Monday, May 30, 2011

More Tired Equating of Socialism with Christian Morality

John Boehner was given an honorary doctorate by the Catholic University of America.

Some Roman Catholic bishops and theologians objected, saying that Boehner's budget policies oppress the poor in ways that violate the Magesterium of the Church.

No one paid attention.

E. J. Dionne said it's because the bishops and theologians were too civil.

We, with American Spectator's George Neumayr, disagree. We think that the public thinks and journalists quietly realize that the objectors were engaged in a worn out version of special pleading.

Here's Neumayr:

It is an old and crude attempt to identify left-wing politics with Catholic "Social Justice," a claim in a time of massive deficits that most people don't find terribly convincing anymore. The letter to Boehner is an obvious abuse of the concept of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church by academics who normally pride themselves on violating it. And these self-proclaimed champions of the poor aren't doing them any favors by trying to pressure Catholic lawmakers into clinging to policies that will eventually bankrupt government programs. As the poor in Spain are finding out, where welfare programs are being severely scaled back after years of prodigal spending, socialists take a knife to the safety net once they start to go bankrupt.

There's nothing more muddle-headed than equating leftism with compassion. Except that the left must love the poor, because their policies assure that we'll always have so many of them.

Ascension, Plato and the Bible

One of the better pieces of biblical theology that we've read lately is Fr. Robert Barron's Ascension, Plato and the Bible, posted at RealClearReligion. It captures the essence of what puzzles many contemporary readers of the Bible--what is Jesus' ascension all about--and rightly corrects the nasty neo-Platonism that infects too much casual Christian thinking.

We add only that as narrated in Acts, Jesus' ascension did seem to involve his visibly going up into the sky, as a visible symbol of going to the ouranos, meaning either "sky" or "God's place." We're sure that Fr. Barron would agree.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How to Disable Fred Phelps

The model Christians of Westboro Baptist are at it again, planning to make their characteristically  cruel and false statements in Joplin, and just in time for the big public service of memorial. Current word is that bikers streamed to Joplin to block the Reverend Phelps and his klan.

We don't know whether any blocking actually happened, and we look forward to ignoring further reports. We have tired not just of Mr. Phelps but of the constant indignation that so many citizens, most especially Christian citizens, express against him.

We think that instead of organizing resistance to his protests, the only way to deal with such as Mr. Phelps is for all others to become utterly united . . . in ignoring him entirely.

Mr. Phelps thrives on other people's anger, the only form of attention he can get. So all 300 million of us need to stop paying any attention to him. Then he's finished for good.

Let him continue to make outrageous statements at sensitive public events. Let him spray-paint the Washington Monument with his signature slogan. Let him appear at half time at the Super Bowl and have his own wardrobe malfunction.

But if we all ignore him, he's powerless forever.

Of course, it won't happen. It's more fun to fight with idiots than to ignore them.

Which is why we blog.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Energy Subsidies

Barack Obama is presently waging faux populism on "Big Oil."

Let it be noted that SWNID favors ending special tax breaks and subsidies for Big and Little Oil.

But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. SWNID also insists on an end to subsidies and tax breaks for Big Ethanol, Big Wind, Big Solar, Big Biomass, Big Coal, Big Gas, Big Hydro, and Big Nuclear.

Mr. President, set a five-year schedule for winding down all energy subsidies and most agricultural subsidies (which happen to push up food prices while stifling development in the parts of the world that need developing). Then let freedom ring Adam Smith's bell until we have a more rational distribution of economic resources that serves the common need for energy.

This isn't about who is getting rich and who isn't. We don't care if the rich get rich, as long as everyone can be better off. Exxon's profits don't make SWNID poorer, and confiscating them for some federal boondoggle won't improve the SWNIDish quality of life one bit.

This isn't about what's fair and what isn't, though that's closer. Fairness in the tax code is a tough concept to define, let alone attain, though there's no obvious answer as to why one business should have tax advantages over another. We refuse to engage in the game that argues whether this or that group deserves a special break for some high-minded reason that's usually thinly disguised self-interest.

This is about marcoeconomics, about efficiency as markets, over time, judge that better than does politics. Because in the end, it's always politics that decides who gets a break on their taxes. Always.

Which is why the populism is faux.

