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Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
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A while ago, I reported Damon Linker’s turn against his erstwhile colleagues at First Things. Now The New Republic online (free registration required) features an unusually productive and revealing debate between Linker and Atlantic Monthly‘s Ross Douthat on the threat, or lack thereof, posed by “theocons” such as Richard John Neuhaus (and the Acton Institute?).

I especially enjoyed their exchange on the role of religion in historical American social movements, which Douthat got the better of. This passage comes in the context of Douthat’s argument that the use of religious argumentation is hardly unusual in American history and that many political accomplishments that are widely considered beneficial would have been impossible, or at least more difficult, without it:

But the fact remains that the advocates of racial equality didn’t defend their ideals in secular-civic terms–or at least not nearly as often as they defended them in terms of the Christian morality that most of their fellow American shared. And they wouldn’t have succeeded without precisely these kinds of religious appeals, which were crucial to building white American support for black America’s civil rights…. I’m happy to concede that religious believers might benefit, at times, from couching their political arguments in nonreligious terms. But the deal you’re offering, in which religious Americans are supposed to abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of their fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well, sounds like a fool’s bargain to me.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
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Via International Civic Engagement:

Already available in English, Japanese, Italian and Polish, the game will now be accessible in French, Hungarian and Chinese by the end of next week, vastly increasing the forum for the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) ‘Food Force’ www.food-force.com – designed to teach youngsters about the problems of global hunger and what humanitarian organizations do to fight it.

The English, Japanese, Italian and Polish versions, which were launched over the past 18 months, have totalled over 4.5 million downloads to date, making Food Force a major success story in the educational gaming sector.

My review of the game is here, along with other PowerBlog commentary on socially active video games.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
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Tonight at 9 PM on PBS stations across the country, Bill Moyers’ program, Moyers on America, will take up the question, “Is God Green?”

The one-hour documentary goes inside the conversation among evangelical Christians over the environment. The debate is not about whether or not Christians are called to care for creation. There is no disagreement about that. For more on this point, see Rev. Gerald Zandstra’s, “What is Evangelical Environmentalism?”

The debate is rather about how we should best care for the environment. Moyers’ program will feature Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association for Evangelicals and E. Calvin Beisner, an Acton Institute adjunct scholar and professor at Knox Theological Seminary, discussing the evangelical views on the challenge presented by climate change.

In case you are wondering about the level of journalistic insight to expect, you can check out this interview with Bill Moyers conducted by Grist magazine about the show. Moyers provides some insights into his (paranoid?) interpretations of politics, and even contends that the letter sent by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (PDF) to the National Association of Evangelicals last year was one of Karl Rove’s political machinations. Res ipsa loquitur:

When news leaked of the impending statement by 86 evangelical leaders [on global warming], the other side hit back so hard and so fast and with such firepower. That letter from Chuck Colson, James Dobson, and Richard Land came so quickly that I knew it had to originate in the White House, inside the political religion. I knew it was an orchestrated response, because Karl Rove was upset at what these evangelical leaders were letting loose.

You can view more PowerBlog coverage of the ISA letter to the NAE concerning the ECI here.

Check your local listings.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
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The latest take on the “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) phenomenon is passed along by Allen Galbraith of Life is a Journal (HT: Lifehacker).

Allen’s advice: “When dealing with difficult people imagine how one of your role models or heroes would deal with them.” Allen notes the possibilities of using Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Jesus as part of this thought experiment. But he also notes, “You could even use fictional characters as role models. In my case I would use Jean Luc Picard or Palmer Joss (from Contact) or Shepherd Book (from Firefly).” Lifehacker includes the example of Batman, who “would probably choose to either A)distract the perp with a new gadget or B)walk away and hide in his Bat Cave.”

Now clearly choosing Gandhi or Superman would be better than say, Hitler or Lex Luthor. This is why Allen also includes the caveat, “At this stage I am hoping you have positive role models!” This raises the ancillary question of how people in North Korea are being influenced, as they are taught to revere the self-proclaimed “Guardian Deity of the Planet” Kim Jong-Il.

For more on substituting super heroes for Jesus, see my “Anti-Christ Superman: The Superhero and the Suffering Servant” (and related PowerBlog commentary).

Can you find the tension in the lead sentence from this WSJ story on the annual Communist Party meeting in China? Here it is:

“China’s ruling communist elite opened an annual meeting that will focus on policies for spreading the nation’s newfound prosperity more evenly and on President Hu Jintao’s attempts to further consolidate his power.”

It still amazes me that so many people still think that centralizing political power is both an effective way to spread out wealth and one that is therefore socially desirable. The first assumes that wealth is a zero-sum game and the second assumes that the negative consequences and corruptions of concentrated political power are less harmful than economic gaps.

But as even Ron Sider has come to realize, the focus should be on how the poorest of the poor are doing, not on how big of a gap there is between rich and poor.

Matt Gritter, a first-year M.A. student at Calvin Theological Seminary reacted this way when he heard Sider say this in last week’s debate with Rev. Sirico: “I know that Sider has been arguing for a decrease in this gap, but to hear him say that he would not mind the gap increasing if it meant that the poorest of the society would be better off was a bit of a shock to me.”

