Monday, April 30, 2007

Interesting New Times Select Blog

If you subscribe to the New York Times or otherwise have access to Times Select, be sure to check out Mark Buchanan's new blog called"Our Lives as Atoms." Mark is a theoretical physicist, is an associate editor for ComPlexUs, a journal on biocomplexity, and the author of "Ubiquity: The Science of History," "Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks" and, most recently, "The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You."

I was quite taken with Mark's first post which focused on the false polarization of opinion seen on blog link networks:

We seem to be a rather polarized country. According to views often expressed in the media, especially online, Republicans revel in the idea of torture and detest our Constitution, while Democrats want to bring the troops home from Iraq only to accomplish the dastardly double-trick of surrendering our country to the terrorists and kicking off a genocide in the Middle East.

It’s odd then that recent polls actually show 60 percent of Americans wanting to see the troops come home from Iraq either immediately or within a year. Another poll has 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and 60 percent of Republicans agreeing that global warming is a serious problem and that we as a nation should be a global leader in doing something about it. Studies show that when it comes to issues ranging from health care to the death penalty, from immigration to Social Security, people in the so-called red and blue states hold remarkably similar views.

Still, the illusion of a nation divided persists, and one reason that it does may be oddly mechanical. It’s quite possible that the emergence of visibly polarized views in the media, especially on the Internet, may be an almost automatic result of the relatively simple rules by which opinions and attitudes propagate through human heads.

Before I explain, I’d like to bring up what might seem to be a separate issue, racial segregation.

In the early 1970s, it was taken for granted among American academics that persistent racial segregation was due mostly to racism. Studies had revealed widespread racial bias in hiring, promotion and pay, and real estate practices that worked to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods. But Thomas Schelling, an economist then at Harvard, suggested that another factor might also be at work.

Schelling supposed that many people, even those who are perfectly happy to live in an integrated neighborhood, might also prefer not to live in one where they were part of an extreme minority. You wouldn’t think this simple preference could have much influence, but it can. Moving coins representing people around on a grid of squares representing houses, Schelling showed that the simple preference not to live in an extreme minority should generally lead people to move about in such a way that a community ends up segregated into distinct, racially segregated enclaves.

. . .

What does this have to do with our polarized political world? Just after the 2004 election, a pair of mathematicians undertook a study of how blogs link to one another. Imagine all the blogs on the Web as points on a page, colored red or blue depending on their political slant. Now draw a line between any two if one of them links to the other. Doing this, Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance found that the red and blue bloggers belonged to strongly separated communities, within which there were many links between like-minded sites. In contrast, there were very few links connecting the red community to the blue. (The original paper has a nice diagram of the two communities, showing the links within and between them.)

This intellectual segregation of the like-minded into separate enclaves persists today. And it is almost certain that it can be explained by the operation of a process like Schelling’s.

People experience real psychological discomfort – psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance” – when confronted with views that contradict their own. They can avoid the discomfort by ignoring contradictory views, and this alone brings like-minded bloggers together.

. . .

The good news is, we’re not all bloggers – yet. And the American public still shows a more balanced range of opinion, much of it squarely in the middle, than one would guess from looking at the polarized blogosphere.

This spontaneous segregation of opinions on the Web is one example of a social outcome that really has very little to do with individual human intentions, and more to do with patterns that arise automatically through natural feedbacks. We often don’t see these feedbacks, but they can strongly influence our lives. Over the next month, in this column, I’ll explore a number of other examples ranging from the looming housing slump to the way humans across the world organize themselves into cohesive ethnic groups, which then express a natural distrust of outsiders.

Read it all (subscription required).

What's the lesson here--those of us in the blogoshere need to do a better job about linking to blogs that have a very different view than our own.

Larry Summers on Global Warming

I have written several times on the theological and ethical importance of global warming. Of course, the challenge to all of us who accept that global warming has such importance is this: what are the most efficient and practical means of stopping global warming?

Fortunately, Larry Summers has entered the fray--Summers is the former Secretary of the Treasury, former President of Harvard, and a highly regarded economist. He has started a series of article in the Financial Times. The first article was published yesterday.

This first article makes two important points. First, the Kyoto Treaty "cap and trade" approach is flawed:

There is a very real danger that the global cap and trade approach directed at achieving the rapid emissions reductions enshrined in the Kyoto protocol – now favoured by most European governments – could be ineffective or even counterpoductive by substituting for more realistic approaches to the problem. Kyoto is now the only game in town for those who do not want to be ostriches with respect to global climate change and so one has to hope for its ultimate success. But it is surely useful to try to be clear about the potential pitfalls, as I am in this column, and as a matter of prudence to consider alternative approaches if the Kyoto approach does not succeed, as I will in my next column.

First, the Kyoto approach depends on the questionable premise that nations will, in fact, be bound by binding targets or penalties for not meeting them. It is instructive in this regard to consider the history of the Maastricht Treaty within the European Union. It addressed fiscal targets directly under the control of governments over the relatively short term within a group of countries that had already achieved a high degree of cohesion. It broke down almost immediately when it looked like the targets would not be binding for big countries, with the goals abandoned and no payment of even the modest penalties.

There is to date little evidence that Kyoto is driving behaviour. Whatever evidence there is of impressive emissions reductions comes from countries such as the UK, Germany and the former communist states, where coal use was being phased out for other reasons. The limited impact of Kyoto is evinced by the fact that carbon permits are now selling in the range of a negligible one euro a ton.

Second, carbon markets are invitations to engage in pork-barrel corporate subsidy politics on a massive scale. If greenhouse gas emissions are to be substantially reduced, the value of the associated emissions rights will be in the tens of billions of dollars. While in principle emission permits could be auctioned, in practice they are always allocated administratively. It should not be surprising that businesses that can pass on carbon costs to their consumers are excited about schemes that compensate for these costs by allocating them permits related to their existing emissions levels. As investigations by this newspaper have highlighted, the clean development mechanism has resulted in substantial payments for emissions reductions that would have occurred anyway or could have been achieved at negligible cost. There is even reason to think that certain industrial gas emissions may have been increased so that credit could be claimed for their abatement.

Second, Summers makes a point quite similar to that made by Nicholas Knisely--that real progress will require participation by the developing countries (especially china and India), but Kyoto ignores developing countries:

[T]he most serious problem with the Kyoto framework is that it is unlikely to generate substantial changes in developing country policies. As my Indian hosts explained on a recent visit, developing country policymakers are not likely to accept binding targets on their energy use or greenhouse gas emissions that fall way short on a per-capita basis of emissions levels in the industrial world.

. . .

The truth about climate change policy is that developing countries are where most of the future action has to be. They will account for 75 per cent of the increase in emissions over the next quarter century and are now making the infrastructure investments that will shape their future economies. Moreover, any international regime that does not include them will not work because emissions reductions in the industrial world will be offset as energy intensive activities relocate to the developing world. The 1997 vote cast by all the Democrats in the Senate suggests that approaches that do not involve the developing world are unlikely to command political support in at least some parts of the industrialised world.

Read it all. Summers promises to offer an alternative framework next month. Stay tuned.

Hat tip to Brad Long for the link.