Circle closed.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Guy We Know Says It's Not the End of the World

There's an old-looking guy in this video who we think knows better than Harold Camping what is and isn't going to happen on May 21, 2011:

Why Religious Studies and Theology Are Not the Same

Joseph Campbell is widely revered in the academy as the Father of Religious Studies, or at least he is so revered by Bill Moyers.

Today the SWNIDish interface with g-mail highlighted this quotation, attributed to Professor Campbell:

Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy. 

Ha ha.

This is why SWNID has learned so little through the years from scholars of religious studies. The discipline is largely controlled by people like Campbell who work with uselessly inaccurate generalizations.

We can't say as much about the various lower-case, plural gods of the Hebrew Bible, but we don't think that "rules" were what distinguished them. Animistic and fertility gods are less noted for their rules than for their capriciousness, as far as we know. Maybe that's another uselessly inaccurate generalization.

But we think that Campbell was really thinking of the upper-case, singular God of the Hebrew Bible and only used the plural to deflect the charge of anti-Jewish and anti-Christian offensiveness. That God is routinely labeled an unmerciful rule-maker. And nothing could be farther from the truth.

The God of the Hebrew Bible gives rules, to be sure. And he also routinely exercises patience with people who break them. Like every single character of the Hebrew biblical narrative. It's hard to believe that someone could know that the central story of the Hebrew Bible is the Exodus and could then claim that the God of the Hebrew Bible shows no mercy.

Campbell loved to talk about "myth," which he said is poetry, not untruth. Fair enough. But when one's description of the "myth's" content is not factual when compared to the texts that embed it, we have a meta-myth, which is a falsehood: the unfairly inaccurate characterization of the God of Israel as a legalistic meanie.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Even Tim LaHaye Thinks Harold Camping Is Wrong

"Save the Date" happens Saturday, May 21, 2011, when Christian radio owner and blasphemer Harold Camping says Jesus is coming back (secretly to snatch the true church out of the world and trigger the Great Tribulation, blah, blah, blah).

Even Tim LaHaye, multimillionaire owner of the Left Behind series, knows that this is bunk, as he manages to say on his "Left Behind" web site. The date may be the only significant detail of the future that Mr. LaHaye doesn't at least imply that he knows, but there you have it.

This Saturday, we expect some people to be disappointed, some to be scornful, Mr. Camping to release a statement revising his estimates, and few to be impressed with what ought to impress: that the promises of the Christian gospel cogently address the universal human longings both for justice and for mercy, making acute sense of our otherwise benighted lives. Over the longer term, we think that the few will become more, with no thanks to Mr. Camping's Christ-dishonoring, self-exalting efforts. The good news is strong enough to penetrate through this nonsense.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Plus ça change . . .

DSK, head of the IMF, is a French socialist who stays in a $3000k/day suite at deep discount while conducting private business in NYC, forces himself on a chambermaid, flees to the first-class cabin of an Air France jet to get whisked off to his home country, once this budding Republic's savior and more recently its saved, which has no extradition agreement with this Republic, but is frog-marched off the plane by NYC's finest.

Makes you want to sing the Internationale, and in French, no less.

Question: why is the world's economy a mess when a man of this caliber is atop one of its most important international monetary organizations?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

George Will: True Prophet

Aged pundit George Will today offered the prognostication that one of three individuals will be inaugurated president in January 2013. Their names are Obama, Daniels and Pawlenty.

We agree. One makes us very happy. One will be a marked improvement. One won't be the end of the world.

Note who's not on the list.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sometimes People Say More Than They Think

Here's a most telling opening sentence from a Times Higher Ed Supplement review of a recent book on the origin of life on Earth:

Life on our planet is certainly miraculous - not in a theological sense, but in the extraordinary sequence of events and processes that seem to have been crucial in creating an Earth suitable for life.

Ah, "not in a theological sense." It's an enormously incredible confluence of specific circumstances that allows life, justifying the term "miraculous." But we can't talk about God, can we?

The book reviewed is celebrated science writer John Gribbin's The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth. So Gribbin uses "miracle" too, and in his title. Nice touch.

The upshot of the book is that the existence of the moon is the most important factor of many in allowing life to develop and thrive here. Why that's so important is aptly summarized in the review, as is the implication that other potentially life-bearing planets are all the more unlikely as a result.

But, apparently, still not as unlikely as God.

On the F-Word

Not that f-word, but the one that not-so-subtly undermines thoughtful discourse about God: "fundamentalist."

