Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Myth of Progress

Abraham Lincoln once said "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." Some academics seem convinced of the fact that much of the history of man has been the process of taming our worst social vices: violence, genocide, slavery, racism, oppression, despotism etc. Not that we're free from these ills today, but that as history progresses we seem to continuously push them further back. For example, Steven Pinker points out that it seems as if violence has been decreasing, in the amount that occurs per capita, over the centuries. Of course there are setbacks along the way -- the 20th century's record of violence and genocide comes to mind -- but if we view history as a whole, concentrating on the elimination or reduction of these ills, human progress seems like an undeniable reality.

But by what means are we reducing these evils? Are we replacing them with goods, or simply neutral spaces which are more free from violence and coercion? Are there not other evils that arise in their place which we simply don't recognize as easily? Is the process that tames vices simultaneously taming our social virtues?

By taking our 'do no harm' ethos so far as to make it an ultimate end, it turns out that we must also 'do no good', at least at the social/collective/governmental level. Why? Because another thing that history has taught us is that men, or collections of men, with good and pure intentions are often among the most potent sources of tyranny and wickedness. As C.S. Lewis said: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Power itself is a corrosive, corrupting thing and so we can't discriminate too finely between those looking to do ill and those aiming to do good; they both need to be restrained by the same systems. Gandalf possessing the One Ring is, at best, only slightly preferable to Sauron possessing it. With this being the case, certain social virtues can't be allowed to flourish because there is the substantial risk that they will devolve into tyranny and oppression.

So what is the result? We are indeed succeeding at taming the worst manifestations of our worst vices, but at the price of taming our virtues. As Nietzsche saw, and feared, this process results in the mediocritization of men. Everyone is protected; everything (besides trampling on others) is accepted; nothing is greatly praised or honored above the virtue of not-trampling-upon-others; and the result is a rather dreary and drab collection of social virtues: tolerance, equality before the law, freedom.

Not that there's anything wrong with these things per se, but there's not a whole lot praiseworthy in them, either, except that they all denote the absence of something bad (rather than the presence of a good). Freedom is the absence of illegitimate coercion, but freedom means the freedom to be a dullard, parasite, or a miser just as much as it means the freedom to be a great teacher, artist, or philanthropist. And if freedom is elevated as the ultimate virtue by  the West -- as it is -- then neither outcome can be prized too highly above the other. We just have to be happy that at least people are free, even if they don't use that freedom to do anything worthwhile. Tolerance as a virtue means intolerance of those who are intolerant, and thus is a bit self-defeating, and more importantly requires making few-to-no judgments about what is virtuous and true, just as much as it means refraining from denouncing anything as wrong or wicked or undesirable (except trampling on the rights of someone, of course). Equality before the law -- and therefore the subsidence of racism and sexism -- is a good thing, but even this has a dark side. Namely, the subtle alchemy which transforms equality before the law (derived from the equality we have in the eyes of God) into the idea that we also have a right to equal results, which in turn creates a monstrous tyranny aimed at attempting to 'remedy' a veritable sea of existing 'inequities'.

If it were possible to tame our egregious social vices while replacing the void left by them with the more robust virtues of courage, humility, charity, justice, kindness etc. then I suspect we would be much better off, and Progress would truly be a reality. But this is simply an unrealistic denial of human nature. Everything has a price, and subduing our worst vices has also subdued our virtues. Of course, there's nothing stopping individuals from being virtuous in their personal lives, but there's also nothing systematic that is greatly encouraging it. The main point is that the values society at large promotes are really what tend to shape our lives, attitudes, and decisions in subtle ways. Which is why I'm sure we all know tons of tolerant people who greatly cherish their personal freedom, and abhor the mistreatment of others, but who don't have a strong moral compass beyond that. Not because these values are universal to humanity throughout history, but because they are the values our society most highly prizes and most vigorously promotes.

So while it's possible to plot a fairly steady reduction of certain kinds of evil in the world throughout history, unless you can plot the state of our goodness alongside it -- to say nothing of newer, more subtle evils that we may not recognize or be able to chart -- you are left with an incomplete picture. The conceit of progress is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly history has arrived at the present, and since we are here occupying the present, and we like to fancy ourselves good, or intelligent, or enlightened, then history must have been building up to us. But this amounts to a tautology: we are here today and we value what we value. Of course if we had other values, say those of a 12th century European monk, then the 21st century America might appear quite horrific in many respects, with the 12th century appearing to be much better. This is not to deny the fruits of history, such as they are, only to say that progress is often an illusion born of confirmation bias.