A Candidate, His Minister, and His Search for Faith

One of the most interesting features of the 2008 Presidential race is that all three top three Democratic candidates have a genuine (that is, not "made for cameras") faith life that in each instance predates any political aspirations.

This morning's New York Times includes a very interesting article about Barak Obama's faith journey. He notes that he came from a secular family of many religious backgrounds, and then describes his conversion:

This polyglot background made Mr. Obama tolerant of others’ faiths yet reluctant to join one, said Mr. Wright, the pastor. In an interview in March in his office, filled with mementos from his 35 years at Trinity, Mr. Wright recalled his first encounters with Mr. Obama in the late 1980s, when the future senator was organizing Chicago neighborhoods. Though minister after minister told Mr. Obama he would be more credible if he joined a church, he was not a believer.

“I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won,” he wrote in his first book, “Dreams From My Father.”

Still, Mr. Obama was entranced by Mr. Wright, whose sermons fused analysis of the Bible with outrage at what he saw as the racism of everything from daily life in Chicago to American foreign policy. Mr. Obama had never met a minister who made pilgrimages to Africa, welcomed women leaders and gay members and crooned Teddy Pendergrass rhythm and blues from the pulpit. Mr. Wright was making Trinity a social force, initiating day care, drug counseling, legal aid and tutoring. He was also interested in the world beyond his own; in 1984, he traveled to Cuba to teach Christians about the value of nonviolent protest and to Libya to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, along with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Wright said his visits implied no endorsement of their views.

Followers were also drawn simply by Mr. Wright’s appeal. Trinity has 8,500 members today, making it the largest American congregation in the United Church of Christ, a mostly white denomination known for the independence of its congregations and its willingness to experiment with traditional Protestant theology.

. . .

It was a 1988 sermon called “The Audacity to Hope” that turned Mr. Obama, in his late 20s, from spiritual outsider to enthusiastic churchgoer. Mr. Wright in the sermon jumped from 19th-century art to his own youthful brushes with crime and Islam to illustrate faith’s power to inspire underdogs. Mr. Obama was seeing the same thing in public housing projects where poor residents sustained themselves through sheer belief.

In “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama described his teary-eyed reaction to the minister’s words. “Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones,” Mr. Obama wrote. “Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story.”

Mr. Obama was baptized that year, and joining Trinity helped him “embrace the African-American community in a way that was whole and profound,” said Ms. Soetoro, his half sister.

It also helped give him spiritual bona fides and a new assurance. Services at Trinity were a weekly master class in how to move an audience. When Mr. Obama arrived at Harvard Law School later that year, where he fortified himself with recordings of Mr. Wright’s sermons, he was delivering stirring speeches as a student leader in the classic oratorical style of the black church.

Read it all. I hope the New York Times does a similar article on the faith journey of the other candidates as well.

By the way, David Kou (an evangleical that was in the Bush White House and is now one of its critics) has a very interesting take on the article:

These are all huge theological questions. They are questions of God's sovereignty, God's preference (or not) for a particular people, the nature and manifestation of evil, the reality of miracles, faith's relevance across racial and cultural and economic lines, and how much faith should motivate political involvement.

As such they should be dealt with theologically. I am eager to hear the discussions about such questions. Perhaps they can appear here on Beliefnet. I'd love to be able to ask Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright some pointed questions about their faith and what they think it means. But such questions and such discussions should have nothing to do with whether anyone should or should not vote for Sen. Obama.

I fear that even now that article is being zipped around evangelical circles and being dissected for attack ads later in the campaign. I fear that some on the secular left are doing the same thing in hopes of taking him down in the primaries. Both approaches are wrong. This isn't about politics, this is about theology.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Luther Place Rededication

There is no church that was more important to my own spiritual development than Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. I worshipped there from 1985-1988 (when I was a young law clerk) and then in 1997-2001 (when I was in the Clinton Administration). It has a rich liturgical tradition combined with an outreach to the poorest of the poor.

I was therefore pleased to read that a long-planned restoration of this grand old church has finally come to completion:

Worshippers at the Luther Place Memorial Church in Northwest yesterday celebrated their role as a bridge between the District's black and white communities inside a historic monument to Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The occasion was a rededication service marking a two-year, $2 million restoration of the Northwest church, which was built in 1873 as a physical act of reconciliation between the North and the South.

The church, on 14th Street near Thomas Circle, even has pews in the front dedicated to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and then-President Ulysses S. Grant, the former commander of the Union Army.

"It was designed to be a living testament for reconciliation. It started off with that spirit, then it fell into physical disrepair in the '70s and '80s," said John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton White House and a congregation member since 1973. "It's only now, recently, that we've been able to bring the church back."

And despite its Reconstruction-era roots, the year that many people focused on yesterday was 1968. In that year, Martin Luther King was felled by an assassin, and leaders of the church faced a tough decision about whether to close their doors and protect the church or brave the ensuing riots and continue to minister to the community.

"It was the key year for me that's determined everything that's happened afterwards," said the Rev. Robert M. Holum, noting that he arrived at the church in 1968.

The church stayed open and, in the years since, has housed a free medical clinic, substance-abuse programs, homeless shelters, food and clothing distribution programs, a burial plot for homeless persons and the city's first residence for homeless women. "The story of that church is the story of Washington, D.C.," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "Luther Place is a steward and beacon -- both of its beautiful buildings and of its commitment to acts of faith through good works."

The renovation included a repainting and plastering of the sanctuary, the installation of a new sound system and baseboard heating, and a restoration of the church's organ, its hardwood floors and balcony woodwork. The highlight was the installation of four new stained-glass windows in the front of the building honoring King, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who fought against -- and was executed by -- the Nazis.

"Each one of these four figures represents freedom, ultimately, different dimensions of freedom," Mr. Hamre said. "The four have this very unifying, shared theme, that in various ways that the church is responsible for freedom in the world."

The four figures enshrined in glass -- two white German theologians and two black civil rights leaders -- represent the Lutheran church's goals as much as the duality of the church, which hosts the predominantly white Luther Place congregation and the largely black Unity Fellowship Church.

"Martin Luther himself was an advocate for social justice," said the Rev. Abena McCray, leader of the Unity Fellowship Church in the District. "We don't have the exact same doctrines, but as far as our social justice outreach, we do the exact same thing."

Read it all. For more about Luther Place, its social ministries, and its renovation (including pictures) go to the Luther Place website.

Lost Opportunities: Nicholas Kristoff (and Reinhold Niebuhr) on Iranian Peace Offers

I am pretty moderate guy--especially when it comes to national security issues. Two years of working in the Pentagon gave me an eye-opening view of the real threats that we face--and that was before September 11th. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the Presidency of George Bush will go down in history as a disaster from a national security point of view.

Where to begin? The Bush Administration largely accepted a variant of the Clinton Administration's "Agreed Framework" to secure a non-nuclear North Korea--but only creating a crisis that resulted in North Korea developing nuclear weapons. All because we refused to engage with North Korea, and because we reneged on our own pledges under that Agreement.

By any measure, the Iraq War has been a disaster--there were no weapons of mass destruction, our land forces (Army and Marines) are bogged down in Iraq (and are thus unavailable for other threats), and our intervention brought less stability, not more, to the region.

