Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Is Christian Education?

The Medieval University

Is there such thing as "Christian education" and, if so, is it any different from education as such, i.e., is it a meaningful designation? That is the question at the heart of a controversy that has erupted in my beloved denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In the current issue of Ordained Servant, the denominational publication for church officers, editor Greg Reynolds leads off an issue devoted to natural law with an article by Dr. David "Two Kingdoms" VanDrunen, "Natural Law in Reformed Theology: Historical Reflections and Biblical Suggestions," and follows up with Dr. David Noe's application of that position in "Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?" His answer is no, not in any substantive way.

My pastor at Trinity Church in Huntington, Long Island, Benjamin Miller, responded on his blog, Relocating to Elfland, with "In Short, Yes." In addition to citing Machen and Van Til (always a good idea in an OPC internal debate), he writes:

What is completely absent from this analysis is a biblically holistic understanding of education. One could, I suppose, reduce “education” to mere data input. One could perhaps even call such data input “the acquisition of knowledge.” What one could not do is derive such an educational model from the anthropology presented in scripture. Man, in biblical terms, is never simply a receptacle for data; he is called to bear the image of God in understanding, discernment, and wisdom; and the formative processes of God’s covenant with His people, especially when they are still young, are all directed at the inculcation not simply of information but of everything meant by wisdom. (As an aside, it is remarkable that Dr. Noe, a classicist, fails even to mention Christian interaction with the classical trivium in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.) Data neither exists in the raw, nor is it ever learned in the raw; it is always discovered and mastered within an interpretive framework (a “worldview,” to deploy the overused term). The same may be said of the development of various skills: all are learned within an interpretive and teleological context, within the context of a worldview.
Nelson Kloosterman most recently of Worldview Resources International responded on his blog, Cosmic Eye, with "But then is there such a thing as a Christian college?" He writes:

Here we have it: common grace used precisely to “neutralize” the antithesis! There is no such thing as Christian education because of . . . common grace. That whirring sound you’re hearing? It’s Abraham Kuyper spinning in his grave. The premier modern expositor of “common grace” and the heroic champion of distinctively Christian activities, organizations, and institutions.

Noe can deny that there is such thing as Christian education in any meaningful sense only because of his strikingly technical presentation of what education is. He considers what is involved in riding a bike, even to the point of winning the Tour de France. It looks the same for the Christian as for the non-Christian. Only the motivation is different.

But is all learning a matter of technique, like cycling? He turns to philosophy, which is reasonable given that he is an assistant professor of classics at Calvin College. Surely Christian philosophy, unlike the pagan search for wisdom, would have a distinctly Christian character. But again the substance disappears upon analysis. He finds that "Christian philosophy" is nothing but "philosophy done well (producing both sound and valid arguments that tell us something meaningful about the world)." (It is interesting that he considers philosophy to be a kind of production, a τέχνη.)

For Noe, philosophy is Christian only "when done by Christians with specific goals and dispositions motivating them." Thus, when we say "Christian education," we are speaking simply about who is delivering the education; we are "saying nothing distinguishable either about the process or the result of that process." As a consequence, when he is teaching Greek to his students, whether what he is doing is "Christian education" depends on the strength and purity of his motivations at the time. What we call Christian education is by this standard all about the psychology of the teacher. "[T]he fact that I am a Christian would make no observable difference in either process or result when it comes to educating students in Plato. If so, why give the adjective 'Christian' to education? Remember that discussing motivations is mostly saying something about persons, not about the task itself in either process or result."

But consider the medieval philosophers who thought and wrote in a distinctly Christian world but in the awareness of and in dialogue with the classical pagan and Islamic worlds. While they would not have referred to the universities of their day as "Christian" but simply as universities, they would surely have spoken of European education as specifically Christian in contradistinction to what one would receive in the Muslim world (where there was considerable wisdom to be found at the time) or in classical antiquity. Augustine and Aquinas didn't just serve up the Greeks straight from the freezer. They understood and profited, but also corrected and supplemented. In today's secular and at times pagan and hostile educational establishment, it is just as suitable to offer and name what biblically faithful and thus counter-cultural Christians call "Christian education."
Of course, what does it mean that Europe at the time was a "Christian world" but that the Scriptures were accepted as authoritative (though at times misunderstood and often disobeyed), and people viewed the world in broadly biblical terms. There was universal agreement regarding the Creator, the Redeemer, the Church, the chain of being, and the summum bonum. They thought and lived from within a biblically informed, i.e., "Christian," cosmology (a word I prefer over "worldview").
On that understanding, one does not even have to be a Christian to teach or develop Christian philosophy. I fully agree with Dr. Noe when he points out that, "Presumably a very bright non-Christian reasoning consistently, diligently and with complete access to the basic data of special revelation, can more often reach sound and valid conclusions than the most devout yet dim-witted believer on the topic of our Lord’s incarnation." But notice that the example requires the bright non-Christian to be thinking exclusively within a Christian theological framework.
The same is true of art, a subject that Noe also addresses. You cannot tell from looking at a painting whether the artist is spiritually regenerate or a professing Christian at all. But you can tell, to one degree or another, whether it is composed from within a Christian cosmology. And that does not have to involve explicitly biblical themes. By this standard, any work that testifies to the order of the universe, the holiness of God, and the hope of the gospel, for example, is "Christian," regardless of the spiritual status or church affiliation of the artist.

In the Christian understanding, education properly speaking--education as the Creator intended it for his image-bearers--is Christian education. That is, at the very least, it is instruction about the world that recognizes the full amplitude of God's created universe, its source, its sustainer and sovereign director, its physical and moral order, its redeemer, and its proper end. Wisdom, even Plato's, is necessarily partial when divorced from that understanding. There is much wisdom in Plato, and it is important to understand Plato as he understood himself. You don't need to be a Christian to do that. Indeed, non-Christians have been the most helpful to me in understanding his thought. But you cannot fully understand him without bringing in the larger truth-context of which he was, by virtue of his pagan darkness, necessarily unaware.

And is this not what people expect to get at a Christian school or college (such as Prof. Noe's Calvin College) when they shell out big bucks for a Christian education in preference to a publicly subsidized secular education? They want students to be trained in the habit of thinking in biblical categories with the ability to judge the thoughts and deeds of the world from within a biblical cosmology. That's considerably more than the technical mastery of Greek grammar and the logical analysis of Socratic arguments.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Blessing of Strong Walls for a Holy Church

Consider this lesson on the relationship between faith and politics from Nehemiah 8.

(These reflections are based on a sermon by Rev Benjamin Miller, "Holiday Cheer: What Happens When God Comes," at Trinity Church (OPC) in Huntington NY on November 27, 2011.)

Nehemiah has returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to lead Israel in rebuilding the city's walls. Only a week after the work was complete, the people called Ezra to preach to them in the open air, and Israel experienced remarkable revival.

Notice the timeline. First, with sword in one hand and trowel in the other, they build the city walls.  They provide for their national security. God has not given them a metaphorical city, but a real one. And even though it is God's city, it nonetheless requires the ordinary defenses that any city requires: sword and stone. Only after that, living finally in peace, they turn their attention more fully to worship and study, and enjoy the spiritual fruits of those godly occupations. Political security, backed by ordinary defenses, permits the flourishing of church life.

