

This is followed by a section on the importance of freedom in human affairs:

The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction; conviction does not exist on its own, but must always be gained anew by the community.

Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last forever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all. (n. 24a,b)

(Later, the pope brings up Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, the Vietnamese priest who served as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace until his death in September 2002 and a friend of the Acton Institute. The cardinal spent 13 years as a prisoner in Vietnam, 9 of those in solitary confinement, just after he was named bishop of Saigon. The pope refers to the cardinal’s writings on his experience and even his difficulty in praying. I had the great privilege to work with Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan at Justice and Peace and these references are a real testament to his holiness. His cause for beatification has recently been opened.)

As was the case with Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi does not treat social questions as such and is not a treatise on Church-State relations, so it is not considered a social encyclical, like Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. Rather, and perhaps more importantly, by examining theological virtues such as hope and charity, Pope Benedict is showing us how Christianity has changed the way we live in a fundamental sense. Both encyclicals contrast the Christian understanding with pre-Christian and modern secular understandings, and in doing so, form the basis for how we ought to view economics and other human sciences in a more comprehensive light.

In his defense of human freedom, Pope Benedict warns of utopian schemes that attempt to place our hopes in planners rather than God; quite clearly, the pope is no optimist wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to human progress but neither is he blind to it. He notes that Bacon even predicted advancements such as the airplane and the submarine, but the pope reminds us that freedom can be used for good or evil at any time. There is something irreducible about moral freedom, despite all our wonderful advances in science and technology, that is the basis of human drama. All great artists are able to portray this drama vividly and in many ways, the pope has shown himself to be a theological artist of sorts with his first two encyclicals. Just as one gains new insights from re-reading a great book or looking at a beautiful painting again, I’m looking forward to re-visiting Spe Salvi with greater attention.

I’ll close by adding that one of my favorite sections has to do with the neglected practice of “offering up” our troubles to God:

I would like to add here another brief comment with some relevance for everyday living. There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves. (n. 40)

Again, you can read the encyclical on the Vatican website by clicking here.

It has been noted in the past, both in previous PowerBlog posts and elsewhere in the blogosphere, that climate change alarmists are wont to attribute virtually any anomaly in the weather (or, frankly, in any other area of human existence) to global warming. It’s not hard to find examples of this phenomenon, but it is quite impressive to find an individual who has made an effort to catalog all of the examples on a single web page in one giant list.

In Great Britian, Professor John Brignell is attempting to do just that. I’ve excerpted a portion of his “warmlist” below, highlighting the E through L catastrophes that will soon overtake us due to global warming. On the actual list, each entry is hyperlinked to the article that makes the claim:

…extinctions (human, civilisation, logic, Inuit, smallest butterfly, cod, ladybirds, bats, pandas, pikas, polar bears, pigmy possums, gorillas, koalas, walrus, whales, frogs, toads, turtles, orang-utan, elephants, tigers, plants, salmon, trout, wild flowers, woodlice, penguins, a million species, half of all animal and plant species, not polar bears, barrier reef, leaches), experts muzzled, extreme changes to California, fading fall foliage, famine, farmers go under, fashion disaster, fever,figurehead sacked, fir cone bonanza, fish catches drop, fish catches rise, fish stocks at risk, fish stocks decline, five million illnesses, flesh eating disease, flood patterns change, floods, floods of beaches and cities, Florida economic decline, food poisoning, food prices rise, food security threat (SA), footpath erosion, forest decline, forest expansion, frostbite, frosts, fungi fruitful, fungi invasion, games change, Garden of Eden wilts, genetic diversity decline, gene pools slashed, gingerbread houses collapse, glacial earthquakes, glacial retreat, glacial growth, glacier wrapped, global cooling, global dimming, glowing clouds, god melts, golf Masters wrecked, Gore omnipresence, grandstanding, grasslands wetter, Great Barrier Reef 95% dead, Great Lakes drop, greening of the North, Grey whales lose weight, Gulf Stream failure, habitat loss, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, harvest increase, harvest shrinkage, hay fever epidemic, hazardous waste sites breached, health of children harmed, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes (Australia), heat waves, hibernation ends too soon, hibernation ends too late, homeless 50 million, hornets, high court debates, human development faces unprecedented reversal, human fertility reduced, human health improvement, human health risk, hurricanes, hurricane reduction, hydropower problems, hyperthermia deaths, ice sheet growth, ice sheet shrinkage, illness and death, inclement weather, infrastructure failure (Canada), Inuit displacement, Inuit poisoned, Inuit suing, industry threatened, infectious diseases, inflation in China, insurance premium rises, invasion of cats, invasion of herons, invasion of midges, island disappears, islands sinking, itchier poison ivy, jellyfish explosion, Kew Gardens taxed, kitten boom, krill decline, lake and stream productivity decline, lake shrinking and growing, landslides, landslides of ice at 140 mph…