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that I greatly desire history to have brought us to some other destination, or that I think the West should have substantially different values than it does have. The logic behind tolerance, freedom, and equality being our anchoring social mores is completely sound. I only mean to point out that the gains have associated costs, and that we shouldn't be so eager to buy wholeheartedly into the myth of progress.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lyrical Theology. Holy Hip-Hop. Reformed Rap.

If you know me or have read my blog, you know that theology and rap music are two interests of mine. They have almost always been distinct and separate interests, for me. While I had heard some good (and lots of mediocre and bad) Christian rap back in the 90s, and early aughts, none of it was extremely theological in character. And even the best Christian material I heard from those times wasn't among the best hip-hop music being made, in terms of the aesthetic and artistic quality. Around the mid aughts I stopped keeping up with newer rap music in general and didn't have any connections that would alert me of quality Christian rap that was being released, so the little amount of it that I had heard was all that I was aware of.

Last month Challies -- a reformed blogger-pastor -- posted something about Shai Linne's new album The Attributes of God, giving the album very high praise. As a hip-hop aficionado myself, I was highly skeptical as to the actual quality of the rapping and beats (I had never seen Challies post anything about hip-hop), even if the theological content was excellent, as Challies was claiming (I trusted him on that count). After giving the album a listen on Spotify, I was stunned. Not only was the rapping top notch quality, but the content was vibrant, coherent, intelligent, Christ-centered, and unrelenting. The first comparison that came to mind when listening to Shai Linne's album wasn't golden-era, mid-90s, boom-bap rap music (though stylistically, that is his heritage), but Reformed theologians! Not only was this Christian rap, but it was lyrical theology and it was brilliant.

As I had become largely calloused toward, and weary of, new rap music in general, this was a revelation on two levels: re-igniting my interest in new rap music, period, as well as acting as a portal into the Reformed Rap or Holy Hip-Hop world, which I didn't even know existed (outside of The Cross Movement). Two of my interests and passions were combined thereby creating a more intense love for both of them.

After listening to The Attributes of God -- which shares the title of, and is kind of patterned after, the book by A.W. Pink -- I went on to listen to a few more of Shai Linne's albums such as Storiez and The Atonement, which were excellent as well. After this, I listened to some material from a guy named Timothy Brindle, who was featured on a number of Shai Linne's songs and who seemed to be a phenomenal emcee. It turned out he had two albums to his name, The Great Awakening and Killing Sin, which were both excellent. Though it's a somewhat tired touchstone for comparison, Brindle is comparable to a Christian Eminem, in that they both made waves in the secular battle circuit, and stylistically they have similarities.

Another artist that had collaborated with Shai Linne was named Evangel, and since his couple of verses were incredible, I sought out some more music by him. There were no solo albums of his on Spotify, but he was a member of a group called Christcentric who had a newer album out called The Ephesians Project, which is a hip-hop-album exposition of the entire book of Ephesians. His songs and verses on there were great, as was his song Beautiful Church which was on the compilation The Church. Evangel is just a beast with a wicked flow (but not a wicked message, of course).

Discovering one new incredible hip-hop artist would have itself been a revelation. That happens very rarely, especially in the current climate of hip-hop, which is fairly dismal. Having been introduced to three incredible rappers, who all have a solid amount of material recorded and released already, was just that much more amazing. Essentially discovering a whole new genre, one that strongly appeals to my intellectual and spiritual interests, which can actually enhance my relationship with the living God, and a genre which all of these phenomenal, newly discovered artists are working within was just that much more incredible.

I know that sounds like a lot of breathless, overzealous, hyperbolic rhetoric for some rap music, but I should tell you that I'm a very cynical and critical hip-hop consumer. Even if these guys were praising God and glorifying Christ with sound theology, but they had weak beats and rhymes, it wouldn't do much for me. But the actual quality of the lyrics and the rapping catapulted all three of them into my upper echelon of living, working rappers.

Since this discovery, I haven't listened to much of anything else on Spotify except my Lyrical Theology playlist, which is quite extensive. Lampmode records, which boasts both Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle on its roster, has other artists who I haven't even yet given a proper listen, who may also be great. Stephen the Levite, for instance, had two great tracks on The Church compilation, and I haven't yet listened to his solo album in its entirety. So, even with the new universe of Holy Hip-Hop opened to me, and having already explored it heavily, there's still more to discover, not to mention whatever else God has in store in the future, working through these artists and new ones. Hip-hop is back on my radar and it's being used to glorify the ruler of heaven and Earth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Challenge to Egalitarianism

While I don't hold a strong opinion one way or another on the Biblical question of the proper role of women within the church and the home -- complementarianism versus egalitarianism -- I've read some arguments in favor of both, and tend to lean toward the former, but one simple challenge to egalitarianism has recently struck me, and I haven't heard anyone else raise it. Most of the debate on this question seems to center on scripture and what hermeneutical lens you use to view it, and while my challenge also comes from scripture, it comes from a different angle.

