Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"He can, but he can't want what he wants"

I saw Lawrence of Arabia last night. Who knew that it was not just a great movie, and not just a brilliant exposition of the treacheries of politics, but also a profound meditation on the bondage of the will too?

Another Arab: Ghassem's time is come, Lawrence. It is written!
Lawrence: Nothing is written.

After Lawrence succeeds against all odds in rescuing Ghassem, his Arab comrade Ali acknowledges:

Ali: El Aurens. Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.

But in the end El Aurens himself has to execute Ghassem with his own hand -- and finds he enjoys it. Later after a fool-hardy dare in the belief in his own destiny ends with him beaten and sodomized by a sadistic Turkish officer, he concedes his fleshliness. Rescued by his comrade Ali, he despairs:

Lawrence: Look, Ali, look. (He pinches the white, fair skin of his chest.) That's me. What color is it? (white, fair, the color that means he can't be an Arab, the color that attracted the loathsome attentions of the Turkish officer.) That's me, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Ali: A man can do whatever he wants, you said.

Lawrence: He can, but he can't want what he wants. (Pinching his chest, again) This is the stuff that decides what he wants. You may as well know. I would have told them anything. I would have told them who I am, I would have told them where you were. I tried to.

Of course, those reading the NIV, where sarx is translated as "sinful nature" not "flesh" will not get the point.

By the way, this is a wonderful expression of cintamani (or chindamani) governance (here and here:

Auda abu Tayi: I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies' tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I am a river to my people!

(From the almost complete, but occasionally incorrect script here. See also the more accurate but less extensive memorable quotes here).

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

What a Difference Three Years Makes

Was it only three years ago that the LCMS synodical convention was a scene of high drama that had even laymen like me on the edge of our seats, wondering how the synod would deal with the great clash of confessionalism vs. generic American evangelicalism? Well, in religion as in politics, three years has been a long time. At least in my neck of the Lutheran woods, one would hardly know the convention even happened. If I hadn't run across this post of Dan's at Necessary Roughness I would have completely overlooked it.

And you know what? Maybe that's not a bad thing. Compared to the fireworks at the convention which resulted in a complete rout of the confessional party, Pastor Stuckwisch reports, there was no partisan struggle this time which resulted in a most beautiful disaster. Of course this could just be "piety" (scroll down to Pastor Beisel's comment)!

If you want the resulting facts, here's a few news releases (Dr. Kieschnick's reelection, approving a new chorepiscopus program, funding restored for a Hispanic ministry at St. Louis -- commentary here, closed communion endorsed -- but not required, evangelism made a top priority, not the top priority, lay deacons studied). Here and here are Pastor Weedon's comments on some of the events. Pastor Beisel's more gloomy take: here, here, and here. I'm sure there's much more out there, but it's late and I'm tired. Have a good one!

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Something You Might Have Missed While Reading Harry Potter

Mark Shea points to an Times article listing "impossible to answer" questions that British children ask their parents about life and God and everything.

And then he provides some really fine answers. No. 17 I find particularly well done. I might quibble a bit with some others, but this is another example (alongside this, for example) of how to answer simple questions people (in this case children) have about God.

By the way, read the comments on the Times article -- it might seem uncharitable to call many of the commenters "a bunch of angry, bitter freaks," but that does seem to accurately summarize the tone . . . Good thing from the sound of it most of them have no children to ask them those questions (yet).

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Friday, July 20, 2007

A Somewhat Less Objectionable Form of Darwinism

At skeptic.com, the biologist David Sloan Wilson has published a serious critique of Dawkins's treatment of religion. To understand where Wilson is coming from, note that skeptic.com is devoted to debunking all claims of the supernatural; a further clue is that Wilson's essay was later re-posted for discussion on Democratic Underground. Wilson is the author of Darwin's Cathedral, an effort to explain religion from the Darwinian, evolutionary viewpoint.

So what possible difference could he have with Dawkins? Quite a bit actually, but principally that he endeavors to explain, that is, not explain away religion. In doing so, he also offers a picture of Darwinism that is subtly, but importantly different from Dawkins's view, and which he claims has in fact superseded Dawkins-style "selfish gene" monism.

Wilson has many hard words for Dawkins' utter lack of interest in the actual body of data on religion. When Dawkins claims that religion is not good for the individual or group, Wilson says he's just ignoring the hard, scientific data -- both experimental and that collected by observation and study of religious life and history. Wilson himself sees "religious studies" as a wonderfully full and accurate body of data on religion which can be used to see in what way religion is adaptive for those who practice it. His look at Jainism is a nice, counter-intuitive example of how a religion which enjoins on its priest total celibacy, pure vegetarianism, homelessness, obsessive cleanliness, and even fasting to death can be beneficial for the group (the Jain congregation) as a whole.

