31 March 2008

Whose church is it anyway?

On this rock I will build my church. -- Jesus Christ (Matthew 16.18)

This is not your grandfather’s church -- Gerald Kieschnick

That’s what I can never help thinking when I read stories like this one. It’s not that I deny the need for any and all change. But it depends upon the nature of the change. As C. S. Lewis once observed, all theology needs to be translated into the vernacular as it were. But some changes are simply a nod to a culture which may be in need of transformation. Nodding to a culture in need of transformation doesn’t make much sense.

But what really ought to concern people is not so much the sort of changes Kieschnick and his fellow travelers advocate. What really concerns me is the way Kieschnick replies to objections. If someone objects to changes, the appropriate response is to demonstrate that Scripture (whether explicitly or implicitly) either warrants the changes or at least does not forbid the changes. Telling objectors, “This is not your grandfathers church” is no reply at all. It is also not very respectful of one’s opponents (one’s supposed brothers in Christ) for it simply dismisses an objection out of hand as not even worthy of consideration, much less reasoned response. It's just a way of saying, "Shut up."

Besides its not the present generation’s church either.

H/T: Centurion
28 March 2008

Obama’s tax returns: revelatory

According to Sean Hannity, the Obama’s tax returns reveal that their charitable giving amounts to 1%. Slate posts the returns here.

Jake Tapper writes about the returns here (comments are entertaining, especially those in defense of the Obama’s), and here.

Bloomberg crunches the numbers here.

Frankly, I don’t think people running for public office should publicize their tax returns. (And they are not, rightly, required to do so by law.) But as long as they do so, I suppose it's legitimate to make observations. I observe that the rather generous giving (much, much, more than 1%) of the President received no praise from his critics, who persisted in calling him a greedy Republican, with no care for the poor, and so forth.

The people criticizing Obama seem to forget two things. First, people don’t always claim all of the charitable giving they do. (I know I don’t: sometimes keeping the necessary records is a greater pain in the neck than it’s worth. My state and federal income tax liability this year came to $87.00. Perhaps better records would have gotten me an $87.00 refund instead. I don’t know.) Second, being a liberal means, among other things, never (or, at least, rarely) having to demonstrate compassion out of your own resources. (President Clinton, for example, frequently complains of how little he pays in taxes despite being very rich, when, in fact, he can pay as much in taxes as he likes – as long as he pays at least what the IRS says he owes.)
27 March 2008

Why not “Commander in Chief of the Culture”, too?

Senator Clinton wants to be the Commander in Chief of our economy. I wonder if it would be worth while for someone to point out to her that the President’s role as Commander in Chief – of anything – is limited to the armed forces. That power is Constitutionally granted.

Is she really saying she thinks a President should have the same authority over the economy as over the armed forces? To run the economy the way that a President is empowered to run the military will require much more power over the economy than the Constitution presently gives the President, which is no power. (In fact, it will require more power over the economy than the Constitution presently grants to the President over the armed forces.)

I used to think she was a socialist. I was wrong: she’s a communist.

I suppose she probably wants to be Commander in Chief of Education, the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve and anything else which has economic implications.
26 March 2008

Shocking and saddening, but true?

Sean Hannity (1st Hour, 26 March 2008) was “shocked and saddened” by this:



Hannity objects, among other things, to Manning saying that Obama was born trash, to Manning’s calling Obama a pimp and a mac daddy, to his referring to Obama’s father as an in-heat black man who went “whoring” after a “trashy white woman”. According to Hannity it was hurtful, saddening and shocking to hear these things coming from a pulpit. He also saw fit to lecture Manning on the fact that words mean things. In short, Hannity was stuck on Manning’s words being hurtful and so forth.

Manning, for his part, contended that whether the contents of the sermon were hurtful and so forth the real issue was whether they were true. To Hannity’s objection to Manning’s use of the term ‘whoring’, Manning replied that it was a Biblical term.