For the uninitiated I'll give a very brief overview of what this issue is all about. Egalitarianism holds that there should be no inherent hierarchy within the body of Christ, or within the Christian home, based on gender. That men and women are equal in every way, including what positions and roles they can fulfill. While complementarianism holds that, while men and women are spiritual equals in the eyes of God, there are gender roles within the Church and within the home that are appropriate for men and women. The biggest issues seem to be whether women should be allowed to hold teaching or leadership positions in the Church, and whether they should 'submit' to their husbands in the home -- at least on issues where they can't come to mutual agreement.

Both sides make reasonable Biblical cases and I haven't investigated the issue enough to come down firmly on either side. However, I do have one challenge to the egalitarian view that I would like to raise.

There are many places in scripture where the metaphor of Christ as groom or husband and the Church as bride appears. This is a beautiful depiction that works dialectically to help Christians better understand both the institution of marriage and Christ's relationship to his Church. Christ as the head, bestowing his gifts of love and grace, the Church in submission to him, receiving those gifts and returning them to him by how they show them to each other and the world. Some metaphors, as a tool of illustration, only work one direction. There is one thing that is well-understood, and you use it to illustrate something about another thing that is less well understood. In the case of this metaphor though, it works both directions -- which is what I meant by 'dialectically'. It simultaneously teaches Christians about how marriages are supposed to work, and what Christ's relationship is to the Church. And it doesn't merely teach us that Christ is the 'head' of the Church, but the metaphor also teaches about God's nature, and how he feels towards his 'bride'. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 it describes Christ as a jealous groom. Ephesians 5:25-32 teaches how husbands ought to love their wives, and it is in the same manner that Christ loves the Church.

So my challenge to the egalitarian view is this: doesn't an egalitarian understanding of marriage turn this metaphor into nonsense? If men and women, or more specifically husband and wife, are equal in every way including their roles in the home, then wouldn't an egalitarian read this metaphor to mean that the Church and Christ are exactly identical? Does it matter that Christ is the groom rather than the bride? Shouldn't the roles be interchangeable if egalitarianism is true? And if that's the case, shouldn't the Church be considered the Fourth Person of the Trinity, coequal with the Son?

True, it is also said that the Church is the body of Christ, but Christians generally take that to mean that we are Christ's extension, his representative within the world, the means by which he continues to act in the world. It is further said that through Christ's redemptive work on the Cross the Father sees us, with Christ's righteousness imputed to us. So Christ's Church does have a very close relationship to Himself. Still, even with this in mind, Christ takes precedence in the relationship as the head, and the Church follows and receives his gifts. There is a hierarchy involved here which is inescapable. And if there's hierarchy here, then the groom-bride metaphor implies a level of hierarchy within marriage.

You might say "well, it's just a metaphor." Yes, but it's A) a very important metaphor and B) occurs multiple places in Scripture (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-9, etc.), which is God's word. So if God didn't want to mislead us about marriage -- which it seems he would be doing if egalitarianism was true -- then he shouldn't use this metaphor to describe Christ's relationship to the Church.

It seems that the question of a Christian woman's "proper" role  usually centers on the question of whether they should hold leadership or teaching positions in Church. After all, whether you're an egalitarian or complementarian in your own home is between you, your wife, and God, and mostly doesn't concern anyone else. But the question of leadership in the Church is a question that is made in larger Christian community and whatever your Church decides can affect other people, one way or another, for good or for ill. Again, I have no strong conviction on this matter, but I do feel that this challenge to egalitarianism as a whole may have consequences that extend beyond marriage. 

The Tragic-Utopian Spectrum and Authority

Theology and Politics are distinct spheres of reality which, ipso facto, shouldn't necessarily have many common points of intersection. In the Christian tradition, governments and politics are a source of idolatry. They are a pale, worldly substitute for God's authority and rule. Still, they have to be understood and responded to in appropriate ways, and they themselves must act within certain parameters to be considered legitimate and enjoy being God's ordained, temporary administers of justice and order in the social realm. With this in mind, is there any reason we should suspect that the left-right divide in politics should share any commonality with the left-right divide in theology? On the surface, there doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect this, but let's pursue the question further.

While many people feel that the traditional left-right political spectrum is an insufficient, oversimplified means of representing reality, I think there's more to it than that. Many claim that there is no reason why someone who feels one way about the death penalty should also think something specific about taxation, and these people therefore feel that the political spectrum amounts to an arbitrary clumping together of views that are a product of a trenchant two-party system.