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff may have identified the worst foreign policy mistake of this Administration: the refusal to engage in negotiations with Iran in 2003 after Iran made a serious peace gesture. Once again, the Bush Administration displayed remarkable hubris.

And, as I will explain later in this post, I think that the Bush Administration is guilty of the very hubris that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us about at the height of the Cold War.

Here is what Kristoff reports:

In May 2003, Iran sent a secret proposal to the U.S. for settling our mutual disputes in a “grand bargain.”

It is an astonishing document, for it tries to address a range of U.S. concerns about nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq. I’ve placed it and related documents (including multiple drafts of it) on my blog,

Hard-liners in the Bush administration killed discussions of a deal, and interviews with key players suggest that was an appalling mistake. There was a real hope for peace; now there is a real danger of war.

Scattered reports of the Iranian proposal have emerged previously, but if you read the full documentary record you’ll see that what the hard-liners killed wasn’t just one faxed Iranian proposal but an entire peace process. The record indicates that officials from the repressive, duplicitous government of Iran pursued peace more energetically and diplomatically than senior Bush administration officials — which makes me ache for my country.

The process began with Afghanistan in 2001-2. Iran and the U.S., both opponents of the Taliban, cooperated closely in stabilizing Afghanistan and providing aid, and unofficial “track two” processes grew to explore opportunities for improved relations.

. . .

This was shaping into a historic opportunity to heal U.S.-Iranian relations, and the track two participants discussed further steps, including joint U.S.-Iranian cooperation against Saddam Hussein. The State Department and National Security Council were fully briefed, and in 2003 Ambassador Zarif met with two U.S. officials, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad, in a series of meetings in Paris and Geneva.
Encouraged, Iran transmitted its “grand bargain” proposals to the U.S. One version was apparently a paraphrase by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran; that was published this year in The Washington Post.

But Iran also sent its own master text of the proposal to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. I’ve also posted that document, which Iran regards as the definitive one.

In the master document, Iran talks about ensuring “full transparency” and other measures to assure the U.S. that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Iran offers “active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization.” Iran also contemplates an end to “any material support to Palestinian opposition groups” while pressuring Hamas “to stop violent actions against civilians within” Israel (though not the occupied territories). Iran would support the transition of Hezbollah to be a “mere political organization within Lebanon” and endorse the Saudi initiative calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran also demanded a lot, including “mutual respect,” abolition of sanctions, access to peaceful nuclear technology and a U.S. statement that Iran did not belong in the “axis of evil.” Many crucial issues, including verification of Iran’s nuclear program, needed to be hammered out. It’s not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing — and still is today.

Instead, Bush administration hard-liners aborted the process. Another round of talks had been scheduled for Geneva, and Ambassador Zarif showed up — but not the U.S. side. That undermined Iranian moderates.

Read it all (subscription sadly required). Kristoff has copies of the original documents on his own blog. The most important of which is this document, which is a document edited by ambassador Zarif that was presented as the Iranian position. Iran faxed it to the State Department and sent it, through an intermediary, to the White House. Here’s a final, clean version, as it was transmitted.

Kristoff offers a bit more background on his blog:

When the Neo-cons killed the incipient peace process, they did so partly on the basis that Iran had been uncooperative on terrorism. At a meeting in Geneva on terrorism issues, Zalmay Khalilzad had told Ambassador Zarif that the U.S. had information of a forthcoming terror bombing in the Gulf area. Mr. Khalilzad reportedly asked Iran to interrogate Al Qaeda members in Iranian prisons for information about the incident. Iran apparently dropped the ball (it says it didn’t have enough information) and did not generate any useful intelligence, and the incident turned out to be a suicide truck bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003.

As I wrote in my column, I’m not sure that the diplomacy would have led to a “grand bargain” — there would have been very tough negotiating ahead. But the Iranian proposal was promising and certainly should have been followed up. It seems diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order for the Bush administration to have rejected that process out of hand, and now to be instead beating the drums of war and considering air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.
The moderate camp in Iran was discouraged and discredited when the U.S. rejected its “grand bargain” proposal. But there is still a chance that Iran’s May 2003 proposal could be revived as a basis for new talks that aim for normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations. And if there isn’t room for a “grand bargain,” there may at least be an opportunity for a mini-bargain. Condi Rice seems more willing to negotiate with Iran than other principals in the administration, so let’s hope she pursues this path.

The rest, as they say, is history. It appears that Iran is moving toward becoming a nuclear power. If this happens, it is likely that the major Sunni powers in the region (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt) will be moved to become nuclear powers in their own right. And virtually every military analyst that has looked at the current situation has agreed that the military options available to the United States are limited indeed.

Which brings me back to Reinhold Niebuhr. During the Cold War, he heartedly endorsed our efforts to contain and combat Communism, but he also warned against our own hubris. As David Brooks explains:

Ten years later, at the start of the Cold War, Niebuhr gave another set of lectures, this time in Fulton, Missouri; they served as the starting point for a book called The Irony of American History (1952). He began the book by making his position against communism clear: "We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice." Niebuhr would have chosen the word "demonically" with care; in effect, he dubbed the Soviet Union an evil empire thirty years before Ronald Reagan did.

Niebuhr was afraid, however, that in battling evil the United States would become intoxicated with illusions about its own goodness. He wrote,

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

Many Americans, Niebuhr believed, fail to see the irony of this situation and the limitations of what can be achieved. Instead they believe that the United States has a mission to spread democracy around the world. They think that this country is uniquely blessed and have come to regard it as the tutor to mankind. Nations in the grip of this sort of hubris seek "greater power than is given to mortals," he said. They become inflamed by hatred for their foes, and corrupted even if their foes really do deserve to be hated. And they become enraged when they discover barriers to the realization of their ideals.

They become, in short, a menace to the fragile fabric of the world. Niebuhr approvingly quoted a European diplomat who argued in the 1940s that American idealism imperiled Europe. "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself," the diplomat said.

Read it all. It appears that in fighting a new threat (Islamic fundamentalism), we are falling into the very trap identified by Niebuhr. We are inflamed by hatred for our foes and corrupted by own hubris.

Ben Myers on What's Wrong with Biblical Inerrancy

As you may recall, Ben Myers's Faith and Theology blog is having a poll on the wost theological invention. I voted for biblical inerrancy and that invention seems to have a big lead in the poll. Ben posted a very interesting commentary on why biblical inerrancy is wrong:

In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored (directly or indirectly) by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.

This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.

. . .

Christian faith has always confessed that Scripture is trustworthy. But what does this mean? Here again, we need to emphasise that the important thing about Scripture is simply what it says. When we confess that Scripture is trustworthy, we are saying that the message of Scripture is trustworthy, that it is a true and reliable message.

It is especially important here to avoid lapsing into a formalised notion of a trustworthy or “inerrant” text—as though the biblical texts themselves possess miraculous properties. The Bible is trustworthy because its message is trustworthy. It is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy—and this is, of course, entirely different from the trustworthiness of scientific or historical textbooks. In short, the Bible is a trustworthy witness. It is trustworthy because the one to whom it witnesses is faithful and true.