Indeed it is rather Biblical to refer to people as 'whoring'. The term is especially used to refer to Israel’s pursuit of other gods. The idea connoted is of one’s pursuing intimate relations with someone with whom it is illegitimate to have such relations. The only way I can see Manning as having a case that Obama’s father went ‘whoring’ is if it were somehow illegitimate for him to marry a white woman, trashy or not. In other words, one would have to disapprove of inter-racial marriage in order to find Obama’s father “guilty” of ‘whoring’ (i.e., pursuing an illegitimate relationship). I do not. Manning just may; I don’t know.

I’m skeptical that Manning’s claims about Obama’s father (an in-heat black man who went ‘whoring’) and mother (a ‘trashy’ white woman) are in fact true. I do, however, agree that he was right that the truth of these claims is relevant, and that whether they are hurtful is irrelevant, or, at least of secondary importance. Hannity ignored the truth question and focused on whether the statements should have been uttered given how objectionable they were on grounds other than veracity. How politically correct of him!

As an added treat, Hannity even played the ‘let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone’ card (see Gospel of John, chapter 8). I love that one.

‘Milestone’ death toll in Iraq, some perspective

That’s how the news of the death toll in Iraq was described on my local radio station, a “milestone”.

The news media are keen to compare the “failed” policy in Iraq with the failed policy in Vietnam. (Indeed, Tom Palaima, on the truths that were not told at the outset of the war, included the fact that our soldiers were not told that this war was going to be like Vietnam. Makes me wonder: Were Union soldiers during the Civil War told that it was – or was not – going to be like the Revolutionary War? Were soldiers during the Revolution told that the Revolution would be like the French and Indian Wars?) I’d like to do the same. The war in Iraq has lasted from March 2003 to March 2008, five years thus far, and has resulted in 4,000 dead, or an average of 800 per year. The Vietnam War lasted from 1959 to 1975, sixteen years, and resulted in 58,209 dead, or an average of 3,638 per year. Three thousand six hundred thirty-eight. Per year. For sixteen years.

Vietnam also resulted in a loss, rather than a victory. My sources (for example, The Tanker Brothers and their comrades) lead me to believe that we are not losing in Iraq. I live just about right next to a military installation. (By that I mean that my house is close enough that I can hear various training exercises as they take place. Indeed, some of those exercises rattle my windows. It’s a beautiful sound. But I digress.) The wife of our most recent casualty, when interviewed by the local news, said her husband truly believed we are winning; and she made very clear that she believed him and still supported the war in which he died.

There is, as I’ve mentioned before, a striking similarity between Iraq and Vietnam: the role that the news media and various politicians enjoy playing – a role very similar to that of Ephialtes, the traitor at Thermopylae. They enjoy undermining the war effort, motivated, it seems to me, by a conviction that our “national sins” deprive us of the entitlement of self-defense, especially a self-defense which includes pre-emptive war. I also think their domestic dreams induce in them the fantasy that our enemies can be bribed into leaving us alone, thus freeing up funds for those aforementioned domestic policy dreams. Hence the mention, at any and every opportunity, of the economy, with a view to connecting each and every economic problem to the war in Iraq, and with no attending explanation of just how government spending on the war has caused our latest economic malaise: the foreclosure crisis, as if the war is the reason banks offered loans to people who really shouldn’t have got them, as if the war is the reason people who shouldn’t have applied for such loans (and no one really should have!) did in fact apply for such loans. Blaming the economy on the war – as if we never experienced economic difficulties until the President started this war. Besides, any war will eventually have economic repercussions, if that alone were a reason not to go to war then no nation would ever have a reason to go to war.

The same is true for casualties. If four thousand dead are reason enough for a cease fire then one dead is enough. This war should, therefore, have ended when Marine 2nd Lt. Therrel S. Childers and Marine Lance Cpl. José Antonio Gutierrez were killed on 21 March 2003. (I include them both because there was some confusion about which of them were killed first. Something else the aforementioned Palaima mentioned.)
24 March 2008

Exxon: "No more oil production"

Christopher Palmeri of BusinessWeek wrote an article last week on why Exxon won’t be producing more oil.

