Thursday, April 28, 2011

Creation's Goodness

In having a couple discussions on Creation and Genesis recently, one with Ron Offringa and one with Mitchell Powell, I got to thinking more about Creation's goodness. In the post by Ron he points out that the central point of the Creation narrative in Genesis is to proclaim the goodness of God's creation. And I would certainly agree that that is one of the most important aspects of the narrative.

As a counter to a Gnostic strain of thought that persists today in much of American fundamentalism, many non-fundamentalist scholars and believers will emphasize the goodness of Creation as described in Genesis. It's a point that often gets lost, or at least deemphasized, by many evangelicals. Too many Christians falsely believe -- consciously or subconsciously -- that Creation itself is evil, and this is certainly a perception worth refuting.

Though it seems that you can go too far in the other direction also, as many of those who emphasize Creation's goodness sometimes do. It's not insignificant that God reflects on the goodness of creation before the fall of man. If he waited until after the fall to evaluate his work He still would affirm that it was good, certainly, though I think he might have qualified that claim. Perhaps something along the lines of "And God looked at what he had made and saw that it was good but also saw that man had screwed things up pretty badly and He knew that it is going to take a lot of work on His part to put things right."

The story doesn't end with the goodness of God's creation, it continues on to the subject of man's creation: sin. And so begins the story of what God is doing throughout history to reconcile humanity to him as a response to our sinfulness. If we omit this aspect of the story and focus solely on the goodness of Creation then we are missing just as much as those who focus on the fall and forget the goodness.

Creation is good and Creation groans.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Questions, Allegory, History and Genesis

I just read a provocative blog by Ron Offringa about the types of questions we should and shouldn't be asking. I think he makes a good point about secondary questions about the Biblical text displacing the more important, primary concerns. We certainly expend too much energy doing this when the most important things about the text are plain enough to all, and what we should generally be focused on as far as the text's significance and applicability to how we should live and what we should believe.

However, in his response to questions about Genesis he has done the very thing he is cautioning against when he asserts, fairly dogmatically, the way in which the Genesis accounts must be read, or at least can't be read. Yes, the Genesis creation account can be read as allegorical, or at least not as containing literal history or scientific truths, as many of the early church fathers read them. And certainly the authors of Genesis and other ancient Scriptures weren't consciously transmitting modern-scientific truths in their writings. But that doesn't mean the text could not contain truths that would only make sense in the light of modern science (unbeknownst to the author), though of course that still isn't the primary intention of the text. Which, as it happens, is what I hold to be the case. That is; that the events can be read as literal history, though not necessarily as literal 24-hour days.

The creation accounts, almost inexplicably, make near perfect sense in the light of modern science once certain things are accounted for (Hebrew 'day' can mean 'era'/'age', the perspective shift in Gen 1:2, etc.). This doesn't displace an allegorical reading as illegitimate, or alter the main point of the story at all, only reveals the perfection, infallibility and dynamism of God's word.

When the authors of biblical texts were writing, they didn't know how their writings would fit within the Biblical canon. And yet the texts take on greater, richer meanings within the canon, despite the fact that the authors had no clue this would happen and it was not part of their intention when writing. The texts enliven each other, give context to one another, and tell a fully formed narrative in a way that each author working separately, in his individual historical context, and solely in the light of their own conscious intentions never could accomplish. Only the Holy Spirit working through them, and within history, could accomplish this, which is why limiting the truths the Bible is allowed to reveal to those truths that reside in the conscious intentions of the authors working in their specific historical context is too restricting of a hermeneutic. Similarly the text can contain other types of truths -- such as scientific ones -- that have nothing to do with the author's conscious thoughts, historical context or intentions.

Modern science determined -- contrary to most educated belief throughout history -- that the universe has a definite beginning at a finite time in the past. The Bible is the only Holy book to make this very claim in multiple places, and big-bang cosmology has confirmed this is true. This is just one example, but they are numerous.

