North Western Winds

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Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Obama on the Mount

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It’s been a long time, but I simply can’t let this pass by me without a rejoinder:

( – Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told a crowd at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, Sunday that he believes the Sermon on the Mount justifies his support for legal recognition of same-sex unions. He also told the crowd that his position in favor of legalized abortion does not make him “less Christian.””I don’t think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state,” said Obama. “If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” ((Hear audio from WTAP-TV)) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans condemns homosexual acts as unnatural and sinful.

I sincerely hope our American friends will soundly reject Obama as a presidential candidate in favour of a far more mature and steady John McCain. There is much about Obama that makes me more than a little queasy.For starters, that ‘obscure’ quote from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is older than any of the gospels. I just happen to be reading Garry Wills’ book, What Paul Meant at the moment. Wills is a liberal Catholic. He might, for all I know, agree with Obama’s positions.This quote from the introduction shows that he would argue for such a position along very different lines. It also makes Obama look silly:

Many people would just as soon avoid Paul’s psychodrama and go “back” to the Gospels, which do not argue about understanding Jesus but just present him. Taking the shortcut was the obvious thing to do in the Middle Ages, when it was thought that the Gospels were written by the original followers of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to what they set down. This lead to the view that there was a primitive church, true to Jesus’ simple teachings, which was later contaminated by Paul’s doubts and theories and wrangling (this is Jefferson’s thesis). But scholarly enquiry has destroyed the idea that the Gospels have a simple biographical basis. They are sophisticated theological constructs, none written by their putative authors, all drawing on second – or third – or fourth hand accounts – and all written from a quarter of a century to half a century after Paul’s letters. If we want to see what the original Jesus communities looked like, the first and best witness is Paul, the earliest writer of what would become the New Testament. In fact, his authentic letters [of which Romans is one – ed.] are the only parts of the of which we can say we know who wrote them. The Gospels, coming later, try to make sense of a history that already contained the conflicts that Paul reveals to us. Those who believe in a providential revelation through the New Testament must deal with the fact that Providence preserved the first batch of inspired writing with the signature of Paul. His letters were written roughly two decades after the death of Jesus. Other new Testament letters attributed to Paul or other authors (Peter, Paul, or John) are written two to five decades after his, and imitate the form of his.

Written by Curt

March 4, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Evolved Truths are not Truths

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Here Theodore Darymaple takes on the new atheists and finds the arguments not only weak, but weaker than arguments for atheism need to be – except, perhaps, that of Daniel Dennett. Kicking over the view typified by Dennett was instrumental in overcoming a life of agnosticism for me, so I find this sort of argument particularly worth watching. Whenever an Al Gore-esque “the science is irrefutable” erupts in these debates, hypocrisy lurks. Scientific conclusions are always tentative, and if you think they are not, you are not using science, but have leapt into the world of metaphysics.

Here is Darymaple on the difficulties of Dennett’s argument:

Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms—for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one [evolution], are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

Written by Curt

October 31, 2007 at 5:54 pm

The Source of Law

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This book review, found on an aggregator, is on a subject that is irresistible to a certain kind of geek – such as myself. What’s more, this is a good question to ponder on the day that our Parliament issues its throne speech, setting out its agenda for the coming sitting of the lower house:

Brague does not attempt to answer the Socratic question — what is divine law? — by un-Socratic means. He instead sets out to show that this idea — its articulation by the ancient Greeks and the three monotheisms, and in its rejection by modernity — carries within it the essence of how we understand ourselves today.

The story begins in Jerusalem and Athens. Brague isn’t the first to link the two by contrasting their interpretations of law. “The leading idea upon which Greeks and Jews agree,” Leo Strauss said, “is precisely the idea of divine law as of a unique and all-encompassing law that is at the same time a religious law, a civil law and a moral law.” But the two civilizations, Strauss added, interpreted that idea “in a diametrically opposed manner.”

In the Bible, the law’s divinity derives from its revealed character; the law is divine because commanded by God. For the Greek philosophers, however, the law is divine because it is perfect, an expression of natural order. The law is permanent, unwritten, and requires no proclamation. Sophocles talks of laws “that live on high; laws begotten in the clear air of heaven, whose only father is Olympus; no mortal nature brought them to birth, no forgetfulness shall lull them to sleep.”

So it is no surprise that although it imposed sacred obligations toward one’s family and city, Hellenic culture furnished no holy books. Its gods — as conceived by the philosophers — give advice and warnings, but they seldom command. No particular law is issued by a god; as Heraclitus puts it in the first Greek mention of the term, “all the laws of men are nourished by one law, the divine law.” The divine issues not in external command, but in the intellect that emanates from both nature and man.