We can take a further step, then, and affirm that Scripture’s trustworthiness lies “outside itself” (extra se). Its trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ himself. It is trustworthy because it witnesses to him and proclaims him. We may even use the traditional terminology and say that Scripture is “infallible,” so long as we remember that this “infallibility” lies outside the Bible itself—it is nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than the infallibility of Jesus Christ.

Read it all. Ben's point is subtle--but it is an important one. We believe that the scriptures have authority as God's word, but this does not mean that each and every comment, phrase or claim is from God. To put it plainly, Scripture reflects God's word (singular), but not God's words (plural). Perhaps more importantly, we believe that God's word is the authority--not the scriptures themselves.

N.T. Wright, now Bishop of Durham and a leading biblical scholar has a very useful lecture on this very point that is well worth reading. Some highlights:

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be. The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else. I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light. It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up. The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.

This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture. The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans. (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.) It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another. But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative? If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.

. . .

I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself. (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’) If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture. And that is a complex claim. It is not straightforward. When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this. Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it. In other words, they think they know what authority is and then they say that scripture is that thing.

. . .

Then, we have to ask, if we are to get to the authority of scripture. How does God exercise that authority? Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. And this is itself an expression of his love, because he does not will, simply to come into the world in a blinding flash of light and obliterate all opposition. He wants to reveal himself meaningfully within the space/time universe not just passing it by tangentially; to reveal himself in judgement and in mercy in a way which will save people. So, we get the prophets. We get obedient writers in the Old Testament, not only prophets but those who wrote the psalms and so on. As the climax of the story we get Jesus himself as the great prophet, but how much more than a prophet. And, we then get Jesus’ people as the anointed ones. And within that sequence there is a very significant passage, namely 1 Kings 22. Micaiah, the son of Imlah (one of the great prophets who didn’t leave any writing behind him but who certainly knew what his business was) stands up against the wicked king, Ahab. The false prophets of Israel at the time were saying to Ahab, ‘Go up against Ramoth-gilead and fight and you will triumph. Yahweh will give it into your hand’. This is especially interesting, because the false prophets appear to have everything going for them. They are quoting Deuteronomy 33—one of them makes horns and puts them on his head and says, ‘with these you will crush the enemy until they are overthrown’. They had scripture on their side, so it seemed. They had tradition on their side; after all, Yahweh was the God of Battles and he would fight for Israel. They had reason on their side; Israel and Judah together can beat these northern enemies quite easily. But they didn’t have God on their side. Micaiah had stood in the council of the Lord and in that private, strange, secret meeting he had learned that even the apparent scriptural authority which these prophets had, and the apparent tradition and reason, wasn’t good enough; God wanted to judge Ahab and so save Israel. And so God delegated his authority to the prophet Micaiah who, inspired by the Spirit, stood humbly in the council of God and then stood boldly in the councils of men. He put his life and liberty on the line, like Daniel and so many others. That is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgement and salvation to Israel and the world.

I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like; that it is therefore the meaning of ‘authority’ itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world and, alas, in the church also. I have suggested, less systematically, some ways in which this might be put into practice. All of this has been designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing his light to his world. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed. It is our task to be the people through whom this extraordinary vision comes to pass. We are thus entrusted with a privilege too great for casual handling, too vital to remain a mere matter of debate.

So what am I saying? I am saying that we mustn’t belittle scripture by bringing the world’s models of authority into it. We must let scripture be itself, and that is a hard task. Scripture contains many things that I don’t know, and that you don’t know; many things we are waiting to discover; passages which are lying dormant waiting for us to dig them out. Awaken them. We must then make sure that the church, armed in this way, is challenging the world’s view of authority. So that, we must determine—corporately as well as individually—to become in a true sense, people of the book. Not people of the book in the Islamic sense, where this book just drops down and crushes people and you say it’s the will of Allah, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t do anything about it. But, people of the book in the Christian sense; people who are being remade, judged and remolded by the Spirit through scripture. It seems to me that evangelical tradition has often become in bondage to a sort of lip-service scripture principle even while debating in fact how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Not literally, but there are equivalents in our tradition.) Instead, I suggest that our task is to seize this privilege with both hands, and use it to the glory of God and the redemption of the world.

Read it all. I apologize for the long, block quote, but this is actually only a very brief excerpt from a very subtle and carefully crafted lecture. I urge you to read the whole piece.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Father Jones Speculates on the Five Dioceses Reported To Be Leaving The Epsicopal Church

Father Greg Jones (aka the anglicancentrists) offers some informed speculations as a follow-up to Father Dan Martins' explosive post yesterday about five dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church. As always, you should read all of Father Jones' comments, but here are some highlights:

Dan Martins has said his diocese, San Joaquin, is one of the five. In addition, I am led to believe that perhaps the other two Forward in Faith bishops are also. Forward in Faith began in 1977 as a group of evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood. In 1990, the group became the Episcopal Synod of America. It changed its name again in 1998 when affiliated with the Forward in Faith group in the Church of England which originated in 1992, in the immediate aftermath of the Church of England’s November 1992 decision to ordain women to the priesthood. In addition to San Joaquin, the dioceses of Fort Worth and Quincy are members.

. . .

So who are the other two? It is notable that at the House of Bishops meeting this Spring, the bishops of San Joaquin and Fort Worth didn't come...while most of the other Anglican Communion Network bishops did. The other Network bishops who didn't attend (or participate meaningfully) are the Bishop of Dallas -- who didn't come at all -- and the Bishop of Springfield who sat in the observers gallery for most of the time.

That leaves Dallas and Springfield as the most likely fourth and fifth candidates.

Therefore, I suspect the five dioceses that will be making some kind of bold announcement in the coming days: Fort Worth, Dallas, Quincy, San Joaquin and Springfield.

It is worth remembering that of these Dallas and Fort Worth alone are by far the biggest -- accounting for about 22,000 Episcopalians on an average Sunday. Yet, of that number, a significant portion are are going to stay in the Episcopal Church no matter what the diocese does. In Dallas alone, I know of two moderate churches first hand which account for 2,200 people on a given Sunday -- and both are staying Episcopalian. In Fort Worth there are also several parishes which will go nowhere. Probably 20% of these folks will remain loyal to the Episcopal Church.

The Diocese of Quincy only has 1,100 Episcopalians at worship on an average Sunday, in the whole diocese. San Joaquin and Springfield together account for another 6,500.

All five of these dioceses together amount to about 3o,000 Episcopalians on an average Sunday. But a significant percentage won't leave the Episcopal Church -- perhaps 20%. That means we are talking about a group of 24,000 average Sunday attenders who are likely to leave. This is about the same number as those worshipping weekly in Newark and Long Island together -- two of the most liberal dioceses.

If all ten of the Network dioceses leave the Episcopal Church -- but a moderate remnant stays Episcopal within those dioceses -- we'd lose probably a total of 65,000 Episcopalians on an average Sunday. Currently that would be about 7.5% of our average Sunday attendance in the entire Episcopal Church. This is a significant number -- but as a mass exodus (pun intended) it would be relatively small.

