Friday, December 25, 2009

Five Jewish Women

The Gospel of Matthew 1:1-6, 18
1 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. . . .
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Matthew begins his gospel with the Jewish genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Luke’s genealogy, which traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam, Matthew stops at Abraham. Also, only Matthew mentions any women in Jesus ancestry. Besides Mary, there are four. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

Let’s hear the story of each of these women.

Tamar’s Story

My name is Tamar . My story is told in Genesis, chapter 38. I was widowed at a young age when my husband, Er, died. He was a wicked man, so the Lord shortened his life. Er’s father, Judah, told Er’s brother Onan to lie with me so that I could have a child to inherit Er’s estate. But Onan didn’t want to father a child who wouldn’t be his own, so he didn’t carry through with his duty. Not long afterward, Onan died. We think he died because he did not carry out his responsibilities, which was wrong in the eyes of the Lord.

Judah then said to me, “Live as a widow in my house until my young son Shelah grows up.” So I went to live in Judah’s house. After a long time Judah’s wife died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep.

When someone in the household told me Judah was on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep, I took off my widow’s clothes. I covered myself with a veil to disguise myself, and went to the village of Enaim. Enaim is on the road to Timnah.

You see, Judah’s third son, Shelah, had now grown up. But Judah had not given me to him as his wife. Without a husband and children, I would be destitute in my old age. No one would be obligated to care for me. Everyone knew it was a terrible fate for a woman to grow old alone.

When Judah saw me, he didn’t recognize me because of the veil I was wearing. In fact, he thought I was a prostitute. Not realizing that I was his daughter-in-law, he went over to me by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” I asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. I replied, “I want something as collateral for your payment until it arrives.”
Judah said, “What collateral should I give you?”

I answered, “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand.” That would be something like your modern drivers’s license and house keys. So Judah gave them to me and he slept with me. As the result, I became pregnant by him.

After I left, I took off the veil, put on my widow’s clothes again, and went home. Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by a friend in order to get his collateral back, but of course, he did not find me.

About three months later someone told Judah, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

As I was being brought out to be burned, I sent the collateral to Judah with the message, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” He never slept with me again.
When the time came for me to give birth, we discovered I would have twins. As I was giving birth, one of the twins put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.”

But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.
Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.

Perez, the firstborn of Tamar, was the father of Hezron. Hezron was the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon. Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. . . .

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No Christmas Kindle

The idea of reading eBooks appeals to me because I am out of library space in my home. I could buy another bookshelf but there is really no place to put it. Earlier this month my older brother received a Kindle for his birthday. I haven't seen it yet, but he described its utility to me a some length on a phone call. My wife had already asked whether I might want a Kindle for Christmas -- she's tired of finding books I am reading laying around; I might have a different book for most rooms in the house. I have no problem following three or four books at one time so I just leave one in the den, another in the living room, one in my home office and one ... well, somewhere else.

So eBooking has a certain attraction. I can have many different books on the electronic reader with the Kindle keeping track of which page I am on in each. But would the Kindle be right for me? I scoped the reviews of the three main readers and pretty quickly rejected the Sony eReader. Reviews said it wasn't near up to the Kindle's snuff.

But Barnes & Noble has a new e-reader called the Nook that reviewers say is kicking the Kindle's pedestal and maybe knocking it over. I'm not getting a Nook, either, but I think its feature set is superior to the Kindle's.

Kindle and Nook both have a free reader for both PCs and Macs. I installed both vendors' downloads and the readers are very good. Although a notebook computer's screen is not the e-ink used by the two e-readers, the typeface and clarity of the PC readers' display was superior to that of most web pages.

Both Amazon and B&N also offer a free e-reader download for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I downloaded B&N's reader onto my son's Touch (with permission), downloaded a free book and was very impressed again with the clarity of the display the readability. Obviously, not as much text per screen, but a flick of the finger from right to left turns the page with the silky smoothness Apple has perfected for its handhelds.

But wait, there's more! B&N also has a free e-reader for Blackberry. (Amazon's is "coming soon.") So I installed it onto my Tour. I was surprised again at how well the text displayed. A press of the trackball turns the page instantly. Because the Tour's screen is so small (but thankfully hi-res) I pressed the trackball a lot to get through the first chapter of Dracula -- it was 96 screens long!

Once a book is added to your accounts library at either vendor, you can download it to any device registered on the account with no additional charge. So I can read Dracula on either my computer or my Blackberry. The Kindle even lets you sync between the Kindle and your computer so that if you stop reading a book on page 75 on the Kindle, you can pick it up right there on the computer. I didn't see this feature on B&N's site for the Nook.

However, neither a Nook nor a Kindle will be under the tree for me this month. Their drawback is that they are single-purpose devices. Reading books or mags is all you can do with either of them. (They also will play sound files of various sorts.) Frankly, at $259 and $249 respectively, they are just too limited in capability for the price.

For $10 more than the Nook I can get a 32gb iPod Touch from Amazon, download both the Kindle and Nook's readers to it free, and read away with great ease. I can buy books from both vendors rather than be limited to the vertical-only vending for either device. And the Touch will do a lot more than serve as an e-reader. (I'd get an iPhone but am slaved to Verizon, besides, AT&T's 3G coverage ends 40 miles from my home.) The Touch's wi-fi works for full web browsing. The Kindle does not have wi-fi. The Nook does, but only for downloading eBooks, not for browsing. (Both the Kindle and the Nook download materials over a built-in cell phone connection no extra charge.)

The Touch will store and play music, of course, as do the e-readers, and also movies. There is a ginormous library of apps, including Documents to Go for word processing and office software functions. And I can watch TV on it with my Slingbox. In short, the Touch is not as good a reader than either the Kindle or the Nook, mainly because of screen size, but has so much more total capability for basically the same money that I can't make sense of getting either the Kindle or the Nook.

Endnotes: Here's a hands-on review of the Nook that generally agrees with my impressions, although I have never touched one. One thing the review points out is that despite the overall size of both Kindle and Nook, the reading area of their screens is only about the size of a 3 by 5 index card, which is not very much larger than the screen of a Touch or iPhone.

Of course, a book is a single-purpose device, too. Except there is no book on my shelf that I paid $249 for. I don't dispute that the Kindle and Nook are e-reader hedgehogs ("the hedgehog knows how to do only one thing, but it does it extremely well"). For me that is simply too much money to spend to read eBooks when there is a multi-purpose alternative that e-reads almost as well.

As for the optical advantages of e-ink, I'll not dispute it but OTOH, reading several chapters on my Blackberry didn't bother my eyes. Haven't tried it on the PC reader. Maybe the Blackberry's display, though backlit, is closer to e-ink than to my notebook PC's display, I dunno.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bad clergy clothing

Let's see, what are the vestments the other clergy are wearing? If there was ever a site for "Glamour Don'ts" for clergy, this would be it.

Please, if I ever wear something like this, somebody just pick me up and carry me bodily out of the church.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Was Jesus really born to a virgin mother?

Matthew 1:18-25 makes this claim:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth to a virgin woman has been claimed by the Church from apostolic times, but it is today one of the most vexing claims about Christ that the Church grapples with.

I commend to your attention Tod Bolsinger's essay about the virgin birth. Among other things, Tod says that there was no expectation among first-century Jews that their Messiah would be born of a virgin. There is a passage in Isaiah in which the prophet is speaking to King Ahaz and tells the king,

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The King James and many later versions quote Isaiah, "... a virgin is with child," but this is a retrojection of Church tradition onto the Hebrew text. The Hebrew word used is alma, which simply means "young woman" with no indication of her marital status or sexual experience. Some scholars think Isaiah was referring to his own wife when he spoke to Ahaz, others that he was simply laying out a timetable for when Ahaz's troubles would be over. (Isaiah continued that by the time the child could eat solid food and choose between good and bad, Judah's foreign-policy problems would be gone.)