It is certainly very important to understand context and the author's intention and cultural differences when reading the texts. It's also important to realize that it is not only through the author's conscious thoughts that the Holy Spirit speaks through the text.

In any case, just because I hold this view I don't think that other views are completely untenable. For example, someone may hold that the Genesis text is meant to be taken allegorically and can not be reconciled as literal history in any sense. This, as Ron rightly pointed out, is a disagreement, but not one that should be elevated to a level of greater importance than those truths which are beyond dispute: God created the universe and saw that it was good, God created the universe for the main purpose of being the domain of man and giving him the gift of existence as an act of infinite grace, God made man in His likeness, man is now fallen and sinful which separates us from God etc.

While we should avoid unnecessarily rigid dogma on matters of relatively small importance, we also need to be wary of slipping into counter-dogmas of our own on those very same secondary matters.

On "Social Justice"

What is "social justice" and how does it differ from normal justice? Courts adjudicate matters between people living in a society under a particular social contract. Is this not "social" enough to be considered social justice? And if that is "social justice", then why even add the "social"? Why not simply talk about justice, since old fashioned formal justice is already inherently social? Why did someone feel the need to create this term?

Last year Ryan Messmore wrote an article on the origin of the term. The term and concept seems to have originated with the writings of Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio who was an Italian Jesuit scholar. What Taparelli meant by "social justice" was that governments should recognize and respect various spheres of social life --  families, churches, organizations -- without disrupting or usurping them. He held that these ground-level associations were of primary importance whereas formation of states and countries were of secondary importance, and  that the latter should be built upon the foundation of the more fundamental former. True justice only can come about when these social associations are preceding and feeding into the government. This conception of "social justice" I have no problem with, and it seems to me that he is completely right. I might quibble with his choice of words used to coin the phrase, but if this is what people meant when they said "social justice" -- which essentially entails government yielding much of its claimed territory to more intimate social entities -- then I would be entirely in favor of "social justice".

Though, the origin of the phrase doesn't interest me as much as its popular usage and what people mean when they use it today. All kinds of people use the phrase -- environmentalists, politicians, Christians -- and it means slightly different things depending on the context, but in almost all cases it doesn't mean what it originally meant nor does it seem to add anything to the cause that is being advocated, but rather is often just a rhetorical tool used to appropriate the moral or intellectual high ground by force.

For example, in American politics the term is used almost exclusively as a euphemism for wealth redistribution. This is by far the most prevalent use of the phrase today. When it's used in this way the term's literal meaning is inverted. It is not just for the government to use coercion and force upon one individual or group of individuals to benefit another group of individuals. This is unjust, and when it isn't the government that is doing it, we imprison individuals for it and call it theft and larceny.

Not only that, but this is in direct contrast to what Taparelli meant, as it steps upon all intermediate social spheres of life and appoints the government the final arbiter of "social justice". Friends, families, soup kitchens, churches, local health facilities, private charities etc. should be primarily responsible for administering "social justice" through their own free will as collections of individuals. It is lazy and an abdication of duty to prescribe this job to the government, and it empowers the government to use coercion and force on groups of individuals whom it should not be exercising force upon. This is literally the opposite of "social justice" in every conceivable sense.

Yet the left squawks about "social justice" 24-7 and the right -- who is actually in favor of formal justice (which is social), as well as the "social justice" that Taparelli advocated -- never uses the term. I see why they don't because it has been appropriated by the left to mean something alien, but we on the right would do well to at least make it quite clear, as often as we are able to, that there is no "social justice" in wealth redistribution or in the tyrannical usurpation of freedom. And if the left wants to advocate wealth redistribution, then make them do it using language that actually fits the deed. "Social justice" doesn't belong to the left. The left doesn't even know what it is.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Politics' Wrong Answer

Political questions are inevitably questions about our view of government; what it should and should not do, how it should operate, what size it should be, etc. Our answers to these questions will fall somewhere on the continuum between anarchy and absolute tyranny. While there are a small minority of humans who would actually advocate for anarchy or some form of totalitarianism, the vast majority of us would agree that the proper form of government would fall somewhere in between.