We saw the same truths played out in the early church. The small vulnerable band of believers preached the gospel and lived in faith, and the church spread throughout the empire, even under ferocious persecution, and often because of it. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," said Tertullian. But it was only after Emperor Constantine lifted the hand of opposition and established security for the church to live out the life to which Christ has called it, openly and fully, that the church began to develop theologically and no doubt also in other ways.

But the rest of the story in Nehemiah 8 tempers any hasty and carnal judgment regarding a dependence of Christ's church on civic peace and security. In Ezra's reading of the Law that day, they discovered God's command that Israel celebrate each year a festival of booths during which they were to camp out as Israel had done in their wilderness wanderings. In this way, God reminded his people that while governmental protection is a blessing to the church, they must never forget that the Lord God--who preserved them in the wilderness where there were no walls--is their ultimate defense.

"[T]he joy of the Lord is your strength" (v.10).

Ascending the Christian Mountain

When you read the Bible biblico-theologically, i.e., with attention to the unfolding themes and images in their didactic and Christological significance, it begins to make sense like never before and the excitement of reading it intensifies.

For example, there are parallels between certain events in Israel's Sinai moment and the layout of the temple. I found it eye opening.

In Exodus 19, just before we read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we read of a remarkable communion with God before Israel receives the Law. "I...brought you to Myself" (v.4). "[Y]ou shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine" (v.5). "[Y]ou shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (v.6). God wants Israel to hear what he says and to trust him (v.9), i.e., to live by faith in him.

In Exodus 24, we see a threefold progression of communion that parallels the pattern of the temple and even of the altar within the temple. God called Israel to gather at the foot of the mountain. He then called Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders up the mountain (though not to the top) where they "saw God" and they ate and drank (v.11). Then Moses proceeded to the top, with Joshua, into the cloud and thunder where he communed with God and received the Law (vv.12-13).

This parallels what we see in the temple: first the outer court, then the holy place where we find the shewbread, then the holiest place with the Shekinah glory-cloud. In the central place, the altar itself has three ascending regions: blood is sprinkled on the the base and in the middle, and on top is the sacrifice with the smoke and fire.

The Bible often represents the fullness of God's presence with smoke and fire.

It occurred to me that the Christian life parallels, in a way, that three-stage progression. First we encounter the call of baptism. Yes, God gives his covenant people infant baptism. When one grows to the point that he or she can understand the gospel and affirm personal trust in it, there is communion, as the elders and Aaron the priest communed on the mountain with God. For the covenant child, this may come very early in life, perhaps 5 years of age, or perhaps 15 or 25. But this stage is further up the mountain from the time of infancy and the call of baptism. This is an argument against paedo-communion.

But professing one's faith and coming to the Lord's Table is not the peak of the Christian life and the fullness of Christian maturity. There is still more mountain to ascend. After justification comes the life-long process of sanctification, of growing communion with and obedience to the Lord. That process culminates in glory. Notice that it is wrong to look for remarkable sanctification as a precondition of communion, i.e., as an evidence of saving faith. This is an argument against putting off our young ones until they have shown the victory of faith over the temptations of teenaged life, i.e., against legalism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Evangelical Worship

My church has started a new congregation, Trinity Church, in Huntington on Long Island's north shore. What distinguishes it from many Orthodox Presbyterian Churches is the slightly more formal, more responsive liturgy that we employ. In Reformed circles, it goes by the name "covenant renewal worship." Today, in Sunday school, Pastor Ben Miller began teaching us why we are worshipping God this way, how it is biblical, how it is covenantal in particular, and how it is anything but novel.

First, he described what Christian worship is NOT. Evangelicals and specifically reformed people (at their worst) tend to see worship as essentially or primarily one of these four Es, though worship is in part all of these things.

Evangelism - Worship is not directed chiefly to the unbeliever in the pew. The worship should testify to such people, and we pray that the Lord would use the worship to impart grace to such people and bring them to conversion. But that is not the focus of the service.

Education - Some treat the worship service as though it is pre-game plus a sermon. If you come in late, but have not missed the sermon, then you haven't missed anything important. In this view, the sermon is not just central; it is all there really is or all there needs to be. Worse, it is an interesting and informative lecture. This is a terrible distortion.

Experience - This is the charismatic error. They distinguish between "preaching" and "praise and worship." Notice that receiving the ministry of the word is not worship. People who see worship as primarily an experience are often looking for a sort of ecstasy, a substantial anticipation of the beatific vision. And if they don't feel something strongly, they don't think (feel?) they have truly worshipped. This is an over-realized eschatology.

Exaltation - This is an overreaction to the "experience" error. People who hold this view claim that you should no consideration to what you "get out of" worship. It is all for God who should be your exclusive focus. But this makes light of worship as a means of grace to the worshipper. We glorify God by receiving what only God can give. We glorify God by enjoying him now and forever.

In covenant renewal worship, God's people re-enact the story of God's covenant. This is the pattern of the worship in the temple and it is the pattern of redemptive history. It has five stages.

1. God calls - The call to worship. Cf. God called Abraham, calls believers at baptism or at conversion.

2. God cleanses - Confession of sin & assurance of pardon. Cf. passover, the Red Sea, the cross, baptism.

3. God consecrates - The ministry of the Word. Cf. God speaking to Israel at Sinai, giving the covenant.

4. God communes - The Lord's Supper. Cf. the communion meal on Sinai.

5. God commissions - The benediction, the blessing for action. Cf. the Aaronic blessing.

This brought to mind what my co-author in Left, Right and Christ, Lisa Sharon Harper, said this week in summarizing what an Evangelical is. She drew upon David Bebbington's well known four marks of Evangelicalism from his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, viz. biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism, known as Bebbington's quadrilateral.

I noticed that the four marks correspond with four of these five features of covenant renewal worship.

In the call, you can see the Evangelical emphasis on the need for conversion, God's call to turn away from sin back to him. A covenantal view of God excludes conversionism, however, as it recognizes God's initiative in salvation, conversion as an act of God's free grace, and even the call of the covenant child in his or her baptism. Conversionism, as opposed to the necessity for conversion or spiritual rebirth, is essentially Baptist. It rejects the covenantal status of the children of believers and thus the special relationship they have with God simply by virtue of their place within his gracious covenant.

In the cleansing, you can see the Evangelical crucicentrism. Evangelical Christians are cross-centred, and there is no worship of God in spirit and in truth without the cross. It is the crux of everything Christian. Although in Evangelical worship, the cleansing is generally understood to take place at the Lord's Supper. Here we have introspection, silent confession of sin, and contemplation of the cost that Christ endured for our sins. This is fine, but it generally makes for something more akin to a funeral than a wedding feast and divine fellowship. Also, Evangelicals generally celebrate the Lord's Supper infrequently, at best monthly and perhaps even quarterly. So as far as cleansing in the weekly worship is concerned, it is generally not reaffirmed but taken for granted.

In the consecration, you can see the Evangelical confidence in the Bible. They are not only cross-centred but Bible bound. It is only through the faithful testimony of the Scriptures that we know the good news of the cross. Sadly, in all too many churches that consider themselves Evangelical, the Scriptures are not formally read. If they are, people are served up a verse or two. And then they can close there Bibles because the sermon will make no further reference to Word. Instead the congregation is treated to stories, psychology, cultural references, and whatever else passes as the pastor's wisdom. Many of my students at The King's College, a broadly though seriously Evangelical college, clearly do not know their Bible content.