Wilson's main theoretical beef with Dawkins is the later's rejection of group selection. In the Dawkins view, expounded in his Selfish Gene, selection works solely and purely at the individual level. The organism is the gene's way of preserving the gene, and societies are simply the individual's ways of preserving himself. To put it differently, all the genes we find in a population are there because they help the spread of individuals, regardless of their effect on social groups. The contrary viewpoint is the idea of group selection, that is, that some genes spread because they promote group survival. As Wilson argues, Dawkins was expressing the reaction against sloppy forms of group selectionism.

The relevance to this is that if religion is not good for the individual then it is good for nothing, because saying the "religion gene" spread because it was good for the group is group selection, which is not allowed. This plays into Dawkins's argument that religion is a selfish meme, a cultural idea that spreads despite being maladaptive for both individuals and groups.

Wilson claims however that today group selection is back in a much more rigorous form. Dawkins's dismissal of group selection is simply out of date. In other words, it is quite possible that the "r gene" spread because the "r gene" formed groups that are adaptive and persistent.

He also adds in the concept of "major transitions" -- such as that between prokaryote and eukaryote, unicellular and multi-cellular, single organism and colony. Whereas Dawkins sees these major transition as making no difference for the basic selfish gene idea, Wilson (following the argument of Lynn Margulis) argues that contemporary biology shows that such "major transitions" can in fact almost completely suppress individual selection. Your mitochondria have different DNA from your cell nucleus and have been argued to be once independent organisms now assimilated into your cells -- but for selection purposes you and your mitochondria are almost entirely one. Could it be that human groups are another such "major transition," such that culturally and genetically selection is (or in some circumstances can be) almost entirely group based?

Now, this is a pretty minimal argument. What it says is merely that a survey of major religions shows that they can all be plausibly argued to be good for their practitioners, usually as individuals, but always as groups. Truth is not at all at issue here.

But it makes slightly more plausible the idea that traditional wisdom (in the broad sense, the right management of life, including the traditional injunctions of morality, such as the Golden Rule) can be explained as the result of the operation of biological laws. It also opens (at least a bit more than Dawkins would admit) the possibility that humanistic learning (comparative religions, for example) may actually have something to say to biology. It also removes to a certain degree the objection I've long felt that the purely individual-selection, selfish gene paradigm of Darwinian explanation involves injecting poisonous sense of deceit in our view of human social relations (see more here and then here). With the concept of "major transitions" and a (revised) group selection, one can possibly say that something like real altruism does in fact exist, that when someone dies "for the group," this could be considered even in the most hard-headed Darwinian analysis, as an accurate description of what is happening.

Now all this does is perhaps put Darwinism about on the level of Neo-Confucianism or Aristotelian philosophy as doctrines that are compatible with some form of traditional wisdom, if not with Christianity. But given the importance of biology -- in which Darwinism is the fundamentally unifying concept -- for any understanding of the world, that's not nothing.

So don't get your hopes up -- if you are looking for a Darwinian who can reconcile Darwin and the supernatural -- let alone true Christian faith -- he's not your man. But if you are looking for a way in which modern biology can be seen as broadly compatible with humanistic wisdom, then his work, as a temporary way station, is worth a look.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Explaining 2008

As is generally recognized the Republicans are going to get pounded in 2008 (here, here, here). The most important indicator is the strong turn to the Democrats, particularly among youth. Ronald Reagan's "children" almost made the country majority Republican, but George W. Bush's "children" are going to make it majority Democrat.

The question is though: what will it mean? The failure of Bush as a president? The failure of the Republicans as a party? The failure of conservatism as an ideology? The election won't give a decisive answer to this, since ideologies aren't on the ballot; parties and candidates are (and President Bush isn't). But let's take a look at Britain: there the failure of Tony Blair over Iraq is most definitely his personal failure, not one that will long affect the Labor party or center-left ideology in general.

This is the key: the Bush presidency failed in ways that exactly fit the stereotypical image of the Republican party. (And in the mass view, the Republican party=conservatism, just as the Democratic party=liberalism.) It's that congruence of his failure with the perceived failings of the party that makes his failure "stick" to the party. Each party/movement is susceptible to different such besetting sins. Had Bush been a Democrat, his polls would still be in the 20s, but the Democrats would still have a significant chance to win in 2008. Why? Because his failures aren't "Democratic" mistakes, they're "Republican" mistakes. That may be unfair, but it goes the other way around too. Had Jimmy Carter been a Republican, his mistakes would not have tainted the Republican brand the way they tainted the Democrat brand.

So what are the policies failings that taint the brands?

For the Republicans it's:
1) Starting failed wars
2) High unemployment
3) Slashing programs for deserving poor
4) Abusing executive power

When a Democrat does any of these things (think LBJ and Vietnam) they may become personally unpopular, but the brand doesn't suffer. When Bob Dole pointed out in 1996 -- in response to the usual "aren't you Republicans all war mongers" line -- that the big wars in his lifetime had all been started by Democrats, it was a mere debater's point that made him look like some kind of cynic -- even though it was completely true. Unfair? Well the Democrats have their own crosses to bear:

For the Democrats it's:
1) Allowing America to be humiliated by foreigners
2) High inflation
3) Allowing undeserving poor to live off the public
4) Crime waves

A Republican can have these failures (think the crime wave and the welfare state expansion under Nixon) and not suffer the way Carter did for them.

