Thursday, June 29, 2006

Will there be cavemen in heaven?

or: Further defining ‘Dunnoism’

Although The Simpsons is much funnier than anything in the Bible except the Story of Lot, it shares with that Good Book the useful feature whereby carefully-selected excerpts can be used to support absolutely any argument.

Thus, I invite you to Springfield’s Sunday School, where Bart and Milhouse are plaguing their teacher with all manner of vexing questions….

Milhouse: Will there be cavemen in heaven?
Sunday School Teacher: Certainly not!
Bart: Uh, ma'am? What if you're a really good person, but you get into a really, really bad fight and your leg gets gangrene and it has to be amputated. Will it be waiting for you in heaven?
Sunday School Teacher: For the last time, Bart, yes!

[etc etc – until some time later…]

Sunday School Teacher: [very tired]...the ventriloquist goes to heaven but the dummy doesn't.
Bart: What about a robot with a human brain?
Sunday School Teacher: [at the breaking point] I don't know! All these questions! Is a little blind faith too much to ask!?!

Theology essentially amounts to lifelong attempts by all sorts of very clever and venerable people to formulate answers to questions which first occurred to them when they were eight years old.

Sure, you can put a hat on it and call it a fancy name, like ‘the problem of pain’ or ‘the Euthryphro Dilemma’, but the great thing about most of the really challenging theological questions is that they are very simple, and thus the simple way that children state them is usually the best:

Why does God let babies be born handicapped? Why are there so many other religions and how come people are always the same religion as their parents? Why did God make mosquitoes and man-eating sharks? Why did God allow Hitler to kill so many people? Why did God create the dinosaurs? (Great answer to that one here, by the way) Will there be cavemen in heaven?

Despite the utter failure of countless generations of Sunday School teachers, university theologians and Popes to come up with even remotely comprehensible answers to any of the great childish questions, surprisingly few are prepared to admit that they simply ‘dunno’, and, as we have discussed elsewhere, instead prefer to articulate their cluelessness with the “Mysterious Ways” get-out card.

The plain fact is that no religious doctrine can withstand a good barrage of childish questions without serious cracks appearing. Fortunately for religious continuity, very few people lead examined lives after the age of eight.

But those who do lead examined lives tend to split at a childish age into two camps: those who think there must be something wrong with the questions, and thus become publicly staunch but privately doubt-riddled Defenders of the Faith (or at least of some particular idiosyncratic sect of the Faith); and those who think there must be something wrong with the doctrine.

Materialists fall into the latter camp almost to a man. For the materialist, the childish questions about cavemen and dinosaurs and children killed in tsunamis are easy to answer. In the time and space scales of the universe, the believer’s preoccupations with homocentricity and what might ‘happen’ to ‘him’ after his death appear not so much outrageously hubristic as pathetically optimistic.

However, the believer does have one advantage over his heathen brother:

When it comes to the really big question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, he has an answer (admittedly, he has to invoke Causa Sui to answer the follow-up question, “Then where did God come from?”).

‘Why is there not nothing?’ is the head-spinning, scrotumtightening, three-o’clock-in-the-morning Nausea-inducing unanswerable question par excellence.

Some materialists prefer to assert that since existence is the ultimate brute fact, the very question is meaningless. Others prefer a good, honest ‘dunno’.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Biffing the Obvious

One would think that, given the harsh lessons of recent history, the Left would have yielded, if ever so slightly, to the allure of reality. While it is hard to deride at least some of the Left's goals, as soon as the means to those ends, no matter their apparent advisability, involves recourse to collectivism and denial of human nature,

In Homeward Bound, Linda Hirshman derides what she terms "choice feminism," the notion that women can, and should, choose how to live their own lives.

In Hirshman's view, choice feminism is just fine only so long as it leads to the correct -- collectively speaking -- choice. She "found that among the educated elite, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals." (As a side note, the moment a word processor blows a logic-gate aneurysm when faced with such a sentence, will constitute the onset of machine intelligence, Turing test be damned.)

Unfortunately, according to Hirshman, the unreconstructed family is the true barrier to the onslaught of women in elite jobs.

As a result of feminist efforts -- and larger economic trends -- the percentage of women, even of mothers in full- or part-time employment, rose robustly through the 1980s and early ’90s.

But then the pace slowed. The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are “choosing” to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. (emphasis added)

Of course, the belief about that belief conceals a glaringly obvious conclusion: the belief is not mere belief, but reality itself. It is a singularly puzzling fact that many of those claiming Evolution as ground truth possess the most astonishing antibodies to its implications. Primary among them, in this case, is that essence of stubbornness: Human Nature.

In an attempt to discern, without a hint of irony, the lives of women most able to "[reap] feminism's promise of opportunity" she was shocked, shocked to discover her selected covey of professionally elite brides (as culled from the NYT marriage announcements), nearly without exception, chose to raise their own children, rather than outsource that task in favor of professional advancement.

I'm sure even the casual progressive reader can see the problem here: "30 years after feminism started filling the selective schools with women, the elite workplaces should be proportionately female. They are not."

The problem is with choice feminism, "because feminism wasn’t radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn’t change men, and, more importantly, it didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men."

Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, “Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.

This is a Jaw meet Floor with loud, anvil-like clang assertion. Nowhere in the article does Ms. Hirshman ever begin to acknowledge the possibility that men and women have unique natures, stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of those who are certain how society should look, because they know how people should think.

Here is where an intellectually honest philosopher would pose societal counterexamples to the patriarchal family and traditional gender roles. Or, failing that virtually impossible task, because history is singularly bereft of such examples, said philosopher would surely make a stab at why this universal phenomena does not reflect some essential components of human nature (See Evolution, antibodies to).

Ms. Hirshman attempts no such thing, yielding instead to the Left's sectarian preference for assertion over analysis, implicitly assuming the meaning of terms such as "flourishing" and "just":

Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.

(Also, Ms. Hirshman yields to the Left's other reflexive rhetorical flourish -- passive voice. Note the use of the word "assigning." The structure of the sentence completely elides the agent, and, in so doing, completely avoids what is the crux her position. Where passive voice is not simply bad writing, it is nearly always dishonest.)

What is her solution to a problem for which she has given no evidence of understanding at anything remotely approaching a human level?

... feminists will have to start offering young women not choices and not utopian dreams but solutions they can enact on their own. Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy. It will require rules -- rules like those in the widely derided book The Rules, which was never about dating but about behavior modification.

Wow. "Start offering ... require[d] rules." Once stripping the sentences of their overburden, through ellipses and brackets, the Left's inner self is just as ugly as it ever was.

But why is choice feminism such a bad, very bad thing? Because

... these choices are bad for women individually. A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives. At feminism’s dawning, two theorists compared gender ideology to a caste system. To borrow their insight, these daughters of the upper classes will be bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste. Not two weeks after the Yalie flap, the Times ran a story of moms who were toilet training in infancy by vigilantly watching their babies for signs of excretion 24-7. They have voluntarily become untouchables.

It is an astonishing achievement to write a paragraph as ugly, ignorant and dismissive as this. Ms. Hirshman appears utterly incapable of comprehending the very real possibility that, when given an actual, you know, choice, actual women just might view "flourishing" in an entirely different way than she.

What this article also demonstrates beyond any possibility of contradiction that the moment someone dons the crown of "liberal" or "progressive," critical thought has come to a dead halt.

Never mind the further proof, as if such was needed, of just how anti-human the Left really is.

Six brides for seven brothers?

From the BBC:

A man's sexual orientation may be determined by conditions in the womb, according to a study.

Previous research had revealed the more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay, but the reason for this phenomenon was unknown.

But a Canadian study has shown that the effect is most likely down to biological rather than social factors.

The research is published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Anthony Bogaert from Brock University in Ontario, Canada, studied 944 heterosexual and homosexual men with either "biological" brothers, in this case those who share the same mother, or "non-biological" brothers, that is, adopted, step or half siblings.

Writing in the journal, Professor Bogaert said: "If rearing or social factors associated with older male siblings underlies the fraternal birth-order effect [the link between the number of older brothers and male homosexuality], then the number of non-biological older brothers should predict men's sexual orientation, but they do not.

"These results support a prenatal origin to sexual orientation development in men."

He suggests the effect is probably the result of a "maternal memory" in the womb for male births.

A woman's body may see a male foetus as "foreign", he says, prompting an immune reaction which may grow progressively stronger with each male child.

The antibodies created may affect the developing male brain.

In an accompanying article, scientists from Michigan State University said: "These data strengthen the notion that the common denominator between biological brothers, the mother, provides a prenatal environment that fosters homosexuality in her younger sons."