The final mark in Bebbington quadrilateral is activism, which corresponds to God's commissioning. The difference, of course, is that godly activity is not activism, which by virtue of the "ism" implies a kind of ideology, a worldly hope through human action, a political gospel or what one might even call a "social gospel." Faith without works is dead, i.e, no living and saving faith at all. But while the living will love, it is not by the works of love that we will live, i.e., either justify ourselves or realize the hope of the God's kingdom. Activism seems to me just a poorly chosen word. Evangelicals have always been active in good works--the Genevan deacons, nineteenth century ministries to the industrial poor, Spurgeon's orphanages, Prison Fellowship, etc. But "activism" connotes the social gospel and, more recently, shrill political carping for evermore pervasive government intervention.

What is missing from Bebbington's quadrilateral is the fourth stage of covenant renewal worship: communion. This is no surprise because with such disagreement across the Evangelical spectrum from high to low church there is little agreement on the nature and practice of the sacraments. So they are de-emphasized. If they are inessential to Evangelical unity, they must be simply unimportant. Perhaps this is also why church government, and one of its chief pastoral functions, church discipline, are also widely neglected. Communing is what God's people do with their God. It is their great privilege in Christ who is Immanuel, God with us. God's great covenant promise is, "I will be your God and you will be my people." In the end, on the other side of Christ's second coming, we are told, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men." This side of that day, it is not charismatic ecstasy.

The rediscovery and repositioning of the Lord's Supper, holy communion, as a means of grace and a covenantal, mountaintop meeting place is what I expect will be one of the great benefits of covenant renewal worship.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tyranny, Freedom, and Divine Government

Pastor Benjamin Miller at Relocating to Elfland posted this helpful reflection from Karl Barth.

[God’s] authority is divinely majestic just because it has nothing in common with tyranny, because its true likeness is not the power of a natural catastrophe which annihilates all human response, but rather the power of an appeal, command and blessing which not only recognises human response but creates it. To obey it does not mean to be overrun by it, to be overwhelmed and eliminated in one’s standing as a human being.
Obedience to God is genuine precisely in that it is both spontaneous and receptive, that it not only is unconditional obedience but even as such is obedience from the heart. God’s authority is truly recognised only within the sphere of freedom: only where conscience exists, where there exists a sympathetic understanding of its lofty righteousness and a wholehearted assent to its demands – only where a man allows himself to be humbled and raised up, comforted and warmed by its voice. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.661–62)

There are those who hate the notion of God's sovereign rule over the universe. They find it dehumanizing, a denial of their human liberty, an assignment of slave status to the whole universe. Note that though some of these people are militant atheists, others are Arminian Evangelicals who treasure their modern notions of personal autonomy above the majesty of God.

It is true that the New Testament uses the word despotes, from which we get the English word despot, ten times to refer to God as sovereign ruler of heaven and earth and to the Lord Jesus Christ as master and owner of his church.

But to equate God's government of the universe and of his human creations in particular with the government of either a tyrant or puppeteer would be willfully and carelessly ignorant. For those interested in how the absolute sovereignty of God's divine government actually elevates and completes human liberty, Barth (heretic though he was in his Neo-Orthodoxy) here is a good place to begin.

It is also a worthwhile study to compare the holy sovereignty of God as he has revealed himself in the Bible with Allah of the Muslim Koran. The Muslim Allah is the divine tyrant. He is never described as being "love," and never displays any. "Islam" means "submission," but it is an entire moral universe away from the joyful obedience of the Christian to his Redeemer. Islam is completely indifferent to what Barth here calls "obedience from the heart," "freedom," "conscience," "sympathetic understanding," and "wholehearted assent."

Objections, whether by atheists or Arminians,  to God's rule over his creation according to his sovereign will in both its decretive and prescriptive aspects, i.e., his providential and moral ordering of all things, misses this fundamental point and so battles a straw man.

There is so much more to say on this subject.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Argumentative Prayer

Daniel's Prayer (1865) by Sir Edward Poynter (1836-1919) 

Prayer is as natural to a child of God as breathing is. "While I breathe I pray," said Andrew of Crete in the eighth century. Yet we have trouble with it. We love God, but poorly. We see God, but through a glass darkly. So we are more focused on the pleasures and terrors of this world, a world that we see, or so we think, far more distinctly.

But we are not the first to face this problem. Christ's original disciples implored him, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1).

Most prayer is a self-centered worry list--letting God in on all our troubles, and whatever of other people's troubles comes to mind. One helpful discipline, however,  is to follow the acronym ACTS: adoration of God, confession of sin, thanksgiving for blessings, and supplication.

How is this helpful? Beginning with adoration fills the believer's sights with God. So we sing, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the cares of life will turn strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace." Before taking up your requests, consider the one to whom you are bringing them.

As you confess your sins, you remind yourself that the terrible crisis of your sin against God that was surely to separate you from your eternal rest has been resolved in Christ by the amazing mercy of God. Before coming to your needs, remember your greatest need, and view your other needs in light of Christ's provision for it.

Following up with thanksgiving brings to mind the record of God's provision before getting to requests for further provision. Needs press in on us and fill our field of vision. You can hold up your little finger and blot out the sun! You may have hurt your little finger, but God has provided the sun and rain and many other tokens of his care. It is good to keep that in mind before petitioning him for help concerning your finger.

Only after these three comes supplication.

Apply these guidelines to the prayer that the Lord Jesus gave his disciples as a model.

Our Father who are in heaven. Hallowed by thy name. -- Adoration.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. -- Supplication.
Give is this day our daily bread. -- Supplication.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. -- Confession.
And lead us not into temptation. -- Supplication.
But deliver us from evil. -- Supplication.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Amen. -- Adoration.

It is interesting that there is no thanksgiving in the prayer. Surely Jesus intends that we thank God for our blessings. But Jesus did not give the prayer as a fixed liturgy (though we are free to use it in that way). Any godly believer knows that one thanks God for his mercies. As the Apostle Paul told the Philippians, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Php 4:6). Thank offerings were part of Israel's worship (Lev. 7:11-15; 2 Chron. 29:30-32).

As helpful as the ACTS outline is in structuring our prayers, Job (23:3) prompts us to pray with a slightly different understanding. When he approaches the throne of grace, this man who is so much in need does not just make his requests known. He marshals arguments. "Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his seat! I would present my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments."

Job is not coming to Santa Claus with requests, otherwise he might just spout forth his list of requests. He is not supplicating pagan gods, such that he brings gifts to bribe them and pervert whatever sense of right they might have.

He is approaching Yahweh, the Lord. As he is fully aware, this is the God who made the world through the Logos, and who made us in his image. Thus, God said through Isaiah, "Come now, and let us reason together" (1:18). He addressed us through his prophets and left us a written testimony. He has made us promises with which he binds himself. That is no limitation on his sovereignty because his promises are fully consistent with his divine character, and he is constant in his character so that he delights to keep his promises. In promising, he utters conditional statements concerning which we can reason in view of our circumstances.

And so knowing who his God is, in the confidence of God's covenant love, righteous Job in his need approaches his God with arguments, and it pleases the Lord that Job does this. The Lord's character, self-revelation, promises, and dealings invite it!

We see this in the prayers of the saints that are recorded in the Bible, for example Daniel's prayer after learning from study that his people would be a total of seventy years in captivity (Dan. 9). He begins with adoration, but he is also setting up his argument.

