Saturday, February 04, 2017


If we were living in normal times, Milo Yiannopoulos is somebody I'd do my best to know nothing about. However, given the melee at Berkeley, I decided to watch Tucker Carson interview him. 

I think I first became aware of him during the Gamergate controversy. I also have some peripheral awareness of him in connection with Ben Shapiro. 

From what I can tell, Milo is basically an opportunist. He probably values Dionysian freedom. Beyond that I doubt he has a serious political philosophy. 

I'm guessing what makes him tick is that he's an aging homosexual. That fosters a carpe diem outlook. He's been able to tap into a segment of the youth culture, but his hipster appeal is threatened by the fact that once age catches up with you, that constituency will turn to someone younger and prettier. Age-wise, he's already at the outer limits of that market niche. Kinda like thirty-something actors who play teen dramas. You can only keep that up for so long. 

What's mainly of interest is another front in the culture wars. It's not secular progressives v. social conservatives, but secular progressives v. the alt right, or manosphere, or overlapping groups. 

It's a clash between different groups, all of whom are alienated from "traditional" values. To some degree, Christians are watching this civil war on the sidelines, because it's basically a fight between competing secular factions. 

One dangerous development is leftwing goon squads got up in black fatigues like the Fedayeen, physically attacking people who show up to hear Milo, Ben Shapiro, &c. Why don't the police arrest them? 

The alt right is a toxic mix of white supremacism and antisemitism, with a dash of chic Nietzschean rhetoric, yet it's no worse than the social justice warriors for feminism, transgenderism, ecoterrorism, euthanasia, &c. Pick your poison. 

Thursday, February 02, 2017

America First

Trump ran on an "America First" platform. I don't know what he means by that. We'll find out, based on what he actually does, or attempts to do. 

His slogan (which doesn't originate with him) raises the question of whether it's good or bad for a US president to have an America First policy. 

i) Obama is a self-hating American. He used to go around the globe, apologizing for American history and foreign policy. He presumed to speak on behalf of Americans generally. 

One problem with his groveling behavior is that he typically issued these apologies to countries with hideous human rights records. 

ii) America First doesn't imply that America is better that every other country. Rather, it's a statement of priorities. The job of an American president is to act in the best interests of his constituents. He's an elected representative of the American people. He's supposed to work for their benefit. 

iii) And that's a viewpoint which other heads-of-state are supposed to assume in reference to their own countries. The Scottish Prime Minister should have  Scotland First agenda. And so on and so forth.

iv) Nationalism doesn't imply that you think your country is the greatest country on earth. I don't think any one country has all the best things. 

However, some countries are definitely better than others. Some countries are horrible places to live. There are superior and inferior cultures. 

v) Putting national self-interest first doesn't imply an imperialistic outlook, where you conquer and subjugate other countries for their natural resources, to enrich your own country. And what's good for your own country may be good for other countries as well.

vi) America First doesn't imply isolationism. For instance, countries often enter into formal or informal military alliances. Take information sharing between the intelligence agencies of two countries. That can be mutually beneficial to the national security of each country. 

Fishing for spiritual compliments

On the internet I sometimes see people post a "prayer request" like this: "Please pray for me that I will be more patient and understanding with others. If I've been too harsh with anyone, please forgive me. If I've offended anyone, please forgive me"–or words to that effect.

But if you think about it, this statement doesn't own up to any particular wrongdoing. It's generic and hypothetical. So it has the fringe benefits of a confession without having to confess anything. A cost-free, public commercial for how humble the person is. The "prayer request" doesn't actually admit to any specific sin or objective wrongdoing.  

I think it would be best for people to desist from statements like this. They aren't really prayer requests. If anything, it's more like fishing for spiritual compliments under the guise of a confession or prayer request. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Class on NT textual criticism

Neil Gorsuch belongs to a notably liberal church

“Pope Francis” is not a friend of the Protestant Reformation

What Kind of “Reformation” Does Pope Francis Have in Mind?

In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity.

Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.

Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II. …

Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. …

Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.