Since the Jews of Jesus day could certainly read Hebrew - it was taught in the synagogues, even though they mostly spoke Aramaic - they would not have ascribed virginity to the young woman of Isaiah's prophecy. In fact, the face reading of the passage is self-evidently against it! So Tod is right that no one of the time expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin. In fact, they didn't expect the Messiah to be born of the Holy Spirit, either. What they did expect was for the Messiah to be a powerful political ruler and military leader who would usher in an eschatological peaceable kingdom for the Jews.

However, Matthew quotes Isaiah thus:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel"

Matthew, of course, was written in Greek, and the word used for virgin is parthenos, which indeed means "virgin." The reason Matthew reads that way is that in 70 BC Jewish scholars in Alexandria translated the Jewish Scriptures into Greek. Their result is called the Septuagint, for "seventy," because the story is that 70 scholars worked nonstop for 70 days to make the translation. This translation is abbreviated LXX (Roman numerals for 70) and it was from the LXX that Matthew cited Isaiah. And the LXX uses the word parthenos in Isaiah where the Hebrew text uses alma.

There was no lack of myths or legends in the ancient world of miraculous conceptions and births. But there are profound differences between them and the story of the birth of Jesus. In most of the other stories, the encounter between the human parent and the god (or goddess) is presented graphically, even explicitly. What happens between the woman and the god is exactly what ordinarily happens between an ordinary husband and wife. But in Matthew’s story as well as Luke’s, God is not shown in the male role in conception. The Holy Spirit, the divine power and presence, works in Mary to conceive a child without a human father. There is no union between God and Mary, either in Matthew or in Luke. Jesus comes to exist as an unborn child simply because God wills it, not from anything God does to Mary. This distinction is perhaps a crucial one for understanding who Jesus was.

Let’s recall, for example, the story of the famous figure of Greek mythology, Achilles. Achilles was the son of a human father and a divine mother. Achilles’ portrayal in the Iliad shows that he was half human, half divine. He had much of the power and invulnerability of the gods, but the temper and tempestuousness of ordinary people. He led his men with godly courage, but carried out unforgivably harsh vengeance on the Trojan prince, Hector. Throughout the story, the tragedy of Achilles unfolded precisely because he was neither wholly god nor wholly human. He was half and half, and neither half was at peace with the other. His godly side strove for the higher virtues, but was dragged down by his humanity, and his divinity perverted his humanity. Thus, the story of the semi-divine, semi-human Achilles is one of tragedy.

Jesus is nowhere presented as a hybrid product of divinity and humanity. Jesus is not a half-and-half person. Jesus is affirmed as fully human and fully God, and his story ends not in tragedy at the cross but in victory at the empty tomb.

Tod observes that the virgin birth of Christ

... is God’s way of personally entering his creation. The Spiritus Creator that brought the universe into being, personally entered creation to bring restoration. God did not choose a human being, imbue that person with his Spirit and stick him on the cross (that view is called “adoptionism”). God himself did the job. God did not just send his Spirit, God himself saved us, was with us…

Mark D. Roberts has a thoroughly read-worthy series on whether the doctrine of Jesus's virgin birth is hype or history. Also, many people confuse the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with the universal Christian doctrine of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. But the are different ideas altogether.

The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain - that’s what "immaculate" means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

However, this doctrine is exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church, having been promulgated only in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Protestants have never worried about it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why the "Great Faith Experiment?"

I explained in my November newsletter column (click here to read)that we are doing financial pledging for 2010 differently this year.

In this post I will try to explain why.

In years past, pledges were done in a very traditional way. Pledge packets were delivered or mailed to the households of the church, the people filled them in and brought them back. The church's financial stewards opened the pledges, totaled them up and reported the total to our bookkeeper and finance committee chairperson.

And that was that.

What many people of the church probably don't know is that the sum of the pledges received for the coming year did not affect the amount of the budget for that year. Each annual budgets is formed by committee chairpersons and activity chiefs making a request for funding to the finance committee, which as a whole considers the requests, puts together a draft budget and re-evaluates the submissions. Some requests are sent back for reconsideration and after additional analysis and discussion, a final budget is formulated. This budget is sent to the church council for final approval.

The reason the sum of pledges received did not affect the budget amount is because almost 90 percent of our budget consists of fixed costs that can't be adjusted based on nothing more than amount of pledges. The heating/cooling bill, for example, is what it is. Property insurance costs are what they are. The payroll is the payroll. (Salaries did not rise for 2010, by the way.) Those expenses must be paid; in a strict sense they are not budgeted, but estimated, for the coming year. Some estimates are precise but others are only approximations. But they will not vary whether the pledged sum is high or low.

Furthermore, the money budgeted for ministries of the church forms the core of what our church is all about. Although from a strict financial-accounting perspective these expenses are "discretionary," they really cannot be. If we fail to fund our ministries then we cease to be a church in any meaningful sense of the word.

So we of the finance committee asked ourselves in the last few months, "Why continue to do pledging the same old way?" After all, once the pledges were totaled, nothing more came of them. No one ever got a "bill" from the church nor did anyone compare a pledge's amount against the amount actually given. Furthermore, many people declined to render a pledge.

We concluded that continuing to do pledges that way was not well advised. And so the Great Faith Experiment was born. We will still pledge to support the work of the church financially, but our way of receiving pledges will recognize that giving is part of both worship and discipleship. In that regard, our pledges are promises made to God.

This Sunday is Commitment Sunday.

During each worship service there will be a time to come forward to lay your envelope, with the pledge sealed inside, on the altar as a gesture of solemn commitment to God and God’s work of redemption by our church.

Afterward, volunteers will collect the envelopes and pray for each person by name that God may grant each of us grace to remain faithful to the commitments we have made. Then they will mail the unopened envelope back to you. Please keep it and use it through the coming year to remind yourself of the promise you have made to God to support the work of his church.

A final note: the budget approved by the church council for 2010 amounts to $275,332, a decrease of $23,760 (-8.6%) from 2009.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Stress on Army families is great, too

In much of the commentary related to the tragic killings at Ft Hood, attention has been paid to the enormous stress soldiers endure while deployed to operational areas and the difficulties of adjusting to normal life upon return. And those stresses and difficulties are very real and serious.

But let's not forget the stresses of the family members soldiers leave behind. From "Army Live," the official blog of the US Army: "Not Wanting to Let Go"

I recently came across the above picture (which I am sure many of you have seen already) of Paige Bennethum standing in formation with her father, pleading with him not to leave. Her father, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Brett Bennethum was preparing to leave on a year -long deployment to Iraq.
Last week I attended the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition and had the opportunity to sit in on the Military Family Forums. On the final day, the topic for the forum focused on the effects of extended deployments on Soldiers, families and especially the children.
The Army psychiatrist, Col. Kris Peterson discussed with Army Spouses and support groups the seriousness of repeated, lengthy deployments and the effects they are having on children.
For example, he noted that yearly mental health visits for children under the age of 15 have increased from 800,000 in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. One out of three school-age children are at risk for psychological problems and about 30 percent of children have significantly increased anxiety.
In an effort to deal with that trend and provide a central place for Army children to get mental and physical help, Peterson and other experts at Madigan developed the Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence in Fort Lewis, Washington.
The team consists of pediatricians, psychologists, social workers and child and adolescent psychiatrists whom are looking at the latest research and strategically planning the way forward for caring for Army children in addition to sifting through existing programs to find what actually works.
Many times when we think about the U.S. Army we tend to focus just on the Soldiers. We must remember that there are children all over the country like Paige Bennethum whose father or mother is/will be deployed overseas for months at a time. These deployments obviously have a great effect on the children and that is why the U.S. Army is working hard to create and development programs and centers that will assist families through those difficult times.
Military families, we want to hear from you. Let us know what you think can be done to assist families in times of deployments. Children; share your stories of how you deal with a loved one being deployed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Overpopulation Myth, Part 1

Myth: We can't produce enough food to feed the people in the world today, much less in years to come.

