Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine look at the current battle over farm subsidies. “By encouraging the production of overabundant commodities, the government is creating a cycle of dependency that undermines entrepreneurial initiative,” they write.
What’s behind the stunning defeat of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in a popular referendum this week? Undoubtedly, he overestimated the appeal of his “21st century socialism” among Latin Americans. A new poll also shows that the most trusted institution in Latin America is not the government — but the Catholic Church.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy has issued a background report on the drafting of a new “Social Creed for the 21st Century” by members of the National Council of Churches. As Alan Wisdom and Ralph Webb point out, the “strong ideological tilt” at the NCC (that would be to your left) “contrasts sharply with the careful efforts at balance evident in public policy guidelines produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.”
What kind of society does the NCC, the longtime institutional voice of the Religious Left, hope to establish? The 20 goals of the new creed, IRD says, read “like a laundry list of primarily progressive causes.”
The new creed proclaims “a message of hope for a fearful time.” That hopeful message, according to the NCC, is “a vision of a society that shares more and consumes less, seeks compassion over suspicion and equality over domination, and finds security in joined hands rather than massed arms.” What follows is a list of 20 broad social and political goals, ranging from “sustainable communities marked by affordable housing, access to good jobs, and public safety” to “cooperation and dialogue for peace and environmental justice among the world’s religions.”
… There is a call for “an end to the death penalty.” There is a demand for “binding covenants to reduce global warming.” Blessings are pronounced upon “alternative energy sources and public transportation.” Censure is directed at “greed in economic life.” The United Nations must be “strengthened,” according to the new NCC social creed.
On the other hand, the creed makes no mention of any causes usually identified with more conservative Christian viewpoints. There are no echoes of the Hebrew prophet Samuel’s warning against an all-consuming government that levies burdensome taxes (1 Samuel 8:11–18). There is no concern expressed about regimes like North Korea and Iran that repress their own peoples and threaten annihilation of their neighbors. There is no sense of the need for a strong military to deter such threats.
The 2008 creed says nothing about the importance of upholding marriage as a fundamental social institution. (Virtually all NCC member communions define marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman.) While the creed advocates sparing the lives of convicted murderers, it does not speak up for the lives of unborn children being aborted, human embryos destroyed through experimentation, or the old and the infirm vulnerable to euthanasia. In seeking more liberal “immigration policies that protect family unity [and] safeguard worker’s rights,” the creed makes no request for enforcement of laws controlling who crosses U.S. borders.
The new creed also glosses over the deep theological divisions — if not political activism — that divides the NCC member churchs. As IRD notes: “The theology of the new creed is fairly minimal and bent toward a liberal social action perspective. That same combination — theological laxity and political one-sidedness — led the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America to leave the NCC in July 2005. The new social creed does not address the doctrinal or social policy differences between the member communions of the council.”
Writing in 1950, the late historian Henry Steele Commager observed that the Social Gospel movement in the United States naturally de-emphasized theological concerns in favor of a practical humanitarianism. “Americans naturalized God,” Commager wrote, “as they naturalized so many other concepts. Because they were optimistic, they insisted upon His benevolence … No American could believe that he was damned.”
It’s unclear if Commager considered that a positive development. In any case, he wouldn’t be surprised by anything in the NCC’s new “Social Creed.”
I’ve had a number of new book catalogs cross my desk over the last few months. Given the gift-giving season that is upon us, I thought I’d highlight some of the more interesting items from the various publishers. If you share my varied and rather eclectic interests, ranging from scholarly to popular works on a number of subjects, you might find something here you could add to your own Christmas list (although some items are forthcoming for 2008).
Today’s post will look at the Ashgate Reformation Studies catalog and the Crossway Academic & Pastoral Resources catalog:
Titles from Ashgate:
- Mack Holt, ed., Adaptations of Calvinism in Reformation Europe: Essays in Honour of Brian G. Armstrong (December 2007).
- Irena Backus, Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives of Reformers by Friends, Disciples and Foes (November 2008).
- John Schofield, Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation (June 2006).
- Paul F. Grendler, Renaissance Education Between Religion and Politics (April 2006).
Titles from Crossway:
- Steve Monsma, Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy (February 2008).
- Samuel T. Logan Jr., ed., Confronting Global Challenges: A Call to Global Christians to Carry the Burden Together (August 2007).
Not to belabor the topic of divorce (following Don Bosch’s interesting post from yesterday), but Acton senior fellow Jennifer Roback Morse has a thought-provoking piece on NCRegister.com on the perverse incentives of marriage law. She makes several important points, but I am most intrigued by her suggestion that the frequency of divorce, combined with the peculiarities of the legal system designed to handle it, has created one of the most invasive areas of American law.
The discussion recalls Dr. Morse’s earlier book (Love and Economics), which argued persuasively that a free society requires virtuous families, for within them are molded citizens capable of handling freedom responsibly. (“Liberty is government of Conscience,” said Lord Acton.) More directly, when families fail to fulfill their role, demand is created for government action. Divorce is but one more example.