Peripatetic journalist of religion Terry Mattingly has a nice column that aptly summarizes the reasons why this word should be retired from contemporary usage. Blessedly he quotes the ultra-blessed Alvin Plantinga, whose analysis culminates in this definition:

Its cognitive content is given by the phrase "considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends."

We'd quote more, but that would spoil the fun.

In the meantime, we simply ask gentle readers to engage in a bit of self-awareness that just about anyone can be someone else's fundie, that many such judgments are made more on the basis of fashion and taste and social class than substantive disagreement or critical thought, and that one disgraces oneself by relying on such lazy rhetorical tropes, disproving the very enlightenment one claims when one uses them.

Postscript: the insurgent, not-so-gentle reader who awhile back was littering our comments with the other f-word has not made a recent appearance. If that person decides to continue her self-defeating exercise of hostility against parental figures by so doing on this post, we say that we have already anticipated what the witticism ought to be: the present participle of the primal f-verb modifying the plural of the religiously condescending f-noun. To intensify, go for the common compound present participle that embeds a direct object. If you're going to use vulgarities, at least use them properly and fluently.

Dream Ticket

Read to the end of this RealClearPolitics speculation on Mitch Daniels' prospective candidacy to the real news: that Mitch wants Condi as a running mate.

So cool. So, so cool.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Move Along: Nothing Exceptional Here

As just about the biggest N. T. Wright acolyte on planet earth (favorite statement: "We feast on the crumbs that fall from Wright's table"), SWNID is qualified to speak loudly when the most important biblical scholar of this generation slides into statements unworthy of his erudition.

Unfortunately, this happens almost routinely when Professor Wright opines on contemporary politics. Understanding well the ends that Christians seek if informed by the gospel, he routinely confuses the means with matters of international relations, economics and the like.

For example, in the run-up to the year 2000 (saying Y2K is so 20th century), Wright warmly endorsed the campaign for Western governments to forgive the debts of developing countries as a way of reflecting the gospel's focus on forgiveness, generosity, and lowliness. Our obvious point of disappointment in that position springs from the demonstrable history of such moves: forgiving the national debt of a developing country tends simply to empower the incompetent tyrants who run the countries while never showing the least effect on the people who live there. The tyrant uses the canceled debts to get more goodies for himself and his cronies, the nation runs up more debt, the rule of law isn't established in the tyrant's territory, its hapless residents remain without opportunity or liberty, and the cycle continues. Debt forgiveness empowers and perpetuates injustice, though it sounds so very noble on the surface.

Most recently, Wright has offered that the American commando raid on Bin Laden's compound, ending in the tyrant's death, is an immoral example of American exceptionalism, which Wright loosely defines as the notion that the United States can act morally in ways that other nations cannot. Thus, Wright argues, because the United States wouldn't want another nation doing that on its soil, the United States can't do it to others. It's a simple application of the Golden Rule to nation states.

To that, we say at one level, fair enough. Jesus' teaching about regard for others ought to apply to nation states. But let's think about that carefully, distinguishing what a government might want from what humans want. All humans, actually.

First, a detail. As we find the expression used most propitiously, "American exceptionalism" refers not to the notion that for the United States certain actions are moral that are not moral for other nations, but fundamentally to the notion that as a nation founded on certain ideals articulated out of a coherent political philosophy, not primarily a notion of ancestral kinship or territory (though these were indeed to some measure present at the founding and beyond), the United States tends to look at certain issues differently from other nations and so to act differently. Specifically, this notion explains why the United States, for all the sordid episodes of its history, nevertheless has shown a greater willingness than other nations to expend blood and treasure to secure liberty for other peoples, as well as to welcome other peoples to become part of the United States. Exceptions and failures abound, almost from the beginning, but the existence of any such efforts in American history stand out from the typical stories of international relations.

So, with that in mind, we fault Prof. Wright for his shallow appreciation of the universal human longing for liberty and justice. What makes the United States "exceptional" is merely the insight that all humans want and are entitled to liberty. Considering and affirming that insight, one is driven to the conclusion that, despite the protestations of its government and jihadist elements within its borders, thoughtful Pakistanis are embarrassed to learn that OBL was living right under their noses, angry at their government for letting it happen, and relieved that the SEALs "took out the garbage." That, in turn, helps us understand that the Pakistani government's bluster since the raid is mostly aimed at defusing this domestic indignation. They're trying to save face, in other words.

