Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sin, Death and Original Conditions

This past week there were two very interesting posts around the blogosphere that are related, even if not obviously so. The first was a post over at Jason Clark's by Stephen Webb. This was the third post in a three-post series on creation care and animal rights. The second was a post at Scot McKnight's on Augustine (or really, St. Paul) and the doctrine of original sin. Both posts raise important and interesting questions or puzzles about evolutionary creation and the biblical narrative . (The phrase evolutionary creation is one I am very fond of and picked up from my friend Steve Matheson, whose blog is always worth a visit or two or sometimes three. EC is a more apt locution than theistic evolution in that the latter might suggest such things as theistic chemistry, theistic embryology or theistic whiffle-ball. But there's really just chemistry, embryology and whiffle-ball. Likewise, there is really just evolution. Some, like me, think that's how God created the natural world; but, adding theistic to evolution is as strange, I think, as adding it to whilffle-ball.)

Let me start with Scot's post. Scot's provocative question was simply this: is there a gospel without original sin? Now to my ears, that's not a difficult question to answer at all. The answer is, no! There is no good news without the bad news of things having gone terribly awry, without there having been a cataclysmic fracturing of creation and ensuing misery. In any event, the puzzles and questions are just beneath the surface of Scot's question (and my answer), especially for those who accept evolutionary creation (as opposed to what the ID defenders are pedaling and what old-school creationists hawk) .

The puzzles are these. According to St. Paul, sin and death are related as cause and effect. The sin of the old man, the dirt-man--Adam--resulted in death and destruction. Death, on this view, is an intrusion into God’s good creation. It is the new man--Jesus from Nazareth--who undoes, atones for, puts to rights, and otherwise deals with sin and, according to St. Paul, it is the incarnation, life, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus that gains victory over both sin and death. See Romans 5.12, for example.

The problem or puzzle is how to reconcile the biblical story with an evolutionary account of our origins, especially the idea that death is an intruder into a previously deathless, earthly paradise. (There is also the problem of reconciling the idea of a historical, single Adam. Though, I myself find that issue less troublesome than the issue of death, and sin.) If you believe that God reveals himself in both books, that of nature and the bible, then you’ve got some explaining to do, as the two witnesses seem to give conflicting accounts.

Do you think the two can ultimately be reconciled? If so, how?

Now, over at Jason Clark’s blog, Stephen Webb suggests that animals were originally domesticated and that, apparently, either those ferocious fangs of the saber tooth tiger did not, pre-fall, exist at all or, if they did, they were not used for ripping to pieces its prey. In fact, to hear Stephen tell it, the predator/prey structure of the non-human animal kingdom is not original to creation.

Obviously, Webb’s view is also incompatible with an evolutionary account of our origins, with the very idea of common descent. One way to handle this problem is simply to dismiss the notion of evolution/common descent and embrace one of its rivals, ID or Young Earth Creationism. To do so, however, comes at a significant cost, namely, the cost of discounting the overwhelming evidence of common descent as a piece of Divine Deception. In other words, it may look for all the world like all living things are related by common ancestry, but they’re not really.

With respect to the first issue—death and evolution—I have some thoughts. But I’m really interested in how you folks think about these matters.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

All is Quiet

Today I leave for Innsbruck, Austria for a week. I'll be delivering a paper at the How Do We Survive Our Death: Personal Identity and Resurrection international conference. Here's what I have to look forward to greeting me Sunday morning, as I pull into Innsbruck:

My contribution to the conference, a paper titled Constitution, Resurrection and Relationality, presents the Constitution View of human persons, which I've been talking about for the past ten years, and most recently in Rethinking Human Nature. In the paper I situate the view as a materialist alternative to dualist views, on the one hand, and reductionistic versions of materialism, on the other. I then address a theological criticism of the view to the effect that my account of human personhood doesn't take the fundamentally relational nature of human persons seriously, and in fact contributes to social isolation and a sort of introspective atomism. I show how relationality is actually essential to human personhood on the constitution view and I try to demonstrate that human persons are always--from the beginning of the Christian narrative to its very end--persons-in-relation. So relationality is not just compatible with the Constitution View, and not simply congenial to it, it is in important respects essential to the view. I also sugest that if we are to survive death, either in the sense of immediate survival or resurrection from the dead, then these very bodies must survive or be raised. If you're interested, the paper will appear along with the other papers being presented (including papers by Dean Zimmerman, Hud Hudson, Eric Olson and Stephen Davis--the rest of the U.S. contingent) in a forthcoming volume on the same topic.

All of that to say--things will be a little quieter than usual around H-SAB over the next week. I do aim however to queue up a post to appear while I'm gone, and I hope you find it interesting and have some thoughts on the subject it addresses.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What Does Human Flourishing Look Like: Part II

This is a follow-up to the previous post. The video below is eminently relevant to that post, and I would be interested in your thoughts concerning the video, as they relate to that post. Be sure to watch this all the way through to the end.