Obviously, there are people in non-Network dioceses who will also leave over the gay question, and other theological issues, but my sense is that most of these have already left for other denominations, Rome, the Anglican Mission in America (Rwanda), or other continuing Anglican offshoots.

. . .

I believe the five dioceses Dan Martins talks about will join CANA.

It makes sense that they would -- these being the most impatient and precipitous of the Anglican Communion Network dioceses. It also makes sense because unlike AMiA -- which has not adopted a strategy of claiming Episcopal property -- CANA defines that strategy. If these five dioceses attempt to take their stuff with them -- the National Church will have to intervene. Moderate parishes within those dioceses will also bring lawsuits against their schismatic leadership -- ala what's gone on in Pittsburgh with the moderate and large Calvary Church.

CANA is shaping up to be a ministry defined not by its orthodoxy, but by it's willingness to violate the letter and spirit of the canons, reports, and processes by which the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have sought to operate as a body. They are willing to go to court. They are willing to split the church local, national and global. They are willing -- and they are in the process -- of redefining Anglicanism according to how it is understood in Nigeria and by conservative extremists in the West.

Sadly, because of their impatience, they are undermining most their own conservative friends and allies. Probably, what they do in the U.S. is what they will do globally -- and they will actually find themselves out of communion with a great many Anglican provinces around the globe. What certainly won't happen is that they will be in communion with 37 provinces, and the Episcopal Church will be all by itself. No -- more likely -- Nigeria, and the 'Global South Steering Committee' will be on their own in their own rigorist Afro-centric communion. And that seems likelier and likelier to happen in the next couple of years at the most.

Read it all. I am no expert, but Father Jones' analysis is quite persuasive. Sadly so.

News Alert: Trees Don't Cause Global Warming

One of the memes in conservative circles (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) is that global warming is not caused by humans, but rather by trees. The basis of this strange assertion? A study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute and published in Nature last year that asserted that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas--perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere. Apparently, that assertions was, well, in error, according to Carl Zimmer:

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas--perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

The result was big news for several reasons. It was a surprise just in terms of basic biology--scientists have been studying the gases released by plants for a long time, and so it was surprising that they could have missed such a giant belch. Making the matter of pressing interest was methane's ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. Suddenly plants became a much bigger player in the global warming game.

Many news outlets covered the paper, and many made a muddle of it. Their wording implied that the scientists were claiming that plants, not humans, might be responsible for the recent rise in the global average temperature. The Max Planck Institute released a press release clarifying that plants are not to blame, and the Guardian and National Geographic published corrections.

Some pundits didn't heed the scientists, though. At, columnist Steven Milloy declared that deforestation ought to reduce global warming. "Our understanding of global climate system is woefully insufficient to support the rush-to-judgment advocated by celebrity-backed global warming alarmists," he claimed. The folks from the Wall Street Journal editorial page declared that "this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers." Rush Limbaugh sarcastically said, "Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming."

Fast-forward eighteen months. A group of Dutch researchers put the Max Planck team's conclusions to the test by tracing radioactive carbon isotopes through plants. Their conclusion: "There is no evidence for substantial aerobic methane emission by terrestrial plants."

The paper went online today, published in the journal New Phytologist. (It's free here.) The publisher sent out a press release, but my search has turned up almost no news coverage. There were three stories that were nothing more than cut-and-paste copies of the press release. I found just one piece of original reporting, at a site called Chemistry World, which I now intend to read regularly. The article casts the new paper as the first in a series of new publications that support both sides of this methane vs no-methane debate.

Read it all. I guess we need to work on reducing our green house gas emissions after all.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Faith and Politics: Lessons from Reinhold Niebuhr

When I was in public life, both as an elected official and as a political appointee, I gave a great deal of thought to the faith implications of a political career. There is the danger that a political job can become an Idol. I don't mean that politics can cause a narcissistic focus on one's career (although that certainly is a danger). Instead, I mean that there is the danger that a politician can believe that politics (not faith) is the path to salvation.

Yet, I also believed that God calls us to take action in this life and this world, and that a political life seemed an obvious way to meet the call.

The question is this: how to reconcile the recognition that salvation comes solely through God with the call to action in this world?

I was thrilled when someone gave me a biography of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that described Niebuhr's own struggle with this question. Niebuhr’s ultimate description of a Christian's appropriate role in the world was The Irony of American History. This book was written in 1952--very dark days indeed. In that book Niebuhr argues that it was entirely appropriate for the United States to combat Communism and Fascism, but he also cautioned that Americans were guilty of hubris in how they were viewing themselves in this struggle. He cautioned that language of good versus evil in describing that struggle was very dangerous.

I was therefore fascinated to read David Brook's column earlier this week in the New York Times. The column focused on a conversation that Brooks had with Senator Barak Obama on Niebuhr:

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”

My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.

On the one hand, Obama hates, as Niebuhr certainly would have, the grand Bushian rhetoric about ridding the world of evil and tyranny and transforming the Middle East. But he also dislikes liberal muddle-headedness on power politics. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he says liberal objectives like withdrawing from Iraq, stopping AIDS and working more closely with our allies may be laudable, “but they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy.”

In Chicago this week, Obama argued against the current tides of Democratic opinion. There’s been a sharp rise in isolationism among Democrats, according to a recent Pew survey, so Obama argued for global engagement. Fewer Democrats believe in peace through military strength, so Obama argued for increasing the size of the military.

In other words, when Obama is confronted by what he sees as arrogant unilateral action, he argues for humility. When he is confronted by what he sees as dovish passivity, he argues for the hardheaded promotion of democracy in the spirit of John F. Kennedy.

The question is, aside from rejecting the extremes, has Obama thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own — a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts?

Read it all (subscription required).

This is fascinating, but only with a little more context about Niebuhr. Niebuhr was originally one of the most prominent proponents of the "Social Gospel", which viewed the Gospels as a blueprint for action in the world. Niebuhr, however, soon turned away from the Social Gospel because he thought that it ignored the fundamental sinful nature of mankind. Here is a great summary of Niebuhr's views by Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga :

Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.

This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.

But Niebuhr insisted that the Christian life nevertheless requires us to embrace both parts of that formulation. Notwithstanding the more flattering preferences of liberal theologians, the doctrine of original sin was profoundly and essentially true, and its probative value was confirmed empirically every day. Man is a sinner in his deepest nature. But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God’s image, still capable of acts of wisdom, generosity, and truth, and still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All these assertions were true. All have an equivalent claim on the Christian mind and heart. In insisting upon such a complex formulation, Niebuhr was correcting the Social Gospel’s erroneous attempt to collapse or resolve the tension at the heart of the Christian vision of things.

Read it all.

What does Niebuhr teach us today? Niebuhr would be thrilled that the Episcopal Church was taking on fighting extreme poverty as a mission, but he would caution us to avoid believing that we, alone, will solve world poverty. He would likely cringe at the promise that we can eliminate poverty, but would urge us to try to do so. He would also likely support efforts to defeat violent Islamic fundamentalism, but would caution us not to use language that suggested that this was a battle of good versus evil.

