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" Dictionary.com, 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

As
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.