Fact: The world today produces enough food to provide every person alive with an adequate daily diet, and there is more land still available for agriculture than is being used now.

In my sermon this morning, I said,
Beginning in earnest in 1968, we have been almost incessantly propagandized that the earth is overpopulated and that responsible adults will not have more than one child each, or better yet, one child per couple. 1968 was the year that Paul Ehrlich, an American specialist in butterflies (really) published a doom and gloom book called The Population Bomb. In it, Ehrlich predicted a catastrophic meltdown of the earth’s ability to support more than the three billion, five hundred fifty-six million people living at the time.
Ehrlich wrote,
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...
Ehrlich’s book was influential far beyond the credentials of its author or the phony science he used. The present world view that overpopulation is a ticking time bomb threatening to end in mass death derives directly from Ehrlich’s apocalyptic fairy tale.

The planet’s population is now six billion and climbing. Across the world, people are better nourished than ever before in all history. Hunger in the world today is caused by politics, not lack of food production. lists the following causes of hunger in the world. I have asterisked (**) those that are purely or predominantly political:
  • ** Land rights and ownership

  • ** Diversion of land use to non-productive use

  • ** Increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture

  • ** Inefficient agricultural practices [there are also cultural, economic and educational issues with this one]

  • ** War

  • ** Famine

  • Drought

  • ** Over-fishing

  • Poor crop yield

  • ** Lack of democracy and rights

The majority of these causes are purely or predominantly political. Note that famine is actually not a root cause of chronic hunger, it is a description of local, enduring shortages of food. But famine's relief is not an arcane art. Shipments of food stocks from other countries to the famine area take care of the problem. But whether that humanitarian deed is done is a political decision.

Famine can also result from intentional political decision. The people of North Korea are the most enduringly malnourished people on earth. The reason is simple: North Korean communism cannot organize resources and labor to produce and distribute enough food to feed the people on the one hand, and on the other the ruling classes divert the country's resources to their own use, to arming the country and to cement their iron grip on the masses. If the people finally resort to cannibalism, well then, so be it.

The International Food Policy Institute says that even so about 20 percent of the world's population,

... are chronically undernourished ... [S]ince the mid-1970s the world has produced enough food to provide everyone with a minimally adequate diet. Hunger is one piece of a complex of interrelated social ills. It is linked intricately to global economic, political, and social power structures; modes of development and consumption; population dynamics; and social biases based on race, ethnicity, gender, and age. The world community has both the knowledge and the resources to eliminate hunger [emphasis added].
According to a report published this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 1.4 billion hectares of land under farm production in the world today. "Some 1.6 billion hectares could be added" and most of that in Africa and South America (OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2009-2018, PDF). I have read some estimates that the amount of arable land in Africa alone could feed produce enough food to feed the whole world, although as a matter of practicality, that will obviously never be the case.

The point is that the amount of arable land used today can be more than doubled. Lack of food production is not the cause of hunger today and there is no reason it should be the cause in the many years to come.

Next: the real "population bomb" is not having enough children to secure our future.

Update: I thought about explaining in my sermon the new twist on Ehrlichean apocalypticism but simply didn't have time. The new twist goes like this from "the world is about to end" bunch:

1. Okay, we admit that we can produce enough food for all six billion of us, plus many billions more.

2. That doesn't matter because human beings are poisonous to the earth. They produce carbon dioxide!
The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of CO² every year of their lives. In their turn, they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government's target of an 80% reduction in our emissions by 2050, we need to start reversing our rising rate of population growth immediately.
That from the UK's Guardian newspaper. The piece ends,
Some scientists, the German chancellor's adviser, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber among them, say that if the cuts are not achieved, we will end up with a planet with a "carrying capacity" of just 1bn humans. If so, we need to start cutting back population now with methods that offer a humane choice – before it happens the hard way.
To which University of Wisconsin law Professor Ann Althouse responds, "Oh, great. Thanks for the warning about cutting back "population" the hard way, Germany."

This is not exactly a new idea in Europe. More than two years ago the K's TimesOnline ran a guest op-ed entitled, "The cry should go up in Europe: more babies, please." It includes this cheery thought:
And there is the hint – but just a hint – from the Optimum Population people that if voluntary restraints do not work, governments will bring in coercive measures. The example that springs to mind here is, of course, China and its compulsory one-child policy. I’ve come across some distinguished academics myself who wouldn’t dream of trying to impose coerced abortion here but have made it quite clear, in private conversation, that we should all be grateful on environmental grounds that it happens in China.
Last year, Dr. Freeman Dyson, one of the most respected physicists in the world, had a long essay in the New York Times Book Review in which he explained why environmentalism is now an actual religion in its own right. Mind you, in his mind this is a good thing. I'll post more about that later on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Why Jews Pray"

First Things has an essay by Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University as well as the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel, called, "Why Jews Pray."
Every moment that we stop and begin to move our lips in prayerful words towards God is a testament to the notion of purposeful creation. The basic ability to pray, to yearn for a connection to God, demonstrates the meaningfulness of life. Yet, this only explains a broad universalistic Jewish motivation for prayer. What lies at the core of Jewish prayer?

The question is answered, like most Jewish questions, with a debate. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 1:1) argues that it is a commandment to pray to God everyday based on the verse “And you shall serve the Lord your God.” The service being referred to in this verse is none other than prayer as the sages in the Talmud (Tractate Taanit 2a) had already noted. However, for Nahmanides (Notes on the Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment 5), the commandment to pray applies only when the community is faced with great distress and then, in that moment, it is an imperative to affirm our belief in a God that listens to prayers and intervenes.

We are thus presented with two differing reasons for Jewish prayer. On the one hand, as expressed by Maimonides, praying daily is of fundamental importance. One can speculate a myriad of reasons why this would be so. On the other hand, however, prayer is only necessary when the community is faced with a tremendous difficulty and needs to turn to God and cry out for help in that very moment. ...

Maimonides, then, is in agreement with Nahmanides that meaningful prayer arises only when one is in a state of difficulty. But the difference lies in the application of difficulty to the circumstances of life. Nahmanides considers trouble to be something that can only manifests itself as a distinct and recognizable event, Maimonides, however, sees life itself as full of difficulty and burden. The very nature of what it means to be alive is one that is rife with existential strife and tension that necessitates daily prayer.
Not a long essay and well worth your time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some thoughts on health care

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church declare, "Health care is a basic human right." The Principles offer the weakest of justification for the claim, citing only Psalm 146, which "speaks of the God 'who executes justice for the oppressed;/ who gives food to the hungry./ The LORD sets the prisoners free;/ the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.'" I have looked in vain online for a philosophical argument, as opposed to mere assertion, that health care is a human right. haven't found any yet, but I keep looking. However, here are some representative sample of the "pro" side that I have found so far.

As far as I can tell, when someone says that health care is a human right, what s/he really means is, "I want all the health care I want to be given to me free."