He "keeps his covenant and mercy" (v.4). From verses 5-8, Daniel confesses his sin and the sins of his people in which he participates, and then returns to God's character: "To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against him" (v.9). He alternates between adoration and confession until verse 16 when he begins his argument.

O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us. Now therefore, our God, hear the prayer of Your servant, and his supplications, and for the Lord’s sake cause Your face to shine on Your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name.

Daniel asks the Lord to spare Jerusalem and his people their present afflictions and desolations. Why should God do this? Because of his righteous character. It is God's own sanctuary, and so Daniel calls on the Lord to defend it for his own sake. The city is his own city. It is called by his name. Finally, he appeals to the Lord's mercy to which he has made reference twice before in this prayer. Specifically, he mentions forgiveness, an aspect of love that "belongs" to the Lord (v.9). "For your own sake," pleads the holy exile. Your city. Your people. Your name.

Notice that in the Lord's Prayer the final word of adoration begins with the little word "for," as in "because." We ask God to give us daily bread and the forgiveness of our sins so that his kingdom would cover that much more of the world, so that he would show his divine power by it, and so that he would be glorified.

When the wise Christian prays, the character and promises of God dominate his perspective. The record of God's provision is foremost in his mind. "You have done it, Lord," he says. "You have always done it; so, do it again!" Like Job, and also like Paul, he argues from the greater to the lesser, as when Paul says, "He who did not spare his own son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things" (Romans 8:32). Having met our greatest need by paying the greatest price, he will surely meet all lesser ones.

Praying in this saintly style builds our confidence to go to prayer and secures our peace coming out of prayer.

Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the Victorian age, has a much better account of this passage in his sermon, "Effective Prayer."

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Limits of Our Demystified World

“…I desire you to consider, I say, that these functions imitate those of a real man as perfectly as possible and that they follow naturally in this machine entirely from the disposition of the organs-no more nor less than do the movements of a clock or other automaton, from the arrangement of its counterweights and wheels.” René Descartes, L’homme
We live in Descartes’ world, but do we belong here? Is this the world as it ought to be?

Descartes wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy to prove (a) the existence of God, and (b) the distinction between the soul and Body. It was not out of great piety that he undertook this metaphysical task. He wanted to clear a space for the advance of the sciences by demystifying the physical world, reducing it all to mechanical bodies. Descartes is infamous for having conducted experiments on cats, dropping them into boiling water and watching their responses. He was at peace in his conscience because after all, given that animals do not have souls and that everything that does not have a soul is simply a mechanical body, animals must be simply mechanical automata. But of course, by that standard the human body is also mechanical.

Catherine Wilson informs me that Descartes caused quite a stir in his day for these views. This world is God’s world which he has ordered and which operates according to his good plan. People of the time viewed messing with it through technological science as impious, even demonic. Descartes’ project was to transform our view of nature—to demystify it—so that we could understand its principles of operation, rework it, and make ourselves masters and possessors of it, as he put it in part IV of his Discourse on Method.

I confess that demystified nature seems perfectly right and holy to me. This is a dimension of the medieval mind that I cannot fathom. It reminds me of my first (and last) reading of the Arthurian tale. People were slaughtering each other and throwing away their own lives for reasons of honor and medieval propriety that was completely beyond my ken and seemed tragically needless to me. Similarly, medieval notions of a physical world with moral and spiritual content, including notions of holy ground and holy space, strikes me a superstitious. The Temple and its contents in the Old Testament is different, of course. If God explicitly sets something or someone aside as holy then it’s holy.

In going down this road, Descartes was following Francis Bacon who was trying to accomplish the same goal and overcome the same opposition. We see this not only in his scientific writings included in The Great Instuaration, but also in the Essays. In “Of Riches” (#34) he promotes the view that anything can be bought and sold without impropriety, in contrast to Naboth’s view of his vineyard. Today, you can sell your church building or bulldoze it and put up a gas station. No problem. It’s just a building. Symbolically, it presents problems when what is architecturally a church building is transformed into an art gallery (Upton MA), a public library (Seacliff NY), or a café (Newton MA)

But am I missing something? In demystifying nature, Descartes made everything mechanical, even the human body, and thus the appropriate object of rational control. Yet, we have enough health left in us that we have not gone the whole distance in that direction. The human body is still holy in a sense. We speak of “desecrating” a corpse, an vacated human body. Is this just superstition? We might donate organs or even our whole body for research purposes. That required passing a significant threshold. But we would not donate our bodies for fertilizer in the family garden, or as food for the poor. The secret of Soylent Green was a horror.

We view other things as in a sense holy, or objects of reverence, such a things pertaining to civil religion. The flag requires particular treatment. You don’t throw it in the garbage. It must be disposed of with care and respect. We treat graveyards and battlefields the same way. Try building a shopping Mall or amusement park when the north and south spilled blood at Gettysburg or Antietam.

So are we being superstitious in these things—the battlefields and our bodies (for which we show greater respect when we’re dead than when we’re alive)? Should we fully rationalize and demystify? Or have we overly demystified? Have we hollowed out our understanding of some things that are actually more multidimensional? I think it is extremely unlikely that we have got it just right?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Church's Praise and Mine

 Genevan Psalter, 1562

Ben Miller, my pastor, on his blog "Relocating to Elfland," has this helpful reflection on church music, pop culture, our narcissism, and our abandoned heritage. This helped me think about myself and my worship...or should I say the church's worship which, by God's grace, is mine.

The Songbook Comes With It

By Rev. Benjamin Miller, Franklin Square OPC

A few thoughts on singing, and particularly singing in the church, prompted by a second listen to Volume 88 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal:

Bay Psalm Book 1640
First, most people would agree that singing is a form of culture; but what we mean by “culture” has evolved dramatically in the last half-century, which in turn has changed the way we think about singing. In older usage, a culture was a set of traditions and forms among a particular people with a distinctive history; in more recent usage, culture is largely a conglomerate of consumable products (“pop culture” means basically stuff that is popular, i.e., what sells). Bach’s music, for example, was part of a Western culture that predated and outlived him; Bono’s performances are part of marketable culture driven by consumer demand. Celtic folk music was once an expression of a people and their history, the sort of thing one would find played and sung by the locals at a pub in a certain part of the world; Dropkick Murphys are “one of the best-known rock bands in the world, thanks in part to their ability to tap into the working-class and sports fan culture that permeates Boston and the New England area but even more so due to their reputation for phenomenal live shows” (this from their official website). The band has taken something from what was once a culture (in the older sense of the word) and gainfully commodified it for the international market (i.e., placed it in the conglomerate of pop “culture”).

Second, in the older understanding of a culture, singing was not predominately a spectator sport; it was not mostly something a crowd watched while a few performed. Rather, a culture had its songs, and the people in that culture sang them, together. This was true of the biblical Hebrews (e.g., Ps 137:3–4), it is true today in many cultures of the southern hemisphere, and it was true not long ago in the United States (one thinks of the forgotten genre of songs called Americana).

These are my observations, for which no one else is to be blamed; but now let me assume their validity and apply them to the church.