Thomas Sowell has done an excellent job of illustrating what it is that truly informs the left-right divide, and that it isn't actually arbitrary at all. It is the product two fundamentally distinct views of humanity, which he most fully outlines in his book A Conflict of Visions. The Tragic Vision of humanity sees men as fundamentally weak, as sinful, as incapable of conquering their own nature, and therefore believes that government's primary job should be applying restraints to the governing authorities and systems that arise among men (as well as accepting certain desirable trade-offs). The Tragic Vision sees men as easily corruptible, and power as a corrupting process, and so supports a system which fundamentally restrains and divides power. While the Utopian Vision of mankind sees man as fundamentally good, and capable of overcoming all (or most) of the things that hold him back through education, striving, and cooperation, which will lead to progress. Progress in turn leads to greater progress, as mankind learns from the mistakes of the past, and builds on the knowledge of the present, ultimately resulting in greater mastery over our condition.

Clearly the Tragic Vision is the vision of the right and conservatism, while the Utopian vision is the vision of the left and (modern) liberalism, generally speaking. With these visions outlined, you can see how these contrasting views of Man inform just about every position that we would traditionally call conservative or liberal, with some exceptions. These distinctions aren't really arbitrary, and the positions associated with the sides of the spectrum don't just 'happen' to clump together, but the differences are born out of legitimately divergent views of human nature.

It's fairly easy to see how this understanding of human nature also affects -- or is born out of -- Christian's theological views. Those with the Tragic vision will to tend to be more conservative theologically, and those with the Utopian vision will also tend to be more liberal theologically, in obvious ways. Conservatives will focus more on sin and God's judgment; liberals will focus more on his love and mercy. Conservatives will more quickly emphasize the inability of works to save; liberals will more readily emphasize the fact that works are fruits of the spirit. The implications are endless, and while they don't necessarily result in hard divisions (in the previous sentence, for example, both views are completely compatible with each other), but are rather a matter of focus and emphasis which can determine the character of our theological beliefs and practices.

My purpose for this post isn't to explore this issue fully and completely, but only to apply this understanding to one issue and it's the issue of authority and scripture (for the political sphere of the U.S., I hold that The Constitution is analogous to our secular scripture).

The observation I'd like to make is just how similar a manner liberals treat authority and foundational documents in both realms. In the U.S., political liberals are more apt to treat The Constitution as a 'living document', the meaning of which changes with time as humanity and society progresses in wisdom. As humanity advances, we can view The Constitution from the standpoint of the future, as more enlightened beings, and try to understand the Constitution, not merely by its words and what the words meant to those who wrote them, but as a document whose meaning depends on when and how it is being read. Of course, The Constitution has a built-in means of updating and altering itself: the amendment process. But liberals think that the meaning of much of what is there can change without needing to amend it, simply by reading it from a new, "enlightened" vantage.

While conservatives, being very wary of the impulses of the moment and how prone to error humans are, are much more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to time-tested wisdom and the principles of governmental restraint pronounced in the Constitution. Conservatives would also be less likely to amend the Constitution, or to interpret in any way other than what the founders intended. Which is not to say that conservatives are oblivious to the reality of legitimate progress and change in society, but that they believe when such change occurs it is either irrelevant to how the Constitution is read, or if the change cuts to some Constitutional principle that changing the meaning of the Constitution requires actually amending it, rather than simply 'understanding it anew'.

The founders envisioned a government of "laws and not men", which is why they constructed a system of checks and balances and divisions of power. Conservatives are much more likely to affirm this vision completely, while liberals would be more prone to want to override certain systematic constraints, allowing the understanding of the moment to rule over the wisdom of the past, including over certain restraints of the Constitution.

Thus instead of seeing the Establishment clause of the First Amendment as a restraint on the government from establishing a state religion, liberals re-interpret the amendment to mean that the government has absolute duty and license to also restrict religious free speech, in certain public spaces. Thus instead of seeing the Commerce Clause as limiting the federal government's role in commerce to one specific exception of interstate commerce, liberals creatively 're-think' what the Commerce Clause means and use it for the exact opposite purpose: to extend the control and jurisdiction of the federal government into all commerce. Meanwhile, conservatives read the Constitution as it was meant to be read, are very wary about changing it, and believe that if a change is needed it should go through the intentionally difficult and rigorous amendment process.

