Acton Alum, Andrae McGary, recently launched a blog to offer some perspective on hip hop for the hip hop community. It’s called Street Soul Arts. His latest post discusses Princeton University religion professor, Cornell West, and the release of West’s second rap album. I’m glad to see this blog because he knows this world far better than I ever will.
Stanley Cohen, the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that “good intentions become bad practices.”
In his critique of rather lame attempts to realize justice in the world (related to faulty definitions of justice), Herman Bianchi writes, “Even more dubious is another frame in which the formula is often couched: ‘Justice is the constant intention to give everyone his due.’ Never is it said, ‘See to it that everyone really gets his due!’ No, the constant intention apparently suffices; the result of the action is not worth mentioning. As Ovid suggests, ‘though strength may fail, intention should be praised.’” Bianchi concludes that there are many such examples of this kind of thinking in the modern world.
In searching out the source for the disconnect between intentions and consequences, Bianchi has provided us with one classical source (Ovid). I’d like to point to some others, particularly within the Christian tradition, as possible sources for this phenomenon.
One place to look, I think, for a source of the contemporary (typically liberal) valuation of intentions over outcomes is the perfectionist doctrine of John Wesley. One strategy for those who teach that perfect moral action or sinlessness is possible in this life is to restrict the notion of sin into some smaller category than it is generally taken. So, for instance, a literal interpretation of the Decalogue could allow the rich young ruler to claim that he had kept the law from his youth.
Jesus’ presentation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes these commandments, to include not only the external aspects of the commandment, but the internal spiritual condition and intention as well. This is where Wesley’s strategy is the precise mirror of that of the legalistic ruler. Where the ruler focused only on the literal commandments, Wesley is concerned with interior intent.
So for Wesley, “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” Sin is narrowly defined here to only include those acts of the will that spring from “envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” There is a separation here between the intellect and the will, however, so that a defect of the intellect is not to be considered sin, properly speaking. That is, perfect sinlessness consists in the Christian’s “one intention at all times and in all places…not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth.”
But of course if there is an error in the intellect, but no defect in the will, it is still an evil, and Wesley acknowledges this: “Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood.” So there are deeds that are not considered sins but still need to be atoned for.
Clearly the great emphasis here is on the purity of intentions and the valuation of motives over consequences. In an extreme version, intention is completely disconnected with effect and consequence. This is what I’m calling Wesley’s ditch, although Wesley is not alone in the Christian tradition on this score. Compare, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except good will.”
You do not need to be a consequentialist in order to care about consequences. I submit that Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, in radicalizing the nature of sin to include intentions, motives, and will, do not abandon concern with the intellect, consequences, or external effects. So, says Augustine, “there are two reasons why we sin, either because we do not see what we ought to do, or because we do not do what we know we ought to be done: the first of these evils comes from ignorance, the second from weakness.”
This is why the Heidelberg Catechism, in its description of what meets the qualification for Christian good, includes not only considerations of intentions or motives, but the external norm of God’s law. In answer to the question, “What do we do that is good?”, the Catechism answers: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”
Good intentions are not enough.
In connection to Acton’s recent coverage of the New Sanctuary Movement, which shelters illegal immigrants in churches to protect them from deportation, see this fascinating Christianity Today piece that explains the history of the church sanctuary concept.
A few excerpts….
“As a product of a time when justice was rough and crude,” law professor Wayne Logan summarized in a 2003 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article, “sanctuary served the vital purpose of staving off immediate blood revenge.” If the church could be convinced that the sanctuary seeker’s life was not in danger, it would turn him over. “The church, in short, played a foremost role as intercessor,” Logan writes. Fugitives in medieval English sanctuaries, about 1,000 a year, were able to negotiate financial compensation or a punishment like scourging or exile.
In other words, sanctuary properly understood is not about protest, but about offering refuge and help. Medieval churches providing sanctuary didn’t argue that the broken laws were unjust or that sanctuary seekers were heroes. They just wanted to save lives, show grace, and offer room for repentance. Sanctuary as political protest undermines the moral authority that it invokes, for it is just a form of hospitality to like-minded allies. “If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?” someone once asked. “Do not even pagans do that?”
Those first five major developments are themselves worthy of an entire issue of this newsletter, and the last two are significant as well. But here are some additional stories worth noting since our last issue:
1. Natural explanation for all climate variability in last century?
Science Daily, August 1, 2007
[University of Alabama climatologist Roy Spencer informed us of this article, writing, "a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) claims all climate variability in the last century is (gasp) NATURAL! (I wonder if the mainstream media will cover this?)"--ECB]
In the mid-1970s, a climate shift cooled sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean and warmed the coast of western North America, bringing long-range changes to the northern hemisphere.