Anarchy, most of us would agree, is the state of having too little government; absolute tyranny is the state of having too much. I believe that it's instructive to construct our own political ideology in terms of which of these states we find ourselves too close to most often, and then prescribe that which moves us further from that extreme condition.

In a world where anarchy was the norm, where there were very few forms of government that existed and the ones that did exist were all extremely minimalist I would advocate strongly for a concerted effort towards building more and larger government. This seems the entirely obvious and appropriate response to the troubles of that particular world. The important question then becomes: Is that our world? It would seem not. Almost all inhabitable land on the planet is governed and very little of it is by very minimalist forms of government.

In a world where tyranny was the norm, or a much more frequent cause of discord than anarchy, I would advocate strongly in favor of reducing the size and power of all governments. Is this our world? It is. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus there are despots and tyrants that abound. There is the tyranny of communism and collectivism, where it still persists. Even the free, enlightened liberal democracies of the world, such as those of the United States and the most of the West, often teeter precariously between being an oppressive nanny state and a kind of soft tyranny. So even in the governments of the world that are closest to being ideal, tyranny is a much more real, tangible danger than anarchy.

Anarchy as a danger never even enters into our discussions because the reality is that any current position of power that is occupied, if ever evacuated, would quickly be usurped by someone, or some group, waiting in the wings, hungry for power. Once power and control advances its territory it's only with the greatest struggle that it can ever be pushed back. Thus, the only time anarchy arises in political discussions is in the wholly theoretical and abstract realm. Never as a danger that we need to be cautious about quietly slipping into. Tyranny, on the other hand, we quietly slip further into constantly.

In a world where we were constantly on the brink of slipping into anarchy--a world which we emphatically do not inhabit--where the monster of not-enough-government loomed perilously, the proper response would be liberalism. That is: more government. In a world where we are constantly in danger of sliding quietly into the grasp of tyranny, the proper response is conservatism. That is: less government.

Thus the baseline, default political position for any rational person inhabiting the world at this moment should be conservatism. Not only that, but it's a pretty solid and far-right conservatism, since we experience so much tyranny and almost a complete dearth of anarchy.

I imagine at this point in the argument many liberals would protest that the question of governance isn't necessarily about bigger or smaller, but about better and worse. This is folly. Only after we've determined the fundamental cause of our ills and come up with a general prescription can we delve into details and specifics. At which point we can then address the question of whether we should be far-right or far-far-right--that is the question of how to govern more efficiently or intelligently. Until then, however, when thinking in terms of the big-picture, the most fundamental question of direction is our primary concern. Not quality, not efficiency, not subtle degrees of this or that, but the absolute vector of our political movement.

Incidentally, I don't believe that the vector of conservatism is inherently superior to that of liberalism. In the theoretical world I described earlier, where anarchy reigned supreme, political liberalism would definitely be the preferred prescription. In this world though, the one we actually inhabit, where tyranny abounds, the question can not be between conservatism and liberalism but must be between conservatism and radical conservatism. All prescriptions for liberalism are ultimately prescriptions to send us further down a path of destruction that we already find ourselves much too far along.

The most basic political question has a wrong answer and it is liberalism.

Monday, April 18, 2011

David Bentley Hart Goes In on Ayn Rand

In the new issue of First Things, David Bentley Hart unleashes this excoriating piece on Ayn Rand and her followers, in light of the release of the Atlas Shrugged film. If you read my recent piece on Ayn Rand you won't find anything near as harsh, though Hart doesn't say anything that I disagree with. I would confirm her moral idiocy and that she was philosophically simplistic and naive, and would only apologize on her behalf when it comes to political and economic prescriptions, which Hart doesn't even touch on. And, to an extent, he doesn't need to because Rand held Objectivism to be a complete, closed, all-encompassing worldview that couldn't be partitioned. So if any aspect of it doesn't work, then the whole thing collapses, in a sense. And I would agree that as a systematic philosophy it does fail, I would only add that the political and economic aspects of it are salvageable. Though we could always get those by reading Burke, Hayek, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman etc. instead.

