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United States v. Windsor v. democratic debate

July 10, 2013

I recently finished reading United States v. Windsor.  In that Supreme Court ruling, an incredible opportunity for public discussion and dialogue on a very fundamental topic was taken from us as a society. This saddens me.  In fact, I’m concerned because much of the marriage equality rhetoric is phrased to shut down dissent and debate, to stifle free speech.  Who hasn’t heard it said that if you oppose marriage equality, you’re on the wrong side of history, or you’re bigoted, or you’re a backwards fundamentalist?

The Supreme Court majority ruling basically side-stepped this question, and Justice Alito pointed it out on pages 13 and 14 of his dissent.  The question isn’t whether homosexual marriage is equal to heterosexual marriage, but more fundamentally the question of whether our culture’s view of marriage is what Alito calls the “traditional” or “conjugal” vision for marriage, or the “consent-based” vision for marriage.  The “traditional” or “conjugal” view of marriage is that in every culture and time of the world up until the year 2000, marriage was intrinsically an opposite-sex institution, because it had to carry the possibility of natural childbirth. The “consent-based” vision of marriage, Alito writes, is “a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment— marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction—between two persons.”  No-fault divorce arises from the consent-based vision for marriage, as does the current push to legitimize and legalize homosexual unions as marriage.

If the consent-based view of marriage were my view, I would see no reason not to support marriage equality between any two consenting partners.  However, I hold the conjugal view, because I believe it is what our Creator designed for humanity, I believe it is the best environment for raising children, and forming stable families over the long-term, and I believe its prescribed in the Bible.

I’m deeply saddened that as a culture we’ve missed the opportunity for real, robust discussion and debate through democratic processes on this important issue.  We espouse democratic principles of governance, but at least on this one, the discussion has been framed to shut out debate before it happens, by making it sound like if you disagree you’re opposed to equal treatment before the law.  That concerns me: I support the rule of law, and the equality of persons before the law, but I also support free speech and broad, informed, democratic discussion by the people of fundamental issues.

Let me be clear: homosexual people deserve the same civil rights as other people, but this issue isn’t an inequality of civil rights between homosexual or heterosexual couples.  It’s an disagreement between the conjugal or consent-based visions for marriage, an issue of how we understand our humanity as individuals and in communities.  It only becomes a civil rights issue if the consent-based vision for marriage is actually right.

PS – if you think I’m “on the wrong side of history” with this post, please explain why in your comments below.

Charting a pagan path for environmental care?

March 11, 2013
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Does anyone doubt the pagan religious foundation of much of our culture’s current powerful environmentalist movements? All the major players subscribe to the Earth Charter. I just read it, and on a number of points its deeply antithetical to orthodox, biblical Christianity. For example, its final section on democracy, non-violence, and peace calls everyone to: “Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.”

What’s missing in that definition of peace? Two things: it misses the real root of the problem: our alienation from God, and it assumes reality is ultimately one (“the larger whole of which all are a part.”), rather than the truth that reality is divided in two: God and his creation.  The ultimate oneness of all reality is a fundamentally pagan belief.

Many people today are convinced that because we live in a pluralist world, with many competing religions and worldviews, that there is no truth.  How could biblical Christianity be true, when there are so many options?  In reality, there are only two fundamental options: either one believes the Bible’s message that reality is fundamentally two, a Creator God and his creation of the entire physical cosmos and spiritual realm, or one holds a variation on the theme that reality is ultimately one–whether you are one-ist in a traditional pagan sense, a materialist atheist or agnostic sense, or in some other religion’s sense, its still an all-is-one viewpoint.  Biblical Christianity stands in stark contrast to those claims.

There are many half-truths in the Earth Charter (relationships with self, other persons, other creatures, and the earth do need to be righted, but this only happens when one’s relationship to God is restored first by Christ Jesus – cf. Romans 8 where creation groans with anticipation for redemption), and many well-meaning Christians, rightly concerned that we care responsibly for creation, are unknowingly embracing pagan perspectives.