"But the question of mechanism remains."

Time will tell whether this 'womb' theory has any validity at all, but it's perfectly obvious that there is some kind of biological element to some, if not all, homosexual orientation.

The attempt to deny this outright is of course an attempt to ascribe moral blame to gays for their tendencies, and is therefore one of the least edifying features of the sex-obsessed Religious Right.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Pun's Rush

The Anchoress rises to the occasion with probably the longest contiguous series of penile puns that you are likely to read on a God blog for the foreseeable future, in honor of Rush Limbaugh's latest brush with drug laws:
Okay, so, Rush had Viagra in his bag and his doctor didn’t prescribe it in his name because if you’re Rush Limbaugh (or Bill Clinton or whomever) and you know you have a gazillion childish guns pointed at you - at all times - you’d rather not have some pharmacist blab in some internet forum that you’re using Viagra, or herpes medicine or genital wart salves or whatever. Perfectly understandable.

Sadly, now we’ll be treated to a few days of people sniggering and making snide, adolescent jokes about Rush (probably in tandem with jokes about Bob Dole, or as he is called at my son’s school, “Bob-Dole-Sex-Machine“) and about how conservatives raise flags because they can’t raise anything else, how a rising snide lifts all boasts, how Rush needs to pull himself together, take himself in hand, get ahold of himself, how it’s not-hard out there for a wimp, how Ann Coulter is walking around with Rush’s missing testosterone, how Rush keeps talking about elections because he’s fixated on…well, you get the point, and a sensitive point it is, too.

We’ll have to endure the usual suspects basically acting like 5 year-olds sitting around the table saying “poopyhead” and imagining that they’re terribly funny, while they laugh and drip and dribble, and we roll our eyes and wipe up their wee spills.

Personally, I think the best way for Rush to stop the thrust of this thing in mid-launch is to stiffen his resolve and laugh at himself. It worked for Hugh Grant, and when you laugh at yourself you leave your enemies limping. I’m sure Rush will stand firm and take it like a man, reminding all of us to get a grip, because there are more important matters at hand.

Regular readers know I don’t listen much to Rush, and that I have recently strenuously disagreed with his rabble-rousing on illegal immigrants. Still, I think he is getting the shaft, here.

I think it sucks that the fellow had to have his less-than-hardline tendancies spread out before the world. People are entitled to some “zone of privacy” is what Mrs. Clinton said, isn’t it? But then some people are raised to that zone, and some are not. Something tells me that if Al Franken were in the same awkward, uncomfortable position attention would not be paid, prosecutors would not be called, headlines would not blare. There would be no shouts, grunts or giggles. Franken would not find himself in a tight spot. It would remain a smallish matter.

All I can say is "Bravo", Anchoress!

$100 Oil Bet Update

Things aren't looking good for the Duck:

The Energy Department just announced that crude oil supplies rose 1.4 million barrels to 347.1 million for the week ended June 16. Analysts had been expecting a drawdown, so this news caught them by surprise. More, crude oil supplies in the U.S. are now at their highest levels since May 1998, when oil was trading around $15 a barrel. Add in the fact that Canadian oil inventories are fully stocked, and the more imminent reality is of a sizable oil-price decrease — not a huge increase.

Recently I interviewed four oil-tanker executives who control a combined 85 percent of the oil coming into the United States. They confirmed market rumors that the amount of oil being stored on large carriers on the high seas is abnormally high. One of the CEOs even predicted the possibility of $40 to $50 oil in the next 6 to 12 months. In another interview, Chevron CEO David O’Reilly suggested that gasoline and energy demands have flattened in the U.S., and may be showing signs of decline.

Prince Turki can threaten $200 oil all he wants, but we may instead be looking at a downward correction that will have oil prices dropping more than anyone imagines possible. Supplies are at their highest levels in eight years, while demand appears to be falling, or at least leveling off. Should a significant price correction be in the offing, stock markets and the economy will cheer.

The economic principles at work here are very simple: Markets work. Supply and demand works. Higher prices are gradually slowing consumption. At the same time, those high prices continue to stimulate outsized profits and investment returns. So capital is pouring into all the energy sectors, providing a strong foundation for new energy production. Chevron, for example, is reinvesting virtually all its profits in new oil-and-gas exploration and drilling. The drilling industry, meanwhile, has recovered from last year’s Hurricane Katrina shock and is once again producing near peak capacity.

We still have the worst of the hurricane season ahead of us, but Oroborous' chances for a new book for Christmas are looking better.

NYMEX light, sweet crude is at $72.18, up .38.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sunday Funnies

From Opinion Journal's "Best of the Web" Wednesday, June 21st, here is a written reply to ABC News' request for stories about how people have been affected by Global Warming:
And this is from reader Jeff Beliveau:

Tharg and me used to hunt mighty mammoth but he scared to cross ice bridge. It now too thin to take weight of even saber cat. Only mouse or rabbit can cross.

Many of my people have left the caves in search of food.

Sister's daughter's husband says it because of He-Who-Tamed-Fire. He say smoke from fire anger gods and they make it hot. Medicine Man say he full of mastodon droppings.

Medicine Man say Sun God told him Sun God get belly ache every 200 lifes of man. Belly ache make Sun God hotter, like when Og ate red berries birds don't touch.

Sun God say it good thing. He say now we can go south past ice to land he call "Iowa."

He mumble "junk science" and "media hype" and "poorly educated reporters." We no understand these powerful magic words. We afraid to say words now that Moon God warn us. She say magic words make research grants dry up. We no understand.

Must go, little Ky-Rock need help flaking obsidian.

Quantum Theology

As the 20th century opened, our understanding of the physical universe was poised on the edge of a divide, beyond which it would lose its certainty in a fog of strangeness and counter-intuitive paradox. I'm speaking about, of course, the Theries of Relativity, and Quantum theory. Experiments on matter at microscopic levels produced results not only in conflict with expectations, but in conflict with the very basic foundational truths of science as understood to that point. The "Schrodinger's Cat" paradox is probably the most famous example of these surprising findings, representing a thought experiment to explain how the existence of the results for certain experiments depends on someone actually observing the experiment. Another famous example of the counter-intuitive nature of discoveries in physics during the century was the response from Nobel Laurate phycisist II Rabi, when the discovery of a new subatomic particle in 1947, the muon, upset the previously built consensus on the structure of the atom. When Rabi heard of the discovery, he asked "Who ordered this?".

Over the past two weeks I have been, thanks to an invitation by Adrian Warnock to discuss my rejection of Atonement doctine, immersed in an investigation of the various strains of Christian doctrine. Though not a scholar of theology by any stretch of the imagination, I thought that I had a very good grasp on the general outline of the Christian theological taxonomy, at least at the level of the names of the different competing doctrines. But at one point of my investigation I had my own "who ordered this?" moment and immediately grasped the analogy of Christian theology to Quantum physics. The doctrine in question, the "muon" of my theological investigation, was Monergism.

Now Monergism is not a new doctrine. We can't say that it has been newly "discovered". It is just a discovery to me, prompted by my investigation of Christian theology. It upsets my notion of what constituted the boundaries of settled theory on the nature of the Christian God. It's a new "fundamental particle" of the God debate that I had'nt been aware of to that point. So of what use is this metaphor of theology as Quantum physics?

For one, it illustrates the inaccessibility of the subject matter, and it's inability to pe pinned down to precise, understandable and intuitive explanations. Like an octupus, it squirts out an inky black cloud of paradox and confusion as it makes its escape when we, like a shark, try to devour it. The closer to understanding we think we get, the more unintelligible the object of our quest becomes.

The history of the early Church demonstrated the inherent instability of Christian doctrine. Within the first 300 years after Jesus's death, no less than four major doctrines developed to explain the divine mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection. In addition to the Orthodox doctrine, as expressed by the Council of Nicaea, there were the Marcionite, Ebionite and Gnostic expressions of faith. Even before it could assert what was to become known as the Orthodox expression, the Council of Nicaea had to quash a variation on its own set of doctrines, the docrine of Arianism.

Through the power of the Roman Empire, where it still held sway, and thanks to the rise of Islam where it didn't, the unorthodox heresies were kept in check for another 1200 years. But even the threat of heresy trials could not keep this unstable particle of a doctrine together forever. The Protestant Reformation closed the book forever on a unified theory of the Christian God.

