Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, October 3, 2007

You are probably aware by now that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has published a memoir. The interview-avoiding judge has lately been giving, as Kathryn Jean Lopez puts it, “a lifetime of interviews.”

Given the controversy surrounding his public life since his nomination to the Court, not much remains to be said about him, good or bad, that has not already been said. Suffice it to say that I draw attention to him now because: 1) My own view is that he is one the most interesting figures in 20th-century American history; 2) His record as a strict constructionist is a model of jurisprudence; 3) He once graced Acton’s annual dinner as the keynote speaker (you can still buy the CD); 4) He was spotted later at a D.C. area gym, wearing the Acton T-shirt that was presented to him at the dinner (or so goes the story much-repeated in the offices of the Institute).

Here’s a long interview with Thomas by Jan Crawford Greenburg of ABC. Here’s the Lopez interview on NRO.

A quote from T. H. Green, refuting the view that the law’s “only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual,” construed as doing what you like as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights to do what they want. Green writes:

The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and morality consisting in the disinterested performance of self-imposed duties, ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and for the play of disinterested motives.

From Green’s Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (PDF) [1883], quoted in Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society, p. 152.

See also, “Moral Duties and Positive Rights.”

Related to last week’s post about Reformed education and Pentecostalism, I point you to this post by Rod Dreher, who discusses his interview with Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of Kaduna state in Nigeria. Dreher relates the following:

Pentecostalism is growing like wildfire, but there’s less to it than you might think. He said that in many cases, people are drawn to the emotional experience, and can tell you exactly when they gave their life to Jesus — but can’t tell you a single thing about Christian doctrine. He said they’re finding in Nigeria that lots of the neo-charismatics have no discipline at all — that they’re living exactly as they had before, but now with a Christian gloss. The substance of the faith hasn’t penetrated and changed their behavior.

Additionally, the archbishop pointed to the connection between the prosperity gospel and poverty: “He also said that Pentecostalism is a response to the poverty of the Third World.” You can look forward to a more complete interview with the archbishop in a forthcoming edition of the Dallas Morning News.

An interesting article in the Los Angeles Times detailing how badly wrong Robert Mugabe’s supporters in the West have been from the very beginning (requires “free” registration; may I suggest BugMeNot?):

From the beginning of his political career, Mugabe was not just a Marxist but one who repeatedly made clear his intention to run Zimbabwe as an authoritarian, one-party state. Characteristic of this historical revisionism is former Newsweek southern Africa correspondent Joshua Hammer, writing recently in the liberal Washington Monthly that “more than a quarter-century after leading his guerrilla army to victory over the racist regime of Ian Smith in white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe has morphed into a caricature of the African Big Man.”

But Mugabe did not “morph” into “a caricature of the African Big Man.” He has been one since he took power in 1980 — and he displayed unmistakable authoritarian traits well before that. Those who were watching at the time should have known what kind of man Mugabe was, and the fact that so many today persist in the contention that Mugabe was a once-benign ruler speaks much about liberal illusions of African nationalism.

It turns out that useful idiots still exist, and sadly, probably always will.

Excerpts from Clifford Krauss’ article in the New York Times (cross-posted at SchansBlog.com)…

The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading.

Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records. But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace…

–> Of course, markets can suffer from gluts and bubbles, but such problems are much more likely in the face of government planning, regulation, and intervention. Central planning doesn’t work because central planners lack the knowledge and motives to do it effectively. This is not a correctable deficiency in central planners. Thus, better central planning is unlikely. (At least, that’s what the data say overwhelmingly.) Nonetheless, faith in central planning– or interest by interest groups in using it to promote their own ends– continues apace…

While generous government support is expected to keep the output of ethanol fuel growing, the poorly planned over-expansion of the industry raises questions about its ability to fulfill the hopes of President Bush and other policy makers to serve as a serious antidote to the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign oil.

–> Uhhh…and that’s not to mention the limits of ethanol (even at its peak, it could only provide a small fraction of the total demand) and its energy and economic inefficiencies.

“If Congress doesn’t substantially raise the renewable fuel standard,” Mr. Brady said, “then this is not just a short term problem but a long term issue, and there will be more of a shakeout in the industry.”

–> Right…What’s “the answer”? More regulation and subsidies. That’s a great answer if you’re in the business; it’s a bad answer if you’re anyone else.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Awhile back, I finished reading Armand Nicholi’s book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Dr. Nicholi is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and has taught a seminar on Freud & Lewis at Harvard for the past 35 years. The course eventually led to this book and a PBS series by the same name.

The book is an interesting read for anyone modestly interested in one or both of the characters– or anyone interested in the topics covered. The book is relatively easy to read with ample quotations from each author in addition to impressive biographical information. The book is divided into two sections: “What should we believe?” and “How should we live?” (with chapters in this latter section on Happiness, Sex, Love, Pain, and Death).

Why a study on Lewis and Freud? They were key players in their day– and have even greater influence now. Their worldviews and prescriptions are markedly different. And Lewis shared much of Freud’s worldview until his conversion to Christianity as an adult– allowing for a set of interesting comparisons between the two.