This is a good gospel presentation in the form of a half-hour film, featuring James White and Paul Washer:

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Joseph Fitzmyer (1920-2016)

This makes a point I've often made, of which evangelical converts to Rome are generally oblivious or indifferent, that you had a sea-change in the Catholic view of Scripture in the second half of the 20C. A dramatic move to the left:

Along with Raymond Brown, S.S., and Roland Murphy, O. Carm., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., ("Joe Fitz" to all who knew him) was one of the leaders of the rebirth of Catholic Scripture scholarship in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond. Today, with the complete freedom that Catholic biblical scholars have and the high esteem many of them enjoy in the upper realms of American universities and colleges, it is difficult to remember how dangerous and difficult it was for these three and their courageous brothers and sisters in the Catholic Biblical Association of America to champion historical critical exegesis at mid-century. The worst of the anti-Modernist suppression of scientific biblical research in the early 20th century had passed, but its "long hangover" plagued Catholic researchers up to even the early 70s. 
It was against such fierce fundamentalist attacks that Father Fitzmyer and his comrades fearlessly defended the best of cutting-edge biblical scholarship, while honestly criticizing the excesses of some. Along with many others, Father Fitzmyer marked the maturation of Catholic biblical research by moving the center of gravity of Catholic scholarship from Catholic seminaries to colleges and universities, be they Catholic, Protestant, inter-denominational or secular. 
The Rev. John Meier is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. 

Natural law and contraception

Catholic philosophers and theologians who support Rome's position on "artificial" birth control attempt to construct natural law arguments in defense of that position. And pop Catholic apologists recycle those arguments.

Natural law arguments can be valuable, but they need to be formulated with great finesse. Teleology, per se, isn't sacrosanct. There's nothing wrong with impeding gravity so that we can fly airplanes. Likewise, water pumps contravene gravity to make water flow uphill.

The natural goal of a chicken egg is to hatch into a chicken, but it's not immoral to violate its tells by consuming scrambled eggs. Eating veal parmesan disrupts the natural order. After all, calves were designed to grow into cows or bulls. But eating veal parmesan is not immoral–the protestations of vegans notwithstanding. 

The nose and ears weren't designed to be a platform for glasses, but it's okay to co-opt them for that purpose. 

If letting nature take its course was a general (much less universal) imperative, that would pretty much abolish the medical profession.

The point of counterexamples is to test whether you consistently apply the principle you appeal to, or whether you make ad hoc exceptions. 

The standard Catholic argument against "artificial" contraception treats procreation as a special case of a general principle: natural teleology. The question, then, is whether the general principle is sufficiently discriminating to justify that particular application–while compartmentalizing that application from other permissible examples that run counter to the ordinary course of nature.

(When I say "special", I'm not using "special" as a synonym for "exceptional"; rather, I'm using "special" as a synonym for "specific"–in contrast to generic. For instance, brain cancer is a special case of cancer. Cancer is the general category, of which brain cancer is one example.)

The question is why the other examples, which interfere with the ordinary course of nature are permissible, but "artificial" contraception is not. 

The Catholic argument begins with the general principle of natural teleology, then treats procreation as a special case of that principle. And it regards the natural teleology as normative with respect to human procreation. 

Problem is, Catholics are forced to admit that natural teleology is not a reliable indicator of normative ethics. There are ever so many cases where it's permissible to disrupt the natural order. Take pesticides. Or selective breeding. 

Or, to consider some examples involving human pregnancy, viz. epidural anesthesia during labor and delivery. A caesarian section? Those artificially circumvent or contravene the ordinary course of nature. 

What criteria can Catholics use to refine their appeal to natural teleology while preserving their appeal to natural teleology. They can't begin with that principle, then admit that it may properly be superseded in any number of cases. In that case they have no consistent operating principle. 

Conception, contraception, and abortion

Let's consider a standard Catholic objection to "artificial" birth control:

During our second year at seminary, however, Kimberly discovered the lie that was at the root of our married life. In research for an ethics course, she found that, until 1930, Christian churches-without exception-condemned contraception in the strongest terms. The Protestant reformers, whom we revered, went so far as to call it "murder". Scott Hahn, "A Life in the Language of Love–Birth Control and Contraception".

That's a popular Catholic trope which gets cited time and again.

i) From the standpoint of Protestant epistemology, that's an illicit argument from authority. Traditional opposition to contraception doesn't make the tradition true. That's a circular appeal.

ii) Some denominations (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) foster groupthink. You're supposed to believe whatever your religious superiors tell you. In that case, a consensus of opinion is just a synonym for groupthink.

There's an elementary distinction between, say, people who independently arrive at the same conclusion, and people who think alike because they relinquish their judgment to a second party. For instance, cults may have great internal unity, but that's groupthink; that's unity based on rubber-stamping whatever the cult leader says. And that's the nature of very authoritarian, topdown religious institutions. 

iii) One of the virtues of Protestant theology is that we are free to revise traditional errors.

iv) Before the advent of modern science in reference to understanding the reproductive system, contraceptive technologies and pharmaceuticals, was there a meaningful distinction between contraception and abortion? Traditional opposition to contraception might well be justified at a time when "contraception" was really an attempt to induce abortion.