You can read the Earth Charter for yourself, and then let me know what other pagan beliefs you see in that document. http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/content/pages/read-the-charter.html.

bitcoin? do you trust your money?

March 11, 2013
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Bitcoin.  Have you heard about the experimental crypto-currency?

For the rest of you who are wondering what that’s all about, here’s the gist of it.  In 2009, a bunch of computer programmers (or one guy, no one’s sure) designed an open-source peer-to-peer network that uses public and private key encryption to allow people to send Bitcoins to each other.  Due to the encryption standards used, and the public transaction records, its virtually impossible to double-spend bitcoins–which has always been one of the main problems with digital money.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about bitcoin is that there is no central authority controlling it.  The computer program that runs on all the client computers and establishes the network uses a mathematical algorithm to regulate the creation of new bitcoins, so its a deflationary currency.

Also, because relatively few people worldwide use it, the values at which bitcoin trades with traditional currencies can be quite volatile.  Recently one bitcoin has been trading for around $40 USD, but last November it was only around $9 USD, and in 2011 it had been up to $32, but then crashed all the way down to $2 or $3.  So yes, its experimental.

However, if you’re in the US, you may see Bitcoin reverse ATM machines coming to a convenience store near you, according to this article on CNET.  If you see one, and want so give me a gift, you can do so here: 1BVdZiPgPTvicma8Ut1AZEWYteadRWHPyF.  I haven’t bought any bitcoin myself–I’m still somewhat skeptical, but its an experiment I’m watching.

And it raises interesting questions about our money: who controls it, who can manipulate its value, and is it worth treasuring if its of fleeting value?

global warming: hype or reality?

August 18, 2012

Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions is that people will cling to older, outdated theories until there’s way too much evidence to the contrary.  The history of science shows this time and time again.

So what’s the deal with global warming?  Listening to most voices in western culture, one would conclude that all scientists believe there’s an imminent catastrophe around the corner.  Anyone who tries to offer an alternate account of the data is accused of sticking her head in the sand.

Yes, there is melting on the polar ice caps.  Yes, Greenland’s ice shelf is melting.  But since we don’t have accurate, worldwide temperature measurements older than the 1950s or 1960s, do we really know the recent warming trends are caused by human activity?  The very hype and apocalyptic scare tactics employed by the majority of the voices proclaiming a global warming crisis give me cause for skepticism.

Look at the past track record of supposed environmental crises: they haven’t happened as predicted.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which many credit with starting modern environmentalism, claimed the pesticide DDT causes cancer–yet in the years since this hasn’t been proven.  The massive doomsday virus scares that’ve been predicted have so far failed to materialize.  We’re told that the earth is a population bomb, but every time naysayers say there’s too many people, humans creatively find new and more efficient energy sources, resources, and ways of agriculture (Remember Thomas Malthus back in the early 19th century, pre-industrial revolution?  Right, he was so wrong in his day, because he failed to account for human innovation.).  They said we’d run out of resources, of oil, of metals, etc.  Today pretty much all these resources are more abundant than ever, because of human creativity.  For details for each of my claims above regarding supposed past chemical, disease, people, & resource crises, see this Wired article: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/ff_apocalypsenot/all/.

When I listen to the drastic calls for quitting fossil fuels cold turkey, for dramatic, massive structural changes to the freedoms and liberties we’ve enjoyed in our western liberal democracies because of the global warming crisis, I’m skeptical.

Rather than forcing radical changes because of a supposed crisis, let’s focus on strengthening our foundations of rule of law and the unique value and worth of every individual and community.  If we strengthen those foundations, and if we have plenty of creative people, we’ll innovate and adapt to face any real crisis that comes along.

a Victorian era novelist invented the flat earth theory

May 29, 2012
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Apparently Washington Irving came up with the flat earth theory in his fictional novel, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus I (1829). Then John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book A History of The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom picked it up and popularized the idea that everybody thought the earth was flat until Columbus.