After this climate shift waned, an era of frequent El Ninos and rising global temperatures began.
Understanding the mechanisms driving such climate variability is difficult because unraveling causal connections that lead to chaotic climate behavior is complicated.
To simplify this, Tsonis et al. investigate the collective behavior of known climate cycles such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, and the North Pacific Oscillation.
By studying the last 100 years of these cycles’ patterns, they find that the systems synchronized several times.
Further, in cases where the synchronous state was followed by an increase in the coupling strength among the cycles, the synchronous state was destroyed. Then. a new climate state emerged, associated with global temperature changes and El Nino/Southern Oscillation variability.
The authors show that this mechanism explains all global temperature tendency changes and El Nino variability in the 20th century.
Title: A new dynamical mechanism for major climate shifts
Authors: Anastasios A. Tsonis, Kyle Swanson, and Sergey Kravtsov: Atmospheric Sciences Group, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
For your reading pleasure, I present you with a partial list of defendants from the case of Riches v. Bush et al:
George W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, James Hoffa, www.google.com, Pope Benedict XVI, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, John Deere, www.accuweather.com, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Roc-A-Fella Records, Shawn Carter (doing business at Jay-Z), Japan’s Nikkei Stock Exchange, Gambino (crime family), Three Mile Island, Tony Danza, Islamic Republic of Iran, University of Miami, GEICO Insurance, Jewish State of Israel, Soledad O’Brien, Tsunami victims, The American Red Cross, Jessica Alba, Charles Moose, al-Qaida Islamic Arm,Fruit of A-Loom [sic], Outback Steakhouse, Donald J. Trump, Chris Berman, Shawn John Combs (doing business as Puff Daddy, doing business as Mr. Ditty [sic]), Vincent K. McMahon, Meals on Wheels, Saddam Hussein, Jewish workers at NBC/Universal, Elizabeth Smart, The Panama Canal Commission, Kelly Clarkston [sic], 13 tribes of Israel, Plato, Lincoln Memorial, Boris Becker, Various Buddhist monks, Christina Applegate, Jewish Mossad, National Vanguard Books, Mein Kampf, Venus Williams, Medieval Times, Denny’s, Brotherhood of the Snake, Larry King, Larry King Live 9 p.m., Rastafarian natives, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Ulluminati [sic], Wu-Tang Clan, Wu Wear Inc., Nordic gods, The Da Vinci Code, Sears Tower, Mike Tyson, Native American Fish Society, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, Pizza Hut, Ming Dynasty, Barry Bonds, Gangs in Hong Kong, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, National Hockey League Players’ Association, Philadelphia Eagles (2005 roster, including Donovan McNabb), The Waffle House …
…and it goes on. And on. And ON. Be sure to download the whole pdf document, grab a cup of coffee, and prepare for 57 pages of the most amazing defendant list ever compiled in human history.
Apropos of nothing, we’ve discussed the issue of Tort Reform here at Acton…
There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”
I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?
No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.
There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.
For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?
It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”
I am not a prophet, not even a futurist. I do study trends, now and then, and I try to pay careful attention to popular culture. One thing I am quite sure about: global warming will be a central issue in public debates and political campaigns for some time to come. It has become the Apocalypse Now issue of our generation. (Overpopulation, the nuclear threat and global cooling did it only a few decades ago.) The simple premise, virtually unchallenged in many places, is that we are all destroying the planet. If we do not stop it now we are doomed to wreak havoc everywhere and kill millions of animals and people. Only calloused, cold-hearted, paleo-cons would be willing to battle such "hard" scientific facts and not support all moral efforts to save the earth.
Just last week Newsweek, generally a fairly moderate news source, had a cover story that provided a first-class object lesson about this debate. The story reduced the battle to one between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" and you can easily guess who is who without even reading the story. With righteous indignation (Is there any other kind in this debate?) Newsweek argued that there is a well-funded, anti-scientific "denial machine" at work in America that is determined to stop all serious attempts to solve this crisis. This machine is driven by money from oil companies and by loony-tunes conservatives who are driven by the almighty dollar. (Don’t look now but many profit-driven companies are getting on the global warming bandwagon because they read the signs of the times and intend to make a good profit by the scare itself! Check out Archer Daniel Midlands and look at their future plans for development sometime.)
In a great op-ed in this week’s edition of Newsweek (August 22) Robert J. Samuelson noted that "Newsweek‘s cover story on global warming was a wonderful read, but misrepresented a very complicated and intractable problem." Well, hooray for Newsweek for including this excellent rebuttal piece. That is more than I can say for many publications on the left or the right. Makes me want to keep getting the magazine really.