A few things the article points out: (1) that Exxon made a “record” $40.6 billion on $404 billion in sales; (2) that Exxon’s oil output won't keep pace with its own projections of worldwide oil demand growth of 1.3% a year; (3) that Exxon is motivated by considerations of what might be an “acceptable investment return” for stockholders (the very idea!); (4) that unlike oil, Exxon's production of natural gas is projected to climb over the next four years.

The only conclusion Palmeri can draw is that “The energy giant is being managed to achieve an acceptable investment return for shareholders, not for the benefit of consumers.” Wow. We really don’t need much verbiage wasted to tell us that a company is being run so that its investors can get a return on their investment. I’m sure, of course, that McGraw-Hill (NYSE: MHP), which owns BusinessWeek is not managed similarly. McGraw-Hill is managed solely for the benefit of its consumers, the stockholders being perfectly willing to lose money on their investments rather than make money. Happens all the time. (Normally, companies which consistently lose money eventually go out of business if they can’t somehow bail themselves out. Even then, they must start making money in order to remain in business. Thought you should know.) In fact, that is not the case. In 2007, McGraw-Hill made 14.7% profit, in contrast with Exxon’s consistent 10% each of the last couple years. This tells me that McGraw-Hill must surely be engaging in some price gouging at the news stand! (For further contrast McGraw-Hill employs about 20,000; Exxon employs over 100,000.)

Unlike Palmeri, I took a keen interest in item (4). “Why?” I asked myself, “is Exxon increasing production of natural gas and leaving its production of oil at present levels?” Oh, sure, it’s true enough that lower crude supply means higher prices, but while a company has to make acceptable return on investment it also has to please consumers. So, consumer activity has to be factored into the planning somewhere. One has to look at certain trends. One simply must take human action into account. And one question anyone in the oil business has to ask is, “What does the future of oil consumption look like?” I think there are good reasons for thinking that oil consumption may – just may – not increase sufficiently to warrant the sort of increase in production which Palmeri thinks Exxon should make.

One reason stands out: the desire for alternative fuels. If I were involved in planning at Exxon, why might I think it a good idea to leave oil production unchanged and increase natural gas production? If Exxon’s planners think that there is a greater return in natural gas than in oil, then they must also think that consumption of natural gas may increase. Assuming that (and I grant it is an assumption), what grounds might there be for thinking so? Unlike Palmeri (who seems to have no interest in pursuing answers to the “five journalistic questions”) I got curious and did some checking. Lo and behold if I didn’t locate a possibility.

As anyone knows, what with the concerns about global warming (or is it global cooling this month?) many are looking around to automobiles which will operate on alternative fuels, fuels which will burn cleaner. A very popular model has been the hybrid. But another type of auto runs on (this is just shocking!) natural gas, like, for example, Honda’s Civic GX. (See Larry West, “Sales of Honda's New Natural Gas-Powered Car Pick Up Speed as Fuel Prices Accelerate”.) Sales of the GX haven’t taken off as one might hope, yet. The main reason for this is that fuel for such cars is not as easy to come by as fossil fuels. (And maybe that’s why so many people are still using fossil fuels, eh?) However, sales are expected to increase as it becomes easier for consumers to fuel them. And how is it going to become easier for consumers to fuel them? Well, as West explains:

[A] Toronto-based company, FuelMaker, Corp…sells a home-based refueling machine that motorists can keep in their garage and use to refuel their cars overnight. The machine, about the size of a suitcase, compresses natural gas from the lines in your home and pumps it into the fuel tank of the Honda Civic GX. Refueling takes about eight hours.