Amnesty International merely cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists health and health care (both) as human rights, and pretty much lets it go at that. But Amnesty offers no explanation of why health care is a right rather than, say, an achievement. It simply is a right, and that's that. Same for The Opportunity Agenda.

People's Weekly World is, as the name indicates, overtly Marxist, but let's see whether it can offer an actual argument in favor of the position. Umm, nope. It simply cites FDR's proposal of a Second Bill of Rights, which includes, "The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health," and let's it go at that.

Roosevelt did make an argument, albeit a very brief one, postulating that the original Bill of Rights, being oriented on political freedom, was no longer adequate for an industrial America. And yet his argument was only pragmatic, claiming that, "People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." Which is pretty interesting, seeing as how FDR once fancied himself a strongman ruler if not actual dictator (he actually drew up legislation for Congress to authorize him to rule by edict, but he never sent it to the Hill).

I think that history, however, would show that "people who are hungry and out of a job" bring down dictatorships as often as they enable them. Say, France, 1789 and the downfall of the French monarchy. It wasn't hunger that caused dictatorial rule to return later to France, but chaos. And again: Russia, 1917, the overthrow of the Czar and the establishment not of dictatorship but of proto-democracy, well, until the Bolsheviks got the upper hand. Germany: Hitler was not elected chancellor- twice! - by hungry, jobless Germans, though his elections in 1933 and 1936 did take place in the depression. It was improving prosperity in Germany, combined with runaway nationalism and anti-Judaism, that enabled the Nazis to consolidate their power. Nor did jobless, starving Japanese demand the bushido government that took them into World War 2, although starving Japanese in 1945 would almost certainly have overthrown that government in 1945 had it not surrendered to the Allies first.

However, FDR didn't stop at health care in his Second Bill of Rights. He listed all sorts of ingredients for his rainbow pie. For example, the right of every farmer "to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living." Growing plants is now a human right? How can there be a "right to sell" without a corresponding obligation for someone else to buy? And just how shall "decent living" be defined? All of FDR's Bill is chock-full of inexactitudes like these, such as, "The right of every family to a decent home." Just what does that mean?

Well, continuing to march: we turn to Ryan Dashek, writing in The Daily Cardinal, that, "Health care is a human right, not a costly luxury." Again, no explanation of why this is so, just assertion and a litany of presumed benefits that would come from nationalized, single-payer health care. Nor, for that matter, is there the slightest recognition that health care is going to be costly whether we classify it as a luxury or not. (The failure to distinguish between cost and price is very common among universalism advocates.)

Well, the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative lets the cat out of the bag.

When visiting a doctor, clinic or hospital, patients should not have to pay. Health care funds should be collected independent of the actual use of care, to avoid creating a barrier to care. Services must be provided based on clinical need, not payment, regardless of the financing mechanism used.
This is so economically uninformed that I hardly know where to begin its rebuttal. It treats medical care as a resource rather than a service. It absolutely makes the bean counters and accountants in charge, not doctors or patients because medical care is going to allocated somehow ("rationed," as we say) and the main important question is how it shall be done.

Contrary to what the NESRI thinks, access to medical care will never be unlimited. I have personal experience with government-run health care. It was a CHAMPUS-run clinic that opened in Fayetteville, NC, while I was stationed at Ft Bragg. (CHAMPUS was the military health-insurance program used when treatment at actual military facilities was not available. It's called Tricare today.) The object was to encourage family members of military members to use this clinic rather than go to the base hospital. The Army contracted with a civilian company to staff and run the clinic.

Being a contract, there was a dollar amount to pay for a specified number of patient treatments. The clinic was overutilized (or underfunded, take your pick). So the company, as allowed by the contract, reduced the number of days the clinic was open and the number of hours per day it was open. Otherwise, it would have continued on until say, the end of July, and then been shuttered until October.

Like Mr. Dashek, NESRI does not understand that price and cost are not the same. Making health care free for patients does nothing to reduce its cost. All it does is shift the small-minority costs to the provider that are presently borne by most, but not all of the patients. But the costs will neither disappear nor be reduced. It will still cost the doctors and hospitals the same to provide the care as before.

What "free" (in scare quotes because, you know, TANSTAAFL), health care will do is increase demand without increasing supply. That always leads to shortage whether we're talking about medical care, gasoline, hotel rooms or any other good or service. Without price movements to bring demand and supply back into alignment, reductions will follow in access to or quality of care or both.

Here's an illustration: I visit many hospitals and occasionally those visits are to emergency rooms. There is a sign in waiting and admission areas I have seen many area emergency rooms. It says something like this: If your illness or injury is not a true emergency, you will be directed to a routine-care facility.

Why that sign? Because federal law requires that emergency rooms cannot charge patients for treatment if the patient says he cannot pay or is uninsured. I don't object to the law, but emergency rooms have become choked with uninsured supplicants for free treatment who are not suffering a medical emergency. I have seen this many times in person over the years. But emergency rooms are called that for a reason, and if you fill your treatment bays with patients who, though ill or injured to some degree, are not facing an actual medical emergency, you are in fact decreasing access (rationing) care for true-emergency patients.

That's what happens when you make medical care free. It will always become over-demanded and under-resourced. Costs will rise and will not be recuperated by monetary price. Hence, price will be paid in other coin, and that coin will always include availability and quality.

Any economist understands this. Pity that so few others do.

Endnote: Philip Barlow, Consultant neurosurgeon at Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, explains why, "Health care is not a human right."

Philip Niles says that the real question is not whether health care is a human right, but "How much health care is a human right?" Good question, since health care is finite.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We are under authority

Every year the Tenn. Conference Board of Ministry (BOM) interviews, in person, candidates for probationary service as pastors, called commissioned ministers, and serving commissioned minister who are ready for ordination either as deacon or elder.

The BOM also sends a member to the seminaries where most Tennessee Conference candidates matriculate to talk to the Methodist students about going before the BOM. Candidates are interviewed by the entire BOM twice, first for commissioned status and later for ordination. These interviews take two days.

When I was still working toward my M.Div. At Vanderbilt, the BOM's representative visited and spoke to us for some time. One of the things he talked about has stuck with me all the years since. I can't quote him exactly after so long, but this is very close to what he told us:
One of the things you need to understand about going before the BOM is that there are some things we are flexible on and some things we are not. We are not necessarily of one mind on things such as the theology of worship, for example, but there are other things for which we will be entirely inflexible.

One of those things is baptism of infants. I need to let you know as clearly as I can that if you do not unambiguously affirm to the BOM that you will baptize infants, you will not be commissioned or ordained. Believe me when I say that the BOM makes no exceptions for any reason.

Despite the fact that we always emphasize this fact when we send BOM members to talk to seminary students, every year there are always about two candidates who appear before the BOM and say that they cannot bring themselves to baptize infants. And they always seems to think that they have a compelling or new argument in their favor that will convince us to approve them. Or they think that their candidacy record is so strong in other areas that the BOM will excuse them for not affirming they will baptize infants.

They are always wrong. I need to be very clear: there is no argument you can possibly present that will justify your unwillingness to baptize infants in the United Methodist Church. And the strength of the rest of your candidacy will not be relevant to this issue.

Ministers of The United Methodist Church baptize infants, period. If you cannot do that, save yourself a lot of time and trouble and withdraw from candidacy now.
You can see that this was an unusually blunt advisory, but as he indicated, it needed to be. And yet when I went before the BOM, one of the seminary students who was sitting at my table on that day told the BOM he would not baptize infants. And the BOM voted "no" on his continuation.