And so to Wright's analogy about American indignation if British commandos took out IRA terrorists holed up in Massachusetts, we reply that this American and everyone we know would under such circumstances be extremely angry with a government that tolerated international terrorists hiding in our country and did not cooperate with the demand that they be brought to justice. We would be relieved that British commandos did what our own officials refused to do. We would do everything we could to vote out of office the feckless government that let this happen. We would arrange a parade for the brave men who did the deed, right down Fifth Avenue in New York, followed by another down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, if we could get Washington's cooperation under such circumstances. We'd demand prosecution for the Irish-American romantics who harbored the evildoers.

The American vigilante hero of film and comic books, scorned by Wright and his forebears, resounds internationally, not just on these shores. That happens not because vigilantism is evil and so are its international fans but because the vigilante story addresses the human longing for justice. Yes, it panders to the perversion of that desire--the "revenge fantasy." But that perversion is rooted in the good: that deep within us is a sense that evil must be stopped or it will prevail.

Yes, Jesus warned that those who live by the sword will die by it. We don't look for the world to be made what it ought to be by endless commando raids. We do sadly know that humans sometimes turn to evil so decisively that we can only prevent the awful harm they do by using violence to stop them. This is not living by the sword (which in context condemns the disciples' use of swords to defend Jesus from going to his death) but with grievous regret bearing the sword for the sake of the imperfect justice that can provisionally protect the innocent.

The SEALs who made this raid did so at great risk to their lives, when OBL could've been killed by a remote-controlled Predator drone with a smart bomb. Why did that do that? Not just to confirm the kill but to assure as little "collateral damage" (injury and death to noncombatants) as possible. If risking one's life for the sake of others, which is the case at multiple levels for warriors on the front lines of a just war, is what Jesus did, then we find in what these men did something that is ironically cruciform.

In the end, if Christians want to be engaged in the public square with their theological values, they will have to think carefully about all the dimensions of the situation and not just react in the shallow, stereotypical ways that Wright's remarks, against his own type, represent. We have to own the outcomes, which means understanding the situation and the history, rightly identifying the problems and understanding the participants.

Treating all the governments of all nation states as equivalent is as demonstrably as immoral as is the caricature of American exceptionalism that Wright denounces. Treating people who live under corrupt governments outside the West as if they didn't care about justice and liberty is at best condescending. But if there is a God, then there can be such a thing as human nature that is at once corrupted by sin and ennobled by a yearning for what God intends. We know that Prof. Wright believes this. We just wish he'd think it through in situations like this one.

Postscript: Wright is presently the whipping boy of the neo-Puritan/Reformed movement (Piper, Driscoll, et al.). We figure that some will object to Wright's politics and assume that his theology is therefore also illegitimate, as the pied Piper and others have instructed. We hope that at least a few will eschew such ad hominem bluster, assess the real differences between Wright and his critics (which are slight), and come to more charitable and rational conclusions.

How Do You Shame Someone with No Shame?

Bin Laden's son says that his father's burial at sea is a "humiliation" for his family.

This gentleman's father was the leader of a global terror network that killed thousands of people, mostly Muslims, in the name of Islam. He saw killing innocents as a legitimate way to advance what he saw, against the traditions of his own religion and many other points of view, as the truth. He used women and children as shields for his activities--if not, as first reported, in his final moments, then certainly in his most routine tactical moves.

But it's the mode of his burial that humiliates the family, multiple wives and all.

And so he threatens to sue in American courts--in the very system that his father denounced as corrupt and godless.

Thanks, Omar Bin Laden, for this insight into the mind of jihadist terrorism.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Obama as Commander in Chief: Don't Carp

More or less predictably the President's political opponents (notably, not many in public office) are complaining about how he made his decision to take out OBL, or how he announced it.

We offer that such talk is self-defeating.

On the decision itself, the Daily Mail complains that BHO slept on the decision to make the raid, as if that belies the image of decisiveness put forth by his handlers. We say that's bunk.

After all, what's 16 hours after 9 2/3 years? Especially when we can watch the joint carefully, we aren't sure that OBL is actually there, if he is he probably hasn't moved in a month of Sundays, and we've got options to consider (do nothing, bomb the joint, send the Seals--at great risk to their safety).

"Decisiveness" is overrated, in the SWNIDish view. Often it's useful to take time to deliberate, to gather information, to consult, to let one's unconscious mind stew over an issue. As the magnificent Steven Sample argues, it's wise to "think gray," to defer a decision until a decision is really needed. If they let you bet at the end of the race, why bet at the beginning?