Other benefits of driving a car powered by natural gas include hefty tax credits in some states and a new federal tax credit (beginning January 1, 2006) of $3,600 for the car and $1,000 for the home-based refueling machine. Another federal tax credit of $30,000 for anyone who builds a public refueling station, plus 37 cents for every gallon sold, may also increase the number of refueling stations along the highway.
Let’s see now. More natural-gas consumers. More natural gas production. Wow. I think I see a connection. Could be because, unlike Palmeri, a journalist, I actually looked for a connection. Evidently, Palmeri heard “acceptable investment return”, stopped paying attention, and missed the significance of the mention of natural gas.

You know, if I were a planner at Exxon and I had even a hint about this potential increase in use of natural gas, a new market for natural gas, I’d find a way to…uh…capitalize on it myself. It staggers the imagination that Palmeri expresses wonder that a company would plan for no growth and still hope to survive a period of projected increase in oil consumption. The problem is that he just wasn’t paying attention. Exxon – and he as much as told us this – is not planning for no growth. It is planning to grow something else instead of oil. What Palmeri managed to miss (surely because he wasn’t interested in looking) is that Exxon is not in the oil business; it’s in the fuel business. Planning to grow natural gas production (but not oil production) is not zero growth, zero production; it’s a net increase in growth, an increase in production. If there suddenly opened up a sizeable market for nuclear power, then (if I were an Exxon planner) I’d suggest moving into plutonium production, which might also be attended by zero growth in oil production.
18 March 2008

One needs only a sip to taste the sea...usually

A caller to the Rush Limbaugh show (2d Hour, 18 March 2008) objects that it is illegitimate to broadcast the brief portions of Pastor Wright’s sermon as exemplary of what Senator Obama has been listening to for twenty years. Take the following now-famous example:




(H/T: Anthony Bradley)

According to this caller, the whole thing needs to be heard in order to know and properly appraise Wright’s positions.

Perhaps, he’s correct. But how much more than this does one need in order to think that, while one does not possess exhaustive knowledge, one does have sufficient knowledge of Westboro Baptist Church?




Now, Anthony Bradly thinks Wright is being treated unfairly, saying, “To take a 3-minute sound bite and project that onto the whole church and to Obama is unwarranted. While one might not agree with Wright (and rightly so for many reasons) is it right…to treat both him and Obama the way the media has?” No, it isn’t. I think he’s correct. And I also think that an uncritical patriotism is not the test of a Christian’s orthodoxy. So even if this three-minute clip did adequately represent Wright's ministry, there is no reason for a preacher in a free country to be silent about his nation’s sins -- even if we don't care for the (shall we say) rhetorical devices employed.

But then, as Bradley also correctly observes, “[T]he religious left is…getting a taste of the treatment the religious right gets all the time: sound-bitten caricatures!”
One hopes not that this affair will somehow damage Senator Obama's campaign but that this whole business of "sound-bitten caricatures" will cease one day soon.
14 March 2008

A good, "healthy" dose of perspective

H/T: Thabiti Anyabwile
11 March 2008

Whence is duty?

Now that my brain is no longer simmering over low heat I offer further reply to my anonymous reader. (Note: I don’t label postings such as this “Duty to Reply” for nothing. Every critic gets a reply, so far as I am physically able to give one.)

He reminds me that I “never tried to refute the fact that if Christians are moral because of their belief in God then [I am] stating that 99.9% of the world is not moral because they don't believe in [MY] variation of God” (here). On one hand there is nothing to refute: I don’t believe that Christians are moral because of our belief in God and the rest of the world immoral because of their unbelief. This would logically require me to believe that the Christian who murders, steals, cheats, or commits adultery is moral, despite his actions, on the grounds of the presence in his heart of belief in God. It would also logically require me to believe that the non-Christian who does not murder, steal, cheat or commit adultery is, despite his actions, immoral on the grounds of the absence in his heart of belief in God. These are not positions that I hold. I conceded in “Amoral Man” that non-Christians act in ways which I credit as moral. But I also admitted that I credit those actions as moral on the basis of a Christian view of what constitutes moral acts, something which he believes is illegitimate for me to do. In other words, I judge Christians and non-Christians by the same moral standard. And the moral standard in Christian thought is not whether someone believes in the Christian God, although one of the requirements of Christian ethics is the honoring of God.