It behooves us now and then to remember that, as the centurion told Jesus, we are under authority in the church. Even if we were an independent congregation, not affiliated with any denomination, we still could not simply make up our own rules and call ourselves a church. The New Testament can't be ignored nor can the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As United Methodists, we are bound by the UM's Book of Discipline, which sets forth the doctrinal standards of the Church and many matters of local-church governance and organization. For example, the Discipline directs that every charge shall have certain committees and be structured certain ways. (A charge is one or more congregations who have the same pastor.) We cannot decide to ignore the Discipline in these matters or in others where the Discipline is directive.

The Discipline is not directive in every part; some of its sections say "should" rather than "shall." Even so, it is the Discipline that makes us a United Methodist Church rather than a generic Protestant one. Our challenge is to remember that we are under authority when it seems burdensome, for it is no merit to do obey instructions that are pleasant to us.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Christianity is just spinach

In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of American churches,
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
Though Dr. king's context was the civil rights struggle, I have to wonder whether the same critique can be made today in other contexts. In many ways Dr. King's critque still does ring true - we are still today archdefenders of the status quo, it's just the the status quo has changed. I don't know of any churches who would support returning to Jim Crow, but I think that in areas other than civil rights we are still "a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound" in many ways.

Most urgently, we are a weak voice in the basic foundation of the Christian Gospel. As one Christian writer observes:
... you could attend church for decades and never here a single examination of whether any propositions required by Christianity are true. There is no logic being taught in the church. There is no linking of Christian doctrine with anything verifiable in the external world.

Children are not stupid. They understand the difference between the way that things are approached in the schools (logically and empirically) and the way that things are approached in the feminized postmodern relativist universalist church (emotions and intuitions). They understand the difference between a physics experiment and a praise hymn. And they know when they are being sold a myth.

The basic problem here is that Christianity has been re-interpreted from being an objective religion based on knowable truth to being a subjective religion based on the felt needs of the subjects in the church pews. The solution to this problem is for the church to treat Christianity as a set of claims about an objective reality. Christianity must be place in the same category as physics and chemistry.

You cannot expect people to be bold in talking about things like sin and Hell when it is no fun to do so. If Christianity is not a knowledge tradition, then it is not worth being any sane person’s time and effort. If Christianity is a personal preference, then it is the same as any other personal preference – it must serve the needs of the person who adopts it.

No one eats spinach, unless they like the taste of spinach. If Christianity is not knowledge, but is just a personal preference, then Christianity is spinach. Some people will like it, and they’ll eat it. But most people won’t like it, and they won’t eat it. ...
The Gospel is dangerous, and therefore must be tamed and put in its place. Its threat to the status quo must be eliminated. And so churches, ably accompanied by their pastors is so many cases (I plead guilty, too) pick up a stool and a whip and set about being the tamer of the Lion of Judah.

I received an email awhile back from Pastor Youngsik Kim of Yerang Mission in South Korea. Yerang is a Christian missionary and aid mission that smuggles Bibles, food and clothing into North Korea. It also helps establish churches in China.

Pastor Kim told man who escaped the Stalinist prison we call North Korea, made it to the South and became a Christian there. He volunteered to work with Yerang Mission and go back to North Korea to establish an underground church. Part of his training regimen was to spend two months at a base camp in China – yes, China – to learn theology and the Bible. The daily training at the base camp takes 10 hours, and for the rest of the day Yerang Mission teaches them how to pray and sing hymns, and information about South Korea.

Did you catch that? Ten hours of intensive religious training per day, then prayer, music and history education.

The North Korean man completed his training, went back to North Korea and established an underground church. “While he was managing an underground church in North Korea, he brought Bibles and Christian books to North Korea,” crossing the border between China and North Korea several times a year.

Then he was caught by Kim Jong Il’s secret police, who tortured him. They promised him he would live if he revealed the names and locations of his fellow missionaries, but he chose to die rather than betray them. As the soldiers led him to be shot in public, he cried out, “Believe in Jesus Christ! Only Jesus is the true God!” until he was executed in the field.

Religion professor Telford Work responded to this story. He said that American Christians have changed the historic meaning of Christian "witness" into something like a protest demonstration. However, he says,
A much more typical image has the Church in the proactive, initiating position, breaking down the gates of hell. The real center of human history is not the state, not the individual, not “The People,” not even history, but Israel-Jesus-Church. It is the other human institutions that are on the defensive, rebelling and passing away and being renewed. And: They. Are. Going. Down.

That's how the faith is supposed to work, and that is how these Koreans are acting. Like their weak Lord, they are strong, for God is with them to humiliate the principalities and powers already defeated at the cross. Yes, evil is real and pervasive and still powerful, as they know better than I. But it is on the run – as long as the Church is really chasing it. And they are in hot pursuit.
Is that what we of the "flaccid western churches," as Work describes us, are doing? I fear not.

Albert Mohler identified one of the main traps American Christians have laid for ourselves - that moralism is the Gospel. But it's not.
[O]ne of the most seductive false gospels is moralism. This false gospel can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this -- the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.

Sadly, this false gospel is particularly attractive to those who believe themselves to be evangelicals motivated by a biblical impulse. Far too many believers and their churches succumb to the logic of moralism and reduce the Gospel to a message of moral improvement. In other words, we communicate to lost persons the message that what God desires for them and demands of them is to get their lives straight. ...

Add to this the fact that the process of parenting and child rearing tends to inculcate moralism from our earliest years. ...

Writing about his own childhood in rural Georgia, the novelist Ferrol Sams described the deeply-ingrained tradition of being "raised right." As he explained, the child who is "raised right" pleases his parents and other adults by adhering to moral conventions and social etiquette. A young person who is "raised right" emerges as an adult who obeys the laws, respects his neighbors, gives at least lip service to religious expectations, and stays away from scandal. The point is clear -- this is what parents expect, the culture affirms, and many churches celebrate. But our communities are filled with people who have been "raised right" but are headed for hell.
Christianity as we practice it is doing terrible things to our children. When all is said and done, most children reach their high school graduation thinking that God has put them on earth to be good boys and girls. They may have some growing pains, some difficulties now and then, but if they listen closely and go to Sunday School they may, just may, have a chance at becoming . . . a nice person.

Is that what Jesus died to do?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Home alone?

Is the universe teeming with life or are human beings home alone? There are solid scientific reasons that the latter may be the case. Two astronomers explain why in "Home Alone in the Universe." Science writer Fred Hereen used the same title later for his longer treatment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with a former atheist

In my sermon for Sept. 13, the introductory message of my science and religion series, I explained why an educated, reasonable and scientifically-literate man or woman can believe both the scientific explanations of the beginning of the universe and the teaching of Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." In it I mentioned the story of Antony Flew.
Probably few people here are familiar with the name of Antony Flew. A British philosopher, he is a retired Oxford professor, and was a leading academic champion of atheism for more than fifty years. (He was also the son of a Methodist minister!) In 2004, at age 81, he renounced his atheism and gave an interview to Christian scholar Gary Habermas, entitled, with Flew's approval, "Atheist Becomes Theist - Exclusive Interview with Former Atheist Antony Flew." In it he stated,
... that "the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries" and that "the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it".
Flew also affirmed that the "decisive" forms of argument in favor of God's existence "are the scientific" ones. Flew, however, professes no Christian faith, saying his idea of God is much like Aristotle's - a god who caused the universe but since then has had pretty much had nothing to do with it. Flew's type of belief in a deity is called theism.
Here is the text of the interview by Habermas of Flew. Flew was one of the most respected and leading voices of intellectual-academic atheism until 2004, so his explanation of his turn to belief in deity can't be readily dismissed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Crash test clarity

This car crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hits (heh) a little close to home for me. The IIHS offset crashed a 2009 Chevy Malibu into a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. As the video shows, despite being made of heavy gage steel, the Bel Air folded up like tin foil. The impact would have killed its driver instantly, while the Malibu's driver would have suffered a slight knee injury.