Rubbish!  That’s what happens when you let novelists write history.  So feel free to ignore Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Novels shouldn’t be read as history.

In his book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, Jeffery Burton Russell outlines the historical reality that from the third century B.C. onward, the vast majority of educated people believed the earth was round.  The medieval church as a whole did not teach or hold to a flat earth; rather this was a theory non-Christian Victorians popularized as part of the myth of conflict between science and religion.  Summarizing his book’s findings, Russell told the 1997 American Scientific Affiliation Conference:

[W]ith extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat. A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. Although there were a few dissenters—Leukippos and Demokritos for example–by the time of Eratosthenes (3 c. BC), followed by Crates(2 c. BC), Strabo (3 c. BC), and Ptolemy (first c. AD), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.

Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few—at least two and at most five—early Christian fathers denied the spherically of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.

You can find the quote above and a lot more context over at the blog Contra Mundum, http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/12/contra-mundum-the-flat-earth-myth.html.

Interruption

April 7, 2012
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The musician’s corollary to Murphy’s Law:

The probability of a mobile phone ringing during a concert is directly proportional to the tenderness of the moment.

(taken from http://euge.ca/2012/01/13/interruption/)

is meat for dinner?

March 30, 2012

Why do you eat what you eat?  One of my cousins recently shared a link to a dairy farmer Raechel Kilgore Sattazahn’s essay, Defending Meat.  In her essay, she posits human exceptionalism–that we are unique in the animal kingdom as a moral species, possessing rights and duties–and then she offers three reason why eating meat is a very human thing: first, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were omnivores; second, meat offers nutrients humans need that are difficult to obtain elsewhere; and finally, we’re part of the circle of life.

In a separate post on the Go Beyond the Barn blog, she describes the tension in the room when, in a debate with an animal welfare advocate, an animal rights activist tried to convince a roomful of young leaders at the Holstein Foundation’s Young Dairy Leaders Institute that animals are equal to humans and that everyone should only consume plant-based foods.  That debate left these young dairy farmers asking how to answer the views of radical animal rights activists.  The answer at the leadership institute, and her answer, is to remind the public, “Farm animals are not the same as companion animals.”

While I think she raises an important point, I left her a comment that the point only addresses half the issue:

…you asked, “how do we compete with the radical animal rights views,” and your answer only half-way answered your question. Among truly radical animal rights activists, there are many that disagree with your earlier point that humans are exceptional. Some of those radicals are quite politically motivated to push their non-exceptional view of humans on everybody else. If people aren’t exceptional, then what does it matter whether farm animals are companion animals or not? Across your industry, for the message that farm animals are not companion animals to stick, you’ve got to first convince people (and policy makers) that humans are exceptional.

Provide a strong basis for the uniqueness of humans, and you’ll have a strong basis for your argument that there are humane ways to farm animals, to provide safe, quality, affordable food to all us non-farmers.

I believe humans are exceptional, people are unique.  Most of the time, what’s good for animals will be good for people, too, but if its a choice between sustaining a human life and an animal’s life, the person has priority.  Treating farm animals inhumanely isn’t wrong because we’re not giving animals the same rights as humans, its wrong because doing so would make us less than fully human.  That’s part of human exceptionalism: we’re different from animals, and when we treat our animals badly, we’re not living up to what it means to be human. Paradoxically, promoting animal welfare almost always results in human welfare: if our farm animals are cleaner and healthier, their milk will be better, tastier; their meat safer and more delicious, which in turn is better for those farm businesses and their customers.

What is the basis for their belief that humans are exceptional?  Why are people unique in the animal kingdom?  If answered correctly, and worked out through business processes and structures, and communicated loudly to the public as the motivation behind the industry, this could transform modern farming into an industry with the trust of the general public.