None of this should be construed as beating up on those who have suffered broken marriages. It is, instead, a recognition of the far-reaching impact of family life and a reminder to do all we can—individually and as a society (e.g., in law)—to encourage rather than discourage the lasting bond that is the core of the family, “the first school of the social virtues” (Vatican II, Declaration on Christian Education, inter alia).
In the United States, they found that divorced households spent 46 percent more per capita on electricity and 56 percent more on water than married households did. According to the study, if divorced households could have the same resource efficiency as their married counterparts, they would need 38 million fewer rooms, use 73 billion fewer kilowatt hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone.
But Raoul Felder, a prominent New York divorce attorney, is skeptical.
"I think people who want a divorce are so driven to improve their quality of life environmental factors are the least of what they’re thinking about," he said. "If they’re not thinking about the effect of divorce on children, they’re not going to be thinking what their environmental footprint is going to be or how many kilowatts they’re using."
The article doesn’t even mention the pollutants pumped into the air by ex-spouses driving (and flying) their kids back and forth between two households. I doubt that’s insignificant.
As if conservatives needed another reason to support the family…
Many of us have yet to finalize plans for our Christmas decorating this year. If you haven’t yet decided what kind of tree to put up, consider the truly environmentally-friendly choice: cutting down a live tree.
While that might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, the fact is that the alignment of consumer demand for live trees combines with the environmental interest in growing them to create a powerful alliance.
“Buying a real Christmas tree is the next ‘green decision’ the public can make,” said Mike Bondi, University of Oregon Environmental Science professor. “In fact, a real tree is the safest choice since the tree is helpful to the environment from the time it is planted right up to the recycling process.”
Industry trade groups are also touting live trees as the next “green” thing, including special labeling for trees grown in a particular way. Gayla Hansen, Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association president, says that when you buy a live tree, typically “you’re helping independently owned, family farms.” One way to ensure that there will be lots of evergreen trees grown around this country for years to come is to have a booming and consistent consumer demand for such trees.
This is a clear case of fiscal incentive combining with an environmental interest to create a synergy of economic and ecologic good. We have good reason to think, therefore, that economic and environmental concerns shouldn’t be viewed as polar opposites, but rather complementary aspects of the same basic issue.
While a live tree is maturing, it takes in CO2 and produces oxygen, in addition to providing natural wildlife habitat. And when the Christmas season ends, trees can be easily mulched or composted (HT: The Evangelical Ecologist).
You might even choose to buy a tree that you can re-plant after its indoor use is finished. When I lived in Virginia where the climate was more temperate than here in Michigan, my mother and I often would reuse a Norfolk Island Pine (which admittedly sometimes looked like a Charlie Brown tree).
When there is reliable consumer demand for a product, there is additional incentive to motivate producers to have a sustainable source to meet that demand. That’s as true for Christmas trees as it is for African Blackwood (a preferred source for many woodwind instruments, including the bagpipe).
Recently the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, one of the many Catholic universities in Rome, drew together church leaders and scientists from around the globe to discuss the nitty-gritty of embryology in a three day conference on bioethics, “Ontogeny and Human Life.” The presentations ranged from juridical and biomedical topics to the philosophical and theological aspects of developing persons. (A conference program is available in PDF form here.)
I was unable to attend all of the sessions, but some of the speakers included William Hurlbut of Stanford University, Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, Carlo Casini of the European Parliament, and more. Like in many other conferences around Rome, a serious attempt is being made to bring modern science and classical metaphysics together for a better understanding of the human person. The common lay person may be scratching his or her head wondering what influence ancient Greece and medieval clerics could have on white-jacket researchers in laboratories.
The beginning of human life is a hotly debated issue these days, but we would be mistaken in assuming that our generation is the first to take it up. However, without modern science the theories of fetal development proposed by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are comical in their simplicity. This was obvious when Prof. Labeaga of the Regina Apostolorum presented on “The Concept of Embryo in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Ensoulment,” which provoked many smiles when taken in contrast with the latest in embryology.
The Catholic Church finds herself in a unique position in this arena. She is often seen in opposition to progress and science, when in fact many crucial modern developments were made by her faithful followers. In the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II examined this point and encouraged science and religion to continue to develop a relationship of dialogue, each enriching the other. Bioethics has a lot to learn about the human person, but most importantly, it still has much to learn about human dignity as well. The Church for her part should not fear the discoveries of science, because truth is never contradictory, and nature only serves to illuminate and illustrate what God has divinely ordained. Looking at ultrasounds of developing human beings, tracing the intricacies of genetic code, and acknowledging how a mother and father are fundamentally designed to create, support, and nourish a new life all bring this mystery to light.
After modern science has dissected its disciplines into various categories, it is the human person as a whole that brings them all back together and helps one inform the other. Science serves man, just as government, economics, and the arts do as well. Science also reminds man that he is dust, and to dust he shall return, but without religion that is where he stays.
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.