Thursday, May 25, 2017

All men suffer

He had never thought of the Olympian figures of the Close as in need of compassion;...All of them, and especially the...Dean, had seemed to live in a world where compassion was not necessary. He saw now that it was the very first necessity, always and everywhere, and should flow between all men. Men lived with their nearest and dearest and knew little of them, and strangers passing by in the street were as impersonal as trees walking, and all the while there was this deep affinity, for all men suffered.
Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch

Monday, May 08, 2017

St. Thomas Aquinas on the creation of man's body

I spent a probably inordinate amount of time some years ago arguing over whether, somehow, intelligent design theory is incompatible with Thomism. Others have done a more thorough job on that subject even than I have. (Jay Richards devotes several chapters to the subject in this book.)

Just every once in a while, though, I find myself frustrated anew at some new person who has been given the bizarre impression that neo-Darwinism is somehow "more compatible with Thomism" than intelligent design or special creation. This is, in my view, quite crazy, since St. Thomas himself was undoubtedly a creationist in what would nowadays be considered a crude, interventionist sense.

Time after time people will make statements about how Thomas was open to abiogenesis (not mentioning that this wasn't for some heavy metaphysical reason but because people erroneously believed they had observed it at the time), or talk knowingly about St. Augustine and the rationes seminales. And then will come more talk about secondary causes (yes, we know about secondary causes), until one almost starts to wonder why we needed Darwin at all. It begins to sound like maybe St. Thomas invented Darwinism before Darwin.

At those moments, I always point out that St. Thomas Aquinas was absolutely emphatic that God directly created the body of the first man from the slime of the earth. This often comes as news to the one considering or promoting some form of allegedly Thomistic theistic evolution. And then I have to go look it up again. So I got tired of looking it up this time and put the quotations on my hard drive, and I'm going to post them here, too. Notice that Aquinas explicitly rejects the notion that man developed from "seeds" in nature, a la Augustine.

So here is the reference:

Summa Theologiae, question 91: The Production of the First Man's Body.

Article 1 is "Whether the first man's body was made of the slime of the earth." I'll let you read it yourself. Hint: The answer, according to St. Thomas, is yes.

And in case you were wondering if he means this in some fancy, metaphoric sense compatible with a neo-Darwinian origin of man's body, the answer is no, he doesn't. How do we know? From Article 2, "Whether the human body was immediately produced by God."

Here's a really juicy quote, just before St. Thomas starts replying to objections:

The first formation of the human body could not be by the instrumentality of any created power, but was immediately from God. Some, indeed, supposed that the forms which are in corporeal matter are derived from some immaterial forms; but the Philosopher refutes this opinion (Metaph. vii), for the reason that forms cannot be made in themselves, but only in the composite, as we have explained (I:65:4; and because the agent must be like its effect, it is not fitting that a pure form, not existing in matter, should produce a form which is in matter, and which form is only made by the fact that the composite is made. So a form which is in matter can only be the cause of another form that is in matter, according as composite is made by composite. Now God, though He is absolutely immaterial, can alone by His own power produce matter by creation: wherefore He alone can produce a form in matter, without the aid of any preceding material form. For this reason the angels cannot transform a body except by making use of something in the nature of a seed, as Augustine says (De Trin. iii, 19). Therefore as no pre-existing body has been formed whereby another body of the same species could be generated, the first human body was of necessity made immediately by God.

Unequivocal enough?

But there's more. Aquinas explicitly rejects the view that the body of man was formed first and then ensouled.

Some have thought that man's body was formed first in priority of time, and that afterwards the soul was infused into the formed body. But it is inconsistent with the perfection of the production of things, that God should have made either the body without the soul, or the soul without the body, since each is a part of human nature. This is especially unfitting as regards the body, for the body depends on the soul, and not the soul on the body. Question 91, Article 4, reply to objection 4.

Timely, isn't it? Especially since intellectual Catholics have apparently en masse embraced an "ensoulment" view of the origin of man in an attempt to make their theology compatible with neo-Darwinism. (See my discussions of "ensoulment" here and here.)

What Aquinas says here is quite accurate from the viewpoint of hylemorphism. The ensoulment view, which makes the body of the first man (or men) indistinguishable from animal ancestors and even envisages the possibility of hominid zombies living in the same vicinity with newly-ensouled, biologically identical "real humans," is more like a bad caricature of Cartesian dualism than like anything remotely hylemorphic. (Nor even a sane, interactive Cartesianism.) As Aquinas says, in his philosophy "the body depends on the soul, and not the soul on the body." If you dislike "angelism" philosophically (and what good Thomist doesn't dislike angelism?), you should be completely closed to the ensoulment view of human origins.

Hopefully putting these passages here will make them easier to find next time this question comes up.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Trumpites and others should hold some feet to the fire

Well, well. What are the odds that those praising everything Trump does that could be remotely regarded as conservative will even mention this? It appears that the new DOJ is continuing to defend the suit against religious organizations that object to the Obama-era HHS contraception mandate for employers.

Prima facie, this is another broken campaign promise, and a particularly weird one. Nobody who was remotely conservative, or Republican, nor the vast majority of the American public, wanted these lawsuits in the first place. Only wild-eyed ideologues insisted on the contraceptive mandate, and Congress never passed it. It was made up out of whole cloth by Kathleen Sebelius in the Obama HHS and imposed as a pure diktat upon objecting organizations. The Obama administration spent large amounts of unnecessary money defending it, over remands, etc.. Dropping it now lies entirely within the power of the executive branch of government and is precisely the kind of no-brainer move that one might have expected even from lazy, unprincipled Donald Trump. No congressional action (such as repealing Obamacare) is necessary. Nobody wants this lawsuit, and it's wasting the taxpayers' money. And it looks bad. Who wants to be persecuting the Little Sisters of the Poor? Trump campaigned explicitly on a promise of stopping this nonsense. Jeff Sessions is now in charge at DOJ, and Tom Price at HHS. What are we waiting for?