The whole list contains over 600 links, and keeps on growing as new imminent catastrophes are announced. Look ye upon it and despair.

HT: The American Thinker

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Thursday, November 29, 2007

The schedule for the 2008 Acton Lecture Series has been released. The following is a quick overview of the line-up. Detailed descriptions of these lectures as well as time, location, and ticket information are available at the Acton Lecture Series page on Acton’s Web site.

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse Freedom, the Family and the Market: A Humane Response to the Socialist Attack on the Family

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse
January 3, 2008
Dr. Glenn Sunshine Wealth, Work and the Church

Dr. Glenn Sunshine
February 14, 2008
Rev. Robert A. Sirico The Rise (and Eventual Downfall) of the New Religious Left

Rev. Robert A. Sirico
March 13, 2008
Mrs. Grace Marie Turner Can We Repair What’s Wrong with our Health Care System through Christian Principles?

Mrs. Grace Marie Turner
April 10, 2008
Dr. Arthur C. Brooks Looking for Happiness, Finding Faith

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks
June 22, 2008
Mr. Michael Miller Asia: Lessons and Opportunities

Mr. Michael Miller
July 24, 2008
Dr. Jay Richards The Birth of Freedom: A look at Judeo-Christian Tradition to the Rise of Political and Economic Freedom in the West

Dr. Jay Richards
August 14, 2008
Dr. Samuel Gregg What’s Wrong With Latin America?

Dr. Samuel Gregg
September 18, 2008

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, November 29, 2007

In my Acton Commentary this week, I argued against government funding for stem cell research.

The developments that served as my springboard have unsurprisingly prompted a lot of other reflections from various quarters as well. A sampling:

Joseph Bottum on politics, religion, and stem cells.

Fr. Thomas Berg on the reaction of the scientific community.

Malcolm Ritter on obstacles remaining in the path toward medically useful applications.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When I first heard that the epic tale of Beowulf was being made into a feature-length film, I was excited. Ever since I had first seen the live-action version of The Fellowship of the Ring from Peter Jackson, I had thought that a similar project could do a wonderful job with the Beowulf epic.

And then when I learned that the Beowulf film was going to be done entirely with computer-generated images (CGI), I was disappointed. Frankly I lost interest in seeing the movie entirely. But as time wore on, enthusiasm for the film from some of my friends, as well as some of the trailers, reinvigorated my hopes for the film version of the Beowulf epic.

And now that I’ve seen the film, I’m crestfallen. To be sure, the movie delivers in the special effects department. I saw the IMAX 3D version, which is projected in 3D throughout the entirety of the film. One of the advantages of using CGI which I had not considered at first, was the quality of the 3D images. In contrast to the climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, the 3D effects were crisp, clean, and stunning.

That’s where the strengths of the film end, however. Far too often the plot deviates from the storyline that made the Beowulf epic a classic for the last millennium. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era, the Beowulf story includes all the great elements of heroic mythical narrative. The modern retelling departs from the tale’s classic history in at least two major ways, and these departures are most decidedly not improvements.


The first has to do with the treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in the modern version. While the poem was first composed in the high Middle Ages, it was set in a pagan culture prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. There is a great deal of scholarly debate on whether the tale is solely about pagan virtues or whether Beowulf is “a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues.”