The curious thing about this propensity for doctrinal hair splitting is that it occurs in the face of what all beilevers acknowledge to be a mystery. Acknowledging that the actions of God are a mystery beyond human understanding hasn't stopped generations of scholars from declaring with certainty on the inner workings of the mystery in question. 'Workings' is the operative word here, for most of these doctrines appear to be an attempt to build an engineering blueprint or a process flow diagram of how the various sub-assemblies of the Godhead interact to produce the miraculous behaviors in question. And even more curiously, once such certainty on a given blueprint for the Godhead is decided upon, the profession of this sub-doctrine of the Christian faith is declared to be mandatory for anyone wishing to receive the key benefit of that faith, Salvation. It is as if in order to enjoy the benefits of driving a car a driver had to pass a rigorous engineering exam on every aspect of the workings of a car, from the principles of the internal combustion engine to the mechanics of the transmission and driveshaft and the coefficient of friction of the tires.

It is almost as if Jesus issued a challenge to Mankind as follows: "I have accomplished something with my death that has the power to save you. If you can figure out exactly how I accomplished this feat, then you will be saved.".

What this analogy to Quantum physics points out is that theology and science are both materialist endeavors. Both attempt to render an understanding of the universe according to the conventions of material interactions that we are familiar with. Both must, at some point, recognize that those conventions cannot always literally apply, but must be treated as metaphors. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics admits that the verbal descriptions of quantum phenomena cannot be regarded literally, but are merely ways of naming the phenomena that are under investigation. This relationship was described in the Complementary rule:

1. The interpretation of a physical theory has to rely on an experimental practice.
2. The experimental practice presupposes a certain pre-scientific practice of description, which establishes the norm for experimental measurement apparatus, and consequently what counts as scientific experience.
3. Our pre-scientific practice of understanding our environment is an adaptation to the sense experience of separation, orientation, identification and reidentification over time of physical objects.
4. This pre-scientific experience is grasped in terms of common categories like thing's position and change of position, duration and change of duration, and the relation of cause and effect, terms and principles that are now parts of our common language.
5. These common categories yield the preconditions for objective knowledge, and any description of nature has to use these concepts to be objective.
6. The concepts of classical physics are merely exact specifications of the above categories.
7. The classical concepts—and not classical physics itself—are therefore necessary in any description of physical experience in order to understand what we are doing and to be able to communicate our results to others, in particular in the description of quantum phenomena as they present themselves in experiments

Now compare this with a statement from "Together for the Gospel", a conference of evangelical Christian leaders :

Article III
We deny that truth is merely a product of social construction or that the truth of the Gospel can be expressed or grounded in anything less than total confidence in the veracity of the Bible, the historicity of biblical events, and the ability of language to convey understandable truth in sentence form. .

There's no concession to metaphor there. It is not hard to discern from where the inherent instability of Christian docrine originates. It comes from the attempts by many different people across time and cultures to reconcile every statement in the Bible and to place each into a consistent framework of literal, unmetaphorical truth. And to do so while pretending that cultural paradigms do not influence the interpretations of these statements. It can't be done. Where contradictions occur one must affirm one leg of the contradiction and deny the other. Certainty requires the selective use of blinders. One can't say, as the physicist says when stating that light is a wave when measuring one aspect of its effects and a particle when measuring another, that Biblical truths have contingent meanings depending on how they are applied. So you end up choosing one leg, the wave or the particle, and you deny the other.

So you can imagine how a book like the Bible, written by many authors over a span of roughly 1000 years, will offer countless contradictory statements from which forks of interpretation will be presented to the believer. When taking this into account, one is amazed that the multiplications of doctrine have not progressed many orders of magnitude beyond what they have.

One final example of how difficult it is to hold the genie of interpretation in the bottle of orthodoxy, even when allowing for metaphor, is this post from Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost:
When I heard that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had developed an “educational resource” that recommended referring to the Trinity as "Mother, Child, and Womb", I had a similiar reaction: I thought the idea was not only wrong, but utterly wrong. However, after reading the document, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” (PDF), I've changed my opinion. The concept is, as Pauli might say, “not even wrong.” But not necessarily for the reasons I first thought.

Based solely on media reports, it would appear that this document had been produced by church leaders who adhered more to the writings of Dan Brown than to Holy Scripture. But that impression is unfair. In many ways the document is not only orthodox but evangelical in reaffirming the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity. The members of the task force treat the doctrine with due reverence and seriousness: “The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ--it cannot be understood apart from the gospel, and the gospel cannot be fully understood apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.”

They lose their theological footing, however, when they attempt to “speak of God in historically faithful yet freshly imaginative ways.” True, almost all the analogies that they use come directly from scripture. But when linked in groups of three they form conceptual metaphors that can be misleading and muddle our understanding of an already mysterious doctrine.

The document presents eleven triads, eight of which use analogies taken directly from scripture. Some of them are better than others. For the sake of brevity, though, I’ll focus solely on the most controversial one: “…the triune God is Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-Giving Womb (Isa 49:15, Mt. 3:17; Isa 46:3).”

This triad is a conceptual metaphor which consists of a source domain and a target domain. For example, in the metaphor “Life is a highway” the target domain (the part we are trying to understand) is “life” while the source domain (the part which we draw upon from our own experience) is “highway.” Because we understand not only what a highway is (a manmade path) but also what occurs on it (travel, adventure, discovery, etc.) we are able to create a conceptual “map” of the source-target pairing in a way that increases our understanding of the target.

Taken by themselves, each of the source domains (mother, child, womb) increases our understanding of the target domain (God). The problem arises when we try to combine the three source domains into one metaphor. One of the guidelines the panel set was that “in each case the terms must have an inner relationship.” Severe difficulties arise when trying to resolve the incongruity between these “inner relationships” and the relationship of the Godhead.

In using these metaphors we not only create a map between the target and domain (God is like a mother) but we create a map between the target and target (the relationship of a mother to her womb). Because the triad form mimics the names of Father/Son/Holy Spirit, we create yet another conceptual map (God/Mother; Son/Child; Womb/Holy Spirit).

The “mother, child, womb” metaphor then becomes a jumble where we draw illegitimate concepts about the Trinity. For example, the metaphor causes us to draw the analogy “Jesus is to the Holy Spirit as a child is to a womb.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Bible already contains a more fitting relationship of mother/child/womb: the virgin Mary, who sheltered the Christ-child, in her womb (“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Luke 1:42 KJV).

We must also keep in mind that when we say “Jesus is the Son” it appears as if we are using a metaphor that helps us understand God by reference to a human relationship. While in some respects this is true, we must keep in mind that the human father-son pattern is merely a metaphor for the eternally existing father-son relationship in the Godhead.

When we try to find a triad that matches Father/Son/Holy Spirit we risk turning these terms into metaphors, rather than names for members of the Godhead. Although well-intentioned, attempting to develop “freshly imaginative ways” of speaking of the triune God is fraught with peril. Instead of creating clever ways in which we might speak of the Trinity we might consider spending our time reflecting on this magnificent doctrine in holy silence.

One must take pity on the orthodox believer of today. Without access to a legal mechanism for suppressing heresy, he is left only with the devices of his own rhetoric to try to scare the wayward away from paths that are "fraught with peril".

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Crime and Punishment

To futher the intramural discussion on attitudes towards crime, guns and punishment I kicked off with this post, I submit this article on the British penchant for rehabilitative justice and it's sorry consequences:
The minimum five-year sentence for convicted pedophile Craig Sweeney has deepened the public's crisis of confidence in the British criminal justice system -- and stirred the government into pledging a 'sentencing review'. But while the mother of Sweeney's three-year-old victim spoke of wanting to "throttle the judge" who sentenced Sweeney, it is actually the liberalized system itself which may need "throttling". That's the point soon to be made by an explosive new film currently in production entitled Outlaw.

Nick Love's film, starring Sean Bean and Bob Hoskins, is designed to show the devastating consequences of a British justice system soft on criminals. The film focuses on five vigilantes who, "betrayed by their government and let down by the police", take matters into their own hands, meting out summary justice with baseball bats, knives and fists. What Charles Bronson's Death Wish character brought to cheering audiences in the 1970s, Love's Outlaw appears destined to repeat for contemporary audiences.

Outlaw is more than just another film for Love, who is himself a reformed teenage criminal and heroin user who claims to have been saved by the "short sharp shock" Tory policy of the 1980s. "I'm the living proof, if you like, that taking a hardline approach to young criminals works," says Love.

Love began writing the screenplay two years ago. At the time he suspected the British public were already beginning to lose patience with the government's liberalizing of criminal policies. He could not have realized how soon that patience might run out.

Since he came into office in 2001, the UK's attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, has exercised his power to refer sentences that he regards as "unduly lenient" back to the Court of Appeal no less than 698 times. Of these, 414 offenders had their sentences increased. This figure alone suggests that there is an inherent unwillingness on the part of judges to punish offenders with appropriate custodial sentences at a time when Britain's crime rates are among the highest in the developed world.