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, my aim is to probe the natural-law doctrines of only a few influential sixteenth-century Protestant theologians.

Some, such as John Calvin, may already be familiar to you, while others, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli (known as Martyr) and Jerome Zanchi, may be entirely new. What is surprising about Martyr and Zanchi is how much their natural-law doctrines are in line with the metaphysical essentialism of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Before going any further I should forewarn you that what I just said challenges a good many Protestant and Roman Catholic stereotypes.

The most common stereotype is that the Reformers and their successors were indebted to the nominalist metaphysics of William of Occam, which resulted in the Bible being treated as a law book and God being conceived as an arbitrary and irrational sovereign. In subsequent posts, this interpretation will be examined in relation to the thought of Marytr and Zanchi. So stay tuned for more on this topic.

However, at this point, I should mention that the stereotype is largely accurate in regard to the modern natural-law tradition associated with Samuel Pufendorf and later thinkers but not with Hugo Grotius. The distinguished medievalist Francis Oakley has shown recently that Grotius’s famous remark in The Law of War and Peace about natural law being valid “even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, [namely] that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him” does not point to a fundamental break with scholastic patterns of thought. In fact, Oakley thinks no real novelty attaches to the way in which Grotius identifies the ultimate grounding of natural law. He provides two reasons to support his view.

First, counterfactual assertions concerning the existence of God were commonplace in antiquity, the middle ages, and later. Grotius was not unique in his use of counterfactual arguments. Second, according to Oakley, “understood in the broader context of his natural law thinking, Grotius’s impious hypothesis can be seen to witness less to any great secular novelty than to the continuing dialectic between two distinct theories concerning the metaphysical grounding of natural law which the early modern natural law thinkers had inherited from their medieval and late medieval predecessors. In the De jure belli et pacis, it turns out, he was maneuvering for position in such a way as to distance himself from the more voluntaristic approach with which he had appeared to sympathize in his earlier De jure praedae (“On the Law of Booty”) and in accordance with which even the content of natural law was understood to be grounded in the mandates of a legislating divine will” (p. 66).

The second most common stereotype, particularly among evangelicals, is to assert that Thomas’s synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine started Christian theology on the way to secularization. According to Carl Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today and prolific evangelical theologian, “Thomas may have thought he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.”

I will respond to these stereotypes in due course, but I first want to mention four Protestant doctrines in which natural law historically played an important role, which I will take up in my next post.

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

Blog author: jballor
Friday, October 6, 2006
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With the latest news announced yesterday that British scientists are planning to create rabbit-human chimeras in the attempt to “find a ready source of ‘human’ embryonic stem cells without the ethical problems of tampering with human life,” it seems fitting to plug last week’s series of posts containing a biblical-theological case against chimeras.

The following from Herman Bavinck underscores my basic approach:

…man constitutes among all creatures a peculiar kind and occupies a unique place. He is indeed related to all these creatures, and this relationship is, according to the Scriptures, much more intimate than many usually present it. Man is formed according to his body from the dust of the earth; Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Eccl. 3:20; 12:7; from loam or clay; Job 33:6; he is dust and ashes; Genesis 18:27; of the earth, earthy; I Cor. 15:47. And chemistry teaches us nowadays that the human and animal body contain the same elements which occur outside of us in the visible creation. That relationship becomes still more evident in this that the first man, receiving from above the breath of life, became “a living soul.” With this word “soul” one must not think of the meaning which we at present associate with it and which we really have borrowed more from philosophy than from the Holy Scriptures. “Living soul” simply means here that man, by the inbreathing of God, became a living being; the word is therefore applied elsewhere to all living beings. Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30. Further, the difference between man and animals does not lie in this that the “breath of life” was breathed into the former, because in Genesis 7:22 mention is made much more strongly of a breath of the spirit of life in all animals. Thus the relationship of man and animal is so close that Scripture includes them under the common name of living souls; man belongs, in a certain sense, to the kingdom of animals.

But nevertheless, there is a difference as wide as the heavens between both. In the creation it becomes evident that man was created according to a particular decree of the counsel of God; that he, in distinction from the animal, received from above the breath of life by a particular act of God; that he form that moment bore His image; that he thought, spoke, gave names, knew, was obedient to God’s law, and could live in his fellowship. All these gifts of knowledge, language, morality, religion, did not come later to man in a fearful struggle for existence, in the centuries-long way of evolution. But they are originally his own; they belong to his nature; they lie ineradicably rooted in his essence; by them he is man. Rob him of these, and he ceases to be man. Scripture enables us to reject the false ideas in the theory of evolution and descent; but, at the same time, to recognize fully the truth in it.

Herman Bavinck, Bijbelsche en religieuze psychologie (Kampen: Kok, 1920); ET: Biblical and Religious Psychology, trans. H. Hanko (Grand Rapids: Protestant Reformed Theological School, 1974), 13-14.