Antiphonal in Latin, 14th c.
When the average North American evangelical thinks of singing in worship, he or she thinks in the idiom of popular “culture,” that is, he or she thinks as a consumer. This is true not only of worshippers who expect to watch and listen to a praise band up front (whether such a spectator event qualifies as “worship” in any biblical sense of the word is a question I will not pause to address here); it is true also of those who expect to participate in congregational singing. The driving issue is whether “I like” this or that song, whether this music suits my tastes and meets my needs/wants. But we think this way about music and song because we think this way about culture in general. What is really radical to us is the idea that we should embrace certain songs – that we should learn not only to sing them, but also to love them – because they are a part of a culture to which we are coming (or better, in which we find ourselves) as God’s people. The Psalms are the songs of “our people,” and so we should love them, and sing them. Christians in the Reformation tradition are part of a heritage, a culture, that has bequeathed to us a wonderful corpus of music, and we should be learning it (not to mention songs of Christendom predating the Reformation, and some of much later origin). If we were honest, however, this makes about as much sense to us as the idea that we should sing certain songs because they are “American.” Says who? What if I don’t like these songs? It doesn’t fit our sovereignty complex with respect to “our” music. Who has the right to tell us what we must listen to, or what we must sing?

The question might be turned around: Who asked you whether you wanted to be an American? Or a Westerner, or an Easterner? African or Irish or Bolivian? And who asked you whether you wanted to be born among God’s covenant people? Short answer: nobody. These are your people, this is your heritage, your culture, your story. And the songbook comes with it. Which means that in the church we should pick up our songbook, dust it off, and start singing. Together. With gusto. A joyful noise, and all that. Thank God He’s the only judge here; all the others are over at American Idol.


I can add that when I first began attending church as an undergraduate in Toronto in 1983, I had no experience of church life. The hymnody of the church was alien to me, but it never crossed my mind to question it and suggest a musical style that was more familiar to me. If this is what Christians sing in church then I will sing this in church. And I discovered that it was a fine tradition of music anyway. "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" was very satisfying to belt out. I was used to listening to a wide variety of music, from Scottish folk music to jazz and classical to punk music like the Stranglers. The old hymns were just another pleasant dimension of the musical universe to discover. I have since developed my own tastes. I prefer Welsh hymns, anything by Johann Crüger (1598-1662), and the Genevan psalms using the tunes of Louis Bourgeois. But the church of Christ today should sing the praise of the church throughout the ages, otherwise, as Pastor Miller says, the church's worship becomes an extension of pop culture and commercial entertainment feeding what is already our appalling self-absorption instead of Christ-absorption as organic parts of his glorious body, the church.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Christ in the Old Testament

This is a nice sketch of Christ as the Old Testament presented him to the Jewish people. I picked this up somewhere about ten years ago, though I made some improvements here and there. I have no doubt that I could improve it further as I grow in understanding.

In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples, who did not recognize him at that point, and "expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). What he shared with them obviously went well beyond a few Messianic prophesies, such as in Genesis 3 and Psalm 110.

The Hebrew Scriptures continue to show us Christ and the gospel. Paul had the Old Testament in mind when he wrote to Timothy, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine for reproof. for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (II Tim. 3:16).

In Genesis, He is the Creator God, and the promised seed of the woman (3:15).
In Exodus, He is your exodus, your Passover, the bread which comes down from heaven.
In Leviticus, He is the Holy of holies & the mercy seat, your atoning sacrifice & your sanctification.
In Numbers, He is the water of cleansing & the bronze snake who was lifted up for healing.
In Deuteronomy, He is your legal righteousness.
In Joshua, He is the mighty conqueror.
In Judges, He gives victory over enemies.
In Ruth, He is your kinsman-redeemer.
In I Samuel, he is your champion. (ch. 17)
In 2 Samuel, He is great David’s greater son. (ch. 7)
In I & II Kings, He is the faithful & true King (I K. 2:2-4)
In I Chronicles, He is the one whose throne will be established forever. (17)
In II Chronicles, He is the one greater than Solomon
In Ezra, He is the Temple of God, the focus & center of your life.
In Nehemiah, He is your mighty wall of protection.
In Esther, He stands in the gap to deliver you from your enemies.
In Job, He is the arbitrator who removes God’s rod of judgment from you. (9:33-35)
In Psalms, He is the Holy One who will not see decay, the Shepherd who restores your soul.
In Proverbs, He is your wisdom for a disciplined & prudent life. (1:1-3)
In Ecclesiastes, He is the meaning of life, without whom all is vanity & a chasing after the wind.
In the Song of Solomon, He is your beloved, the Church’s bridegroom.
In Isaiah, He is the Prince of Peace, and the Suffering Servant.
In Jeremiah, He is the balm of Gilead (8), the Righteous Branch (23), the new covenant (31)
In Lamentations, He is the Lord’s great faithfulness (3:23).
In Ezekiel, He is life to dead bones, & the glorious new temple.
In Daniel, He is the Son of Man whose kingdom will last forever (7:13-14).
In Hosea, He is your faithful husband who forgives your adultery and redeems you from slavery to sin.
In Joel, He is the name of the Lord on which you call to be saved from judgment on the Day of the Lord.
In Amos, He plants his people and guards them in safety (9:15).
In Obadiah, He is vengeance on God’s enemies but deliverance for Zion.
In Jonah, He is the faithful prophet who brings the word of God’s compassion to the Gentiles.
In Micah, He is the shepherd of his flock & their peace.
In Nahum, He is a refuge to the faithful but an overwhelming flood to the wicked (1:8).
In Habakkuk, He is the Holy One.
In Zephaniah, He is the King of Israel who is with you & takes great delight in you (3:15-17).
In Haggai, He is the greater glory of the temple & the signet ring of God.
In Zechariah, He is the capstone, the plumb line, the gentle king riding on a donkey. 
In Malachi, He is the Lord you are seeking, the messenger of the covenant

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Christian Philosophico-Political Problem

Socrates on Trial

There is an interesting parallel between Peter in the Book of Acts and Socrates in the Apology. Both men are on trial, and they are on trial specifically for what they have been teaching. Socrates in put to death. Peter, at this point, is not, but one day he will be.

More substantively, however, each man explicitly recognizes himself as facing a fundamental and enduring political challenge.

In Acts 5, Peter is on trial for preaching Christ. The Jewish authorities led by the high priest, let's call them the city of Jerusalem to put a political face on them, told Peter to stop teaching in Jesus' name, or what the angel in v.20 called "the words of this Life." Peter of course was willing to bey in many things, but here he says, "We must obey God rather than men" (5:29). With this declaration he states what we call the theologico-political problem, one important aspect of which is the division of loyalty within the Christian between earthly civic authority and the higher authority of the King of kings.

In the Apology, the city of Athens, through the charges of his three accusers and the threat of death, tells Socrates to stop teaching what he does about the gods and to stop interrogating respectable citizens in front of the young. Socrates is also willing to obey the laws of the city in many ways, even to the point of submitting to death as he argues in the Crito, but on this point he says he must disobey. "I, men of Athens, salute you and love you, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breath and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing..." (29d; West, transl.).

This appears to be a pagan form of the theologico-political problem, but it is a unique god that Socrates invokes. It is a god he alone recognizes. I suspect it is a god he has created for rhetorical purposes. Elsewhere, Socrates presents what drives him as being his philosophic nature, an erotic love for wisdom, for the truth, for the good. Thus, what we see here we may call the philosophico-political problem.