But what has really deepened the concern of the British people with the British justice system is the growing awareness of just what "do-gooder" liberal polices mean in practice. They include:

* automatic one-third discount of sentence for pleading guilty.
* automatic eligibility for parole after half the sentence is served.
* an early release scheme to aid the issue of over-crowded prisons.
* the supplanting of a "punishment that fits the crime" ethos with an emphasis on rehabilitation (i.e. rehabilitating the offender becomes a higher priority than punishment for the crime).

In the case of Craig Sweeney the problem was not the judge's life sentence with an 18-year minimum tariff. It was the "legalese" that served automatically to cut the sentence by one-third when Sweeney pleaded guilty. Yet, having abducted the three-year old girl from her own house and being caught red-handed with her in his car you have to wonder why a guilty plea mattered.

Alan Webster filmed himself raping a 12-week-old baby, an act simply too appalling for most of us to even contemplate. Even though the video footage of the crime was available to the court Webster's guilty plea meant an automatic one-third sentence discount for him, too. What on earth is going on here? Rapist Anthony Rice was released on parole only to strangle Naomi Bryant nine months later. But just why should parole halfway through a sentence be an automatic right?

Last week Judge Michael Byrne sentenced another pedophile to three years' community service after he pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing indecent images. The judge's reasoning for not passing a 12-month prison sentence was bizarre. It was, he claimed, because the custodial period made the defendant "ineligible for any of the help mechanisms available in prison". Again, just why should offender "help" trump due punishment for the crime? Some, it seems, have entirely lost sight of what the criminal justice system is for.

But without doubt one of the key elements leading the government, judiciary and parole boards toward a culture of early release and avoidance of custodial sentences is the issue of prison over-crowding. To pursue the simple expedient of building more prisons, a policy lately urged by the conservatives, would, it seems, be tantamount to an admission of defeat for the government's entire "modernizing" crime strategy.

Nick Love's Outlaw is not, as some will undoubtedly claim, a prescription for vigilantism on the streets. Rather, it is a stark warning of the perhaps inevitable consequences when a state fails to perform its central function: the protection of society and its law-abiding citizenry.

As Love's movie lead puts it, "If you want to spend the rest of your life being raped and bullied...and letting the pedophiles wander the playgrounds while you smile mutely and pay your taxes, then walk out the door." I suspect there won't be too many "walking out" on Outlaw however, unless it is because of its explicit content.

Love's film is set to further highlight how a society soft on criminals suffers when it makes the basic mistake of deeming pragmatic liberalizing policies - revealing a greater concern for the offender than for the victim and for the individual than for the community - a higher priority than justice.

The author has done an admirable job of highlighting the obvious lessons to be learned by the misguided philosophy of stressing rehabilitation over justice, and I can't really add much to it. Except maybe to wonder how such philosophies ever gained currency to begin with. Certainly the development of such notions are an historical aberration. What society can we point to in the past that held such a similar disdain for the role of punishment in the meting out of justice by its government? The idea is so basic and commonsensical that you have to tread some really dicey theoretical ground to arrive at such a counter-intuitive notion. You would expect such notions from overly-intellectualized and socially isloated academics, but the true mystery is how such notions could find themselves transplanted to fertile soil in the minds of the populace as a whole, who generally have few illusions about the moral redemptibility of criminals.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Beware, the Discombobulation is at hand!

Faithful Duckians, I bear grave news of the encroaching Discombobulation, of which I foretold back in April. Hadn't I warned you to look for the signs? To expect dire portents of the natural order out of whack, the upending of reason and sanity, things unput upon other things?

Verily I have warned that the great unlaughable one continues to garner awards and kudos and movie deals; for that which was once funny is no more so, and that which is lame and gross is exalted.

Yet that is not the worst of it! Behold this, the most disturbing and horrifying sign to date. Lord Stanley's Cup has traveled below the Mason-Dixon line.

Let us pay our condolences to our Canadian friends. Peter, I will down a Molson in memory of your national pride. I just shudder to think how you will break this to your children.

To the barricades!!

Mary Catherine Ham quotes Wayne LaPierre saying those words that scare the living bejeebus out of every red-blooded American patriot: "We're From the U.N. and We Want Your Guns"
The U.N. will gather in New York City this July for the 2006 Small Arms Review Conference. Doesn’t the name alone make you nervous? The U.N. is “reviewing” guns. If you don’t own one, doesn’t it make you want to go out and buy one just so you can be ready for whatever Kofi’s got planned?

Wayne LaPierre is plenty nervous, which is why he’s written, “The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the U.N.’s Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights.” Sound alarmist?

His critics think so, claiming that the aim of the conference and its supporters is only to deal with the “illicit” sale of small arms, so it would have no effect on any legally traded arms. But check out the U.N.’s own explanation and see what you think (emphasis mine):

By unanimously adopting the UN Programme of Action to address the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (UNPoA), in 2001, the UN Member States committed to collecting and destroying illegal weapons, adopting and/or improving national legislations that would help criminalize the illicit trade in small arms, regulating the activities of brokers, setting strict import and export controls, taking action against violators of such laws, and better coordinating international efforts to that end.

Sounds like there’s some wiggle room in there to me. I got to talk to LaPierre, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, about his new book and the new fight facing gun owners.

LaPierre has been charting the U.N. gun-ban movement since the mid-1990s, when all of the nuclear freeze non-governmental organizations (NGOs) morphed into gun-ban groups and “hijacked the disarmament machinery of the United Nations,” he said.

The philosophy of these groups, LaPierre said, is that the right to own a gun should be solely the right of governments, and they despise the fact that the United States remains a country in which private citizens can keep a handgun at their bedsides.

In a recent debate LaPierre did with Rebecca Peters, who is heading up the NGOs’ gun-ban efforts, Peters told him that Americans need to give up on the notion of self-defense because it’s something that only happens in movies.

Longtime fans of the Daily Duck will remember my Christmas present to myself last year, a .357 Ruger revolver, that officially ushered me into the proud ranks of American gun ownership and standby militiaman for freedom. Now its personal. Time to start using language like "boy, those UN fascists really chap my hide!" This is the first time that my hide has been chapped, and I don't like it.

But seriously, who is this Rebecca Peters, and why does she want my gun?

Rebecca Peters: Nations disarm as laws tighten
After Port Arthur, Australia set off a universal gun-control revolution
April 28, 2006

TODAY we remember the Port Arthur murder victims in church services and vigils, prayers and concerts, books and documentaries. The cross listing their names overlooks the memorial garden, a quiet place for contemplation and tears in honour of those so brutally slain on April 28, 1996.

Another memorial to those killed and wounded on that awful day is less visible or tangible but powerful nonetheless: Australia's nationally uniform gun laws. Out of horror and insanity, something positive and rational was forged.

Ten years later it is hard to believe the indifference to public safety embodied in the old gun laws. In those days civilians could buy military weapons and there was no limit on the number of guns an individual could stockpile. NSW, Queensland and Tasmania had no registration for rifles and shotguns, so it was impossible for the police to know if someone had a gun (or 10).

A judge in a domestic violence case might order that firearms be seized, but in the absence of registration the perpetrator could claim not to have any guns and the matter would end there. In other states and territories the laws were stricter, but could be evaded simply by travelling to one of the three permissive states to shop for weapons.

Throwing out this rickety framework was a pioneering step for Australia alongside Canada, which was also overhauling its law in the wake of a massacre by an alienated and angry young man with easy access to military assault rifles. Both countries have experienced a drop in gun violence as a result.

In Australia and Canada, policy-makers involved in the reforms said they were reading "the mood of the nation". During the past decade this same mood has spread throughout the international community, with significant gun law reforms passed or proposed in dozens of parliaments.

Gun law reform now is similar to domestic violence reform in the 1980s, when country after country realised their policies were antiquated and indefensible. South Africa, Britain, Nicaragua, Montenegro, Germany, Cambodia, Mauritius and Brazil have recently toughened their gun laws. In Belgium, Paraguay, Liberia, Guatemala, Burundi, Portugal, Senegal, Macedonia and Argentina (among others) the reforms are under way.

Particularly striking is the case of Brazil, which has one of the highest rates of gun violence, with nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2003. That year the gun law was tightened, with spectacular results. Gun deaths dropped for the first time after 13 years of rising continuously; by the end of 2004 the rate had fallen by 8per cent, which translated into more than 3200 lives saved.