Finally, he would remind us that we need to always remember the following passage from The Irony of American History as we take action in the world:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

It will be interesting to see if Obama follows this Niebuhrian course.

More on Einstein and Faith

I previously posted on Walter Isaacson's new biography of Albert Einstein. The Washington Post's "On Faith" webpage has a very interesting excerpt from the Isaacson book, which suggests that Einstein had very complicated views on God. Here are some highlights:

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Einstein also gave a remarkable interview in which he was more revealing than he had ever been about his religious sensibility. It was with a pompous but ingratiating poet and propagandist named George Sylvester Viereck, who had been born in Germany, moved to America as a child, and then spent his life writing gaudily erotic poetry, interviewing great men, and expressing his complex love for his fatherland. For reasons not quite clear, Einstein assumed Viereck was Jewish. In fact, Viereck proudly traced his lineage to the family of the Kaiser, and he would later become a Nazi sympathizer who was jailed in America during World War II for being a German propagandist.

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It’s possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

Do you believe in God? “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

Is this a Jewish concept of God? “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew.”

Is this Spinoza’s God? “I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but I admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.”

Do you believe in immortality? “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Read it all.

Why Healthcare Improvements Help Reduce World Poverty

The Millennium Development Goals focus on a variety of largely infrastructure improvements that allow economic activity to increase, and thereby reduce extreme poverty. Several of the goals focus on healthcare. What does healthcare have to do with economic development? Raj Nallari and Breda Griffith from the World Bank explain in today's Friday Academy:

The unacceptably high mortality rates in the least developed countries can be improved by the control of communicable diseases and enhancing maternal and child health. HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis (TB), childhood infectious diseases, maternal and prenatal conditions, micronutrient deficiencies and tobacco-related illnesses represent the main causes of (avoidable) deaths in low-income countries (CMH, 2001). Widespread disease also stunts the exploitation of arable land, migration and trade. Bad health stymies job productivity and an individual’s ability to learn and to grow intellectually, physically and emotionally. Through all these channels, ill health pushes the poor deeper into poverty. If disease was controlled so that individuals could reap longer and healthier lives, the pressure to have many children would abate and families could invest more in the health of each child. These improvements in health would in turn translate into higher incomes, higher economic growth and reduced (and more sustainable) population growth.

A healthy individual is more likely to be more productive than an unhealthy one. Better health increases per capita income through at least three channels. These are:

altering decisions about spending and saving over an individual’s life-cycle;
encouraging foreign direct investment; and
increasing the incentives for investing in education.

An individual is less likely to save for retirement when mortality rates are high. Falling mortality rates in many developing countries has opened up new incentives to save that impact dramatically, at least before populations begin to age, on national saving rates. The impetus from the national savings rates boosts investment rates and increases per capita income. Foreign investors are more likely to shun environments in which the labor force suffers from a high disease burden. Whole industries in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and tourism suffer from a lack of investment when disease is prevalent. Moreover, infrastructure projects suffer from a lack of investment also in high disease environments. Furthermore, endemic disease, such as river blindness, prevents individuals from exploiting land and other natural resources. Reduced mortality rates also make investment in education more appealing, as healthier children have higher rates of school attendance and higher cognitive abilities. A number of studies have shown the positive effect of health and nutrition on school attendance and cognitive ability (Balasz et al. (1986), Pollitt (1997, 2001), Bhargava (1997), Kremer and Miguel (1999)).

Read it all. This is good evidence that the economics behind the MDG's makes sense.

More on Ethical Implications of Global Warming

David Miliband, the U.K. Minister of Environment recently gave an interesting talk about the ethical and moral implications of climate change in Rome this week at a seminar on climate change organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I am impressed--especially since the Minister focuses on the implications of climate change on the world's poor as well as God's call to stewardship. Here are some highlights:

Climate change is not just an environmental or economic issue, it is a moral and ethical one. It is not just an issue for politicians or businesses, it is also an issue for the world's faith communities. The common thread that underpins my speech today is a belief that it is our moral duty to protect future generations, particularly those in the poorest countries who will experience the most acute suffering, from the effects of environmental degradation.

Across the world, we are now beginning to see a shift in attitudes to climate change. But well before climate change gained the profile it currently holds, the Catholic Church was warning of its consequences. In 1990, Pope John Paul II in his address to celebrate the World Day of Peace warned us of the dangers of irreversible damage caused by the greenhouse effect.

"In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources ... Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone ... its various aspects demonstrate the need for concerted efforts aimed at establishing the duties and obligations that belong to individuals, states and the international community."

Seventeen years on, the warnings are reaching a crescendo. A chorus of scientists and economists, entrepreneurs and politicians are voicing their concerns. Our challenge now is to translate the growing awareness of global warming into a sustained movement that changes the way we live, work and travel.

. . .

While we have underestimated the scale, urgency and impact of climate change, so too have we underestimated our capacity to address it. The technologies, policies and institutions exist or are emerging. The public support to sustain political change is also rising. Global warming can be addressed.

We must ensure that global emissions peak and then decline within the next 10 to 15 years, if we are to avoid warming of above 2 degrees centigrade. Above this threshold, the impact on people and nature is dangerous. Rising temperatures will see entire regions experience major declines in crop yields, up to one third in Africa, with rising numbers of people at risk from hunger. Rising temperatures will mean significant changes in water availability, with some areas seeing major water shortages, and sea-level rises threatening major world cities. Whole eco-systems from coral reefs to the rainforests face collapse and many species will face extinction. Storms, droughts, forest fires and flooding will have a major impact on human life. The poorest countries will suffer the most from the effects of climate change. The costs will fall on the countries who have done least to cause climate change, and are least able to adapt to its effects.

The wealth of evidence on the scale and impact of climate change has produced a major shift over the last 12 months. Paradoxically, the most urgent environmental challenge facing the planet has stopped being primarily an environmental issue. Climate change is not just, as Al Gore puts it, "a planetary emergency" but a humanitarian one. Climate change has also become an economic issue, a national security and foreign policy issue (triggering the possibility of unprecedented migration), and an international development issue.

But we must also recognise that climate change is an issue that raises profound moral and ethical questions. Economic or scientific analysis cannot tell us what value to place on the lives of future generations, or how far the developing world should help the poorest nations to adapt to the effects of climate change, and develop low-carbon energy. These are questions that must be guided by values, or principles, as well as facts.

Read it all. Hat tip to Kendall Harmon for the link.

Father Dan Reports "Chatter" About Episcopal Church: 5 Dioceses About to Leave

Father Dan Martins of San Joaquin Diocese reports some intelligence about an important development in the Episcopal Church by some dissenting Dioceses:

I enjoy movies and TV shows about espionage and high-level political brinksmanship. Recently this has ranged from TV fare such as The West Wing and 24 to films like The Good Shepherd and Breach. One of the standard quantum leaps that the writers for such efforts rely on is "intelligence chatter." They never explain what the source of such "chatter" (aka "traffic") is, and rarely what the specific content is, but it certainly moves the plot along. (I guess if they told us they'd have to kill us.)