The analogy to Christianity should be clear. Theological liberals are more apt to view the Bible in the exact same way that political liberals view the Constitution, while theological conservatives are more likely to be more "originalist" in their interpretation. Theological liberals view the Bible more as a "living document", while conservatives tend to view it more as unchanging and settled. It's a slightly different situation because both liberals and conservative Christians tend to have a higher, more reverenced view of both authority and tradition than secular liberals do. Thus the divide isn't as large as it is in the political realm, as both sides of the spectrum agree about a larger array of issues, but the analogy is still illustrative of the fundamental underpinnings of ideology that color both spheres of life.

Because man is weak, broken, and prone to error and misdeeds, his power over others must be limited and restrained as much as possible, and because of this there should be a great reverence for the principles which do the restraining and transcend any living man, woman, or even majority of people in a democracy. Therefore the Constitution should be held in high esteem and we should alter it only in the most unusual circumstances. Therefore the Bible should be held in high esteem and we should alter our understanding of its plain, established meaning only in the most unusual circumstances, with proper reflection, prayer and consideration.


Because man is evolving, learning, and progressing throughout history, our understanding of the Constitution and what it means should also be evolving and progressing. Therefore the Constitution should act as a vague, general signpost, but if our advancement as a society or species seems to be hindered at all by it, we must find ways to reduce its impact or otherwise circumvent it. Therefore, while the Bible should be esteemed, we must not limit ourselves to traditional understandings, but allow ourselves to buttress our understandings of the Bible with the gains of wisdom and knowledge of the world, and always re-think the Bible in the light of the moment, which is the peak of our understanding.

Some of those on the left might complain about the language I've used to frame the discussion, but I can only say it's my honest conclusion. Also, just because this is what I think that conservative and liberal principles dictate doesn't necessarily mean that it applies to how conservative and liberal people actually behave, respectively. So if you can think of a plethora of examples in which certain conservatives or liberals do the opposite of these dictates, I would probably respond by simply noting that those are instances of conservatives doing something liberal and vice versa.

 In addition to my language betraying my conviction in favor of the validity of The Tragic Vision, I must also call attention to the fact that Steven Pinker -- a cognitive scientist, linguist, and liberal -- points out in his book on human nature The Blank Slate, the most recent findings of the sciences of human nature -- genetics, neuroscience and such -- are largely vindicating The Tragic Vision of human nature, over and against The Utopian Vision. He accepts Sowell's formulation of the divide, and addresses the issue of political beliefs in the light of these new findings. Pinker isn't willing to concede that this is a complete triumph for the right, but he thinks that the discussion has to advance and evolve with new ideas and terms framing the left-right divide, and that the left will mostly have to abandon The Utopian Vision. But it's clear that, at this point in time, they haven't yet done so.

As I've written elsewhere, the modern, secular world seems to have a problem with authority in general which results in the political spectrum being much broader than the theological spectrum. When man is his own ruler and own end, this will result in a greater diversity of views and much greater folly. When man submits himself to an authority greater than himself, diversity is permitted but limited by the constraints of authority, tradition, and scripture. American politics should take notes from theology and narrow its own diversity by willfully submitting to our secular authority, The Constitution. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Church Unity Revisited

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.

John 17:20-23

As I have written in a previous post on this subject, a striking feature of this prayer is the extremely strong expression of the Trinity that's present in it. While the Holy Spirit isn't mentioned by name, it is through the work of the Spirit that The Church will continue to be nurtured and empowered following the ascension of Christ, so His role can strongly be inferred in the Son praying to the Father for The Church. 

A very key word in this passage to me is the word "as". "May they be one as you are in me and I am in you", and "that they may be one as we are one." As Jesus conveys these sentiments he twice prays for the unity of the Church, and both times he uses "as" to signify that there is a certain way or manner that He desires for the Church to be one; namely in the same way that the Father and Son are unified and one. And how are the Father, Son, and Spirit one? 

I have always found this illustration to be a helpful expression of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the historical Christian creeds and confessions. It doesn't say all there is to say on the Trinity by a long shot, but it does seem to be a true representation of the manner in which the Trinity is one. And if this is how the Trinitarian God is unified and one, then shouldn't his Church be one in the same manner? And isn't the manner of unity important, since Jesus explicitly mentions the manner in which the Church ought to be unified? And doesn't "being one as God is one" mean something different for those who believe in a Trinitarian God than for someone who believes in God as wholly singular in the strictest sense, such as the god of deism or Islam?

From the helpful illustration above I have derived the following illustration of what may be something like Christ's vision for the unity of His Church. 

In addition to Christ's prayer for Unity seeming to call for a Trinitarian form of unity, other passages in the New Testament seem to call for unity in 'mind and thought' or 'love' or 'faith' (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:7-16), rather than unity under a single 'roof' as it were, or uniformity in every way imaginable, even on non-essential matters. Which leads me to believe it's possible that some visions of unity are misguided. 

