Author Archive

On Becoming Machines

Nicholas Carr relays a profound warning from Joseph Weizenbaum in his fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

What makes us most human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us— the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers— as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens— is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.” (Kindle Locations 3526-3532–and yes, I recognize the irony).

Of course, we’re in no danger of doing that…

Bruce Winter On 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.

Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.

To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias. (more…)

A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is: (more…)

A Meditation On Music

Apropos of nothing in particular, I want to consider the significance of music in the creation. Especially in the modern world of iPods, car radios, and high-tech stereos, music is ubiquitous. But I think even in previous days, it’s probably likely most or many people would at least whistle or hum a tune to pass the time. Music is a part of what it means to be human.

Daniel J. Levitin in his now famous This Is Your Brain On Music, expresses his belief in the idea that we are born with an innate capacity to learn any of the world’s musical languages (109). At the same time, he notes that “Just how this structure [in sound] leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music. After all, we don’t get all weepy eyed when we experience other kinds of structure in our lives, such as a balanced checkbook or the orderly arrangement of first-aid products in a drugstore (well, at least most of us don’t),” (109).

I don’t propose to have a certain answer to this question. Nor its related question: what is the purpose of music? Why do we live in a universe where music has this effect on us at all? But I may have some inkling of a suggestion. Firstly, Bono makes this comment in his meditation, Psalm Like it Hot: “Anyway, I stopped going to churches and got into a different kind of religion. Don’t laugh. That’s what being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is. Showbiz is shamanism, music is worship. Whether it’s worship of women or their designer, the world or its destroyer, whether it comes from that ancient place we call soul or simply the spinal cortex, whether the prayers are on fire with a dumb rage or dove-like desire, the smoke goes upwards, to God or something you replace God with — usually yourself.” Listening to music, and even moreso, being a part of a musical event with other people, often produces this numinous feeling. Consider the lyrics (and the reactions of the concertgoers) of this rendition of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”:

Bono is right to note that it can be directed at various different objects. But there is undeniably something about music that takes us out of the merely animal, either moving us in the direction of the angels, or that of the demons.

Secondly, John W. Kleinig has argued that 2 Chronicles 29:30b should be translated “So they sang praises until there was rejoicing, and bowed down and worshipped.” In other words, the Levitical musicians and the writers of scripture recognized that music had this incredible power that humanity has recognized since time immemorial. And they exploited this function of music to shift the minds of Israel towards God in his grace, and to direct them to worship. Now, there is nothing here that suggests the effects of music are the same thing as experiencing God, as some people, both ancient and modern, have suggested. But it leads me to wonder, at least, if one of the main reasons God has given us music is to prepare ourselves for his presence. In other words, and perhaps this is obvious, but is the primary purpose of music to raise our minds above the merely mundane, to open us to something outside of us? And perhaps it is because it has this purpose that it can have all kinds of other wonderful effects on us?

Empire And The Responsibility To Protect

I just finished reading Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar, and a selection from the Pliny’s letters he quotes near the end of the book made me think of contemporary discussions of the “responsibility to protect”. Pliny:

Again, and again–yes, I have to repeat this–you must remember the title of your office and understand what it means: you must remember what it is, and how great a thing it is, to establish order in the constitution of free cities. For what is more important for a city than ordered rule, and what more precious than liberty? (Letters 8)

And from the wiki entry on R2P:

Following the genocide in Rwanda and the international community’s failure to intervene, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the question, when does the international community intervene for the sake of protecting populations?

The Canadian government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in September 2000. In February 2001, at the third round table meeting of the ICISS in London, Gareth Evans, Mohamed Sahnoun and Michael Ignatieff suggested the phrase “responsibility to protect” as a way to avoid the “right to intervene” or “obligation to intervene” doctrines and yet keep a degree of duty to act to resolve humanitarian crises.[6]

In December 2001, the ICISS released its report, The Responsibility to Protect. The report presented the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility and that the international community had the responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. Economic, political, and social measures were to be used along with diplomatic engagement. Military intervention was presented as a last resort. R2P included efforts to rebuild by bringing security and justice to the victim population and by finding the root cause of the mass atrocities.[7]

For those who are not pacifists, we at least have to consider: might there not be situations where “imperialism” could actually be a beneficent thing? I have difficulty, at least, completely ruling out every conceivable version of it.

Feser Round Up

Several times on this blog I’ve plugged the work of Edward Feser. Recently he has put up a few particularly noteworthy blog posts.