The gun control revolution has also reached the UN, where a process to reduce the proliferation and misuse of small arms kicked off in 2001. The UN process is developing global norms to regulate the world's estimated 650 million guns and has produced an international agreement on the marking and tracing of weapons. We expect further progress from the five-year review conference to be held this June in New York.

These UN conferences are attended by government officials, non-governmental organisations supporting tougher firearm regulation and the National Rifle Association of America.

One of the most powerful lobby groups on Capitol Hill in Washington, the NRA appears to be no less influential on the US delegation at the UN. Even very modest declarations on small arms are opposed by the US. For example, a resolution expressing concern about the effect of weapons proliferation on humanitarian activities and development was passed with 177 votes in favour and one (the US) against.

The NRA has characterised this small arms process as a mission "to confiscate civilian firearms worldwide and impose on Americans the lesser, inferior, global standard of freedom". The UN and my own organisation, the International Action Network on Small Arms, are known as "the enemies of freedom".

According to NRA board member (and former congressman) Bob Barr: "That's really their ultimate agenda: to bring the United States down from the pinnacle of freedom to simply being another one of these socialist states." This last is a reference to Britain, Australia and Canada, countries dubbed by the NRA as "formerly free nations".

Such ranting by American gun loons may seem to be a long way removed from Australia, unless you remember our own Gympie-based version screaming on television in May 1996: "The only currency that you can purchase freedom back with is blood!"

Then and now, whether in Queensland, Tasmania, Texas or elsewhere, we have paranoid, hate-filled people living in our societies. All the more reason to have strong controls on guns.

Rebecca Peters is the director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. She led Australia's National Coalition for Gun Control from 1992 to 1997.

No, the fact that we have paranoid, hate-filled people living in our societies is precisely why I want a gun. Where did she study logic?

They came for the guns, and I said nothing. Then they came for the cricket bats...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Thoughts on Adrian's Sermon

Adrian Warnock has invited me to listen to his sermon of last Sunday, "Free because of Jesus". The sermon is based on Romans, chapter 8:

8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [1] 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you [2] free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [3] he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Adrian placed repeated emphasis on the phrase "no condemnation". By accepting Jesus, Adrian declared, one becomes free of any condemnation due to sin. There is no judgment for one in Christ, no weighing of a life's works, good or bad. In Jesus, Adrian repeated, one is not under the Law. The Law makes us sin. In Jesus all laws are waived.

Adrian made other observations on the implications of Romans 8. The idea that we should be judged on our merits, on our life's record of good deeds weighed against our sins is totally discounted. If this were to be the case, noone would be saved, for noone is righteous to God. Adrian used the phrase "if you break one Commandment, you break them all". Apparently God has a zero tolerance policy where sin is concerned. One strike and you're out. It is the proverbial "no win" situation. Except, that is, if you accept Christ, then it becomes a no lose situation.

To me this sounds like the proverbial "gift horse", the one that you shouldn't look in the mouth. Yet I can't help but look it in the mouth, because of that other proverb about gifts: "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is". I would say that this guilt-free promise of salvation is the quintessential "too good to be true" idea. Yet who am I to pooh-pooh such an offer. This isn't a TV ad, it is supposedly coming from God himself. What do I have to lose, right?

I believe that there are good reasons for resisting this kind of spriritual "get out of judgment free" card. For one, it goes against our most basic instincts of morality, of right and wrong. This idea that to commit one sin is to commit all sins makes a mockery of the very notion of right and wrong. It destroys any sense of proportionality, of balance. When a white lie is condemned as heavily as rape and murder, then morality serves no useful purpose to society. I find it hard to see how a person can keep two opposing viewpoints of morality side by side in his mind, one that applies at the human level, and another at the cosmic level. What implications does that hold for how a person will view the mores of the society in which he lives? Doesn't it encourage him to look at himself as one who is above Earthly morality, like Nietzche's Superman? If not, why not?

At one point Adrian repeats the same question that I asked him about the substitutionary atonement in my post last week: "How does that make sense? It is the opposite of what makes sense.", and agrees that it does not make sense. But there it is written in Romans 8, and so we must believe. But I see a big problem in believing in a proposition that does not make sense to oneself. To explain, I'll use a metaphor to something I and many other people are familiar with. Buying stocks. I joined the stock buying craze along with millions of others during the height of the Internet bubble mania in 1999. I foolishly put money into tech stocks that I did not understand because it seemed like everything related to the internet would just continue to grow for years to come. The problem occured when the first major downturn in my stock came. Not knowing what the company represented by my stock was really worth, I had no basis on which to judge whether my stock was at risk to long term declines. I had no basis because I bought into something that I didn't understand.

Now wiser, if a little poorer, I buy stocks based on what I know about them. I understand what they are worth, and I will not be scared out of a position by the panicky selling of speculators. The same should be true when adopting a worldview, or philosophy about the world. Our worldviews are the framework within which we construct our ideas about what is meaningful in life. We are all tested in life, and our commitments to meaning are called into question by crises and setbacks. The worst thing that can befall you during a period of tribulation is to lose faith in your worldview. It would be like the bottom of a market falling out, as your landmarks of meaning are sold in the panic. If you understand what you believe, if it makes sense to you at a deep level, it is unlikely that you'll be shaken out of it when crisis hits.

Another problem that I have with this no guilt, no condemnation outlook on life is that it is unnatural. Feeling guilty is a natural part of living. It is a healthy part of living. It is a necessary part of living. Not unfocused, chronic, pathological guilt. But guilt from the realization that we aren't always as good as we should be. A philosophy that promises to wipe away guilt will only set expectations too high. In that regard it has much in common with the "self esteem" movement. It is very easy to get carried away with the good news of being pardoned for all your sins, past, present and future. It is very tempting. Especially when you are exhorted on by someone as passionate and charismatic as Adrian. Yet guilt will return, and when it does it will be double. Guilt for your imperfections, and guilt for feeling guilty in the face of God's pardon.

One of Woody Allen's lesser known movies was "Broadway Danny Rose", about a small-time New York comic turned small-time agent. He has a heart of gold, but one day he inadvertently causes one of his acquaintances to be mistaken for another man who is secretly seeing a mobster's girlfriend. The man is badly beaten and ends up in the hospital for a long time. Danny feels terrible guilt and remorse for what he has done, and does what he can for the poor man. He confesses his guilt to the mobster's girlfriend, played by Mia Farrow, who tells him to forget about it and not feel so guilty. Things happen. Danny refuses to take this advice. The least he can do for his friend is to feel the guilt for what he has done.

Adrian has also challenged me to comment on whether I think the Bible supports C J Mahaney's original quote. This is a difficult question, because I'd have to say "yes" and "no". The Bible says many, many things, and depending on how you mine it for quotes it can support contradictory positions on almost any theological question. Abraham Lincoln himself lamented this reality when he noted that both the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South claimed that God was on their side. But as Lincoln noted "God cannot be both for and against the same thing".

But there certainly is plenty of support for C J's position. There is also support for Peter Kirk's position. My position on the matter is not based on Biblical exegesis.

But if I were to argue against Adrian's position above, derived from Romans 8, that only a turn to Christ in the spirit will bring salvation, from a Biblical standpoint, I would invoke Matthew 31-46:
31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

If good works held no influence on salvation, then this passage makes no sense. Clearly Jesus is telling his followers here to look for him "in the flesh", not in the spirit. Those of his followers who looked to him but not to the opportunities to help their fellow man, even if it means taking their eyes off of him, will not be saved. Jesus is not making a distinction between the spirit and the flesh, but is saying that the two are one.

One other statement from Adrian's sermon that caught my attention was, to paraphrase, that "small errors in understanding the Gospel lead to big problems in your life". I'm not sure exactly how to interpret this, but this makes sense to me in reference to the incredible level to which I've seen evangelicals, among other Christians, look to exploit seemingly small details in interpretation of Scriptures into make or break theological doctrines. How else to explain the seemingly endless variety of theological doctrines and positions that I've noticed browsing the various religious blogs, with each proclaiming to represent the clear, unambiguous truth as laid out in the Gospel? Whatever it might be, it is certainly not clear. In my post that started this whole discussion with Adrian, I also pointed to a discussion thread on Joe Carter's Evangelical Outpost blog, where Joe and Tim Challies were dabating whether to even consider Andrew Sullivan a Christian. Challies responded to Joe Carter in the negative, and a detailed set of criteria which one should meet in order to be considered a Christian. Carter replied, surprisingly, that by Challies' criteria he himself could not call himself a Christian. For a missionary faith, Christianity can certainly seem a very exclusive community. How do you really know when you're 'in'? Even when you think you're in, you might not be. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the doctrine-lite Post-Denominational and Megachurch movement.