I eat a lot of lentils, beans, and rice, because legumes are healthy, tasty, and help me save money.  I eat a lot of meatless meals partly because I have a far more sedentary life than my ancestors did, and partly because saving money allows me to splurge on better, more expensive meats when I eat meat.  I really enjoyed the Norwegian salmon I had last night.

So is meat for dinner?   Yes, decently raised farm animals and wild game, but we don’t eat the pets, because humans are exceptional.

themes from “The Golden Ass”

March 13, 2012

Two weeks ago, I read Lucius Apuleius’s novel, The Golden Ass, for the first time.  It had been selected as our February book for the Classic Literature Book Club I facilitate.  Half our group didn’t finish it, half of them didn’t read it, and of those that read it, half of them liked it half as much as they enjoyed fantasy, but the others held half-formed opinions because they’d just finished reading a half-hour before our meeting.

However, in spite of my getting excited about the relevance of these themes and monopolizing almost half the discussion, Apuleius’s story did raise a lot of themes and questions for our discussion.  Some of those themes were:

  • the crazy fantasy of the plot: a guy narrowly escapes being framed for Socrates death at the hand of a witch, only to find himself accidentally turned into a donkey by the servant girl
  • the bawdiness of the story
  • the overt pagan sexuality and its dehumanizing effects on people
  • the awful way women and animals were treated
  • the similarities between the goddess worship procession and processions worshiping the virgin Mary in Roman Catholic countries
  • the stark difference between the mystery religion the protagonist joins and the public nature of biblical Christianity (gnostic cults have secret ceremonies only for the eyes of the initiated, but biblically defined Christianity is public for anyone who cares to see)
  • whether worshiping the goddess Isis (which the main character ends up becoming one of her followers) would result in treating women better or not
  • whether Apuleius wrote the story as commentary on disintegrating society around him

On a gut-level, I found much of Apuleius’s depiction of ancient Roman culture repulsive.  I believe that’s because our modern western ideals of universal human rights, the equal personhood, digity, and worth of women and men, humane treatment of animals, and the freedom of individuals (i.e. we’re not bound by Fate as the story assumed) flow from a culture that’s been deeply shaped by biblical Christianity and the public death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living one.

Our culture is far from perfect, full of injustices, bigotry, and even slavery today, but the difference is that its also been shaped by generation after generation of people who believe all things will one day be made new, who believe that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the downpayment has been made.  That means when we see evil in our own culture, we don’t despair or passively accept it as from the Fates: we stand against it and fight for good, knowing that individuals matter and can bring about real change.  Even secular, atheistic westerners still hold to the dignity of individuals, to universal human rights, and to our culture’s self-reflection and democratic processes for societal change and reform.

Other cultures have plenty of good, brilliant people, but their religious worldviews work against them, keeping them from standing for dignity, worth, and compassion for others. In Hindu belief, if all suffering is illusion, why work to alleviate someone’s suffering?–its just their karma.  If all reality is one as many Asia religions claim, why work to bring change to something that isn’t really differentiated at all?  In African and other tribal religions where spirits inhabit and rule everything, what right would people have to work for justice or equal human rights, when even the gods are capricious and might makes right?  In Islam’s Koran, how can there possibly be a basis for universal human rights when a woman’s testimony in court only counts for half of a man’s testimony (Qur’an 2:282), and non Muslims are viewed as infidels to be subjugated by the sword if they don’t convert to Islam (Qur’an 9:5)?

More than anything else, The Golden Ass left me considering the roots of our culture, which has beauty and is humane in ways that Roman culture was not.  Why do we have a culture that values individuals, yet cares for the poor? that generates wealth on a massive scale, yet gives it away to the rest of the world ever time natural disaster strikes or mankind’s wars create refugees?  Why are the rescue dogs Swiss? the international nonprofits such as World Vision, OxFam, the Red Cross, or International Justice Mission so deeply rooted in the UK and US?  What is it about cultures shaped by the West that create surplus wealth and the compassion to give it in disaster relief, development aid, or humanitarian assistance?