But it's anachronistic to apply that to the contemporary situation.The modern scientific ability to distinguish between conception, contraception, and abortion provides new information and creates new possibilities that did not exist before then. Absent relevant medical knowledge to distinguish between conception, contraception, and abortion, as well as lack of technology or pharmaceuticals which could be that discriminating, it made sense to support a blanket ban. 

To take a comparison, if a farmer doesn't know how much pesticide will kill all the insects, he will play it safe by using more rather than less to buy himself a margin of error.

v)  I'm simply responding to Catholic apologists on their own terms. There are people who think there's something impressive and disturbing about the fact that there's been a shift in Protestant theology regarding the permissibility of artificial contraception. I'm pointing out that the Catholic appeal to prior consensus ignores the basis of consensus. If the grounds for opposing something shift, then opposition may logically shift, inasmuch as the original basis for opposition is now defunct.

The mere fact that a belief is prevalent doesn't create any presumption that it's true. And even if it was justified at the time, that can be due to considerations which are now obsolete. If traditional opposition to contraception was based on the information and resources at the time, which has been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments, then the traditional position now operates on a faulty premise.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Secular progressives at a crossroad

Secular progressives and "progressive Christians" stand at a crossroads. They have two basic options:

i) One is to exercise critical sympathy for the viewpoint of at least some portion of Trump voters in order to coax them into returning to the Democrat party or joining the Democrat party. If Democrats wish to regain power, they need to rebuild and expand their fractured coalition. They lost in part because Obama overplayed his hand. 

And it isn't just the White House. Congress is in the hands of the Republicans. Moreover, Democrats will be defending 25 Senate seats in 2018. 

Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 in governorships. And Democrats now control only one quarter of state houses. 

All that bodes ill for redistricting after the next census. 

Of course, they might get lucky and Trump will bomb. He certainly has that potential.

ii) The other option is to fixate on in-group loyalty and solidarity. They signal each other that they are the faithful by continuing to proudly denigrate any and all Trump voters. Of course, that's what contributed to their loss in this election cycle.

Thus far, I've seen secular progressives and "progressive Christians" opt for (ii). It's more important for them to prove their virtue to each other by continuing to disparage Trump voters en masse. That seems to be key to their sense of purpose and self-identity. 

They'd rather do that than infect their ideological purity by reaching out to the leper colony that voted for Trump.

Are miracles extraordinary?

Dating the Exodus from Egypt

The FAQs: President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigrants and Refugees

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Papal wrecking ball

Smoking Out Islamists via Extreme Vetting

On board with waterboarding?

I'm going to comment on this:

i) A general problem is that throughout his article he uses the prejudicial word "torture", even though he's taking specific aim at waterboarding. But since he has just one particular technique in view, why not use that designation throughout?

ii) "Torture" has a range of connotations that may or may not intersect with waterboarding. Torture can be physical or psychological. Suppose you know that the terrorist has a phobia.

iii) Physical torture ranges along a continuum, viz. sleep deprivation.

There are different motivations for torture:

• Terrorize, demoralize

• Humiliate, dishonor

• Punish

• Extort criminal confession

• Sheer sadism

These motivations aren't morally equivalent to waterboarding a high-level terrorist to obtain intel regarding terrorist plots and networks. 

The government endorsement of torture should be seen as a watershed in our society, marking our descent into a barbarism previously unthinkable. I was raised in an Army family and well remember the revulsion against torture that permeated the American military culture. As a young officer in the 1980's, it was made clear that we were never to permit torture by our soldiers. Teaching an ethics class at West Point in the 1990's, our curriculum was uniformly opposed to torture. Well do I remember my grandfather, a World War II tank general, insisting that how America wins her wars is just as important that she wins her wars. "If we become like our enemies in order to win a war, we have in fact lost the war," he insisted. Such noble and humane sentiments seem no longer to have a place in our increasingly barbarized society. 

i) I like Pastor Phillips. But that whole paragraph begs the question. It's an attempt to shame people into agreeing with him. And it's counterproductive. 

ii) Moreover, appealing to what he was taught in ethics class at West Point is not an argument. He's simply giving the reader the opinion of his professor. He doesn't reproduce the reasons the professor gave. So that's an illicit argument from authority. 

iii) Furthermore, it doesn't occur to him that perhaps his attitude is the result of social conditioning. 

Most alarming to me has been the support of waterboarding and other forms of torture among evangelical Christians. To my surprise and indignation, instead of applying the obvious implications of the Sixth Commandment, Christian leaders have lined up in support of waterboarding.