But to reiterate the most striking point to me, it has to be this notion that the Law no longer applies. This is an idea that I never encountered in all my days as a Catholic. Here in the US many conservative Christian groups are trying to place the Ten Commandments in public venues such as courtrooms and schools. It thoroughly confuses me to hear from other Christians that the Commandments are no longer in force, and that Christianity is truly about the realization that obeying the Commandments is a futile exercise. We talk about the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West, as a single heritage developed through time. Yet it seems by this definition that Christianity is not a further development of Judaism, but the total antithesis of Judaism. It is the anti-Judaism. I've never looked at Christianity in that way.

Sorry that I only found grounds for disagreement, Adrian. I hope this clarifies some of my own thinking.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Abortion and the fate of Liberal Democracy

Ramesh Ponnoru's new book "The Party of Death" continues to spark intense debate over the ways in which the Western liberal tradition and its Judeo-Christian heritage live uneasily with each other. We discussed one debate between Ponnoru and John Derbyshire here. At the American Scene, Ross Douthat has been carrying on a very insightful discussion on the same topic. See here, here, and here. His posts are long, and it is hard to choose excerpts that summarize the gist of the discussion. Read them in full, they are very good.

The most thought provoking part of the discussion surrounds the question of whether the liberal tradition's focus on rights, as opposed to duties or obligations, is sustainable. Here is some of the discussion:
If you're not sick of rights-and-fetuses argumentation yet, here are Daniel Larison's comments on the "right-to-life" approach to abortion:

Casting the entire argument in terms of competing rights, as "RTL" inevitably and really mistakenly does, has already let the horse of autonomy out of the barn, empowering the very logic of "choice" that brought us to our current predicament, and ultimately forces some external authority to adjudicate the competing claims of the rights of the different agents. RTL has mainly been aimed at trying to have the "rights" of the unborn child recognised and protected by law (and certainly I agree in the strongest terms with the practical goal of protecting the unborn from the ravages of abortion), but even once this is done the contest between the competing claimants will be profoundly uneven, as the unborn will always need advocates to affirm their "rights" against their immeasurably more powerful opponents. The recourse to rights language is a function of widespread aversion to thinking in terms of obligation--it would undoubtedly be less "effective" on the hustings to speak of the obligations women owe their children, for example, the obligations children owe their aged and infirm parents or the obligations men have before God, even if it would be more coherent as a moral argument--but the use of this language simply feeds the sense of autonomy and entitlement that talk of rights will produce.

And since it's "put up long quotes from Noah Millman" day around here (as every day should be), here are some related thoughts that he posted in the comments section:

. . there are perfectly good religious positions on abortion that are neither Christian nor rights-based. I don't recognize a concept of "rights" in Judaism. I don't think that's unrelated to the fact that Judaism approaches abortion very differently from Christianity. Judaism is not rights-based but wrongs-based. There is no zone of autonomy within which you have the right to do what you like, but rather every decision in life is rule-bound, and the rules ultimately revolve around avoiding doing wrong or causing wrong to be done through inaction.
Let me put it this way: you might convince me that abortion is always and everywhere wrong. You are not likely to convince me that a fertilized egg in a petri dish has a *right to life* in any meaningful sense. All that asserting that it does have such rights convinces me is that the very concept of rights *as such* has gotten out of hand, and that we need to be reminded, as Matthew Arnold reminded us, that there *are* no rights as such; what we think of as rights are only the reciprocals of duties. And the thing about duties is that they are *never* absolute, but always proportionate.

A wrongs-based, duties-based approach to abortion would not focus on debating whether an embryo is a rights-bearing entity, or at what miraculous point it becomes one, but would ask what our duties to that entity are. It seems obvious to me that *even if* we don't think an embryo is morally equivalent to a human child, that we have *profound* duties of care towards that entity, that it is not mere *property* to be disposed of as we will.
This is, I think, what is bothering people like Berkowitz about Ponnuru's argument. It's unfortunate that the way he's articulated this aversion is by recourse to "hidden law" or "moral instinct" because these things are historically contingent. The real objection is that the concept of rights is just as much a totem and a myth as anything else; you can certainly reason from the premise that we are bearers of absolute, inalienable rights to the pro-life position, but the premise itself is not reasoned in any meaningful sense.

I'm pretty ambivalent about the concept of rights myself, and I certainly didn't mean to suggest that because the concept derives, in some sense, from Christianity that Christianity itself requires such a concept. Rights are, as Noah says, "the reciprocal of duties," which is why it was a relatively easy leap for first Protestant and then later Catholic Christianity to accept the political move from "thou shalt not kill, because human beings are made in the image of God," to "human beings have a right not to be killed, because they are made in the image of God." But rights-talk ultimately opens up a whole language of choice and autonomy (in which God and Nature get thrown out, and people "claim" rights as a means to self-fulfillment) that is ultimately alien to monotheism, and that explains the widening fissure between liberalism and Christianity.

We're often told by conservative Christians like Orrin Judd that our American conception of inalienable rights is unthinkable without Christianity, and that a secularized culture could not long maintain its support for liberal democracy, but must inevitably devolve into statism. The comments of Ross Douthat, Noah Millman and Daniel Larison shows uneasy this marriage of covenience between monotheism and liberal democracy really is. I find it ominous to hear such grumbling on the part of conservatives over the basic foundational principles of our American way of life. Much has been written about the threats to liberal democracy from the Left, but up to this point any talk of a threat from the Right has been written off as secular fearmongering. The Christian Right has, for the last 30 years, pursued a Constitutional strategy to revive a socially conservative culture that is, in their eyes, the original conception of this nation's founders and the fullest expression of a classically liberal constitutional order. Ponnoru's critique of the Party of Death is in that tradition. Having not acheived their goal over that period, it appears there is a fundamental rethink occuring on the Right that may presage a radical change in direction away from liberalism. If this continues to develop, look for major inversion of the political scales, with the Right becoming the radical ideology and the Left regaining its position as the defender of mainstream American values.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Reflections on the God blog wars

The past week of back and forth debate between myself, Adrian Warnock, Peter Kirk, and assorted other newcomers and regulars to the Daily Duck has been lively, informative and revealing. Thank you to all who have participated, you are wekcome back whenever you want to pick my brain or any of the other resident unbelievrs and heretics. I've learned quite a few things which I'd like to share with my readers.

For one, you should never assume that your blog does not have much visibility. I've never considered the Daily Duck more than a minor amphibian in the blog ecosystem, yet that didn't stop Adrian Warnock, who is a major force in the God blog realm, from sighting me on his radar scope when I commented on a post of his. Note to self: read what you write before clicking "publish". Second note to self: add a page view counter to the blog. We might actually have enough traffic to sell ad space for poker lessons.

Secondly, I learned how contentious the subject of atonement doctrine is among Christians. Especially among the non Catholic variety, who don't have the luxury of relying on whatever the Pope says. Though my post was the instigating spark that set off Adrian's weeklong series of blog entries debating the question of whether God killed Jesus, once the debate got rolling it was purely an in-house debate. Peter Kirk valiantly tried to steer the discussion toward me on a few occasions, but the unbeliever in their midst was summarily ignored. I feel cheated! What's the use in lobbing rhetorical grenades if you can't draw even a little hostile fire? I'd have to give Adrian's blog a "D-" in salvation preparedness. There I was, in their midst for a whole week, and nobody tried to save me.

Growing up Catholic, I was really never presented with all the competing theories of atonement, nor even told that there were competing theories. It was interesting to learn, via Peter Kirk, that there are actually four. Now forgive me if I am impertinent, but any doctrine that spins up that many competing explanations has to have some serious flaws to begin with. It obviously is at odds with our basic human moral instincts, and the extent to which the debaters on Adrians's blog, those who take Adrian's side at least, are taking great pains to butress their position with both Biblical references and human reason seems to point out what a sore point within the evangelical community this question is.

I discovered another Christian blogger picking up on Adrian's post, one Mark Lauterbach:
Over at Adrian Warnick's BLOG there has been a fascinating discussion of the phrase, "The Father killed Jesus on the cross." You may find it interesting to look it over. There are three things apparent from the discussion:

1. There is a true skepticism re: the matter of sacrifice and atonement in our culture. The discussion began with a critique of the idea as preached by CJ Mahaney at New Attitude. That critique was offered by a skeptic. Tim Keller has noted that this is one of the most frequent objections he hears to the Christian doctrine of sacrifice -- "why doesn't God just forgive? It all seems so primitive." That is one side to the debate.

2. There is a growing questionning of the centrality of substitution as the key truth at the heart of all apostolic preaching -- that Jesus stood in my place, he bore the judgment due to me. That critique comes from "evangelicals."