For a Christian, these problems converge. Devotion to Christ is not simply devotion to raw divine will. It is also devotion to the truth. The Lord is holy. He is not part of the cosmos, but the creator of the cosmos out of nothing. He is ground of all being and the author of all truth. Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6; cf. John 1, Colossians 1). So devotion to Christ is inseparable from devotion to the truth in general. To be Christ centered in faith is to be truth driven in life.*

*Here, I paraphrase John Piper in A Godward Life (p.106): "Being God-centered in life means being truth-driven in ministry."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Philosophy is Your Calling

At the very opening of the Bible, in Genesis 1, we see the foundation for philosophy. In verse 2, God speaks, saying "Let there be light." Through a rational articulation, he creates light. Thus, the creation is intelligible. He then separates the light from the darkness. He doesn't just cut the undifferentiated porridge of created stuff into blocks. He creates order, distinguishing discernible parts with an intelligible relation to one another. He then names the parts. The light he calls day, and the darkness he calls night. He proceeds this way for six days, and calls it "good," again speaking. Our world is ordered, intelligible, and good.

God then made Adam in his image. He brought animals before him so Adam could name them. In other words, he called Adam to understand the creation, to distinguished between the creatures and understand the specific difference of each one. Naming is an articulation of that understanding. Adam's first task after he was created was philosophy.

Philosophy is a uniquely human activity. Beasts can't do it. It fulfils what is uniquely human in us: our rational and moral faculties. It is the fulfillment of our divine calling as human beings. (Philosophy per se is rare among us, but everyone does it somewhat. We all distinguish between things, and seek the truth at some level or another, just not honestly and rigorously.)

Through philosophical investigation, you glorify God as youy see the order in what he has created. The awe you experience when you see order and meaning where before you had not is, for those who know the Lord, a form of worship. When you see a deeper beauty or intelligibility than you had previously understood and your thoughts fly to the Creator, you magnify him.

Secondly, you take dominion in obedience to the creation mandate when you understand the nature of things created. We are accustomed to thinking of dominion in terms of technology, making the world do what you want by understanding the way it works. But what a thing is is more than just the way it works.

Lastly, through philosophy, you affirm yourself as human rather than bestial. If you live your life merely eating and passing what you eat, you are obviously not living a fully human life. Human being are made for than that. We are made for friendship, for worship, and for the rational understanding of our world in all its dimensions, viz. for philosophy. Understanding the world philosophically affirms the order and goodness of God's creation.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remember, The Lord Loves This Man

The Lord saves the simple and passes over the wise.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
          -- I Corinthians 1:26-31

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Little BP in All of Us?

No one disputes that BP did something terribly wrong--morally wrong--that resulted in eleven dead and the ensuing economic and environmental disaster. Some even see fault in the government restrictions on drilling that pushed the rigs so far out into deep water. But some are also pointing the finger at Americans in general, and the American way of life.

We're used to hearing this from Muslim jihadists and western leftists of all kinds. Even the American president himself, in his first Oval Office speech, accused us of being "addicted to fossil fuels." But here comes the Evangelical Christian mea cupla on behalf of us all: "Corporate Sin: We Wanted BP to Cut Corners." It's only a blog post from a Texas pastor at a happenin' church, but it doesn't surprise me either.

If we’ve ever complained about rising gas prices or the cost of air travel, we are participating in the world that drives companies like BP to cut costs. We want them to. We need them to. We don’t really want to know what BP is doing as long as it keeps our vehicles fueled and our computers powered. Not unlike Al Gore, who talks about the environment from the comfort of his personal jet, we love to talk about BP’s problems while consuming the product they provide at every opportunity.

In reality, more oil is spilled every year in Nigeria than what BP has spilled into the Gulf. We just don’t care because it doesn’t affect us. The BP oil spill, then, is not about the individual sins of a single, evil corporation bent on squeezing every last dollar out of the earth’s core. It is about the corporate sin of humanity bent toward selfishness at every turn.

A bit cynical. More than a bit.

Some Christians are never happy unless they are in the throes of conviction, preferably dragging everyone in with them, even if they have to invent the sin out of nothing. I understand that this man wants to alert is people and his readers to the idolatry that is throughout our culture. Good. But I think this spill is a poorly chosen lift off point.

Just because I drive a minivan and don't want to pay any more than I have to for gas does not make me in any way complicit in BP's wrongdoing. So too, my desire for inexpensive bread and clothes does not make me complicit in adulterated foods and illicit sweat shops. BP's motive not to mess up the Gulf should be good corporate citizenship if not enlightened self-interest. The same can be said of everyone. Bakers should not mix sawdust into their bread and textile manufacturers should not chain people to their looms. But because of the especially wicked among us, and also because of decent people who sometimes succumb to temptation, we add laws and regulations to supplement moral exhortation.

We all want a highly productive and efficient economy, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's godly! The Lord has set us in a potentially rich world, not a universal Chad. But we want that prosperity--and believe we can all achieve and enjoy that prosperity--justly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When Science is in the Saddle

To be modern is to live in a world of man-made marvels that continually astound, that give us ever-growing power over space and time, and yet that leave us perhaps more subjugated than we realize at first.

In The New Atlantis, Francis Bacon's fictional account of a land in full possession of modern science (or vice versa), Salomon's House is the research institution that controls nature through practically applied experimentation and that supplies a grateful and happy population with the benefits of that control. TIME magazine gives us a couple of examples of how our modern, dispersed Salomon's House has been supplying those benefits. The politics of it, however, requires a bit more unveiling.

Researchers have developed a kind of corn-based plastic ("The Promise and Pitfalls of Bioplastic," May 3, 2010). Your descendants won't find it in landfills a thousand years for now because it turns into corn mush forty days after you bury it.

Regular, petroleum-based plastic doesn't biodegrade. But this year's crop of Earth Day-inspired ads shows plant-based plastics doing just that: an empty SunChips bag fading into the soil, a Paper Mate pen dissolving underground.... Bioplastics could be really good for the environment — the manufacturing process produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than that for petroleum-based plastics, and these biomaterials don't contain an allegedly hormone-disrupting chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), that some regular plastics do. ...

Of the two promising new varieties of bioplastic, one type — dubbed polylactic acid, or PLA — is clear in color and costs manufacturers about 20% more to use than petroleum-based plastic. The other — called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA — biodegrades more easily but is more than double the price of regular plastic. Both bioplastics are made of fermented corn sugar, and both come with a major benefit: if disposed of properly, they won't stick around in landfills for thousands of years.

Making a plastic pen from corn is an impressive feat, but the human factor is not as easy to engineer. The environmental advantage depends on people composting their SunChips bag. We don't have much opportunity for that here in the Empire State Building. Even at home, few people have a composting crib. Unless municipalities send around a composting truck to empty out specially colored cans from the foot of people's driveways on designated days of the week, that SunChips bag is going in the regular kitchen trash. So to take fullest advantage of this technological advance, we need a further advance in the administrative state, the socially all-seeing eye that is the other side of Salomon's House.

The conquest of nature necessarily points us, and without pausing for a breath, to the conquest of human nature. If the one is problematic, the other is treacherous at the very least.

The very next story in the print edition of TIME reported on a Tulane University study published in Pediatrics that supposedly proves scientifically beyond any reasonable doubt that spanking children inclines them to violence in their later years ("The Long-term Effects of Spanking"). As this confirms every liberal instinct, the story has been picked up and proclaimed by major news outlets as though they were announcing VE Day (Newsweek, New York Times, CNN). But studying human beings where it involves moral issues is a lot trickier than studying the composition and industrial applications of corn.