Samuelson demonstrates the complications in this debate by showing that there really is no cabal driving this issue at all. Newsweek, he shows plainly, has treated this story very sympathetically since way back in 1988, with numerous cover stories over the years speaking about "the dangers" and why we all should be "worried" about the planet. In 1989 a Gallup Poll found that 63% of Americans worried "a great deal or a fair amount" about global warming while in 2007 the number rose to 65%. (I am surprised it is not a lot higher actually.) (more…)
For the past 75 years, America’s system of farm subsidies has unfortunately driven farming toward such concentration, and there’s no sign that the next farm bill will change that. The difference this time is that American farming is poised on the brink of true industrialization, creating a landscape driven by energy production and what is now called “biorefining.” What we may be witnessing is the beginning of the tragic moment in which the ownership of America’s farmland passes from the farmer to the industrial giants of energy and agricultural production.
If federal subsidies for corporate agribusiness is a threat to the family farm, then so is extensive FDA regulation of homegrown products and the morass of complex zoning regulations, telling people what they can sell, when they can sell, it and where they can sell it.
As my colleague Kevin Schmiesing wonders within a similar context, is the problem that the government just doesn’t quite have the right approach nailed down yet, or that the unintended consequences of government intervention into the market (in various ways) inevitably will screw things up (because, perhaps, special interests, whether corporate or individual, will always have an undue influence in the formation of policy)?
Many students who identify as Evangelical Christians and attend a state or public university are reporting severe bias against their beliefs in the classroom. “Tenured Bigots,” is the title of Mark Bergin’s article in World Magazine which highlights statistical proof of enormous prejudice by faculty members against evangelicals.
Surprised? Of course not! The findings about attitudes toward Evangelicals actually turned up in a study designed to gauge anti-Semitism. The analysis was conducted by Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. In the survey of 1,262 faculty members across 712 public colleges and universities, Evangelical Christians scored the highest unfavorable rating from faculty with a 53 percent, while Mormons placed second with 33 percent. Jews scored the lowest unfavorable score with 3 percent. Bergin also noted in his article:
Tobin was shocked. And his amazement only escalated upon hearing reaction to his results from the academy’s top brass. Rather than deny the accuracy of Tobin’s findings or question his methodology, academy leaders attempted to rationalize their biases. “The prejudice is so deep that faculty do not have any problem justifying it. They tried to dismiss it and said they had a good reason for it,” Tobin told WORLD.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), told The Washington Post that the poll merely reflects “a political and cultural resistance, not a form of religious bias.” In other words, the college faculty members dislike evangelicals not for their faith but the practical outworking of that faith, which makes it OK.
In another landmark case at Missouri State University, junior Emily Brooker objected to an assignment in which students were asked to write their state legislators and urge support for adoptions by same-sex couples. The evangelical social-work major was promptly hauled before a faculty panel and charged with maintaining an insufficient commitment to diversity.
Robert Shibley, vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told WORLD his organization can hardly keep up with intellectual intolerance and free-speech infringements against evangelical and conservative groups. “College campuses overall are not living up to the ideal of having a marketplace of ideas, of having true intellectual diversity to go along with racial and religious diversity,” he said.
The University of Mississippi, a public university, where I received my undergraduate degree may not entirely fit into the paradigm of this analysis. Of course I had the leftist professors who praised the Sandinistas, and extolled the virtues of Alger Hiss and Ho Chi Minh. Another professor had a banner in his office which read, “workers of the world unite!”
But I also had a criminal justice professor at Ole Miss who, in a class on terrorism, preached the doctrines of Christianity, cited Scripture, and railed against the horror of abortion and religious pluralism, almost on a daily basis. Still another professor discussed the importance of the American Civil Rights Movement in the context of a powerful Christian revival, which of course it was. And another professor spoke in a glowing manner about the intense Reformed Christian faith of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
There may be hope for some students who would like to attend a state university or college and get a solid education. Looking back at college for me, in many instances it was the hedonistic students, with their sexual trysts and binge drinking, who carried a more pronounced anti-Christian message on campus. In their own way, these students had a more destructive influence on campus than any “Tenured Bigot” on the faculty.
As one might infer from Lord Acton’s maxim, the question has been raised: Did proximity to political power corrupt Billy Graham’s chaplaincy to the presidency?
GetReligion’s Douglas LeBlanc surveys the recent attention paid by the mainstream media to this part of Graham’s pastoral mission, and concludes in concord with Randall Balmer, “The gospel is better served when religious leaders keep a healthy distance from political power. The challenge for future presidents will be to find spiritual guidance and solace from someone else — preferably from ministers who have no national profile, and do not seek one.”
It should be noted, however, that Graham’s service to various presidents is only a portion of his work, and one which is no doubt given disproportional public attention because of the sensitivity of the relationship between Christianity and politics in contemporary America.