Firstly, a round up of many of his posts about the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

A year ago today I put up a post with the title “So you think you understand the cosmological argument?” It generated quite a bit of discussion, and has since gotten more page views than any other post in the history of this blog. To celebrate its first anniversary — and because the argument, rightly understood (as it usually isn’t), is the most important and compelling of arguments for classical theism — I thought a roundup of various posts relevant to the subject might be in order.

Secondly, a round up of posts discussing the claims of classical theism:

Classical theism is the conception of God that has prevailed historically within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Western philosophical theism generally. Its religious roots are biblical, and its philosophical roots are to be found in the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian traditions. Among philosophers it is represented by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Avicenna. I have emphasized many times that you cannot properly understand the arguments for God’s existence put forward by classical theists, or their conception of the relationship between God and the world and between religion and morality, without an understanding of how radically classical theism differs from the “theistic personalism” or “neo-theism” that prevails among some prominent contemporary philosophers of religion. (Brian Davies classifies Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and Charles Hartshorne as theistic personalists. “Open theism” would be another species of the genus, and I have argued that Paley-style “design arguments” have at least a tendency in the theistic personalist direction.)

And finally today, and perhaps most interestingly, he put up the story of his conversion from atheism to theism. An excerpt:

I already knew from the lay of the land in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind that the standard naturalist approaches had no solid intellectual foundation, and themselves rested as much on fashion as on anything else. Even writers like Searle, who I admired greatly and whose naturalism I shared, had no plausible positive alternative. McGinn-style mysterianism started to seem like a dodge, especially given that certain arguments (like the Platonic realist ones) seemed to show that matter simply is not in fact all that there is, not merely that we can’t know how it can be all that there is. Some secular writers were even toying with Aristotelian ideas anyway. The only reason for not taking Aquinas and similar thinkers seriously seemed to be that most other academic philosophers weren’t taking them seriously. And yet as I had come to learn, many of them didn’t even understand Aquinas and Co. in the first place, and their own naturalism was riddled with problems. Against Aquinas, for naturalism — the case increasingly seemed to come down to the consensus of the profession. And what exactly was that worth?

As I’ve suggested before, Feser is definitely worth a read. I hope his tribe increases in the future.

Destroying Gotham

Judging from the trailers, it looks like the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy will engage in a time honored literary and artistic trope:

Why do we fantasize about blowing up New York so much? Andrew Potter writes in his The Authenticity Hoax:

One of the most enduring developments of declinism in popular culture is the ritualized destruction of the great cities of the world in film, literature, and art. Whether it is worries over economic dislocation, fears of urban alienation, or inchoate anxieties over moral and spiritual softness, we like to take it out on cities such as London, Tokyo, Washington, but, above all, New York. Historian of architecture Max Page wrote an entire book about the portrayals of New York’s destruction, on paper, film, or canvas over the past hundred-odd years, showing how each era uses the city’s death as a way of defining its social concerns and exorcizing its specific demons.

There’s a common thread that underlies it all, though: the deadening of experience in advanced society, the banality of everyday life mixed with the precariousness of the capitalist economy. And so we use our art to destroy New York, “to escape the sense of inevitable and incomprehensible economic transformations … to make our world more comprehensible than it has become.” Page goes on: “A disaster, even when mediated through images or words, still retains an authenticity that has been the quest of modern society for two centuries.”

But why New York? A clue is to be found in the way in which, in the years after 9/11, the attack on the Pentagon has almost completely faded from popular remembrance. Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the American empire, but New York is the capital of modernity, or as Oswald Spengler put it, the “monstrous symbol” of the modern world. Whether it is King Kong making his final stand atop the Empire State Building or the lizard in Cloverfield ripping the head off of the Statue of Liberty, it is something significantly more than a tourist attraction that is under assault from these monsters of nature. (70-71)

Conservatism And Poverty

One of my continual questions about conservatism (as a conservative) is what exactly it is supposed to be conserving. For example, conservatives are often considered opponents of government provided support to the poor. Yet at least for religious conservatives, conservatism in North America in one way or another has been enormously influenced by the thought of John Calvin. And what was Calvin’s approach to this problem? Robert M. Kingdon, in his article “Social Welfare in Calvin’s Geneva,” (The American Historical Review 76, Feb. 1971, pp. 50-69) writes:

A study of social welfare in Calvin’s Geneva must focus on a single institution, the Hopital-Général, or General Hospital. It was much more than a “hospital” in the modern sense of the term. It was rather an all-purpose institution that provided “hospitality” to all sorts of people who were recognized to possess needs that they could not meet with their own resources. It maintained a large building in the center of Geneva that housed several dozen children-most of them orphans or foundlings-and a smaller number of older people whlo were too old, too sick, or too badly crippled to care for themselves. It distributed bread every week to poor households throughout the country and provided shelter and food every evening to visitors who had just arrived in Geneva and could not pay for their own accommodations. (52)

This was an institution partially funded and and fully overseen by the city, and approved of by Calvin. And this particular development, a change to pre-Reformation approaches to welfare (by means of laicization and rationalization), was indeed well-conserved:

The greater radicalism of the Genevan reforms may help to explain their greater permanence, for the Geneva General Hospital proved to be a remarkably durable institution. It continued in operation until the late nineteenth century with only one major interruption, which was caused by the French Revoluition. In 1869 it was reorganized and converted into a new institution called the Hospice-Général, with headquarters in the same neighborhood as the old General Hospital. The Hospice-Général is still standing and ministering to the problems of the poor in Geneva in ways that have not changed substantially since 1535. It would appear that there are times in history when radical reform, however painful it may seem at the time, proves to be more permanent than moderate reform. (69)

Calvin On Discipline

Brad Littlejohn has an informative post detailing Calvin’s position on church discipline, and quotes heavily from the Reformer’s response to the famous anabaptist Schleitheim Confession. One aspect of Calvin’s teaching I at first had a bit of trouble with was this:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there. Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

[Edit: I notice that I did not clarify what I meant here. Calvin is obviously summarizing the position of the Anabaptists at this point. My concern was that his implied negation of this view might be seen as unbiblical.]

However, in typical fashion, Calvin both defends his position and nuances it carefully, removing what troubles I had with it. Firstly, he qualifies his point:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present. For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured. But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

And he also defends it:

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24). Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47). These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

In addition to these comments and others, Littlejohn also provides a closing comment which I think is quite important for grasping the logic of Calvin’s position here:

“let us take thought of what we can do. And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

The only qualification I would want to add to Calvin’s outlined position here is that, it seems from several OT and NT texts, that God’s mercy does have a temporal limit on congregations who refuse to exercise appropriate discipline. I discussed this in an old post on this blog. However, once the quote from Calvin immediately above is taken into account, it does not really conflict with this biblical theme. For one can easily understand that these passages reflect churches that were not truly doing “what was in [their] power and duty.” Now, of course, the question will be raised: how much is enough? And I think the answer is hard to provide a priori. But it seems to me the principle would have to be along these lines: if one has Calvin’s principles, and attempts to follow them sincerely, so that especially heinous and public sins are dealt with, but not attempting to punish things not really known or things only in the heart, then you are probably doing “what is in your power”.

A church may for a time fail to do what they are able, and therefore remain a church even while sin persists in the church. I think Calvin’s appeal to NT churches is powerful in proving his position here. Nevertheless, God will eventually remove the lampstand of congregations that do not do what is in their power. They will be revealed to be what, at least many in the congregation (or the clergy of the congregation), really were: people not willing to obey the commands of Jesus that called them to administer discipline. And intentionally and persistently rebelling against the commands of Jesus are a good sign that something is fundamentally wrong with one’s heart, which is another way of saying, it is a good sign that a person is not really in the (invisible) church at all.

The long and short of it is: I think Calvin was profoundly biblical and pastoral on this matter. His ecclesiology remains a well thought out position that needs to be considered again today.

The Liberal Arts And Poverty

The late Earl Shorris writes in Harper’s magazine of an interview he had with a female inmate in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City:

It is considered bad form in prison to speak of a person’s crime, and I will follow that precise etiquette here. I can tell you that Viniece Walker came to Bedford Hills when she was twenty years old, a high school dropout who read at the level of a college sophomore, a graduate of crackhouses, the streets of Harlem, and a long alliance with a brutal man. On the surface Viniece has remained as tough as she was on the street. She speaks bluntly, and even though she is HIV positive and the virus has progressed during her time in prison, she still swaggers as she walks down the long prison corridors. While in prison, Niecie, as she is known to her friends, completed her high school requirements and began to pursue a college degree (psychology is the only major offered at Bedford Hills, but Niecie also took a special interest in philosophy). She became a counselor to women with a history of family violence and a comforter to those with AIDS. (more…)