The study, led by community-health-sciences professor Catherine Taylor, makes an effort to account for factors that may distort the findings: “a host of issues affecting the mother, such as depression, alcohol and drug use, spousal abuse and even whether she considered abortion while pregnant with the child." Nonetheless, the study compares the behavior of five-year-old children who were spanked from the age of three at least twice a month with children who were not. From what TIME reports, Taylor does not study children at the ages of, say, ten, fourteen, and eighteen who had been spanked throughout the age range when spanking is appropriate. Age 5 is hardly “the long run” for observing the fruit of discipline. Furthermore, she does not distinguish between wise and unwise spanking, i.e., spanking accompanied by age appropriate instruction, and other variables.

CBS gave a more thoughtful report on a 2002 study ("Spanking May Cause Long-Term Harm," June 26, 2002). It included this exposure to the other side of the issue.

Robert Larzelere, a psychology professor at the Nebraska Medical Center, was one of the three experts critiquing Gershoff's findings. He noted that while she found links between spanking and negative behaviors, she did not assert categorically that spanking caused those behaviors. Larzelere, in an interview, said he remains convinced that mild, non-abusive spanking can be an effective reinforcement of nonphysical disciplinary methods, particularly in dealing with defiant 2- to 6-year-olds. He shared concerns about spanking that is too severe or too frequent.

Lloyd de Vries, the CBS reporter, added that Elizabeth Gershoff, a researcher at Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty who authored the 2002 study, "cautioned that her findings do not imply that all children who are spanked turn out to be aggressive or delinquent. But she contended that corporal punishment, on its own, does not teach children right from wrong and may not deter them from misbehaving when their parents are absent." Obviously.

Here, scientific research is said to have proven that certain methods of nurturing are significantly more likely to produce people of a certain desirable sort (it's not yet an exact science), and other methods are more likely to produce violent, anti-social behavior. Yet the human factor in the process of studying matters of this sort still distorts the conclusions that researchers draw. This must account for the striking discrepancy between common sense and these grand scientific pronouncements. Everyone has observed the difference between the unspanked or cruelly spanked little wretches kicking up a fit in WalMart and the well-behaved, wisely paddled young homeschoolers in the same setting.

Then there's the politics. You know that once "the science is settled," the next step is public policy, i.e., European-style laws that make spanking a criminal offense and grounds for placing your children in government-regulated foster care. Science removes a question from the political realm of judgment to the objective realm of administration. It gets us, as President Obama has said, beyond left and right, Democratic and Republican, and the old disputes of the culture wars into the post-partisan happyland.

But politicians often appeal to science to justify a power grab under the guise of just doing what they're told by the high priests of general revelation whose word is, of course, beyond question. Here are some New York politicians (no surprise there) doing just that ("Zapping NY's Economy," New York Post, April 12, 2010).

At the onset of the Easter weekend -- i.e., when they thought no one would notice -- the eco-apparatchiks at the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied Westchester's Indian Point nuclear power plant a key permit it needs to operate past 2013. DEC decreed that it was using too much water from the Hudson River to cool its two reactors, to the detriment of fish eggs and stuff.

Fish eggs? Forgive us, but we don't care about fish eggs. We care about people -- and jobs. Fact is, Indian Point produces nearly one-third of the electricity consumed in New York City and Westchester. Without it, the entire metro-area economy goes belly-up. And without DEC approval, Indian Point's two reactors can't secure federal operating license renewals when their current ones expire in 2013 and 2015.

[Governor David] Paterson's response? The DEC decision came from "a non-political process" run by "scientists," a spokesman said. "The [executive chamber] isn't going to weigh in on science decisions by agencies." Not even when the "science decisions" imperil the state's economy? Really, doesn't Paterson understand that his job requires "weighing in on" -- indeed, directing -- the decisions taken by the executive branch?

Of course he understands that. And he weighs in and directs only when it's politically useful to do so. Other than that, there's no one here but us enlightened respecters of science.

In Bacon's New Atlantis, the relationship between Salomon's House and the "king" or "state," which are mentioned but never seen, is a murky one. Bacon leaves it that way because as technology enhances human power over the universe, political authority will be sure to use it to enhance its power over all things human, but will veil that power. When the pronouncement of scientific researchers puts a matter beyond discussion, beyond public deliberation, it leaves open the manipulation of such pronouncements for political advantage, either by politicians themselves or by politically motivated scientists.

As we have discovered in the global warming controversy, whenever people try to get quickly past public discussion to public policy with the conversation-stopping phrase "the science is settled," you can be sure that there is more than dispassionate science at issue.

Faith in Technology

The narrator in this video calls it "faith in technology," as indeed it is. Perhaps you know someone who has hit his thumb with a hammer, nailed his leg with a nail gun, or taken off a finger with a table saw. Perhaps that person is you!

Well this clever fellow has developed a table saw that stops in1/1,000th of a second when it senses conductivity in what it is about to tear through. Wood is a very poor conductor of electricity, whereas fingers...well, you can see it on the video that includes real fingers and high speed cameras.

Are they working on a hammer that avoids thumbs? Perhaps they're working on a thumb that repels hammers.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sunday School Lesson on Taxes

 The Elders of Israel Confront Samuel
I Samuel 8:4

I try never to miss Sunday School in my church, Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Long Island. Our pastors have a way of engaging serious questions while elaborating the teaching of the Bible but in way that ordinary people can grasp. I always learn something of great value. Sometimes it shows up in my classes. Sometimes it shows up on my blog. Last Sunday, as part of a (blissfully) long series on The Westminster Confession of Faith, Pastor Ben Miller took us to I Samuel 8 to consider the relationship between the fifth commandment, pertaining to obeying authority, and the seventh commandment regarding stealing. This got me started. This is where I ended up. (I am to blame for all these thoughts, however.)

If you would like to read my thoughts on "all-volunteer war-funding," i.e., the way we pay for political campaigns, go to the full article at This post is dual-posted at Principalities and Powers for obvious reasons.

"The Prophet Speaks for Low Taxes"

We are still in the shadow of Tax Day, perhaps still smarting from it. But even if you did not pay taxes or are getting a big tax refund, you would nonetheless be legitimately concerned about the trillion of dollars the present government is adding to our national debt, and the corresponding expansion of government involvement in the economy and in each of our lives.

Notice what the prophet Samuel says about taxes when—in describing the model of pagan kingship—he warns Israel against their desire to have a king “like all the nations”:
“So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day’” (1 Samuel 8:10-18).
This rapacious king will take a 10th of their grain and flocks. Samuel implies that 10 percent is more than enough for government to finance all its legitimate responsibilities. If it claims to need even that much, then either it is doing what it has no business doing, or government leaders are serving their selfish advantage with public funds as we see in the 1 Samuel passage. While it may be overburdening the passage to see an implicit prohibition from God against an average tax rate of 10 percent or more, it is instructive nonetheless.

One might object that modern life is vastly more complicated than Samuel’s nomadic social and economic state, and so a larger, more expensive administrative state is required. But a more complex economy is also a vastly more productive economy. A flat tax of 10 percent would be a generous sum of money to pay for good government in modern America.

Bear in mind that the presupposition of “the administrative state” is that there is no legitimate limit to its administrative reach. It has inherently totalitarian tendencies. Wherever there is a good to be done, it sees a need for at least government regulation, and perhaps also government service providing the good itself. By contrast, the Apostle Peter tells Christians that the purpose of government is to punish evildoers and praise those who do good:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Unlike the libertarian, Peter sees a moral relationship between government and the people it governs, and amongst the people themselves as a political community. Healthy civil society is a network of consciously benevolent relationships, and government has an important role in encouraging (certainly not hindering, as activist government does) that mutual well-doing. Government is not to grow impatient or cynical regarding private benevolence and substitute government services in its place. But the administrative state attempts to accomplish by public authority what is legitimately and most productively accomplished only by private means.