Over the past week or so there's been a spike in "intelligence chatter" in the Anglican-Episcopal universe. From the sources I have been able to tap, along with those that have just fallen in my lap, I am reasonably well assured that a sub-group of some five dioceses within the Anglican Communion Network have cooked up a plan to hold hands and jump off the slowly-sinking ship that is the Episcopal Church and swim to . . . well, here's where the intelligence gets sketchy--OK, non-existent.

In order to protect the guilty (and my reputation, should I be wrong), I won't divulge the names of the five dioceses in question (except to say that my own is one of them). But if you are any sort of savant about contemporary ecclesiastical politics, you can probably guess them. In any case, I expect to know more--a great deal more--in less than a week's time. Whether I will be in a position to honorably pass on what I learn in a venue such as this remains to be seen.

I don't expect I'll cause any tsunamis by predicting that I'm probably not going to like the details when I hear them. In the most charitable construction, a move of this sort represents a 'Plan B' in response to last month's resounding rejection of the Primates' Pastoral Council/Primatial Vicar plan by the House of Bishops. A more jaded exegesis sees it as the most radical fringe of the Network exploiting the HOB's ill-advised actions by making a run for something more like they would have wanted in the first place anyway.

Father Dan himself strongly prefers the Primates' Pastoral Council/Primatial Vicar plan rejected by the House of Bishops last month. Read it all.

This obviously raises lots of questions, ranging from the practical (what happens to the pensions of priests in these Dioceses? Can non-dissenting congregations stay?) to the political (isn't there still time for a middle solution?) I am also mystified why these dioceses feel the need to leave--they won't call a gay of lesbian Bishop, they won't be forced to bless same sex unions, and I am not aware of any real authority that the Presiding Bishop has over these Dioceses.

New Trinity Cathedral Project: Beyond The Last Word

Trinity Cathedral is starting an innovative online ministry, and you are invited to participate. Here is the description of the new Beyond the Last Word website:

Welcome to Beyond the Last Word, an invitation to open-minded listening and dialogue initiated by members of Phoenix, Arizona’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Our conversations take their topical cue from Speaking of Faith, public radio’s weekly conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Using each week’s Speaking of Faith broadcast to set our topic, we will pose a set of reflections and questions linking that week’s theme to our more specific interests, needs, and concerns. Our blog hopes to extend our activities as thinking seekers to a broader population within our church community and to extend our outreach and intellectual hospitality to persons beyond metropolitan Phoenix. We hope visitors to our site will be prompted to offer further questions and observations and share those with us.

. . .

While new episodes of Speaking of Faith are available each Thursday, we plan to open each new conversation on the Sunday or Monday following and continue through the next weekend. This will allow our facilitators time to listen to and reflect on each broadcast, pursue some of the supplemental materials, and frame productive sets of questions. We anticipate posting at least two or three articles a week for our on-line community to consider and respond to.

Go to the site and learn how you can participate. I will be a frequent participant and hope you will come join us as well.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vote for the Worst Theological Invention

The Faith and Theology Blog is conducting a poll on the "worst theological invention." The candidates on poll were the result of a nomination process, and include the following seven candidates:

Biblical inerrancy
Double predestination
The rapture
Papal infallibility
Christendom (not to be confused with Chrisendom, which is also one of the worst theological inventions...)
Just war theory

Be sure to go to the blog and vote.

By the way, once you are at this blog, stay awhile. It offers a wealth of great stuff by a guy with solid credentials--he has a PhD on seventeenth-century theology and literature, and is now doing postdoctoral research at the University of Queensland.

Presiding Bishop's Remarks on Mission, a Prophetic Voice and Mission

The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop gave some very interesting remarks to a group of parish, diocesan and national church communicators from around the country. She reminded the group of the importance of mission in a broken world. Here is part of the report from the Episcopal News Service:

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori challenged a gathering of Episcopal Communicators April 25 to engage gifts such as proclamation, witness, storytelling, moviemaking, language, images to help usher in the biblical vision of shalom, of equality and justice for everyone.

"There is something gravely and sinfully wrong with a world where the division between the rich and poor continues to expand, where some still live in palaces and recline on ivory couches while others starve outside their gates," she told about 120 parish, diocesan and national church communicators from around the country.

"In our day, the prophets still speak for a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, where all children are educated and no one is denied the basic necessities of life."

While the Episcopal Church is increasingly focused on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a basis for its mission and work, telling the story of how churches are engaging the United Nations guidelines for eradicating poverty is part of the "important framework for what shalom might look like," Jefferts Schori told the gathering, which is meeting in Virginia Beach through April 28.

So is incorporating chaos theory -- that very small changes in initial conditions can lead to radically different results -- into mission, she said. "Each and everyone sitting here is capable of changing the world. Somewhere, somehow each one of us has the capacity to tame the chaos around us and turn it toward the peace of shalom. So where are the prophets? Who's going to speak those words? Who's going to do that work?

"What you or I do in this moment can bring hope or wholeness somewhere," she said. "The language or images we use can inspire or move others to be change agents themselves ... to move people to a different place. Your ability to tell stories like these can inspire others to change the world."

Read it all.

I was particularly touched by the Presiding Bishop's use of "chaos theory" to make the point that each of us has the capacity to make a real difference in the world. This reminded me of the famous speech that Robert F. Kennedy made to students in South Africa. He offered them hope at a hopeless time for blacks in South Africa by observing the following "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope... and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Southern Baptists and Childen's Health Care

As I have argued in several other posts, Democrats make a mistake in believing that the Evangelical vote can be ignored. The Evangelical community is a diverse one, and for many issues like the war in Iraq, economic justice and health care are issues of moral imperative that will lead a faith-based vote for a Democrat--if we make the overture.

Christianity Today offers support for my thesis from a surprising source. (James Dobson, call your office immediately):

Departing from typical conservative advocacy, the Southern Baptists' top lobbyist has joined an interfaith group calling on Congress to extend health-care coverage to every American child.

Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gathered with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders at a March 6 press conference to address the "moral imperative" of health care for children. "Some say [health care coverage] is all well and good, but we should focus on the main thing, pro-life issues," Land said. "I say the focus on health care is pro-life. We're not just pro-life from conception to birth."

Land and the other leaders endorsed reauthorization and greater federal funding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Begun in 1997, SCHIP faces little renewal opposition. However, according to People Improving Communities Through Organizing, more than $60 billion over five years will be needed to cover all of America's 9 million uninsured children. SCHIP's original budget was $24 billion over 10 years.

Of course, there are other voices in the Evangelical community (apparently with a personal stake in the matter) that take a different view of their Biblical responsibilities:

However, some evangelical leaders criticize federal and state assistance for diminishing parents' and businesses' responsibility to provide insurance for dependents. Other critics say such assistance fails to address the core issue of spiraling provider costs.

"Our health system is badly broken. It costs too much; too many people are uninsured," said David Stevens, ceo of the Christian Medical Association. "[But] we need a program that is not going to turn over children and the elderly to the government. … The Bible teaches us to take care of our families, and that we have the primary responsibilities."

Land sees no need for personal responsibility and government assistance to conflict. "If we can unite around anything," he said, "surely we can unite around the responsibility … to deliver health care to the nation's children."