Lewis embraced an atheistic worldview for the first half of his life and used Freud’s reasoning to defend his atheism. Lewis then rejected his atheism and became a believer. In subsequent writings, he provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments against the spiritual worldview… Their writings possess a striking parallelism. If Freud still serves as a primary spokesman for materialism, Lewis serves as a primary spokesman for the spiritual view that Freud attacked. (p. 4)

If both Freud and Lewis thought the question of God’s existence to be life’s most important question, let’s see how they arrived at their conflicting answers. And let’s see if their biographies– how they actually lived their lives– strengthen or weaken their arguments and tell us more than their words convey. (p. 9)

The early life experiences of Freud and Lewis show a striking parallelism. Both Freud and Lewis, as young boys, possessed intellectual gifts that foreshadowed the profound impact they would make as adults. Both suffered significant losses early in life. Both had difficult, conflict-ridden relationships with their fathers. Both received early instruction in the faith of their family and acknowledged a nominal acceptance of that faith. Both jettisoned their early belief system and became atheists when in their teens…” (p. 34-35)

All that said, we learn especially from his letters that Freud flirted with theism off-and-on throughout his life. He frequently quoted the Old and New Testaments; he often used phrases such as “if God so wills” and “God’s grace”; and his final book was entitled Moses and Monotheism (p. 50-51). He was a great admirer of the Apostle Paul– quoting him frequently, considering him one of “the great thinkers”, and remarking that he “stands alone in all history” (p. 78, 53).

Freud was also fascinated by the devil and referred to him often in his writings. He was strongly impacted by Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. The literary work he quoted most often was Goethe’s Faust. And the book he wanted to read before being euthanized was Balzac’s The Fatal Skin. Nicholi speculates that “Freud perhaps identified…with the devil himself– not as the embodiment of evil but as the ultimate rebel, defiant and refusing to surrender to Authority.” (p. 208)

Of course, there are many interesting points throughout the book. In concluding, let me share one that has been of use to me– in talking with people about theology and faith.

Freud argued that religion was a form of wish fulfillment, “a projection of human needs and wishes” (p. 42). But Lewis countered this…

…with the assertion that the biblical worldview involves a great deal of despair and pain and is certainly not anything one would wish for. He argued that understanding this view begins with the realization that one is in deep trouble, that one has transgressed the moral law and needs forgiveness and reconciliation…Although this biblical faith is “a thing of unspeakable comfort”, Lewis wrote, “it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay”…

In addition, Lewis astutely notes that Freud’s argument stems from his clinical observations that a young child’s feelings toward the father are always characterized by a “particular ambivalence”– i.e., strong positive and strong negative feelings. But if these observations hold true, these ambivalent wishes can work both ways. Would not the negative part of the ambivalence indicate the wish that God does not exist would be as strong as the wish for his existence?”

Like many other aspects of faith, one can find some comfort with (relatively lame) arguments like “wish fulfillment”. Or one can follow the preponderance of the evidence. Beyond the facts and the logic, one must choose to believe– or not.

Why might there be “increasing participation by religious organizations in offering substance abuse treatment funded by federal government vouchers”?

Perhaps because, at least in part, “A program’s faith element relates to the people they serve and the type of help they provide, as programs with more explicit and mandatory faith-related elements are likely to be substance-abuse programs.”

Thus, the more explicitly faith-filled substance abuse programs will increasingly face a special temptation to take federal funds for such purposes. And this will lead to complaints “that many of the faith-based programs funded by ATR [Access to Recovery] do not meet state licensing requirements, and are permitted to use religiously-based materials in treatment programs.”

These two brief essays provide a good juxtaposition of two perspectives that view immediate and mandated action to reduce carbon emissions as either morally obligatory or imprudent. For the former, see Vaclav Havel’s, “Our Moral Footprint,” which states rhetorically, “It is also obvious from published research that human activity is a cause of change; we just don’t know how big its contribution is. Is it necessary to know that to the last percentage point, though? By waiting for incontrovertible precision, aren’t we simply wasting time when we could be taking measures that are relatively painless compared to those we would have to adopt after further delays?”

Contrast that with Bjorn Lomborg’s “Our Generational Mission,” which uses the economic concept of opportunity cost to argue that immediate action is not necessary, and perhaps will never be. He wonders, “Why are we so singularly focused on climate change when there are many other areas where the need is also great and we could do so much more with our effort?”

Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University, penned a challenging piece on Jena 6 and our current racial tensions. I have learned much from Patterson over the years. For example, he was the first person to help me realize that we often confuse issues of race and class in America by assuming the race as the single variable accounting for the cyclical plight of poor blacks.

In a September 30th New York Times op-ed piece Patterson rightly says that what happened in Jena, LA and the current state of black America goes well beyond the antiquated appropriation of racial reasoning. Patterson writes:

The circumstances that far too many African-Americans face — the lack of paternal support and discipline; the requirement that single mothers work regardless of the effect on their children’s care; the hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values; the recourse by male youths to gangs as parental substitutes; the ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets; the lack of skills among black men for the jobs and pay they want; the hypersegregation of blacks into impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — all interact perversely with the prison system that simply makes hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders and spits out angry men who are unemployable, unreformable and unmarriageable, closing the vicious circle.