If the Greek thinkers emphasized the natural character of law, the Israelites called forth its revealed, historical character; thereby, Brague says, they “revolutionized the relations between the normative and the divine.” Unlike the Greeks, the Hebrew Bible invents a law that is both written and divine; in fact, it is said to be written by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18). This law, moreover, becomes the instrument of a covenant with God: the first appearance in history of an alliance between a people and its god.

A great read; the article raises many interesting questions.

The other story I want to share is one that I read even before Scott Adams linked to it. The story, from Scientific American, is about a neuroscientist who claims to have discovered a part of the brain that contributes to “religious experiences.” Interesting in its own right, the thing that surprised me most was a the acknowledgement – albeit at the very end of the story – that:

Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them. After all, finding a cerebral source for spiritual experiences could serve equally well to identify the medium through which God reaches out to humanity. Thus, the nuns’ forays into the tubular brain scanner did not undermine their faith. On the contrary, the science gave them an even greater reason to believe.


Written by Curt

October 16, 2007 at 7:46 pm

Profaning iconography is dead

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Here’s the conclusion to Camille Paglia’s exploration of “what is wrong with the arts today.” It’s taken from a journal called Arion:

Supporters of the arts who gleefully cheer when a religious symbol is maltreated act as if that response authenticates their avant-garde credentials. But here’s the bad news: the avant-garde is dead. It was killed over forty years ago by Pop Art and by one of my heroes, Andy Warhol, a decadent Catholic. The era of vigorous oppositional art inaugurated two hundred years ago by Romanticism is long gone. The controversies over Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili were just fading sparks of an old cause. It is presumptuous and even delusional to imagine that goading a squawk out of the Catholic League permits anyone to borrow the glory of the great avant-garde rebels of the past, whose transgressions were personally costly. It’s time to move on.For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people’s faiths is boring and adolescent. The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s’ multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts.1 The search for spiritual meaning has been registering in popular culture instead through science fiction, as in George Lucas’ six-film Star Wars saga, with its evocative master myth of the “Force.” But technology for its own sake is never enough. It will always require supplementation through cultivation in the arts.To fully appreciate world art, one must learn how to respond to religious expression in all its forms. Art began as religion in prehistory. It does not require belief to be moved by a sacred shrine, icon, or scripture. Hence art lovers, even when as citizens they stoutly defend democratic institutions against religious intrusion, should always speak with respect of religion. Conservatives, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture. Every vibrant civilization welcomes and nurtures the arts.Progressives must start recognizing the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and reexamine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms. If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school—which means conservatives have to get over their phobia about the nude, which has been a symbol of Western art and Western individualism and freedom since the Greeks invented democracy. Without compromise, we are heading for a soulless future. But when set against the vast historical panorama, religion and art—whether in marriage or divorce—can reinvigorate American culture.

Aside from the silly bit about Star Wars, her point is one I agree with wholeheartedly. The entire essay is good reading, running down how art and religion have interacted in the west since the Reformation. I find that since I’ve taken religion more seriously, my response and my understading of the arts has deepened. These are deeply human issues to work through.

Written by Curt

August 1, 2007 at 7:56 pm

Rejoice with the wife of thy youth

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Naomi Wolf has some interesting things to say about life in a sex saturated culture in New York magazine:

Pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian. An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on. The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it.

Other cultures know this. I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” [Proverbs 5.18] These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.

And feminists have misunderstood many of these prohibitions.

I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”

If this wasn’t such a sad story, I might get more schadenfreude out of it. As it is, I came to similar conclusions myself some time ago. It lead to the shocking realization that popular characterizations about traditional social mores are wildly superficial and inaccurate. To name two, there’s the misplaced idea that all religious people have always been literalists on every line of the Bible, as well as the idea that past social norms are always arbitrary.

Written by Curt

August 1, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Good advice

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Some good advice from an Orthodox website.

When your “gettin’ it done”, don’t forget family.

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Written by Curt

July 30, 2007 at 4:06 pm

Justice in a vacuum

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Here are two articles I read today; I found both to really interesting. The first is a New Yorker article about an economist who thinks democracy leads to bad policy when it works properly. Why? People are uninformed and irrational. They choose based on prejudice rather than current theory. They tend to choose to tax and spend and regulate.

Fractured Franchise: Books: The New Yorker:

[Bryan] Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”

Caplan suspects that voters cherish irrational views on many issues, but he discusses only views relevant to economic policy. The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy). Economists know that these positions are irrational, because the average person actually benefits from market competition, which provides the best product at the lowest price; from free trade with other countries, which (for American consumers) usually lowers the cost of labor and thus the price of goods; and from technological change, which redistributes labor from less productive to more productive enterprises.

The economic biases of the non-economist form a secular world view that people cling to dogmatically, the way they once clung to their religious faith, Caplan thinks.

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Written by Curt

July 5, 2007 at 9:34 pm