My friend continues to reply to me as if my argument in “Amoral Man” were that Christians (or theists in general) are morally superior to non-Christians (but particularly non-theists) simply by virtue of being Christians. In fact, I offered no such argument; nor would I have done. What I argued was that a non-theistic view of reality leaves no room for ethics. Not only would I not be the first person to make that argument, if I were still a non-theist I would not be the only non-theist to make that argument. As I also pointed out in “Amoral Man” many non-theists recognize this, among whom are Steven Weinberg and William Provine. This is not to say that the issue is thereby resolved. Rather it is to clarify that the precise point I was arguing is not novel, nor fringe.

On the other hand, so what if I do believe that Christians are moral because of our belief in God and the rest of the world immoral because of their unbelief?

I have found it very interesting throughout our exchanges that he believes there are things I ought to believe and, conversely, things I ought not believe. Indeed, some of my beliefs make me arrogant, so there is a moral component in his epistemology, as there is in mine also. In this case, as I understand him, I ought not believe that Christians are moral because of their belief in God and that the rest of the world is not moral because of their unbelief. Moreover, I am morally out of line for believing Christians morally superior to others just for believing in our variation of God.

Apparently I have an obligation, a moral obligation, not to believe that. I am not informed, however, how I come to have this obligation, this duty. He has been very consistent about insisting I have duties while being short on explaining how I’ve come to have these duties. He objects to me holding him accountable to my variation of God. So be it. I object to his holding me accountable to his variation of morals.

In response to my assertion (here) that “[I]n order for the atheist to be credited as living a moral life when he doesn't kill, he must have a duty not to kill, not simply a lack of desire to kill, or the simple fact of not having killed” my anonymous reader writes:
An atheist DOES have a duty not to kill. The only difference is that his duty is not based on a book that glorifies incest, murder, maimin [sic] and genocide.His duty is to his fellow man. His duty is to his society and to his species.
In my original posting I briefly discussed the subject of duty. I asked how anyone comes to have duties, on a non-theistic view. I asked to whom these duties are owed and how we come to have these duties to them. We are now informed that the atheist has duties to his fellow man, his society, and his species. We are informed that while the atheist has duties, what separates him from the Christian is that his duties aren’t “based on a book that glorifies incest, murder, maiming and genocide.” (I guess those things are immoral, and are related to some of the duties each of us has to his fellow man, his society and to his species. But I think he should be prevailed upon to demonstrate that these things are wrong, before he claims superiority for his system on the basis of this distinction between his system and mine.)

Besides, I asked, in the original posting, how one comes to have these duties? He doesn’t tell us. I suppose we have these duties just because he says so.

Neither are we told on what these duties are based. We are not informed how it is that my fellow men, my society or my entire species come to have rights against me that I act, or do not act, in certain ways. How is it that my fellow men, my society and my species even have the right to exist – much less to have rights against me? Who do they think they are? God? You see, if we don’t have the right even to exist, then I don’t see how we have the right to anything which makes our continued existence possible. “Thou shalt not murder” may be, as he put it in one of his earliest comments, nothing more than preservation of the species, but has the species any right to be preserved? If so, how does it come to have this right?