Why does this hit close to home? Because I survived with practically no injury a 70 mph, one-car crash of my 2004 Malibu in Interstate 40 in December 2007.

Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

"Jesus, it's your automobile."

There were two or three high-speed revolutions on the road surface. All I heard was whizzing of the tires skidding across first the pavement and then the grass. The windshield went opaque from water and thrown mud. I hear two loud bangs and the car suddenly stops. I am surrounded by pine trees. I smell and see smoke. The car's on fire! Seat belt off, pull the door handle. Nothing happens. The door's jammed. I see shattered glass all over me and feel cold air against my face. The driver's side window is shattered. Even if the door worked, it wouldn't open more than two inches because of the trees. Great: I lived through the crash to burn to death.

But the smoke smells different than smoke from burning petroleum or rubber. It smells explosive. Then I see the deflated air bags and realize they are the smoke's source. Relax. I feel no pain. The front of the car is buckled upward. Nothing penetrated the passenger compartment, which did not deform.
I drive a 2005 Volvo S-60T now, a make whose safety is legendary. I tried to find another used Malibu but the prices were out of reach. It's a popular car for excellent reasons.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why God must exist

Many years ago I was on an online religion forum (so long ago that the Internet really wasn't yet there) where a self-described atheist said that he would believe in God if only some evidence existed.

I replied, "Since the universe already exists, you either have to accept the universe itself as evidence or admit you are asking for evidence greater than the universe."

Yesterday during my message at worship service, my topic was whether science has relegated God to the status of an unnecessary hypothesis in matters of cosmology - the study of the universe and how it came to be. You can listen to a two-part podcast of the message by clicking here.

The question was this: Can an educated, scientifically-literate person agree with the Bible's proposition that, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth?"

In classical terms, my conclusion is based on the "cosmological theory" of God's existence - that the universe, having come into being (having been created, in other words) must have had a cause. And it is entirely rational to call that cause the creator of the universe, for which a very good name is God.

Christians and Jews were not the only ones to come to this conclusion. Aristotle argued at length for the very same reasons. He called the universe's originator the "Unmoved Mover." Aristotle's reasoning was picked up by Aquinas and by Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period. Maimonides offered several arguments for God's existence, all of them some variation of a cosmological argument.

This argument is very powerfully buttressed by the discoveries and conclusions of modern-day astrophysics, as I explained in my message of Sunday.

Another argument in favor of God's existence is called the ontological argument. This argument attempts to prove God's reality basically by arguing that the term, "God," is nonsensical unless it has an existing referent rather than an imaginary one. Probably the most famous proponent of the ontological argument is Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109. Ontological arguments
proceed from premises which are supposed to derive from some source other than observation of the world — e.g., from reason alone. In other words, ontological arguments are arguments from nothing but analytic, a priori and necessary premises to the conclusion that God exists. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being — namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists — can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived — i.e., God — exists.
(Anselm's contemprary, Guanilo, argued in reply that Anselm's argument was absurd. As Anselm had cited the Psalm 14, "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God," Guanilo snarkily titled his essay, "Reply on Behalf of the Fool," but though it was clever, it did not actually address Anselm's argument since Guanilo apparently misunderstood what Anselm was getting at.)

In the twentieth century, Charles Hartshorne presented the ontological argument this way:
1) God can be analytically conceived without contradiction.
2) Therefore God is not impossible.
3) By definition God cannot be contingent.
4) Therefore God is either necessary or impossible.
5) God is not impossible (from 2) therefore, God is necessary.
Now, in this argument, "necessary" does not mean "required." A necessary entity's's existence does not depend on something else. "Contingent" means that the entity's existence depends on the prior existence of something else. In the ontological argument, God's existence is not dependent on any other thing. As Anselm pointed out, if there is an entity, however powerful, whose existence is contingent on something else, we would definitionally say that entity is not God. It would fail to be that "than which no greater can be conceived."

Non-contingency is one of the key points in the very idea of God. Over the centuries, many philosophers have tried to knock down the ontological argument, but, as atheist Bertrand Russell observed, it is much easier to say that ontological arguments are not valid than it is to explain why.

We reason that a non-contingent entity is possible. But we observe that contingent entities actually exist. The contingency of the things we encounter in everyday life is empirically self evident. In my undergraduate days, one of my philosophy professors observed that the cosmological argument and the ontological argument together made an extremely powerful case for the existence of God.

William Lane Craig recently put the cosmological argument this way, which I am paraphrasing. Suppose you are walking through the woods and come upon a perfectly spherical, transparent ball a couple of feet in diameter. You would not decide the ball was a necessary entity - that it existed without dependence on any other entity. You would immediately think it is a contingent entity, that its existence and location did indeed depend upon something else. "Who made it? How did it get here?" are entirely reasonable questions because it would be impossible to declare, with any sort of intelligence, that the ball simply popped into being in and of its own. No one would or could claim that the ball created itself. And, says Craig, if you expand the ball so that it is the size of the universe, the problem does not change.

So why are we so willing to assume that the universe itself simply "big banged" itself into existence when we deny that anything else does so? And if the universe simply appeared, just popped into being, why do other such appearances not happen routinely? Why, for example, don't spherical balls (or whatever) just pop up in my front yard or yours from time to time? But they don't.

In fact, the entire universe itself consists only of contingent events that bring forth only contingent entities. But somehow, we are nonetheless willing to say that the universe is necessary, that it exists independently of other another entity. I believe that it is neither intellectually coherent not congruent with empirical science to think that the universe, which consists solely of contingent entities and contingent events, is even so somehow itself necessary rather than contingent. No, the universe itself and entire must be seen as empirically contingent; its existence depends on another entity.

Since it is possible for God to exist as a necessary being, as explained above, the existence of the contingent universe means that God is also required. Therefore, God exists. However, I must side with Maimonides that arriving at this conclusion shows only that a creator exists, which we call God, but it tells us nothing about the nature of that God. For that more is required, which will be later.

A podcast of William Lane Craig's presentation, followed by two attempted rebuttals, is here, recorded at a formal philosophy conference.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Can we really believe in Hell?

Hell is such a grim topic that an icebreaker is called for. So let’s loosen up a little before we do a swan dive into the lake of eternal fire.

What is the difference between heaven and hell?

In heaven, the lovers are Italian, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the police are English, the administrators are Swiss. In hell, the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German, and the administrators are Italian.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, Christians know that death is not the end of their existence. At some point, God will bring creation to its final fulfillment and, just as Christ was raised from the dead, human beings will be resurrected into eternity. Heaven is used to describe eternal life in the actual presence of God, while hell is used to describe eternal life apart from God’s presence. Hell was described by Jesus as the final destiny of Satan and his cohort after the final triumph of Christ over evil, as well as the place where unsaved souls spend an eternal sentence of punishment for their sin.

By asking, “Can we really believe in hell?” I mean this: There are numerous explicit references to Hell in the Scriptures. Should we take them seriously? If so, how may we understand them? What does the Bible mean by Hell, anyway? Should we include hell within the umbrella of our Christian faith?

For some persons this is a non-issue. Some persons consider the whole question cut and dried: those who believe in Christ enjoy eternal life with God, and those who don’t believe are adjudged into Hell. But many others of true Christian faith have real difficulty with Hell, myself included.

The problem is this: God is supremely good and supremely powerful. According to First Timothy 2:3-4, God wants everyone to be saved. And God alone is savior. Through Isaiah God said, “. . . for I am God, and there is no other. I . . . am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Is. 45.22; 43.11).