One might also suspect that restricting taxation levels to below 10 percent does not account for emergency situations such as war. But if a free people who believe in their country have an all-volunteer army precisely because they are free, why not also all-volunteer war funding?...

If government were limited to a flat tax, or an average tax, of no more than 10 percent, we would establish a moral principle concerning limited government and personal responsibility, and we would have serious public debates concerning spending priorities, living within limits, and the legitimate role of government among a free people.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sojourners from the Start

As much as I disagreed with what Stanley Hauerwas said at this year's "Interregnum" at The King's College ("Entertaining Hauerwas"), he and the people who contend with him have been endlessly thought provoking.

In the May 2010 issue of First Things, Gilbert Meilaender reviews Hauerwas's autobiography in the form of a personal letter to his old friend Stan. Commenting on Hauerwas's journey from his working class home in Pleasant Grove, Texas, to the stately academic world of Duke University in South Carolina, he writes, "Of course, leaving home for a new world is in some ways a distinctly American theme. But it is also...the warp and woof of human life."

This set my wind to wandering.

Life is a sojourn from the start. We enter life torn from the warm and familiar, leaving the embrace of mother's protection and setting off in varying degrees of independence and loneliness, seeking friendship and communion from that time on. So Adam began the human journey as we know it cast out of the garden. A later Adam, Noah, preserved life as one cast upon the wilderness of waters. Abraham, the father of the faithful, left behind his life in Ur of the Chaldeans in pursuit of life and friendship with God. Christ left the divine fellowship to sojourn among us, and was even estranged from his Father in darkness of grief, for our life's sake in communion with God. For that life's sake we are called out of the world we called home. In birth and in second birth we are forced into exile, but with no desire to return, pressing on in hope of better comforts.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wendy Goes to Church

Wendy was raised in a Christian home. She attended church with her family every Sunday morning, unless there was a gathering with extended family, a sports event, vacation, or people were just tired. During worship, once she outgrew the nursery, she she spent the hour in junior church, and then graduated into youth church. If on ocassion there were no youth church, she would join the main worship service, but of course she sat with her friends in the balcony.

College disrupted that pattern of life. She was on her own, an adult in a city and community of her own choosing. Many other choices confronted her immediately. Early rising or sleeping in? Fast meals or sit down? And worship? What would that look like? Would it have a place at all? At home, she was carried along by the current of family life. But now she had to steer her own boat, and perhaps even dig her own channels. For the first year, she just followed the new currents. Those were established by (she would later admit) laziness (she would sleep in on Sundays, having been up until 3 a.m. the night before) and the hurriedness of life at an academically demanding college.

As Wendy began her sophomore year, she decided she had to become more serious spiritually and, as she put it, "make time for God." She began reading the Bible each night before bed (something she had never done with any regularity), and she also began attending a Bible study in her dorm. A whole new dimension of life opened up. It was like emerging from the forest and seeing the sky for the first time. God was speaking to her through his word. They Holy Spirit would apply passages, illuminating circumstances and troubling her conscience in ways she had never experienced before. She started praying regularly. She realized that her Christianity had been like a new car sitting in the garage, owned but never operated. Now she found that a driving faith is what faith ought to be, and driving felt good.

By her junior year, Wendy was no longer "making time for God." That is, she saw that it was not good enough to give God a small guest room in the mansion of her life where she could drop in on him from time to time. She had grown beyond that. She had learned in her study of Paul's Letter to the Romans that Christ had redeemed all of her, that he had redeemed her from the life of self-focus and to the life of Christ-focus. People are either "slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness " (6:16). As someone put it, if Christ is not lord of all, he is not lord at all. She knew in her heart that this was true. That little room in her mansion was no good. The whole mansion had to house him.  "From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!" (11:36).

That year, all sorts of things changed in Wendy's life. Relationships. Language. Even eating habits. The Lord lifted burdens of bitterness from her heart because she asked him to. And she asked him to because she knew there is nothing that is not his business and his sphere of blessing. Wendy was changed, and people could see it the way they could see the sunrise.

But her senior year was a time of growth in yet another essential element of the Christian life. Her Bible study group had finished Romans and moved on to the Gospel of John. In chapter four, the Holy Spirit startled her with these words: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (4:23-24). She worshiped in her personal devotions and also at a student praise event most Thursday nights. That must be good as far as it goes, she thought. But she had become very serious about bringing all of her life under the gracious lordship of her Savior, and she could see that she was offering worship strictly on her own terms: the day of her choosing in the form of her choosing and when she chose to give it. Has God commanded something that she is neglecting, however? Is there something he has told his people is pleasing to him and edifying to them?

At the Bible study, she addressed this concern to a friend, Charis, who lived on her hall and whom she knew to be godly. Charis was active in the church she had adopted for her college years, and, from things Wendy had picked up, she knew that Charis had attended church faithfully at home, morning and evening, and had carried that habit with her to college. She would disappear on Sunday mornings to what she called her "church family" and would not show up again until late evening. She seemed to enjoy it, and come back refreshed each Sunday. This girl surely would know something about what God wants in the worship life of his saints.

Charis did not disappoint. She took Wendy straight to Hebrews 10:25, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another." She added that, in the Book of Acts, the believers gathered together as a church on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day on which Christ the Savior had risen. And Jesus appeared to them at more than one of those meetings to confirm his approval of that pattern of worshiping together. In this setting, Christians "spur one another on to love and good deeds"--not just college friends, but older saints, and Christians from other walks of life. She also mentioned the blessing that her pastor (who is a wise, older man) sumptuously laid before her each week in his sermons. She was always challenged, always blessed, always grew. She was also grateful for the elders of her church who were wise and took seriously the responsibility Christ had laid on them for the care of his sheep (1 Peter 5:1-5). Charis drew close and looked very intently into Wendy's eyes. She said, "If Christ has given preachers and elders in his church for the blessing of his people, then if I am one of his people I will seek and get that blessing!"

Again the Holy Spirit was pressing these words into her heart, and where the words sank in they seemed to find their natural settings. As usual, where Wendy had previously been quite self-satisfied she now saw a gaping hole that only joyful Christian obedience could fill. Was there anything she was doing on Sunday that was better for her and more delightful than worship with the body of Christ? Was she able to feed and shepherd herself, perhaps with the help of friends, without the contribution of pastor and elders? Apparently, God's answer to both of these questions is, "no."

That Sunday, Wendy went with Charis to church. It required a subway ride and a bit of a walk, but that didn't matter. After a month of this habit, a habit she would never abandon by the way (and she would one day refuse a marriage proposal over it), Wendy marveled at all she had been denying herself by overlooking this dimension of the Christian life. She also reflected on the pattern of church life in which she had been raised. Committed, yet not. Sometimes God, sometimes me, which was essentially always "me." Nonetheless, she thanked God for her parents and for the exposure to Christ and his church they gave her as a girl. But she thanked God all the more for his gracious patience with her meandering, her half-hearted, and distracted pursuit of him. And she thanked him, as she would with her last breath, for Jesus the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for her, and who sought her when she was not seeking him.