In the new film version, Beowulf is neither simply a pre-Christian pagan nor a proto-Christian eminent pagan. Christianity plays an explicit and confused role in the film, seemingly brought in to act as a counter-point to Beowulf’s embodiment of the pagan heroic virtues. At one point, Beowulf seems to be reading directly from a text like Nietzche’s The Anti-Christ. In contrast to Beowulf’s heroic humanism, the hero would agree with Nietzsche, “Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it.”

If the attempt to bring Christianity explicitly into the Beowulf tale was an attempt by Hollywood to cater to the newly invigorated evangelical demographic, it fails at the same level of ineptitude as Howard Dean’s attempt to woo Christian voters in his 2004 election run (when asked what his favorite New Testament book was, Dean responded, “Job”).

Besides injecting this curiously modern anti-Christian element into the story, the people responsible for translating the epic poem into a screenplay modify the plot of the story greatly. Without giving away any spoilers to those who insist on seeing the film in spite of my warnings, I’ll only say that the Beowulf epic is conflated with a dynamic from another great hero saga, that of King Arthur and his demise at the hands of his bastard son Mordred.

If you are looking for a modern work recasting the Beowulf epic in a new way that is actually interesting and compelling, check out John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which tells the tale from the monster’s perspective in a quirky twist of existentialist angst. Unless you go to the film solely for the special effects or have absolutely no appreciation for the narrative legacy of the epic, avoid this Beowulf film.

Oh, and there are no fire snakes. Boo!

See also: “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?”

And: “Anti-Christian Crusade: Beowulf is the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.”

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.org

Blog author: jmorse
posted by on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joel Kotkin explains that the fastest growing cities are not the ones that cater to singles, but those that cater to families. Read it all here.

Cross-posted at my blog.

This article at the WSJ reviews a book that purports to be about progressive environmentalism. Doomsday is out. Nobody cares. People need material well-being before they are interested in environmentalism at all.

Messrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger want "an explicitly pro-growth agenda," on the theory that investment, innovation and imagination may ultimately do more to improve the environment than punitive regulation and finger-wagging rhetoric. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels will take more–much more–than regulation; it will require "unleashing human power, creating a new economy."

Not perfect, but alot better than what passes for environmentalism most of the time.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Von Wernich at his 2007 trial in La Plata.

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has an article in today’s Detroit News on the recent conviction of Rev. Christian von Wernich, a Catholic priest sentenced to life in prison for his role in supporting the totalitarian regime during Argentina’s National Reorganization Process. Rev. von Wernich, a police chaplain, was accused of sharing the conversations he received with prisoners in the confessional with the police who then used them as evidence against those prisoners and in making further arrests of accomplices.

Sirico explains that the priest was clearly in the wrong to be sharing the secrets of the confessional with the state not only because the Church forbids it, but because there are some aspects of life that the state does not and should not ever control, namely our conscience. Sirico writes:

No matter what the sin is, the priest is under a moral obligation not to reveal it, and never to act upon the information he received. It is more than a secret in a regular sense. The priest in the confessional is acting in the person of Christ, hearing and offering forgiveness not on his behalf but on behalf of Christ. Priests are urged not even to think about what they have heard in the confessional afterwards.

The state has no right to access the confessional. Christ, not the state, has the first claim on the conscience of the individual. The sad story of von Wernich is again a reminder of the lesson of the Gospel that some things, but not all things, belong to Caesar; some aspects of life belong to God alone.

Does a good education demand an appreciation for history? It would seem so. What arguments are there to support such a contention?

Neil Postman writes,

There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

Lewis also makes an important methodological point about the preeminence of primary sources, as compared to secondary sources. That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

Christians know too that “the human dilemma” is to be understood within the narrative of redemption history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation).

Those paying close attention to the developments in Christian higher education will take note of the increasing popularity of “great books” programs (see St. John’s College and The College at Southwestern). These are in some sense an extension of the impulse toward a classical academy model of elementary and secondary education.

For more on “what makes a great book,” visit this Scriptorium Daily podcast, which includes the insights of faculty of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books program at Biola University.