These things being true, there would appear to be nothing to prevent God from simply exercising his divine power to bring everyone into heaven whether they are already “saved” or not. So the paradox is this: how can we reconcile an eternal hell with God’s power and God’s desire that all be saved?

A usual answer has been to point out that God is totally good, totally pure and totally just. Thus, God’s inherent goodness and purity do not allow unredeemed sinners in his presence, and God’s justice requires that a penalty be paid for sin. However, Jesus’ ministered to the worst sinners of his day, proving that divine goodness does quite well in their presence. Jesus’ teachings reflect that God’s justice is not the tit-for-tat human kind, but a supremely forgiving justice in which we actually do not get what we deserve. Furthermore, an eternal sentence of punishment for a mere seventy to eighty years or so of sin is not justice, it is mindless torture.

We know that God is always at work in the affairs of human beings to bring us into fellowship with God to the greatest degree possible. God’s grace is the only source of salvation.  Grace is a gift. We cannot earn it, nor does God coerce us. We have to accept it. Randy Maddox, past president of the Wesley Theological Society, put it this way: “Without God’s grace, we cannot be saved; unless we respond, we won’t be saved.” Sadly, experience shows that some persons resist this gift of grace and either defy God or deny that God even exists, right up to the day they die. What becomes of them, then?

God does not stop being God simply because we die. If God loves us in this life, God certainly loves us in the next. If God wills to save in this life, he certainly wills it in the next. The hard question is not whether God’s will to save disappears after we die. The hard questions are:

Why would anyone be more “savable” after death than now?

Why would God’s grace be more likely to penetrate our resistance to it after we die than now?

Why would someone be more receptive to God after death than before?

The case for universal salvation presupposes that either human nature or God's nature, or both, are radically different on the other side of human mortality. Persons either become so enlightened in the afterlife that no matter how corrupted by sin they were in life, they nonetheless accept the full grace of God that they had always rejected before – or God is for some reason able to act more powerfully upon us after we depart this life than while we are still living. I can find no biblical basis for either position. In fact, we would have to ask a couple more questions: Why would dying makes us smarter? Why would dying give us better judgement? It can’t. The Bible clearly teaches that death is destructive, not creative.

The Bible treats physical death as a gateway event. The book of Hebrews teaches that we don’t get a “do-over” in life. We get one life, one death, and after that, the judgment, followed by eternity.

Is it possible that dying has a “fixing” effect on our eternal destiny? Here’s an analogy. I once learned how to develop photographic negatives and make prints therefrom. It’s not difficult, although with today's digital cameras it's a vanishing art. Once the negatives have been developed, you make a print by placing a negative frame in a vertical projector. You focus the image on the bottom plate and turn off the lights. Then you place a sheet of photo paper on the bottom plate and expose the paper for a calculated time. Then you immerse the paper a chemical solution that brings the image forth. Finally, you place the paper in another chemical solution known as the “fixer.” The fixer sets the image permanently.

I wonder whether while we live we are “developing,” but death “fixes” us where we are, as far as salvation goes. Even if God’s will to save continues after we die, perhaps it is more difficult, not less, for us to be saved then than now – not because God is less powerful, but because we are less responsive. Freshly poured concrete can be molded, but hardened concrete cannot. It may be that death “hardens” us so that we cannot respond to God’s saving grace.

If God’s salvation is coercive, then this wouldn’t matter. But the Scriptures tell us that God saves from love. Love’s nature is invitation, not compulsion. Jesus called people to follow him, but forced no one. So I am brought to confront Hell as a real possibility. What, then, is Hell?

At one level, we can understand hell as a useful idea. The concept of hell helps us to understand that there is a moral order to creation. The ideas of hell and heaven reinforce human understanding of justice, for if evil is finally destroyed, or at least separated from God’s presence, we can see that what we do in this life has ultimate meaning. Human actions have cosmic significance, and our struggles for justice, mercy and righteousness have divine sanction. Asbury Seminary professor Jerry Walls wrote,
The doctrines of heaven and hell are the supreme articulation of the claim that we can neither evade responsibility for our actions nor the motives behind them. They represent the epitome of the notion that we never serve our ultimate self-interest by doing what is immoral, just as we always serve our ultimate self-interest by our steadfast commitment to do what is right.
When the Bible speaks of hell (or heaven), it uses highly symbolic speech. The theologically conservative Nelson’s Bible Dictionary says,
Because of the symbolic nature of the language, some people question whether hell consists of actual fire. The reality is greater than the symbol. The Bible exhausts human language in describing heaven and hell. The former is more glorious, and the latter more terrible, than language can express. 
So while the Bible does describe hell as a place of fire and burning, we need not take it literally to take it seriously. The New Testament word translated as hell is “Gehenna,” which was a real place outside Jerusalem where pagan Canaanites had once burned their children in sacrifice to their god Molech.

In Jesus’ day Gehenna was the depository of all the filth and garbage of Jerusalem, “including the dead bodies of animals and executed criminals. To dispose of all this, fires burned constantly. Maggots worked in the filth. When the wind blew from that direction over the city, its awfulness was quite evident. At night wild dogs howled and gnashed their teeth as they fought over the garbage.

“Jesus used this awful scene as a symbol of hell. In effect he said, ‘Do you want to know what hell is like? Look at the valley of Gehenna’” (Nelson’s). So hell may be thought of a “cosmic garbage dump,” the exact antithesis of heaven.

I have come to understand hell not as a place, but as a state of ongoing rejection of God. C. S. Lewis described hell as the “skid row” of creation, where souls have become so intoxicated by sin that they no longer even try to break the chains that bind them there. Their dilemma is that they are captive there because they choose to be. They would rather have a delusion of freedom than salvation. Their delusion, wrote Lewis, is that if they glorified God, they would lose their personal identity, but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell, Lewis said, is “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

The apostle Paul wrote of the self-imposition of godlessness in the first chapter of Romans:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 ... So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; ... they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (1.18-22 excerpted). 
Hence, Pope John Paul II stood of solid Scriptural ground when he wrote that hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life ‘hell.’” Hell “is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject” God’s mercy.

The closest analogy to hell I can think of is that of addiction. There was a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Latisha Lewis in the news who confessed that she murdered ninety-year-old Ella Gilbert, whom she did not know, to steal money to buy drugs. Addiction can become so powerful that it overwhelms the faculty of reason and distorts our will beyond self-control. Latisha Lewis’s tragedy is that she became an addict by her own free will. The first hit of narcotics she ever took was her choice.

So I think of hell as a sinner’s crack house, a state of being that is hopelessly beyond self help. It is a perversion of the will so strong that God is not even hoped for, much less sought. Salvation may be technically possible because God’s grace is still offered, but effectively impossible, because it is not even recognized. "The gates of hell," wrote C. S. Lewis, "are locked only on the inside."

This kind of hell is a photographic negative of heaven – isolation rather than fellowship, apathy rather than love, loneliness rather than caring, conflict rather than community, desolation rather than richness. The torment of hell is not chiefly that these things are unbearable (even though they are); the worst torment is that even if hell’s addicts want to escape, they will not or cannot accept God’s grace to do so. Their torment springs from their own self-centered incapability to let God in, and all that results from it.

Hell is thus not a sentence of God imposed on sinner, because God desires all to be saved. Hell is God’s recognition that he has been rejected. Even though God’s grace continues to be offered without ceasing, its acceptance becomes evermore unlikely as the addiction to godlessness becomes evermore concrete.