Perhaps just as interesting for me was that Hart included a paragraph of praise for Terrence Malick and the Tree of Life trailer--to contrast with the trailer he watched for Atlas Shrugged--which I share an obsessive love for (I've watched the trailer dozens of times).
Not long after seeing the trailer for Atlas Shrugged, I came across the trailer for quite a different kind of film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick is the world’s greatest living filmmaker, and this project has been with him for years. The two minutes or so of clips that have been released are far more beautiful, moving, and profound than anything associated with the name of Ayn Rand could ever be. “There are two ways through life,” a woman’s voice announces as the trailer opens: “the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one to follow.” That is arguably the great theme of all of Malick’s finest work; and I suspect that the deeper question the film poses is whether these two ways can become one. If what little I have heard about the film is right, moreover, the answer will have something to do with a love capable of embracing all things, and of both granting and receiving forgiveness. But we shall see.

Even though I don't quite loathe Atlas Shrugged as a novel, as a film it looks to be positively awful. So I would definitely reiterate the filmic prescription at the end of the piece: see Tree of Life and skip Atlas Shrugged.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The False Standard of Personhood

Watching my facebook feed today I saw this message appear from an anti-abortion fan page: "The abortion issue isn't about choice, but rather it's about this single question: Is an unborn baby a person?"

While I believe that an unborn baby probably is a person, I think that this actually weakens the position of the Pro-life argument rather than strengthens it. It plays into the hands of abortion advocates because it enters into ambiguous territory, where the waters are murky, when there is no need to do so.

The standard for what constitutes personhood is not a clear-cut issue and some conceptions of personhood wouldn't include a fertilized embryo. Because 'personhood' is a disputed concept which can be interpreted in a variety of ways--many of which include appealing to features that a 1 day old fetus doesn't posses, such as consciousness--submitting to 'personhood' as the proper standard for determining whether a being is worthy of legal protection against murder is an unnecessary concession on the part of the Anti-abortion position. It opens a door for the Pro-abortion position that should remain closed.

Alternatively, the standards for defining what constitutes a unique human life are unequivocal and a matter of scientific fact. If it is never acceptable to destroy an innocent, unique human life then abortion is murder. And a fertilized embryo, at the moment of conception, is all of those things factually: unique (it has its own DNA), innocent (clearly), human (product of the human reproductive process) and life (biologically). This standard affords the pro-abortion position no wiggle room as they literally, as a matter of fact, can't deny any of the descriptors that have been applied to the fetus. Therefore they are forced to concede that they think it is acceptable to forcibly destroy a unique, innocent human life--which any sane, moral person should loathe to admit.

Framing the debate in this way forces proponents of abortion to face just exactly what it is that they are advocating directly, without the vague, murky language of 'personhood' confusing the issue. If an honest person, when confronted with this argument, still wants to say "Yes, it's OK to destroy a unique, innocent human life as long as that life is very young" then I think we have come to a proper impasse. We can now, with a very clear conscience, write off this person's opinion as morally depraved.

This may sound a bit harsh, and I know that for some it is hard to accept that such a contentious issue could possibly be this straightforward with no real grey areas. But I've heard every argument in favor of abortion and none of them serve to refute the logic that I've just laid out.

As for the 'positive' arguments in favor of legal abortion, I can't find any that would be significant given the weight of the argument already laid out:

  • The 'right to privacy' cited in Roe is pure judicial invention and is rightly worthy of scorn.
  • Arguments that highlight the social benefits of abortion are moot because, even if the social benefits are great, that could also be true for infanticide, euthanasia and even genocide. In any of those cases we recognize that any social benefits derived from mass killings are irrelevant because the individual's right to live trumps all social considerations.
  • Focusing on the mother's rights gets you no where because--once we've established that the fetus is a unique, innocent human life--the right to life trumps the 'right to choose'.
  • Arguments relating to the mother's health, rape and incest are advanced on behalf of situational ethics and are not arguments in favor of keeping abortion illegal as such, but only arguments that these special considerations must be taken into account when they arise. Duly noted, but these can't be arguments in favor of legal abortion any more than the fact that sometimes killings happen in self-defense is an argument in favor of legal murder.