On the announcement of the decision and subsequent communications, we've seen complaints about everything from the number of first-person pronouns the President used in his Sunday night address to the photographs from the situation room released by the White House press office. Really, who cares? This is what politicians do, and anyone who thinks that the public is hoodwinked by such stuff doesn't listen much to the public. Those of us who got tired of Bush being criticized for his way of saying things can certainly tolerate someone else's excesses, even if they happen to be someone with whose policies we disagree.

Which comes to the proper point of criticism. The right should not criticize BHO for anything about this operation. Rather, they should point out that it succeeded to the degree that it was in continuity with policies launched by the previous administration, policies that BHO successfully ran against. One need not even accuse him of hypocrisy. One should simply point out that when the time comes to do something importat, Democrats act like Republicans.

And then they can criticize the President's vision of a redistributive welfare state that collects every dollar of GDP in taxes or bonds and doles it out to those who engage in politically sanctioned behavior. We don't care if the President takes two days instead of one to decide something, or that he takes credit for things that he didn't exactly do personally. We care that his policies are bereft of justification.

Monday, May 02, 2011

What to Think and Why to Think It About OBL

By now, we think that most readers of this blog could write the thing pretty well themselves. But given the momentousness of the occasion and the directness with which some have requested our wisdom, we offer some theologizing on the faithful Christian's response to the death of Osama bin Laden.

We urge our sisters and brothers to a decided, definitive, and utterly mixed response.

On the one hand, a man who has bowdlerized the notion of the Creator's justice as a pretext for mass murder, not to mention the ideological enslavement of his followers in the dehumanizing practice of evil, has been executed. This is a triumph of justice over the perversion of justice. Granted, it is provisional, imperfect justice, as justice rendered in this present, evil age always is. But the bad man has been killed by agents of the government whose innocent people he had attacked. That is a form of justice, and so the people of the just God have a responsibility to rejoice.

Indeed, they can rejoice loudly. Read The Apocalypse, gentle readers, and you'll find lots of gloating and taunting as God and his Christ defeat the forces of Satan and death. And as you read that capstone to the canon, remember that it largely remixes the familiar phraseology of Israel's prophets, who also taught God's people to celebrate the triumph of justice when it comes.

But our celebratory response is still a mixed response. The image of God, marred as it was by his wicked ideology, still was present in OBL. The God of justice is also the God of mercy, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. The best possible outcome was not the outcome here, as is too often the case. There was no Damascus Road for Osama; had there been, he would have treated it with contempt. Since the Exodus we have known of the proud and powerful whose hearts are further hardened by the mighty overtures of God's mercy.

But what did God tell the Israelites to do as he brought a bitter judgment on Egypt? To feast in celebration and remember forever how he had delivered them from their slavemasters, defeating the slavemasters' false gods and liberating the Israelites despite their own unworthiness.

Meanwhile, events move forward. Protests in the Middle East are yielding change, perhaps democratic change that will better the lives of the oppressed people of that benighted region, perhaps change that can bring a measure of liberty that will allow the gospel to flourish again where it did centuries ago. Or perhaps not. Certainly, one knows what to pray for in these days.

So celebrate this moment of imperfect justice, mourn the fallen state of humanity, and pray for God's victory to be realized more fully and widely. And if you can't handle that paradox, become a Muslim.

An OBL Post-Mortem Potpourri

We don't have the cognitive wherewithal to watch multiple channels of news coverage, but for our money Al Jazeera English is doing a fine, fine job of bringing together the issues on the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

And the key questions are: (1) What does this mean for US-Pakistan relations and Pakistan's involvement in anti-terror activities? (2) What effect will this have on the direction of the "Arab Spring"?

On 1, we're glad that Pakistani forces participated but wonder how many officials knew that OBL was under their noses.

On 2, we're guessing that this will further marginalize what a friend calls "the caliphate crowd." Folks want to be modern, at least most folks.

It's fitting that OBL lived to see in Muslim countries a nascent movement not toward caliphate but toward democracy. We'd say that's what really killed him, with all the props we can give to the intrepid Navy Seals who generously ushered him into his future and buried his remains at sea.

And as many wish that Dubya had made the fateful announcement, we remind gentle readers that his invasion of Iraq is likely the necessary impetus to the democratic movement sweeping the Middle East. Mission Accomplished indeed!