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial. Even after removing racial bias in our judicial and prison system — as we should and must do — disproportionate numbers of young black men will continue to be incarcerated.

Like many others, Patterson fails to see is that the crisis in black America, especially among black males, is primarily a moral one. To what Patterson said, I would add the following:

(1) Patterson calls for prisons to reintroduce rehabilitation as an integral method of dealing with offenders. Sadly, the best any government-run rehabilitation can do for a struggling inmate is to offer shallow behavior modification which has been proven not to work long-term. A man in prison has deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues. Prison rehabilitation is incapable of transforming and healing the soul of man who has acted out of his own lacerated wounds.

(2) Black fatherlessness is having a devastating affect on the masculine formation of black boys. This is a moral issue. Cultivating the attributes of love, commitment, intentional formation, care, teaching, time, and discipline that boys need to learn from their fathers, and other men who care about their development, cannot be engendered by a tax incentive.

(3) Rejecting the ghetto-fabulous mindset is a moral problem. On what basis do we expect a young black male to reject the self-sabotaging ghetto-mentality? Money and success? In a country as vain and immoral as America at times the market not only supports and encourages stupidity it also provides incentive for young black boys to pursue with recklessness. “Do yo’ chain hang low?” “Read a book!”

(4) The type of healing and restoration men need when exiting the prison system is moral at the core. While it is true that these men will need job training, new skills, etc., these men need, more than anything else, to embrace a new vision for what it means to be a man. Having a masculine identity that pursues whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, beautiful, commendable, praiseworthy, and the like requires a radically transformed and renewed mind and soul. It takes a morally formed masculine identity to make job skills and family commitments cultivate cycles of human flourishing.

When black men are given the moral formation to pursue a radically transformed view of themselves as men they will become the kinds of men who fight evil in the world instead of fighting each other and are intentional about raising another generation of girls and boys to do the same thereby making the world a better place.

"Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" [John 6:9]

Among all the many good things going on last weekend in Boise, I (and a few others) noticed something a bit disconcerting.

The way many of the topics were covered shows how prone Christians are to being consumed by doom and gloom messages of scarcity and lack and overpopulation and an "ever smaller earth." While it’s reasonable to take a survey of the damage and an inventory of the challenges facing the Church on the subject of caring for creation (…first sit down and count the cost…), we must guard against the negative motivation campaigns that are a hallmark of the environmental movement.

This sort of thinking fosters false choices and unecessarily narrows our options for moving forward. For instance, during the session on climate change, this question was asked:

Do we spend our time, energy and money taking care of people? Or is it wiser to use our resources to rescue the planet so people will have a better place to live?

As children of God that thinking should immediately strike us as out of place. It is, in fact, in direct opposition to what we know (or should know!) about how God works.

- God makes everything from nothing [see footnote]. His abundance is not dependent on or limited by what exists on the earth yesterday, today or tomorrow. The cattle on a thousand hills are His. He can make stones cry out or turn them into bread. He both creates and tends to habitats.

- He is the author of life, and rules both the natural and supernatural. He creates living things from dead, whether that be almond branches or best friends. The life He creates does not merely sustain the status quo but is fruitful and multiplies itself abundantly.

- In our relationship with God through Christ we have access to the infinite resources of the Creator. We have the power of prayer that transforms the lives of individuals and nations. Prayer can bring buckets of rain or extended drought. Through Him we can bring water from a rock in the desert, or get money from a fish’s mouth.

- God gives the Church no reason to doubt that if He has given us a mandate, He will also give us the power and the means by which to carry it out. Likewise, we should not be surprised when our own means to solve problems – ecological or otherwise – are limited. Truth be told, He doesn’t need us around to make any of this happen. Our weakness and limitations force us to depend on His abundance and strength so that He is glorified, not us.

I couldn’t summarize this any better than this Torah teacher does here:

Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: "I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" (Jeremiah 32:26,27)

To deny God’s ability is to deny God himself. Nothing is too hard for God. However else we may struggle in our faith, we must come to the place where we accept that his power is limitless. Once we get to that point, the door of our hearts is open to whatever he may want to do in our lives. I wonder how many of us cannot hear the great things God wants to do in us and through us, because we don’t believe in his ability. Think of how we would pray and live differently if in our heart of hearts we knew God’s power had no limits.

A hallmark of the Christian ecologist must always be an unflappable, unstoppable confidence in God’s abundance.

Let’s admit here and now that fire and brimstone sermons do little to change hearts, and neither will they green the Church or transform our world.

[Don's other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist. Click here for his other posts in this series.]

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[Footnote: This is also a good argument for thoughtful debate over earth's origin. A materially-limited view of God is a natural outcome of routinely seeing Him as merely an intelligent agent acting within the confines of the earth's self-existing (and thus finite) evolutionary processes.]