Slavery used to be a contentious issue in the U.S. Whether the Earth was flat or not used to be a contentious issue. Whether the Earth was the center of the universe used to be hotly contested. I truly believe, and believe that I can thoroughly demonstrate, that the issue of abortion is more qualitatively similar to these types of issues than truly ambiguous issues--such as what makes a 'person'.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Feds Shut Down Online Poker

The U.S. Department of Justice has brought indictments against all the major online poker site's owners and against 76 banks for processing payments to the sites. The charges are that they were acting in violation of the UIGEA of 2006. I thought that I wouldn't be able to cash out or deposit, but apparently I can't even play. Details are still emerging, but clearly this is not good. Even if this were not the complete end, this will crush the number of players who are willing to deposit and play and fuel the online economy. So even if the sites come back into operation the percentage of new players and fish will be a lot smaller than before, unless some drastic measures are pushed through Congress that will legitimize and legalize it.

Beyond the frustration as a poker player, this also adds to my disgust for the current size and content of our current government.

You can follow the latest discussions on this 2+2 thread .

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

David B. Hart on Barth and Being

I'm re-reading David B. Hart's Beauty of the Infinite, which I never quite made it through on my first go around. It contains a heavy dosage of philosophical and theological terminology and concepts, as well as obscure (to me) Greek, Latin, German and perhaps Russian terms which Hart doesn't bother translating for the lay person (though the usage often implies the meaning). All of which contributes to making it a difficult -- though often rich and rewarding -- read.

This book -- being Hart's proper, academic, theological magnum opus -- doesn't contain the typical tone of most of his more informal essays, which are usually satirical, acerbic, humorous and sometimes venomous. Occasionally, though, that more familiar Hart shines through.

In this excerpt he has just concluded an argument in defense of the analogia entis, or "analogy of being", as given meaning by Erich Przywara in the last century, which Barth in turn rejected and proclaimed that rejection essential to Protestantism.

Rejection of the analogy of being, properly understood, is a denial that creation is an act of grace that really expresses God's love, rather than a moment of alienation or dialectical negation; it is a rejection, that is, of Acts 17:28, and ultimately of Genesis 1:1 (and everything that follows from it). If rejection of the analogia entis were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant.
Now there's the Professor Hart I know and love!

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand Mania

With the release of the Atlas Shrugged film only a few days away it seems many, on both the right and left, have caught a mild case of Ayn Rand fever. Of course the left uniformly despises her, while the right generally likes her (some with qualifications, others with none), but both can't seem to stop talking about her.

One of the more interesting things I've read on her in the last couple days is this article, written by the daughter of an objectivist (Objectivism is the philosophy that Ayn Rand 'created'). Before I discuss the article (and before you read it) I'll give you a rough thumbnail sketch of the main features of Objectivism, if you're unfamiliar with it.

  • Epistemologically it affirms the primacy of reality as experienced. Facts are facts, things are what they are, reality is that which our senses apprehend. Facts and reason applied to them comprise what we know and how we know it.
  • The value and ultimacy of the individual. Rand believed that the individual was the ultimate end and should never be used as a means. She believed each individual is responsible for themselves alone and that, in a correctly ordered society free of restraints, the talented, able and willing would prosper while the weak would flounder.
  • Laissez-faire capitalism, or economic freedom free of coercion, is good and should be a society's sole guiding economic principle.
  • Political freedom is an essential good, denoting the lack of coercive, oppressive force upon the individual.
  • Rand rejected collectivism or even thinking in terms of collective, societal goals and ends. Society is (or should be) only a compilation of individuals seeking their own best self-interests.
  • Rational self-interest is the guiding moral principle. Individuals seeking their own happiness, without using others as means, will increase the overall happiness of humanity.
  • Rand believed that altruism--true altruism, the actual subordination of one's own well-being in the service of others--was evil. Though charity is not prohibited because giving charitably and loving others is often in your own best self-interest, especially if doing so gives you a feeling of joy.
As I said, this is a rough sketch taken straight from memory and probably neglects some features, but hopefully the broad strokes will suffice for my purposes.