Here are some duties beyond preserving the species which he thinks people have:
1. Duties not to abuse children, not to divorce, not to murder, not to rape, not to produce guns, as evidenced by his listing these as moral failures (here).
2. Apparently, God (if he exists) has a duty, if he is all loving, all mighty and all present, not to punish people for all eternity just for not following his petty rules and regulations (here) – as evidenced by his complaint that God does so, and is “petty” in doing so.
3. A duty not to be so hateful of one’s fellow man as to clearly feel that atheists belong to a lesser class of men (here).
4. A duty not to be arrogant (here).
5. God has a duty to be compassionate (also here).
6. A duty not to be “a menace to society and mankind” (here).
7. A duty to meet a moral standard that is based on facts and not fiction (here).
8. A duty to live my life valuing the worth of this life rather than trying to impress some entity so as to get a pleasant afterlife instead of eternal damnation in hell (here).
9. A duty not to “start killing multiple members of [one’s] own kind for reasons that are clearly anti-productive and anti survival of the species” – in other words, a duty to be productive and promote the survival of the species (here).
10. A duty to aid one’s fellow man (here).
11. And, of course, a duty not to render decisions about who is moral based on whether they believe in my version of God (here).
Elsewhere he comments:

The simple fact is that a "true moral" Christian is no more -- or less -- "moral" than a raping pedophile. (here)
Certainly, the Christian is not more moral than a pedophile simply by virtue of being a Christian. He can only be more moral than a pedophile if (a) pedophilia is immoral (he doesn’t explain how this is so), and (b) the Christian is not a pedophile. On the other hand, if the Christian is an adulterer then he isn’t more moral than a pedophile, unless one wants to say that something about the predatory nature of pedophilia makes it a worse evil, since adultery is at least consensual. What I would argue is that my friend has no grounds for asserting that pedophilia is immoral.

Even if that were not the case, what I argued in “Amoral Man” was not that the Christian is more moral (I didn’t even argue that the Christian was moral at all), only that a non-theistic worldview denies reality to moral notions. It may be, as he asserts, that the Christian is no more, or less, moral than a pedophile. But this is true of the atheist as well, which is what I argued in “Amoral Man.”

Allow me to illustrate the problem as I have long seen it. A non-theistic worldview asserts materialism as the ultimate reality; everything is ultimately just material. The situation, as I see it, is similar to one in a universe in which all is fundamentally water. A man who is fundamentally water performs an act which is also fundamentally water and in attempting to distinguish his water-act from some other water-act in order to establish whether his water-act is right or wrong he applies a moral standard which is also fundamentally water. By this means water applies water to distinguish water from water. How does a standard which is ultimately water get applied by a man who is also ultimately water in determining the moral status of an act which is also ultimately water?

He might accuse me of reification here. But the worldview itself, being ultimately materialistic, automatically reifies everything without any help from me.

Finally, he asks (here),

Why is it so hard to understand that morals aren't something that Christians can claim sole ownership?
I think it is quite telling that in responding to a claim that his worldview is ultimately amoral he has chosen to do little else than recast my argument into something it has never been and, while he’s at it, accuse me of some wrong-doing. It’s his time to waste, of course, but I can’t help wondering: If he objects so much to being told his worldview is fundamentally amoral, why not just offer logical rejoinder which explains how his worldview is not fundamentally amoral? Arbitrarily asserting duties (e.g., to one’s fellow man, his society, his species) doesn’t explain how water generates moral standards for judging the actions of water. Accusing me of wrong doing doesn’t explain how water generates moral standards for judging the actions of water.

My question to him about how I come to have any duties to my fellow men, my society and my species has gone unanswered throughout our exchanges. It remains so.
04 March 2008

All the conveniences...

My wife and I have different views of necessities and luxuries. I'm a bit too spartan for her tastes. I think our living room suit is beyond what we really need (that futon was more than adequate); she thinks it was a steal. I think we have perhaps three times as many movies as we should; she's just getting started, I'm sure. When I married her my entire furniture collection amounted to a bed, dresser, desk and chair, table and two chairs. No, it wasn't the best situation for entertaining guests, but then that wasn't a priority.

One thing upon which we both agree: There's nothing like an infectious illness to make you appreciate the convenience of indoor plumbing. If you get my meaning.

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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