Many ecumenical efforts seem to have the long-term goal of collapsing all differentiation and diversity within the Church into univocity. And yet there is an internal dynamism, dialogue, and life within the Godhead, which is the model of unity Christ has in mind for The Church. If we don't feel the need to 'resolve' these tensions within the Godhead -- as we shouldn't -- then we shouldn't feel the need to resolve them within the Church. If our vision for church unity is utter univocity on all things, then why did Christ bother with the words that follow "as"? Shouldn't the vision of unity for a Trinitarian church differ from that of the vision were God's nature not Trinitarian? If a Muslim or a Jew had a vision for church unity which reflected the Oneness of God, it would make sense that there should be no differentiation within that church at all, but doesn't the Christian, Trinitarian God differ on this count?

Though these are the three largest branches of historic Christianity, I'm not claiming that the Church must be triune with these three specific distinct branches, or even that there couldn't be a larger number of branches. And of course under each umbrella, especially that of Protestantism, there is further differentiation still which isn't shown. The point is only to raise the question of whether 'One Unified Church in Christ' ultimately requires collapsing all of these distinctions.

Of course, this leaves open the question of which so-called divisions are not actually meaningful, sinful divisions, but are actually just an expression of the glorious life of the Trinitarian Church, and which divisions are products of sinful pride which are in need of healing. And I'm not claiming to address the question of which is which here.

The pictorial depiction of Church unity that I've given is what I imagine might be a rough approximation of how the Church can be unified, and yet still contain a manner of diversity on non-essential matters within that greater unity. In other words, that depiction doesn't show the existing divisions that are products of sin and which are legitimate barriers to Church unity. A visual depiction of those types of divisions might be a lightning bolt emanating from the space between two of the branches of Christianity, which results in "The Church" at center having a fracture in it. This type of division, of course, we can not abide and must seek to heal and overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit. My point is only that we should be mindful of the fact that our unity is to be modeled after the Trinity, and if that is the case we should attempt to make a distinction between unhealthy, sinful divisions that injure Church unity, and differentiation within the Church which reflects the life of the Trinity. Otherwise we risk wasting energy attempting to resolve some of the healthy, dynamic, lively expressions of the Trinitarian Church. 

While it's noble to seek reconciliation and healing of divisions within the church in many cases, in other cases it can be problematic to imagine yourself as being 'separated' or 'divided' from brothers in Christ in the first place, when you actually aren't. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tree of Life and Eschatology

Brother... Mother. It was they who brought me to your door.

On first viewing these opening words to The Tree of Life seem enigmatic, but on a second viewing they take on a more literal meaning.

After having seen the film, we know that Jack has an intense love for both his brother and mother, whom we see in his memories. His mother is portrayed as a graceful, angelic, flawless being of light. Since no human purely embodies goodness in this way, it's safe to assume that the lens through which the mother is portrayed in the film is Jack's own memories. Many of which were based on real experiences, but many of which he probably has imagined or constructed. Such as when we see his parents grieving his brother's death, and there's a shot of Jack as a grown man in the room with them, but they can't see him. Indicating that this is Jack's own interpretation of how his parents received the news of his brother's death.  Or when we see his mother dancing on air. The mother in the film is most likely an idealized version of his mother -- as his memory has somewhat distorted or caricatured her -- whose graciousness and love led Jack to see goodness in the world and seek to understand it.

The same is true of his brother, but in a different way. He also sees his brother as fundamentally good, while he views himself as fundamentally wicked (at least after a certain age when he "discovers" sin). The death of Jack's brother profoundly affects him, even into his late adult life, as you would imagine. It is reflection upon this tragedy that prompts Jack to seek answers to questions about life by probing his own memories about his brother.

But whose door do Jack's mother and brother bring him to?

Within the context of the film it's clear that the door is God's door. The door of Faith, which is portrayed near the end of the film as a literal door frame in the middle of a desert landscape. Having searched his own life, through his memories, for answers about God, life, humanity and existence, and having primarily found those answers through his mother and his brother, Jack is brought to the door of Faith and he steps through.

As soon as Jack steps through the door there is a sequence of shots that are reminiscent of those from the Creation sequence earlier in the film when, in response to questions of "Who are we to you?", God responds -- as he does in the Book of Job -- with a display of natural wonders starting with the Creation of the universe. At this moment, when he comes to Faith by trusting in God and, according to the Christian belief, is made a new man through Christ, we are shown a glimpse of New Creation. The ultimate, eschatological reality of those who will be resurrected to live in the New Creation.