3. There were a number of folks who struggled with how the sovereignty of God is worked out in the details of life.

What strikes me as I read the debate is how important it is to distinguish between the three. The first requires an apologetic for God's character and ways and a deconstruction of the morality of the person who thinks sacrifice and atonement is primitive. No one does that better than Keller. The second requires exegetical study and argument. I do not speak to unbelievers questions in the same way as to believers.

The first is not surprising and the ministry of explaining the reasons for why God does things is what Francis called "giving honest answers to honest questions"

The second is concerning. If "orthodoxy" now includes a minimizing of the substitutionary death of Christ, then where are the boundaries?

The third concern takes far more careful discussion and explanation than can be done in a comment section of a blog.

The entire debate revealed the weaknesses of the blogosphere as a forum for such communication . . . .

As I noted in my original post on the topic, the doctrine of the Atonement hearkens back to a set of moral norms of an archaic and barbaric age. The defensiveness displayed by Adrian and the other God bloggers just shows how out of sync this doctrine is with the moral climate of our age, both for believers and unbelievers.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The God Blogs strike back

In Trolling the God Blogs I linked to a post on Adrian Warnock's blog about the New Attitudes Conference and this quote from C. J. Mahaney:
Who killed Jesus?

The Father. The Father killed the Son. Feel God's love for you revealed in this verse. He crushed his son. For you. He crushed Him. He bruised him. He punished him. He disfigured him. He crushed him. With all of the righteous wrath that we deserved. That's what the Father did.

So great was his love for sinners like you and me.

Thanks to a heads-up from Peter Kirk on his Speaker of Truth blog, I discovered that Warnock has responded to my post:
"If any single quote could encapsulate why I am not a Christian, this one, by C. J. Mahaney, has to be it. The sheer, hideous inanity of a god that demands a blood sacrifice from an innocent in repayment for the sins of the guilty is beautifully captured here. It is a theology that captures the worst aspects of an archaic moral worldview, one that promulgates the barbaric idea of blood guilt and blood sacrifice."

The gospel is veiled to the perishing . . . .

Well, Adrian got one thing right. I am perishing, as are all mortals.

Name that Inanity

Andrew Sullivan has developed a full list of superlative awards, named after the person who best exemplifies the particular qualities that Sullivan finds loathsome, irritating or outrageous in a writer, pundit or political figure. After reviewing a particlarly inane series of posts at the Reactionary Radicals blog (hereafter referred to as the ReRad), I thought that it would be good fun to begin a similar list of superlatives for the Daily Duck, starting with an award that would capture the peculiar variety of inanity that the ReRad crowd represents. So I am declaring a contest to write the copy for the first of the Daily Duck awards, the ReRad award.

Reactionary Radicals is a very new blog, started apparently by a splinter group of writers formerly associated with that most insufferably irritating of new political identity groups of 2006, the Crunchy Conservatives. One of the ReRad founders, Caleb Stegall, was perhaps the smarmiest contributor to Rod Dreher's short run book-club discussion blog at National Review Online. I dissected Crunchy Conservatism, and Stegall, in my post on Dreher's book back in February. Apparently Dreher's brand of faux-authenticism, Luddism and all around dour crunchier-than-thou elitism made too many compromises with the post-feudal world, so the crunchiest of the crunchy removed themselves to a higher plane of purity and righteousness and founded the Reactionary Radical blog, replete with the obligatory book, "Look Homeward, America" by Bill Kauffman. Our first exhibit of inanity, upon which to define the essence of the ReRad award, is from the introduction to the book:
I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn. Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby.

“Reactionary radicals” are those Americans whose political radicalism (often inspired by the principles of 1776 and the culture of the early America) is combined with—in fact, flows from—a deep-set social “conservatism.” These are not radicals who wish to raze venerable institutions and make them anew: they are, in fact, at antipodes from the warhead-clutching egghead described by (the reactionary radical) Robert Lee Frost:

With him the love of country means
Blowing it all to smithereens
And having it all made over new
Look Homeward, America

These reactionary radicals—a capacious category in which I include Dorothy Day, Carolyn Chute, Grant Wood, Eugene McCarthy, Wendell Berry, and a host of other cultural and political figures—have sought to tear down what is artificial, factitious, imposed by remote and often coercive forces and instead cultivate what is local, organic, natural, and family-centered. In our almost useless political taxonomy, some are labeled “right wing” and others are tucked away on the left, but in fact they are kin: embodiments of an American cultural-political tendency that is wholesome, rooted, and based in love of family, community, local self-rule, and a respect for permanent truths. We find them not at the clichéd “bloody crossroads” but at thrillingly fruitful conjunctions: think Robert Nisbet by way of Christopher Lasch, or Russell Kirk by way of Paul Goodman. Think, always, of things tending homeward.

Not that I have never strayed from home. From Alaska to North Dakota, from visits with pacifist homesteaders to neo-Confederate painters, I have sought what is vital, alive, flavorful, and seditious in American political life. I started in the employ of Pat Moynihan, the most intellectually impressive liberal Democrat of postwar America, and have ended at a homespun anarchism deep-dyed in the native grain, as the sort of typewriter agrarian who, quite unsuspectingly, bakes zucchini bread with cucumbers, somewhat in the manner of blessed old Henry Thoreau taking his wash in from Walden Pond for mom to do on weekends.

My favorite America is the America of holy fools and backyard radicals, the America whose eccentric voice is seldom heard anymore in the land of Clear Channel, Disney, and Gannett. It is the America of third parties, of Greenbackers and Libertarians and village atheists and the “conservative Christian anarchist” party whose founder and only member was Henry Adams. It is the America that is always disappearing but whose rebirth is written in the face of every homeschooled girl, every poet of the wheat fields, every boy who chooses baseball over Microsoft, birdhouse building over the U.S. Army. It is the America of those who harbor the crazy belief that Middle American culture might add up to something more than the oeuvre of Dean Jones.

Yet while I like a tidy Manichean division as much as the next zealot, I readily if glumly concede that as Middle Americans the fault lies in ourselves, as I learned on a sojourn in Columbus, Mississippi, a few years back. We drove into this lovely town of antebellum mansions and magnoliafragrant avenues, stopping at a local eatery. I am a hopeful romantic and expected to find vatic old black men whittling on benches, laconic loafers drawling wittily on courthouse steps, and tomboyish Nelle Harper Lee hiding in the bushes, taking it all down. Eh, not quite, Bill. The first Columbian we encountered was a sullen youth from Teenage Central Casting, playing the usual corporate schlock on his boombox. We entered the diner and were seated behind four ladies with mellifluous Mississippi accents. They spent the next half-hour recounting the plot of the previous night’s episode of Friends, that vulgar and witless NBC sitcom by which archeologists will someday condemn our civilization. I wanted to confront them, plead with them: Look. Here you are, citizens of the economically poorest yet culturally richest state in the union, the state that gave us Eudora Welty, the Delta Blues, William Faulkner, Muddy Waters, Shelby Foote, and yet you not only consume but crave the packaged products of cocaine-addled East/West Coast greedheads who despise you as ignorant rednecks and stupid crackers. Get off your knees, Mississippi!

You get the message. What is needed is a pithy, concise and picturesque phrase that can encapsulate the particular blend of delusional, pompous and pretentious auto-hagiography on display here.

Our second exhibit is this cheerlessly arrogant snub of the everyday patriotism of the average American citizen, from Caleb Stegall:
Thinking about Memorial Day and reading Dan’s quote of Lukacs below reminds me of one of my favorite Lukacs passages, from End of the Modern Age:

[T]he main question of the twenty-first century, the main problem, perhaps especially for Americans: the necessity to rethink the entire meaning of “progress.” … Our “conservatives” care not for the conservation of the country, and of the American land. Yet: more than tax policy, more than education policy, more than national security policy, more even than the painful abortion issue, this is where the main division is beginning to occur. So it is in my township. It is the division between people who want to develop, to build up, to pour more concrete and cement on the land, and those who wish to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where they live. (Landscape, not wilderness. The propagation of wilderness, the exaltation of “nature” against all human presence, is the fatal shortcoming of many American environmentalists.) Beneath that division I sometimes detect the division between a true love of one’s country and the rhetorical love of symbols such as the flag, in the name of a mythical people; between the ideals of American domesticity and those of a near-nomadic life; between privacy and publicity; between the ideals of stability and those of endless “growth.”

That’s really the central question isn’t it? What do we love, the abstraction and rhetoric of the flag of progress and growth and empire or the real America that is all too often being destroyed in the name of that flag?