If this theology of hell works for you as it does for me, then there are still steps to take. One is that the prospect of eternal punishment need not figure prominently in the Gospel of love. The center of the Gospel is not that God wrathfully seeks to condemn all who fail to meet narrowly defined criteria. God is love and desires with great liberality all to be saved, even to the extent that in all eternity, God never gives up seeking out his children. But it avoids what Methodist Professor David Watson admitted is the pitfall of universal salvation, that evangelism is really a pointless exercise if everyone winds up in heaven, anyway. On the contrary, the reality of hell makes a decision for Christ in this life vitally important. “Who is Christ?” becomes not merely one important question among others, it becomes the central question of human affairs. Evangelism is the crucial mission of the church.

This understanding also places a great burden upon us if we are to love God in return for the love God has given us. David Watson wrote,
When even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation . . . borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many who are sick or in prison. There are too many empty places [at God’s banquet table]. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived is to nibble on the appetizers and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to eat would be unpardonable . . . especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help
Jerry Walls wrote that God has both the ability and the desire to preserve and perfect his relationship with human beings. God created in us aspirations for divine fellowship. Being good, God does not leave those aspirations unsatisfied.
The doctrine of heaven is the claim that our deepest aspirations can be satisfied in a perfected relationship with God and other persons. However, a loving God does not force this relationship upon us; indeed, he cannot do so if we are truly free. So we can, if we prefer, destroy our own happiness by rejecting the only true means to that happiness.
“And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Do we have a natural right to health care?

Is health care a human right, as the United Methodist Church says? I don't see how. Human rights, as Americans have always understood them (beginning with Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders) are a fact of nature that cannot be rescinded by human beings. Rights are immutable, indeed, unalienable ("Not to be separated, given away, or taken away", as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. As a precursor to his Declaration theology that unalienable human rights are a endowment by God, Jefferson wrote in his pre-revolution essay, Summary View of the Rights of British America, " The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may disjoin, but cannot destroy them."

Since his day, and certainly preceding it, the historic American understanding of human rights is the
exercise of individual freedom, especially in the political realm, for both public and personal good. We have historically never understood our rights as encompassing access to services or commodities.

Rights are inherent in each individual equally, they are not divisible. Take the Declaration's famous insistence that among human rights is "the pursuit of happiness." Note that it is the
pursuit of happiness that is a right, not the achievement of it. Nor is one person more entitled to pursue happiness than another, no matter one’s station in life. Besides, happiness (what Jefferson meant was not happiness as we use the word today, but a state of contentment in life and possessions) is not something that can be given us, it is something we have to create.

It does sound all high minded to say that, like rights, health care should be equal for everybody, which I suppose is why clergy are so susceptible to say so. It's more than obvious that no one in the Congress or the White House believes that, though. If they did, the bill awaiting Senate vote would require members of Congress and the rest of the federal government to fall under the "public option" along with the rest of us proles. But they’
ve protected their turf completely and much better turf is theirs than ours. I’ll believe that equal access and care for everyone is a moral imperative when the people who say it is a moral imperative place themselves under the same imperative.

The presumption that health care is a right, and therefore must be equal for everyone, is founded on two critical errors of understanding. The first is that health care is a resource that is simply available for those who need it, or that can be made equally available through proper legislation and regulation. The second error is that medical care and access to it can be rationed by command more equally, economically and fairly than by demand.

Health care is not a resource to be exploited

Medical facilities and doctors are not phenomena of nature, like water or petroleum are. Hospitals don’t just appear. They are produced. Medical care is not a resource that can be "mined" through more regulation to be more plentiful. Medical care is a
service. Specifically, it is a contracted service, in much the same way that legal assistance, automotive maintenance or pastoral care are services. Why? Because men and women choose of their own accord to get medical training. Once graduated, doctors, nurses, paramedics and technicians of various kinds reasonably expect that they will be compensated at a rate greater than their costs to enter the profession, greater than their extremely high overhead to run the practice, and enough to make their grueling hours materially worthwhile for themselves and their families.

This fact has very direct consequences under the Medicare and Medicaid systems we have today.
The Atlantic's business journalist Meg McArdle explains:
[W]e have a comprehensive national health care plan for seniors. Yet we have a shortage of geriatricians, the one specialty that you would think would be booming. Why? Because Medicare sets a single price for the services of geriatricians, and it is low. Since the field is not particularly enticing (though arguably it really should be, since geriatricians have extremely high job satisfaction compared to many more popular specialties), very few people go into it. It's one of relatively few specialties that consistently has most of its slots and fellowships unfilled.
Moreover, the skills and equipment a doctor or hospital possess are their individual property, not the property, even partially, of the state or public. (There are publicly-owned facilities such as VA hospitals, but in operation there is no difference to the general public between them and private facilities). No one has a natural right to someone else's property. To think we do directly violates the Tenth Commandment. As McArdle says, "People have no obligation to perform labor for others. I may not [justly or legally] force a surgeon to save my mother at gunpoint."

That means that to receive a doctor's services, the doctor and a patient must come to a mutually-agreeable arrangement of what medical care will be provided in exchange for a specified fee. This is a commercial transaction no different in type than hiring a plumber, cab driver or lawyer. That medical services often are life critical does not change the fundamental nature of the contract.

We have access to medical care only as long as a doctor is willing to provide it. No one has to become a doctor or continue in medical practice. If any "reform" of the present health care system reduces the rewards of practicing medicine or complicates the practice, fewer men and women will so choose. Access will then go down for everyone and costs will inevitably rise, no matter what the rate-payment of the public option is, because access or its lack is itself a cost and also drives other costs.

Health care is a service

Michael Keehn explains, health care is a service but not a community service. Police and fire departments provide community services. That seems obvious enough, but consider: fire departments do not protect your home individually. The fire chief definitely will let it burn to the ground if firefighting needs are greater elsewhere in the town. Just look at what is happening near Los Angeles as of the date of this post. Police and fire protection are in fact rationed to protect the lives and property of the greatest number of people possible with the resources available. But when the resources (manpower, equipment or money) run out, individuals are exposed to greater danger or loss though the community at large may still be protected.

Individual residents of a city do not contract for their community’s police or fire protection. When you call 9-1-1 because someone broke into your home while you were in bed, you don’t have to sign a contract with the police when they arrive, specifying the actions you want them to take and how much you are going to pay.

In contrast, under the present system medical care is an individual service. Doctors do not provide their services to the community as a whole, but to individuals. Because of that, each patient enters into a contract with his/her doctor specifying the medical services to be received and how much it will cost. This is mostly mediated through insurance companies, of course, which greatly simplifies the contracting process. The result is that a patient 's health is protected in a way that their safety or homes are not protected by the police or fire departments.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church rejects the idea that health care is a human right. The Most Reverend R. Walker
Nickless, bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, explains.
[T]he Catholic Church does not teach that “health care” as such, without distinction, is a natural right.

The “natural right” of health care is the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us quickly die. This bounty comes from God directly. None of us own it, and none of us can morally withhold it from others. The remainder of health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from our human efforts, creativity, and compassion.
Like any human endeavour, health care is finite. It can be properly understood only as such. Any reform that treats medical care as if it can be made infinitely available is a product of cloud-cuckoo land. Medical care, like every other finite thing, must be allocated. The current buzzword for that is "rationed." That’s the foundation of the second critical mistake people are making about health care, that medical care and access to it can be rationed by the government more equally, economically and fairly than by consumers. It can’t, but that's a topic for another post.

Update: Philip Barlow, Consultant neurosurgeon at Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, explains why "Health care is not a human right."

Philip Niles says that the real question is not whether health care is a human right, but "How much health care is a human right?" Good question, since health care is finite.