What Does Human Flourishing Look Like in the New Jerusalem?

I have always believed that in the New Jerusalem or the New Earth, human beings will realize the end for which they were created. I still do. I have believed that in that consummated kingdom, there will be healing and wholeness, that crooked spines will be made straight, that the lame will walk and the blind see. I have believed that anything that impoverishes human beings--mentally, physically, spiritually--will impoverish no more. That there and then all will be made well, and that human beings and all of creation will flourish. I still believe this.

But what, exactly, counts as flourishing and what as impoverishment? Will we all have the same IQ in heaven, or will there be a range such that anyone within that range is flourishing? Will we all have 20-20 vision? But what about those like my brother whose vision is 10-15? Is that flourishing and 20-20 not? Again, will there be a range and a threshold such that everyone will be above the threshold but some higher than others? Suppose someone is born color-blind. Is that an impoverishment? Or suppose someone is mentally handicapped. Will their being made well mean that in the New Jerusalem they will be...well...like me? Am I the standard of flourishing? Are you?

This subject came up a couple of weeks ago at our subversive little group In Vino Theologica (in wine there is theology). One of our new members asked about one of their children who has special needs. (I'm not certain what her diagnosis actually is.) The idea that this member was struggling with was that perhaps what we have labeled a defect or ab-normal may be part and parcel to who their daughter is. Why think that what we have labeled a defect actually is? Maybe in the consummated kingdom there are ways that we will be more like her than her like us.

What do you think? What does human flourishing look like? Granted that all that impoverishes will be no more in the New Jerusalem, how do we tell what truly impoverishes? Will all that we label "handicaps" or "defects" be done away with or is it possible that in some cases we've mislabeled? And how can we tell? Here and now?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monkey See Monkey Do

Spain has recently passed legislation granting legal rights to apes. Animal rights activists in Austria are taking legal action to have a chimp named Matthew declared a person. They have as yet been unsuccessful but are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in the hope of prevailing.

Like the issues of gay rights and abortion rights, the rhetoric that generally attends 'discussion' of so-called "animal rights" can tend to produce copious amounts of heat and very little light. On the one side are the animal rights activists who sometimes say and do things that strike us as mad, or just plain silly. To cite just two example, there is Matthew's supporters in Austria who contend that everyone has a right to a fair trial, even chimps. And of course the notoriously zany Leona Helmsley who, upon her death, left her dog some 12 million dollars and directed that that her vast estate (estimated in the billions of dollars) be used to care for dogs.

On the other side are the opponents of animal rights, some of whom are Christians, of course. They argue that God gave us 'dominion' over the animals, and that, I take it, is somehow supposed to mean that we can treat non-human animals anyway we like, thank you very much. There is also the argument that if we grant (say) chimps rights what's to prevent us from extending rights to earth worms and gnats? Moreover, extending rights to chimps, dogs, earth worms and gnats has the effect of diminishing the significance and value of peculiarly human life. Or so the argument goes.

In a NY Times Editorial a couple of days ago, Adam Cohen introduces a very sensible voice into the discussion. Essentially, he suggests the reverse of this last charge. He writes:

Critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings. But it seems more likely that showing respect for apes would elevate humans at the same time.

American law is becoming increasingly cruel. The Supreme Court recently ruled that states are not obliged to administer lethal injections in ways that avoid unnecessary risk that inmates will suffer great pain. If apes are given the right to humane treatment, it just might become harder to deny that same right to their human cousins.

For what it's worth, here's what I think, as a Christian. We human beings are of a piece with the rest of the natural world. Indeed we are animals, human animals. So that animals should enjoy a conscious life ought not to worry us since we ourselves enjoy a conscious life. Conscious lives come on a continuum, of course. The conscious life of gorillas, who seem to feel emotions and to understand and utilize language to communicate with humans, is more complex than the mental life of a dog; but, dogs too seem obviously to enjoy a robust conscious life. At the far end of the contimuum are those animals that are also persons, their conscious lives have a complexity sufficient for producing what I, following Lynne Baker, call a first-person perspective. So far as we can tell, in the natural world a first-person perspective is had only by humans.

There are two issues relevant to the discussion of extending rights to non-human animals that I want to discuss very briefly. First, I think Cohen is correct. Our practices toward non-human animals are character-forming, they shape the kind of people we become. Compassionate treatment of all living things, other things being equal, will tend to produce compassionate people. Treat non-human animals with compassion and you are likely to treat humans compassionately too, other things being equal.