Read it all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Plan to Cut Domestic Poverty

As I have emphasized in a large number of posts, I firmly believe Christ meant what he said about taking care "of the least of these." How we treat the poor among us is a moral and theological issues, and far too often we fail the test. I think that sometimes the reason we fail to act is because of hopelessness and cynical despair. We don't think anything we can do will work, so we despair.

On the issue of global poverty, as I have noted before, the facts are that we are making progress, and the Millennium Development goals offer a road map to nearly eliminating global extreme poverty.

On the domestic front, we saw great progress in reducing poverty in the 1990's--only to see much of that progress go away this decade. I was therefore very encouraged to see that the Center for American Progress has released a plan to reduced domestic poverty in half. An op-ed that will appear in tomorrow's Washington Post (available now on the web) offers a great summary:

This week, the Center for American Progress issued "From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half." The report is the result of the work of an expert task force over the past year. The task force was guided by new research finding that the annual cost to the United States of children growing up in persistent poverty is half a trillion dollars. It was also guided by the recognition that one quarter of U.S. jobs do not pay enough to support a family of four at the poverty line, and the number of families struggling to make ends meet far exceeds the number officially in poverty.

The task force calls for setting a national goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years, and recommends steps to meet the goal. The goal is ambitious but attainable. We have had periods of dramatic poverty reduction in U.S. history -- in fact, poverty fell by 50 percent between 1959 and 1973.

The report offers a four-pronged strategy to accomplish the goal, centered around the need to promote decent work, provide opportunity for all, ensure economic security and help people build wealth. The report outlines 12 principal action steps. For example, it calls for restoring the minimum wage to 50 percent of the average wage -- about $8.40 in 2006. It calls for a dramatic expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and for efforts to connect the 1.7 million poor and near-poor out of school, out of work youth with employment and training. It notes that 600,000 prisoners are now being released to their communities each year, and calls for states and localities to do more to help former prisoners reenter their communities with stable employment. And it calls for addressing holes in the unemployment insurance system that have meant that only about one-third of the unemployed -- and far fewer unemployed low-wage workers -- receive benefits.

Other recommendations would help people move to communities with better job opportunities; expand child care, early education, and access to higher education; and increase tax-based assistance for families with children and lower-income workers saving for homeownership, education, retirement and children's needs.

Many low-income communities face higher prices for basic goods and services -- from tax preparation services and mortgages to cars and groceries. Thousands of low-income homeowners with subprime loans and exotic mortgages are now being pushed toward foreclosure. The task force calls on governments to address the foreclosure crisis and curb unscrupulous and predatory practices. It also recommends the creation of a Financial Fairness Innovation Fund to broaden access to mainstream goods and services in low-income communities.

Implementing the recommendations would raise employment and cut poverty. The Center for American Progress commissioned the Urban Institute to estimate the effects of raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC and child tax credit, and increasing child care assistance. The analysis found that these steps alone would reduce poverty by 26 percent and help millions of other low- and moderate-income families. With the additional steps recommended by the task force, we can cut poverty in half.

Read it all here, and then read it the Center for American Progress Report here. Let's hope this report generates a dialogue that leads to action.

Linda Hirshman and Stay at Home Moms

Linda Hirshman really struck a nerve both in the blogoshere and here at home with her op-ed in the New York Times. She argues that affluent, educated women are doing a disservice to themselves and society by staying home to take care of children. Here is what she had to say:

Why are married mothers leaving their jobs? The labor bureau’s report includes some commonsense suggestions, but none that fully explains the situation. New mothers with husbands in the top 20 percent of earnings work least, the report notes. As Ernest Hemingway said, the rich do have more money. So they also have more freedom to leave their jobs. But why do they take the option? It’s easier in the short term, sure, but it’s easier to forgo lots of things, like going to college or having children at all. People don’t — nor should they — always do the easier thing.

The pressure to increase mothering is enormous. For years, women have been on the receiving end of negative messages about parenting and working. One conservative commentator said the lives of working women added up to “just a pile of pay stubs.” When the National Institute of Child Health reported recently that long hours in day care added but a single percentage point to the still-normal range of rambunctious behavior in children, newspaper headlines read, “Day Care, Behavior Problems Linked in Study.”

Should we care if women leave the work force? Yes, because participation in public life allows women to use their talents and to powerfully affect society. And once they leave, they usually cannot regain the income or status they had. The Center for Work-Life Policy, a research organization founded by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of Columbia, found that women lose an average of 18 percent of their earning power when they temporarily leave the work force. Women in business sectors lose 28 percent.

And despite the happy talk of “on ramps” back in, only 40 percent of even high-powered professionals get back to full-time work at all.

That the most educated have opted out the most should raise questions about how our society allocates scarce educational resources. The next generation of girls will have a greatly reduced pool of role models.

Read it all (subscription required).

We are the parents of a very active two year old. The world's cutest toddler. Really.

For about the first eighteen months of our son's life, my wife was able to continue working at the Governor's office in a job she really enjoyed. By the eighteen month mark, however, it was clear this was not working--despite our best efforts our son was not getting the continuity of care he needed and it was showing. My wife therefore made the most difficult decision of her life--that our son needed her at home. She does not regret her decision (although she loved her job). It was the right decision for our son and our family. We feel fortunate that we had the wherewithal to make that decision. Most families don't.

Hirshman is dead wrong--it was not "the easier thing" for my wife to decide to stay home. Far from it. But it was the right decision for our family. And it is simply not true that stay-at-home moms don't "use their talents . . . to powerfully affect society." Seems to me that affecting the next generation is doing just that. Finally, I think she misses the point--the decision in many cases (including our own) was not financial. Changing the tax code would not change our decision. In the end, the decision came down to what was best for our family. There comes a time when our children's needs have to come first. This was such a time.

Faith and Reason: Thoughts on Responses to Militant Atheism

As you can tell, I have been doing some thinking and reading on the recent flood of books by scientists that either denounce the rationality of faith (e.g., Dawkins) or that offer a reasoned basis for faith (e.g. Collins).

It seems to me that one reason why the debate is so unsatisfactory is that both sides in this debate come from such different world views. I am a good example. My faith does not come from a rational, fact-driven exercise in which I examined the evidence for and against the existence of God and came to a fact-based conclusion. My faith arose first and foremost from my own personal sense of contact with the Divine. I often feel God's presence, and that is why I am led to faith. I found it interesting that Dr. Francis Collins describes a very personal experience with a dying patient as the beginnings of his faith.

This is not to say that I then ignore my rationality--I am constantly testing the factual, historical claims of my faith. And so far, my faith has survived this scrutiny. Similarly, Dr. Collins' book is a detailed examination of the rational basis for a Christian faith. But, the origin of my faith (and that of Dr. Collins as well, I am sure) is personal spiritual experience--a personal experience that has led me to reject a purely deterministic and materialistic view of reality.

From what I understand, Dr. Dawkins claims to never had a spiritual experience. To me, it is therefore understandable that he takes a very different world view than me. Dawkins admits that he can't prove the nonexistence of God--he merely suggests that the burden of proof must be on those of us who say we have faith. I'll accept that burden of proof, but unfortunately, Dawkins would simply reject as irrational my best proof--the presence of God in my own life.