 Malick's choices of shot sequence are not arbitrary. These shots of New Creation are triggered the moment Jack enters the door of Faith. In most of these shots Earth itself is shown, and these shots can be taken to represent an external, God's-eye view of New Creation occurring -- Heaven and Earth coming together -- which we then "zoom in" to on the shores of a beach of New Earth, where the Humans are entering New Creation together, after having been resurrected. The title of the film is significant here as in Revelation 22:2 where the tree of life is used as a symbol for mankind's renewal during the time when Eden is being restored. Add to this the otherworldly look of the landscapes that are shown -- though still clearly being Earthly -- along with the resurrection images, and how all of this relates to the Christian doctrines of the Resurrection and New Creation, and how they in turn relate to Jack's journey in the film leads me to the conclusion that the final sequence is a profound depiction of Christian eschatology.

It would seem that this final sequence is a subjective vision as experienced by Jack, but one which acts as a preview for Jack, showing an understanding of the ultimate hope for humanity from his perspective. Whether it's a literal vision given to Jack supernaturally, or whether it is Jack's personal understanding of a divine truth is debatable, but the essence of what is being shown seems indisputable.

As the film can largely be seen as an ongoing dialogue with God, taking place in the head of Jack, with God providing answers to Jack's questions, this final sequence is a culmination of the answers to all the questions: "Who are we to you?", "Where were you?", "Why do we suffer?", "Is there nothing deathless in this world?", "How do I get back where they are [to a place of innocence]?" God provided individual answers along the way, but the ultimate answer to all of them is that God's love and grace opens up a means for Salvation from our fallen state where pain, sin, and death are defeated and erased, and we are given New Life in Christ.

With the grip that dispensationalism has on the contemporary, American religious imagination, it's highly likely that even many Christians wouldn't recognize this eschatological vision as being fundamentally Christian at all. Which is a shame because -- if not for other more important reasons -- it would allow for a deeper appreciation of this film and what it has to say.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Pragmatics of (Theoretical) Abortion Law

As the topic of abortion has become taboo and as the respective sides have hunkered into their corners, the issue seem to be broached less and less. Either you think life begins at conception, or you don't. Either you think a mother's "right to do what she wants with her body" trumps a fetus' right to live or you don't. Of course, framing the issue this way exposes my bias, and it isn't completely true as there are gradations of disagreements that go beyond these dichotomies, but the point is that meaningful discussion across the Pro-life / Pro-choice divide happens rarely.

But what about meaningful discussion within the spectrum of those views? That is, discussion about the topic of abortion and its implications among Pro-lifers, or among Pro-choicers, internally.

On the Pro-choice side of things the focus always appears to be solely, or at least primarily, on preventing anyone or anything from pushing back against "a woman's right to choose". In practical terms, this is all they are concerned with. And so the discussion among themselves tends to revolve around this singular objective. They may also have discussions about practical means of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore reducing the number of abortions, but this seems to be only tangentially related to the issue of abortions. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies is something anyone can advocate, whatever they think of abortion.

On the Pro-life side of things, just by the nature of the case, the discussion is much more diverse and varied. From a policy perspective, if you do aim to make abortion illegal, it potentially leads to many other pragmatic questions that must be addressed. While if you aim to keep it legal at the federal level, there is only one real question that needs to be addressed, which is how best to defend the current legal status quo.

In a recent guided discussion with some Christian friends, who seemed to be fairly Pro-life, the topic brought up many practical concerns about the theoretical criminalization of abortion. If we were really to achieve this, by overturning Roe v. Wade, returning the issue to the states and having some states, inevitably, make it illegal, what would that look like? How would it work? How would it be enforced? Would there be exceptions?

These are issues that opponents of legal abortion must consider that proponents don't have to. [1]

The first question the group asked about criminalization of abortion is whether we, as proponents, were prepared to arrest and jail young women for the crime of abortion. While this issue was raised by the group I think it's mostly easily dismissed. Criminalization would have to include means of enforcing the law, but obviously the primary means would not be arresting or jailing individual perpetrators (though any legislation outlawing abortion would likely include this as one tool of enforcement), but by outlawing abortion clinics and enforcing the law on the physician's end. Policing illegal, back-alley abortions would be difficult. Unless, say, a husband or boyfriend pressed charges against a wife -- something which would itself be rare -- the illegal abortions that did happen would be very difficult to do anything about.

As for whether we would be prepared to advocate long prison sentences for the to-be criminals, in those rare instances where they are caught red-handed or where charges are pressed against them, I have no qualms about that whatsoever. Though others in the group did, I didn't understand their hesitance. I believe that the empathy they feel for someone who may be in a desperate situation causes some to question the logic of criminalization, yet we don't seem to feel quite the same empathy for thieves in desperate situations. Or at least, if we do feel that empathy, we're sensible enough not to allow it to mitigate against the logic of having laws against theft and enforcing them.