As for the article that I linked to it's a very sad testimony to the potential pitfalls of the ideology, if followed to the letter. An objectivist might argue that the father in the article was not applying objectivist principles properly. For example, he could be confusing short-term self-interest for overall self-interest when he makes certain decisions. Or he might underestimate the personal consequences for himself of not having a healthy, loving relationship with his daughter. Or--or--the objectivist might claim that the father actually didn't do anything--or at least very much--wrong.

Being as generous as possible, then, objectivism at least can put one on a slippery slope to moral depravity, if not lead directly to it. This combined with Rand's naive epistemology is enough for me to reject objectivism as a systematic philosophy.

However, applied solely to the economic and political realms (and not the moral realm) her ideas make a lot of sense, though they aren't particularly original. Economic freedom is indeed good, coercion and force used by the government upon individuals is bad, individuals pursuing their own self-interests is the most productive engine for driving an economy and creating the best living conditions for the most people etc.

All that said I do like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as novels. The writing isn't that great, and the characters obviously often exist for the sole purpose of giving voice to her philosophy, but I enjoy novels that explore philosophical ideas. Despite the fact that her ideas aren't particularly original, the vision that she creates in her fiction is fairly original and intriguing and does give voice to important conservative ideals.

If you take anything from Ayn Rand's philosophy, do it piecemeal. The parts are much greater than the whole.

Monday, April 11, 2011

David B. Hart on Sport

In the last year David Bentley Hart wrote two articles on sport that I think should be treated as companion pieces. The first is his article on the essential goodness of baseball, in which Hart explains why baseball is the pinnacle of sport. The second is an article on the inherent evil of golf. Not to ruin the fun, but be careful not to read the pieces too seriously. Judging from the comments at First Things and elsewhere many took Hart's arguments to be made in complete earnest, when I think they clearly were intended to be taken lightly.

Certainly he does posses a genuine, deep, abiding love for the game of baseball, as well as a severe disdain for golf, but he is clearly being intentionally hyperbolic when utilizing his theological and philosophical skills to analyze their merits in moral terms, in order to lend weight to what are really not much more than his own personal preferences.

We Americans are very adept at recognizing sarcasm relative to other countries. We deal with it profusely. On the other hand satire and (as in this case) hyperbole often seem to elude many of us. Why this is the case, I'm not sure. In any case, these pieces are doubly interesting to me because, in addition to the genius of the actual pieces themselves, the responses to them illuminate something about us which is entirely unrelated to sport.

Sam Harris on Mutually Exclusive Religious Claims

In his recent debate with William Lane Craig Sam Harris trotted out one of my favorite arguments against religious belief. Harris pointed out that people of all religions claim to have certain similar types of experiences--moments where they feel they are in some way in the presence of God, moments of awe, moments of exhilaration at their apprehension of the divine. He then argued that since all religions report such experiences, since in some sense all these reports are qualitatively similar, and since all these religions have mutually exclusive truth claims then the claims of religion can not possibly be true.

Well, certainly these religions can't all simultaneously be true, but few believers claims that they are. The vast majority of believers hold that their religion is true and that others are false. Believers can account for other religious 'experiences' easily enough. Either the reports of those experiences are misconstrued by those who experience them as a divine encounter, but they are mistaken (just as Harris would contend), or the Christian, for example, might say that these experiences could indeed be legitimate encounters with God's divine presence in the natural world, though not necessarily an affirmation of the beliefs of the person who has the experience. In either case the existence of those experiences across religions is not difficult for a person of faith to account for.