One-ism or Two-ism: how do you view the world?

February 15, 2012

Do you think that fundamentally all is one?  That matter and energy are all that exists? or that everything is connected and distinctions are illusions? Do you believe that we are one with the earth, all living things, and the cosmos?  Is everything god?  Was Yoda right–there’s a force in everything, uniting all into one?  Those are One-ist views.

Or do you think there’s the a personal Creator who made a creation distinct from himself?  Do you believe that God is independent of all creation, yet intimately involved in actively sustaining all things, by the word of his power?  Do you confess that God is three persons, yet one God, what Christian theology calls the Trinity?  Do you believe that God the Creator stepped into creation, incarnate in the man Jesus, yet still fully God, to restore us and all things to perfect relationship with God through the cross?  That is the Two-ist view.

There is no third way.  Either the claims of biblical Christianity are right, and there is a fundamental distinction between Creator and created, or the One-ists are right, and all is one.  The two views have vastly different practical consequences for how we view ourselves and the world at large.

Human beings are worshipers at heart: we each have something that drives our life, that we worship, whether we’re conscious of it or not.  Do you worship God or something else in the cosmos, or to frame the question in biblical terms, do you worship the living God or idols?

The video below from truthXchange presents the choice between One-ism and Two-ism.

the book that made my birthday

November 23, 2011
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Saturday evening friends three doors down threw a dinner party.  For something like 30 people.  We’d been asked to come prepared with something for which we were thankful.  Shortly after I arrived a guy I didn’t know asked me what I was most thankful for. I replied, “I’m most thankful I’m in God’s story.” Then I explained:

I’m thankful that God is the Maker of all things, and that he’s still working in the world and in me. In other words, I’m thankful I’m part of the bigger, deeper, true story.

Well, my grandmother sent me a check in my birthday card, enough money for a book or two, or clothes, which I suppose I need more, but I’m a bit like Erasmus, who is rumored to have said, “When I get a little money, I buy books.  And if there’s any left I buy food and clothes.”  So, I ordered a hardcover copy of Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: how the Bible created the soul of western civilization.  Dr. Mangalwadi is India’s foremost Christian intellectual today, according to Christianity Today.

Mangalwadi explains his purpose in writing The Book That Made Your World in the final paragraph of his preface:

A cursory glance may give an impression that this is a book about the Bible.  Those who actually read it will know that this is about great literature and great art; great science and liberating technology; genuine heroism and nation building; great virtues and social institutions.  If you have a zillion pieces of a puzzle, would you begin assembling them into one picture, without knowing what that picture is supposed to look like?  The Bible created the modern world of science and learning because it gave us the Creator’s vision of what reality is all about.  This is what made the modern West a reading and thinking civilization.  Postmodern people see little point in reading books that do not contribute directly to their career or pleasure.  This is a logical outcome of atheism, which has now realized that the human mind cannot possibly know what is true and right.  This book is being published with a prayer that it will help revive a global interest in the Bible and in all the great books.

So the history of the west, the rise of the modern world, is tied up with the Bible and its deep influence forming our culture.  No wonder I get excited when I hear that story, because its been profoundly shaped by the same story that’s shaping me: an old, old story woven through creation, fall, promise, redemption at Jesus’ cross, mission to push back the effects of our collective brokenness, and one day all tears will be wiped away when Christ returns.  Or as my favorite children’s storybook Bible says ,“God would love his children — with a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”  The love that will not let us go has given many sons and daughters of the west the courage to stand in the face of tyranny, to work unceasingly in the face of evil, and to love in the face of death.

But what about the injustices, the imperfections, the brokenness of individuals and institutions?  That’s why I answered the question with thankfulness for being in God’s story – I’m in the middle, I’m a work in progress, but I’m banking on the love of God for me, and the love of God for this earth and all he made. At the end of the day, the shape of my hope can be found all over western culture, and increasingly in the majority world as well: the cross of Christ.  My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  And that’s cause for thanksgiving!