Second, is extending rights to non-human individuals really that crazy of an idea? We extend rights of various sorts already to collectives such as corporations and groups. And rights, like conscious lives, come on a continuum. The sorts of rights that non-human animals may have coming to them in virtue of being created by God will be different than the sorts of rights persons have in virtue of being created in the image of God. Granted, there are difficult issues in the neighborhood; but, really, is the very idea of extending a right to an existence free of torture and exploitation to a non-human animal with a sufficiently well developed central nervous system that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain really that crazy?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wor(l)d and Sacrament

In this morning's NY Times there is a terrific article in the business section titled Warning: Habits May be Good For You. (You'll need a subscription--which is free--to be able to view the article.)

What the article does is essentially express what many of us
concerned with church and culture have been saying for a long time, namely, that the world, like the church, is in the business of formation, spiritual formation. And when you're in the business of spiritual formation, liturgy and sacrament--i.e., concrete practices-- are two very powerful means of creating, cultivating and cementing desired dispositions or characters.

In the church, it is virtues or the fruit of the spirit that we aim to form within us by cultivating various sorts of practices or disciplines. In the world, where the bottom economic line is the measure of success, it is an insatiable appetite for consumables that the prophets and priests wish to form within us.

For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.

This is a fascinating article. It tells the story, a good story, of an anthropologist with a desire to end the unnecessary spread of disease (especially in children) by getting people in certain parts of the world to wash their hands with soap. In Ghana, for example, they found that most homes have soap, but that only 4% of people used it after toilet use. After many unsuccessful educational campaigns to change the sanitary practices of the people in Ghana, the anthropologist turned to the prophets of our culture, multinational corporations, together with their priests, i.e., social psychologists and the advertising industry who consult them. The goal? To produce in the Ghana people an emotion or feeling (in this case the emotion of disgust), and then move them to cultivate a practice--handwashing--that would address the emotion and, in so doing, contribute enormously to ending or at least significantly diminishing the spread of certain diseases. And guess what? It's working.

Advertising is ubiquitous in our consumer culture. As Christ-followers, we are not immune to it or its effects. It could be argued in fact that the liturgy and sacraments of our consumer culture have more impact on our spiritual formation than the liturgy and sacraments of our churches. (Of course, part of the explanation of this fact, if it is a fact, might just be that most evangelical churches have abdicated the practice of meaningful liturgy and sacraments to our culture.)

In any case, we ought not fool ourselves. The life of consumption is, at bottom, a spiritual quest. It emerges out of the same restlessness and longing that are part of our created nature, and that drive us toward others, and God.
Consuming may be a misguided quest, but it is a spiritual quest all the same.

My question is this: how can we, the church, be the counter-cultural community of Jesus that we are called to be
(a community primarily of formation) in a culture whose sacraments and liturgy are more formative for us than the very society to which we claim primary allegiance?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Obama and Abortion

This past Tuesday Relevant Magazine published an interview with Obama. In that interview Obama is asked about his stance on abortion, specifically his stance on third-trimester and so-called partial-birth abortions. Here's how Obama replies:

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

Here is one response to Obama's answer in the Relevant Magazine interview, by Jan Crawford Greenberg:

...there's no mistaking that Obama says he no longer will support what's long been a cornerstone of the abortion rights debate: The Court's insistence that laws banning abortions after the fetus is viable (now about 22 weeks) contain an exception to allow doctors to perform them if necessary to protect a pregnant woman's mental health.

Others, in comments throughout the blogosphere, are pointing the finger and saying, "there, you see; he started out left of center and now has not only shifted center, but has blown right past center on his way to the right."

A couple of thoughts. First, the binary opposition of right and left and the impulse or drive to pigeon hole and demand absolute loyalty to one "side" is as much a proclivity of the "left" as it is the "right". On this issue, Obama is not flip-flopping or threatening to take away what is now a woman's "right" to choose an abortion. And he's not opposing the Court's insistence that laws restricting late-term abortions include an exception to protect a woman's mental health. He's simply saying that states can restrict or prohibit late term abortions so long as there is an exception for the health of the mother and that mental distress does not qualify as threatening the health of the mother. Surely there is a distinction between mental "distress" and mental "illness" or "disease" where a pregnancy in the context of the latter, we might imagine, would qualify as threatening the health of the mother. If mental distress was sufficient for ending a pregnancy the exception might have the effect of eliminating the very rule for which it is an exception.

The problem, of course, is that nuance and distinction are not the stuff of mainstream america or the media that creates it. Ms. Crawford is a part of the media that creates mainstream american culture. I fear that she, and those like her, are once again making political mountains out of moral mole hills.

In any case, I suspect there are increasing numbers of people who are tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of demanding that everyone who champions life agree with them on every aspect of every issue. And let's be honest. Roe v. Wade did not create abortions. Abortions existed LOOOOOONG before Roe v. Wade. On one plausible reading, what Roe v. Wade made legal was the performing of abortions by trained medical doctors. It essentially said to women, "as full and equal citizens, you deserve better; you have a right to an abortion that is safe."