The mutually exclusive truth claims of religion only precludes all religions from being true simultaneously, but they do nothing to preclude one of them from being true. Moreover, atheism--while not a religion per se--can be included in the fray. If atheism is true then no religion is true. If Christianity is true then no other religion or perspective on God (including atheism) is true. This observation, quite obviously, gets you absolutely no where. With only this information to go by, all we have established is that any religion (or atheism) could be true. Gosh, I think we all owe Sam Harris a debt of gratitude for clarifying that!

The frightening thing is that this vacuous observation of Harris' is probably interpreted by many to be a forceful objection against religious belief in general. And while I have no stock in religious belief in general, I do have stock in Christianity, and if someone writes off religious belief in general then it will be difficult for them to ever get to Christianity specifically. So while this is a silly objection it's still worth refuting.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Centrist Fundamentalism

N.T. Wright once wrote in an essay on the methodology of The Jesus Seminar that "hatred of orthodoxy is just as much an unhistorical starting point as love of it". Which I thought was an insightful comment. Wright's essay intended to show that anti-fundamentalism can become its own brand of fundamentalism. It's easy to see how that can happen. If you define yourself in opposition to some person, group or idea then you're really defining your own position via that entity, and we do see examples of this reactionary brand of fundamentalism in various spheres of life, not just in the historical investigation of Jesus. People defining their own political beliefs on the basis of opposing anything done or thought by some political party or figure, for example. Or Richard Dawkins, for another example (hopefully that doesn't need clarification).

There is at least one more brand of fundamentalism that is even more subtle than this 'reactionary fundamentalism'. This third brand of fundamentalism defines itself via the following central dogma: the precise center of any two extreme positions on any issue is the correct position. Something we might call 'Methodological Moderation'.

Of course no one knowingly or admittedly thinks like this, just like no one in the Jesus seminar proudly declares their fundamentalist anti-fundamentalism. Nevertheless this methodology for arriving at positions on issues is something that some people do, for whatever reason.

You see it in the political sphere with moderates who wear their "independent" party affiliation as a badge of honor and denounce any extremism from any corner on any issue whenever they get the chance. Always making sure to communicate their unwavering centrality, and the evil of extremes. And although this fundamentalism may often appear thoughtful, it's just as dogmatic and unthinking as someone who blindly toes a particular party line.

You see it in the personal realm with certain personality types. The types of people who refuse to take sides in an argument, or always try to see everything from 'both perspectives'--even in the cases where one perspective is clearly in the wrong and should be accorded no weight.

Returning to N.T. Wright, you also see it in the realm of theology. I don't think Wright is always guilty of it--he affirms certain extremes as he should--though I think he lapses into it at times. Anglicanism is famously defined as a middle-way between Catholic Orthodoxy and Protestantism, but Wright often seems to be obsessively looking for 'middle ways' on a wide array of issues as a matter of method; the historical Jesus, eschatalogical issues, the Old and New Perspective on Paul, etc. That doesn't mean he's always wrong to do so, but excessively searching for middles and compromises has associated dangers.

Of course sometimes looking for the 'middle way' can bear significant fruit, and sometimes the moderate middle really is the best place to be. But other times this method can replace a search for truth with a search for the middle. The problem with that is that truth often is found in extremes.

Many of us have used the aphorism "In all things moderation", and there is a certain kind of whimsical wisdom there. However, if we attempt to turn this aphorism into a methodology--as the dogmatic political or theological centrist does--we quickly see that the apparent wisdom of the phrase is lacking. In giving to the poor, moderation? In preaching the Gospel, moderation? In praising God, moderation? In fighting evil, moderation? In prayer, moderation? In opposing injustice, moderation? Some things should be done--or believed--to the utmost extreme. And some things should be opposed vigorously and ceaselessly.

Even when the truth itself isn't necessarily found at a particular extreme, exploring extremes can be more helpful at teasing out truth than trolling the middle. When you take certain beliefs or strains of thought to their reductio ad absurdum--their extreme logical conclusion--this will often tell you what you need to know about the beliefs themselves, even in their non-extreme form.

Extremism has its pitfalls but so does extreme anti-extremism.