Perhaps because they don't think that's an "obvious" implication of the Sixth Commandment. You can't just browbeat people into agreeing with you.

let me offer three arguments for the Christian rejection of waterboarding and other forms of torture: 
The torture of non-combatants violates God's Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, this commandment extends beyond murder to doing or even wishing harm against another (Mt. 5:21-22). Killing or harming armed soldiers is not murder, since the Bible commends just war.

So he says harming someone violates the Sixth Commandment. But in the very next sentence he says killing or harming armed soldiers doesn't violate the Sixth Commandment. He begins with a general principle, then appears to contradict his own principle in the very next breath. 

He doesn't explain how his exception is consistent with the general principle he invokes. Does he mean the general principle is suspended in that situation? Or is it just a prima facie obligation or pro tanto principle which may be overridden if it conflicts with a higher obligation? 

Why it's consistent with the prohibition against homicide to harm or kill armed combatants, but inconsistent with the same principle to harm a high-level terrorist to extract life-saving information? 

But torture inflicts terrible suffering on those who no longer pose a threat as a combatant. Whether or not it is true that "torture works" (and many legitimate sources have questioned this), the reality is that torture is a grossly immoral assault on divine image-bearers who no longer pose an armed threat. 

But that doesn't even attempt to engage the justification for coercive interrogation. Suppose we capture a high-level terrorist. In his position, he knows the command structure of the network, he knows where terrorist cells are located, he knows other leaders in the network, and he knows terrorist plans. 

The question, then, is whether a civil magistrate has the duty to harm him, if necessary, to prevent harm to innocent men, women, and children. 

No, he doesn't pose an armed threat, but what makes that the only morally germane consideration? Although he personally may no longer be a threat, his network remains a threat, and he has vital information about that life-threatening network.

The use of torture undermines the moral basis for just war. America has traditionally waged war for the sake of a better peace. Yet torture inspires anger and hatred for generations. America has traditionally understood that behind the military conflict is a battle for hearts and minds. But how can we fight terror - which is rooted in hatred - when we are torturing the fathers, sons, and brothers of an already hate-filled enemy? The reality is that how we treat prisoners of war is directly related to the justice of our cause in war. And the justice of our cause in war is always a matter of strategic as well as moral significance. 

i) Once again, that just begs the question. Devout Muslims hate the infidel. Moreover, Muslims have contempt for a weak opponent. 

ii) Furthermore, his comparison is confused. He's operating with a POW model, where once an enemy combatant is subdued, Geneva Protections kick in.

iii) But terrorists are unlawful combatants. Moreover, a high-level terrorist isn't equivalent to a low-level grunt you capture on the battlefield. Phillips is ignoring some important differences.

iv) Moreover, Geneva Conventions aren't equivalent to moral absolutes. I think the rationale behind the Geneva Conventions is pragmatic: we will treat your POWs humanely to incentivize you to treat our POWs humanely. 

The sanction of torture betrays the military's moral obligation for the ethical development of our soldiers. Do senior officers no longer have a moral duty for the character formation of their troops? 

Once more, that just begs the question. He takes for granted that waterboarding is wrong. But that's the very question at issue. People like Phillips are so convinced of their position that they really don't know how to argue for their position. They just assume the reader shares their intuitions. It doesn't occur to them that this is unpersuasive to someone who doesn't already resonant with their intuitions. That's what they need to defend–if they can. 

Do we consider what it must be like for our soldiers to be trained and commanded to perform these heinous acts of torture, as if they are not themselves victims of these savage acts? What horrors will we unleash on our civilian society when military torturers are returned to their families and neighborhoods?

But that's really an argument for pacifism. Phillips believes in just-war theory. Yet warfare can have a hardening effect on men who've witnessed or participated in the horrors of combat. And it's well known that some soldiers have great difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. Yet Phillips doesn't think that's a sufficient reason to oppose national defense. So his objection is inconsistent. 

The debate concerning waterboarding and other forms of torture comes down to the question, "Do the ends justify the means?" 

That's simplistic because there are many situations in which the ends do justify the means. To say that is not to endorse the-ends-justify-the-means as a universal principle. But there are situations in which a worthy end is sufficient to condone a particular means. Phillips himself believes that. He supports just-war theory. Well, what is that if not the implied principle that the greater good of prosecuting a just war sanctions the horrific, but necessary means? 

Phillips is resorting to an intellectual shortcut. And his arguments, such as they are, are full of gaps, tendentious assumptions, leaps of logic, and ad hoc exceptions. That's not a morally serious way to analyze morally serious issues. We need to draw necessary distinctions, and not default to catchy slogans that at best are half truths.