A major party realignment starts when a Democrat or a Republican president fails in a way characteristic of his party. It is confirmed when the succeeding president of the other party manages to go two terms without a serious failure characteristic of his party. Young voters bond to the President who seemed to reverse the sins besetting the other party, without falling into his own party's characteristic weaknesses. A young voter pulling the lever for Reagan in 1980 "knows" (even if it's not actually borne out by facts) that he's going to be tougher than Carter on Communism, crime, inflation, and welfare cheats. But he that party allegiance won't jell if Reagan gets America into a failing war, or causes massive unemployment, or throws grandma out in the snow.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats are much more aware of their weakenesses than the Republicans are. The DLC, for example, is well aware of these Democratic areas of weakness, and recommends a policy of national strength, fiscal conservatism, get tough on crime, and welfare reform.* Republican "moderates" are, unfortunately, obsessed with the idea that opposing abortion, gay rights, etc., looses the Republicans elections, which is just not the case. Electorally, social issues are either a winner for the conservative side or, more usually, make no difference one way or the other.

What the Republicans really need is an "RLC" devoted to preserving general Republican positions while cautioning the party on the need for: prudent foreign policy (translation: no Iraqs), respect for constitutional checks and balances (translation: no Dick Cheneys), and preserving the safety net (translation: no Hoovers). That way they would know their weakness. As for social conservatism: experience shows that it's really hard to enact a policy in Congress in policy that is radical enough to turn off American voters (the Terry Schiavo business came close, but absent Iraq, etc., would have been only a blip on the screen). It's not the John Ashcrofts "RLC-ers" need to be warning against, it's the "Vulcans" and Alberto Gonzalezes.

You can see the result in the fact that we have now had three Republicans who fell exactly into the trap they should have avoided, while the Democrats have had only one classic Democrat failure.

Hoover tainted the Republicans with unemployment and throwing grandma out in the snow, Nixon with executive abuse compounded after the fact with (strangely enough) failing to end quickly enough the Vietnam disaster his Democratic predecessor started, and Bush now with Iraq, compounded by executive arrogance. The only Democrat to taint his brand was Carter with foreign humiliation, continuing crime, and inflation.

So the big question after 2008 is whether President Clinton and the Democratic Congress will be able to avoid: foreign humiliation, inflation, welfare cheats, and crime waves. Despite the rumors of a leftward swing of the Democrats, I think the continuing consensus of the Clinton wing and the overall environment will keep the Democrats moderate -- but the first could be tougher. If she can't avoid it, then she could find the Democratic realignment vanishing as fast as did the post-Watergate one.

I) I could probably add to the Republican list of "besetting sins" a no. 5 "unfair hostility to immigrants and minorities" and to the Democratic list a no. 5 "unfair pandering to immigrants and minorities" with the proviso that the minorities in question change. Before 1945 it was pretty much Jews and Catholics, while after 1965 it became blacks and Latinos.

2) Were the 1968-1972 elections a realignment (one that got aborted by Watergate)? Certainly if you think of crime waves, and undeserving poor and pandering to minorities as besetting sins of the Democrats then they could be (and were) painted as guilty of them. But I think Vietnam scrambled the whole thing. Johnson was a Democrat fighting a senseless war which didn't fit the narrative. As a result in 1968 Humphrey was basically running as a centrist -- in between the radical demonstrators and Nixon (not to mention Wallace). And in 1972, McGovern wasn't the president, and I don't think realignments really happen unless the person(s)/party in the White House (and/or Congress) manifestly screws up. In any case as far as I know, 1968 and 1972 had very few coattails for the Republicans.

3) I should have given the Republican poo-bahs credit for having been very savvy about avoiding the Hoover charge, not actually eliminating any welfare programs until they have been manifestly proven to be really damaging (think welfare reform in 1995). As a result, no Republican president has fallen victim to the "they threw grandma out in the snow" charge since Hoover.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Light posting for the next few weeks or so.

Let me just say, in relation to this post here and here, that my first Sunday back at my old Lutheran church here that people remembered me and asked how I had been with genuine warmth. In Sunday school we had a presentation by a two members (mother and daughter) about their up-coming AIDS hospice care-mission trip to Kenya, linked with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (a church in communion with us) and funded in part by contributions from the church and members. There was also a brief announcement about the calling of a synodically trained teacher for the pre-school.

Then the pastor gave a very well prepared and thoughtful class in his ongoing series on miracles. His preaching that day too was challenging and engaging focusing on Galatians: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Since my family hadn't got back yet, I was invited over to a fellow-parishioner's house that Sunday for dinner and had a great evening.

All Lutheran churches have problems in some areas, some Lutheran churches have problems in all areas. But not all Lutheran churches have problems in all areas.