A related concern arises: will criminalization be effective in decreasing the number of abortions that happen? Will it just make back-alley abortions, which are much more dangerous, skyrocket?

If Roe ever was overturned, the issue would be sent back to the states. Some would make it illegal and others would not. It's almost certain that within those states where it was made illegal rates of abortion would plummet. With abortion clinics gone, and it being illegal for physicians in those states to perform the procedure, very few doctors would risk performing abortive procedures in illicit ways, as the risk would be too great for them. Similarly, the widespread knowledge about the risk of homemade abortions would prevent from those up-ticking too sharply.

The most likely scenario is that interstate travel to get an abortion in a state where it is legal would become frequent. Or, if the proponents of criminalizing abortion had it their way, international travel would be required, after every state made abortion illegal as well. In which case those seeking a place to have a legal abortion would most likely go to Canada (seeing as Mexico is heading along an anti-abortion path of its own). Of course, this would take decades to happen, if it were to happen at all. But this is what proponents want, whether or not it's immediately realistic isn't the issue. We must think through all the implications of our advocacy.

And what would the practical results of all 50 states making abortion illegal? It's impossible to say conclusively, but if you look at it in terms of the cost-benefit analysis for having an abortion, the cost to have one -- international travel fare, time, jail time, or significant increased risk to a woman's own health -- will have gone up immensely, while the "benefit" will have stayed the same. Since people tend to behave in self-interested ways, it's difficult to imagine abortions doing anything but dropping off significantly in that scenario.

During the interval when it's illegal in some states, but legal in others, the cost side of the cost-benefit equation within those states where it's illegal will also have gone up, though not as dramatically. The cost now includes the cost of interstate travel, but that's all. Still, that's enough of a hassle for enough people that the number of abortions occurring in the nation would still likely decrease immediately, though perhaps not drastically.

Another pragmatic issue that arose in the discussion was whether it would be easier for a rich person to get around the laws -- by travelling to neighboring states, or somehow procuring a black market abortion -- than a poor person. The implication seemed to be that if it was -- and obviously it is -- this should somehow play into our consideration of whether or not to make it illegal. On this point I just don't follow the logic. Virtually all criminal activity is more prevalent among the poor than the rich, yet we don't use this fact as a reason not to criminalize theft or assault. One might point out at this juncture that when the rich do do those things, they have a much better chance at getting acquitted of the charges. Is this an argument not to criminalize them? Of course not. It's not an argument of any kind, it's an emotional, guilt-based appeal.

Some would claim that the poor just commit the kind of criminal acts that are easier to "see", and therefore prosecute, than the rich, whose criminal acts are just better hidden. This is a theory that can't truly be tested, and therefore refuted -- there are no statistics on the crimes that we have no record of which might be happening, by poor or rich people -- but there's very good reason to doubt the validity of this hypothesis. Mostly by applying the same cost-benefit analysis to the incentive to do crime. People who are already rich have much less incentive to do anything illegal, as they risk what they already have, where poor people often have little or nothing to lose. None of which is to insinuate that its the inherent moral character of the poor that is at issue -- it's not -- or that corporate crime doesn't happen -- it does -- but it's about what poverty inherently means, and what its effects on people in a nation of laws are and should be.

This argument could require a book of its own so I'll stop short here, but my point, which should be uncontroversial, is that whatever you think about how much crime the poor commit compared to the rich, and the reasons behind it, the effects the theoretical anti-abortion laws will likely have on the economically disadvantaged should play no role in our decision whether or not to criminalize the behavior.

One final issue that came up that I'll discuss here is the question of, if you decide to criminalize abortion, whether or not there would be exceptions in cases like when the life of the mother is at risk, or perhaps in cases of rape or incest. This would be up to the state legislatures and how they choose to write their laws, but there's nothing preventing a state from including exceptions. Our murder laws have exceptions for self-defense and insanity, so why would our abortion laws not be able to have exceptions? Choosing what exceptions to allow and which to not might be a difficult task, but the question of exceptions doesn't fundamentally address the question of whether we ought to criminalize abortion at all.

Our discussion brought up many other issues as well, but these were the ones that cut to the heart of the issue for me, which is the legal question. Should abortion be made illegal, and if so, are there any practical, pragmatic concerns which would mitigate against criminalizing it? For me, the answer is a resounding "no."


[1] - Or at least proponents hope they never will have to, and they prefer to focus on defending the status quo, for the time being.