The contest will run until midnight on Friday, June 16th. I will be the judge, and to ensure objectivity I will not post my own entry. Enter as many candidates as you wish. Entries should be 20 words or less, and begin with "For ..", as in "For exceptional vapidity in the service of delusional nostalgia". The qualities I am looking for are cleverness, understated sarcasm, originality, creative use of vocabulary, and should capture the essence of the ReRad mentality in a way that is general enough to be applied to other unsuspecting denizens of the web-o-sphere who we may choose to bestow this award on, but not too general as to fit almost any brand of garden variety inanity. I call upon the creative denizens of the Duck-o-sphere to rise to this challenge. The contest is afoot!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Derbism, or, the Morality of the Gut

For those who don't frequent National Review Online, the name John Derbyshire may not ring a bell. Which is a shame, because Derb is one of the more original, provocative and interesting voices on the political right. Derbyshire is a British import, and brings with him that typically pugnatious style of debate that is more common to our brothers across the pond than you see among political commentators here in the US. In a scathing review of fellow NRO contibutor Ramesh Ponnoru's latest book "The Party of Death", Derb defended abortion and euthanasia as the morality of a feeling, commonsensical people against what he called a "frigid and pitiless dogma" constructed by intellectualized nannies and schoolmarms:

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing—the Führerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside—among whom, obviously, I count myself—it seems to some degree (depending on the observer’s temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty.
"Party of Death” makes pretty free use of slippery-slope arguments, to varying effect. Not every slope is slippery. Most of our social taboos are in fact surprisingly robust, even when perfectly arbitrary. Anglo-Saxon cultures are, I believe, in a minority in having a taboo against the eating of horseflesh; yet our regular consumption of pork, lamb, and beef does not seem to be pushing us down a slippery slope towards hippophagy, even though nobody much (except Bo Derek) would care if it did. Given the above-mentioned pressures on the medical profession, though, I think the euthanasia slope actually might be slippery, at least in potential. That is not in itself an argument against euthanasia, only an argument for great vigilance and care in that area. Ponnuru makes it an argument, of course, and I think it’s a pity, from the RTL point of view, he didn’t do more with this. He didn’t, because he has other arguments that he prefers, arguments from abstract principles, which he much prefers to the untidy, relativistic, and hypocritical realities of human social life. “[Terri] Schiavo’s death was surrounded by euphemisms,” Ponnuru complains. Good heavens!—people are using euphemisms when talking about death? Whatever next?—the euphemizing of sex?
The best thing in this third part of the book is Chapter 17, which deals with public opinion about abortion, and offers telling insights. This chapter also shows Ponnuru the intellectual at his best. His purpose is to make the case that support for abortion is trending downwards. The actual evidence he offers, however, paints an ambiguous picture—largely because of the admirable honesty with which he offers it. He takes his pluses where he can find them (“characters in prime-time television shows almost never have abortions”) while frankly admitting the minuses (“there isn’t a pro-life majority... exactly”).

What the poll numbers suggest to me is that the moral philosophy of the people of the United States is—as is, I would guess, that of people pretty much anywhere else—basically pagan, with a couple of thin coats of vague religiosity painted over it. We no longer smash sick people on the head with a rock, as I suppose our remote ancestors did, but invalids remain just as unpopular as they were back in the Paleolithic. Anyone who has endured a long confining illness knows this. Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:

Show me what angels feel.
Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

A corollary, though Ponnuru seems unaware of it, is that people who are obsessively interested in these topics seem, to the rest of us, a bit creepy. We may even find ourselves wondering which side, really, is the Party of Death. Ponnuru says that it is unjust to regard some instances of the human organism as less alive than others based on how we feel about them. (Another RTL-er once derided this approach to me, in conversation, as “Barry Manilow ethics”—the worth of another human life judged by our own feelings, wo wo wo feelings... I offer this designation for Ramesh Ponnuru’s future use, free of charge.) Unfortunately most of us do so judge; and feelings, wo wo wo feelings, are a much more common foundation for our social taboos than are Natural Law principles, or indeed any abstract principles at all. Why, if a woman’s husband dies, should she not use his corpse for garden mulch, or serve it up with mashed potatoes and collard greens for dinner? I cannot think of any reason well rooted in pure philosophy, though there might be a public health issue to be addressed. We do not do such things because of the disgust we feel—we feel—at the mistreatment of human corpses.

We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.
I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

I think at last it is largely a matter of temperament. Ponnuru has given his chapter on euthanasia the title “The Doctor Will Kill You Now.” I imagine the author meant this to have shock value. He plainly finds atrocious the notion of a doctor—a healer!—killing someone. I can’t say I agree. I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would respond to “The doctor will kill you now” with “Thank God!” either on my own behalf or a loved one’s. I suppose this, by Ponnuru’s standards and definitions, puts me in the Party of Death. It depends what you look for from life, and from the great cold cosmos—as I said, just a matter of temperament, really. Some of us are RTL absolutists: “You can’t do that to a living human being!” Some of us are personal autonomy absolutists: “Don’t tell me what to do with my own body!” Most of us are too unintellectual to be consistently absolutist about anything. We just favor one side or the other, more or less strongly. America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.

Ponnoru's rebuttal is here.

Now I can't say that I totally agree with Derbyshire's views, but he has plucked a chord that resonates with me, and it has to do with the Schiavo affair. At the risk of re-opening some wounds from last year's debates on the matter, I do think that the Schiavo affair was the moment when the Right to Life movement, or parts of it at least, introduced a level of rigidity and extremism into the debate that divided the RTL movement from many basically conservative people who supported or had sympathy with it. While I haven't read his book, I do recall reading Ponnoru's opinion pieces regarding Shiavo, and realized that even opposing abortion was not enough for RTL hardliners like Ponnoru. If you held the opinion that the Florida court's decision should be upheld, that Michael Schiavo was the best person to represent Terri Schiavo's wishes, and that a desire to have feeding tubes removed in a situation of irreversible brain loss as suffered by Terri was a reasonable desire to have, then you were now part of the Party of Death, with no moral distinction between yourself and Peter Singer.

Another interesting thing to take away from Derbyshire's piece is his unique take on moral reasoning, at least from the standpoint of self described conservative. It is a viewpoint that trusts common feelings over abstract philosophies. Russ Douthat does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Derbism:

The Derb: I believe that there are few men more consistent in their conservatism than John Derbyshire - and by conservatism I really mean way, way old-fashioned conservatism, the kind that held sway not only before liberalism, not only before Christianity, but before what C.S. Lewis called the development of the Tao, and what Karen Armstrong calls "the Great Transformation." Derb has no interest in universals of any kind: his ethics are situational, his loyalties are tribal, his morals are instinctual. He is fond of the forms of his ancestral religion (Anglicanism, that is) and appreciative of religion's role in securing social peace, but he is generally dismissive of any religious system's truth claims, as he is dismissive of any system at all - save for the systems of modern science, because they offer immediate and tangible benefits to his bodily existence. He is openly prejudiced: He likes white people better than most other people, Americans better than foreigners, straights better than gays, and he makes no attempt to justify these prejudices with any kind of abstract theory, preferring to speak the language of kinship and taboo. He presents himself as a voice of common sense, and he is, in the sense that he speaks for the universal instincts that lie beneath the veneer of Mosaic morality in every Western mind, the kill-or-be-killed voice that aims to keep us alive in a hostile and uncaring universe. Favor your family and friends; kill your enemies or avoid them; regard everyone else with a certain suspicion - these are the tenets of Derbism, and it should go without saying that they breed a certain callousness toward human life and dignity. He is for torture, up to a point at least; he is for aggressive military action without any just-war jaw-jaw thrown in; he is more understanding than most commentators toward the motivations of rapists. And - as should come as no surprise, for a man who said of Abu Ghraib, "kick one for me" - he has no particular difficulty with legalized abortion.

I can't say that I subscribe to undiluted Derbism. Abstract principles have a role to play in the development of moral traditions. Such traditions evolve through experience and the clarifying view that reason brings to the grimy details of life, as the view from a mountaintop can provide a more revealing understanding of reality than a sole reliance on the ground level details can manage. The American experiment in constitutional governance would be untinkable without the theoretical groundwork of the Classical and Enlightenment thinkers.

However, as I argued in my tirade against Platonism, abstractions and essences are not the things in themselves. They are fictional representations of the real and the actual. Reasoning from them often results in magnificent castles of wispy pneumato, wonderful to behold but bereft of any practical value in comprehending reality. A rigid, totally consistent application of the "right to life" doctrine cannot result in the most humane decision in every circumstance. A moral philosophy that is not leavened with a good dose of Derbism will not result in nourishing fare.