It may just be some purely temporary delay. Perhaps this recent filing in the case will be followed very shortly by the administration's dropping the defense of the suit. Perhaps this is mere incompetence on the part of the Trump administration rather than actual promise-breaking.

But I'm going to go out on a limb and make a prediction: If Trump's feet are not held to the fire, the Little Sisters, East Texas Baptist, and other organizations will continue to be pressed to comply with an HHS contraceptive mandate. Trump's heart was never in this particular promise. He is lacking (as we Never Trumpers have always said) any sense of moral obligation to keep his promises. His daughter is very socially liberal and is one of his most important advisers. What he does in governance is spasmodic and to a terrifying extent random. He'll make a gesture that conservatives love one day and a gesture in the other direction on another day. One day he'll repeal the Obama letter concerning the interpretation of Title IX to include transgenderism. The next day he'll drop the attempt to repeal an Obama Executive Order requiring federal contractors not to discriminate on the basis of transgenderism, and say he's proud to be the first Republican President to support "LGBT" rights. Yes, he rescinded onerous reporting and proving requirements for federal contractors, but he left the non-discrimination order in place, so any true claim of discrimination on the basis of John's trying to turn himself into Jill will still scotch a federal contract. Despite homosexualist squawking, Trump came out on their side on this, but we scarcely heard a peep about it from Trumpites and their fellow travelers. Once when I brought it up on Facebook I realized that the person to whom I'd brought it up had no idea what I was talking about and thought I was confused about the Title IX issue instead.

Fortunately The Stream (which has published way too many pro-Trump articles, in my opinion) is asking the obvious question: Why is the Trump Administration Continuing the Fight Against Nuns and Baptists?

Why, indeed.

We need more outlets and op-eds asking the same.

One lawyer on Facebook tried to tell me that the DOJ has no choice if the regulations from HHS aren't changed because they have an ethical duty of "zealous advocacy." Puh-lease. Jeff Sessions has already dropped a lawsuit against Texas's voter ID laws. The DOJ drops suits all the time, when it is on either side, if it doesn't consider the public interest well-served by continuing a suit--which is obviously the case here. Here and here are more examples. I note that in the second of those two the Obama DOJ refused to defend DOMA because they decided on their own that it was unconstitutional! Sessions could simply look at the arguments and decide that the HHS regs. violate either the Constitution or the RFRA (a good case can be made for either), and any "ethical duty of zealous advocacy" disappears in a puff.

But in any event, this just backs the question up as to why Tom Price doesn't rescind the Obama-era diktat, promulgated by the department of which he is now the head. Or why he doesn't make a single move to do so. Another claim I've heard is that anything Price would do would require an onerous, painful process of "notice and comment" in order to repeal Sebelius's diktat, which (supposedly) she had to follow to pass it.

Yes, we all remember how incredibly painful and difficult it was for Sebelius back on August 1, 2011, when she handed down the contraceptive mandate from On High. Yes, yes, it was an "interim rule" (according to La Wik) which only became final on January 20 of 2012, so presumably the intervening 4 1/2 months contained that allegedly painful process for the HHS. But somehow that didn't stop her, did it? And organizations like the Little Sisters were on notice in the 4 1/2 months that this was going down.

And, I note, Tom Price hasn't made a single legal move (I will accept correction if someone gives it to me, with documentation) that resembles Sebelius's declaration even of an interim rule that reverses the Obama-era rule. If he did, that would give the DOJ the most obvious of reasons for dropping defense of the suit. This is accepting for the sake of argument that Price would have to go through a several-month (at least) "notice and comment" process to reverse a burdensome rule that is exactly similar to a process required to promulgate a new rule. I don't actually know that of my own knowledge. But if he does, he should get it started right now and set the DOJ's tender legal consciences to rest so the poor chaps don't feel driven to continue defending the suit.

I don't know what Price is thinking, because he explicitly opposed the mandate as a member of Congress. Perhaps Trump could give him a nudge? Odds are, though, Price cares more about this (in the right sense of "cares") than Trump does.

This is the kind of thing that the administration should be held accountable for. We all know that, if Obama were still President, the conservative headlines would be about what the "Obama administration" is doing in continuing the fight against the Little Sisters and other organizations. No one on the right would sit around twiddling their thumbs and telling us, now, now, don't blame Obama, the DOJ has a duty of zealous advocacy, and the HHS would find it so difficult to change the regs. back again. No: This would be laid squarely at Obama's door, as continued persecution coming from the executive branch. Let's apply the same standard to Trump. If he has good will in this matter he needs to speak up, and the same for relevant officials such as Tom Price.

Actions speak louder than words, and so does conspicuous inaction.

If pro-Trump conservatives want to argue that they weren't played for suckers, they need to stop cherry-picking Trump's behavior in office. Let's start with the HHS mandate. It's an easy case.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Belated thoughts on Good Friday and Easter

It is now the Easter season, a glorious one, and in my part of the world the weather is cooperating for once. Astonishing to see new green leaves and blue skies in Michigan at Eastertide. Alleluia! He is risen!

Later, I hope to have some thoughts on ecumenism and Easter, but those are not coming together very well in writing, so for the moment I'll just go on trying to exemplify what I think is a fruitful form of ecumenism related to music. More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, here is a rather solemn thought concerning Good Friday. As Jesus was dying, He must have known that there would be some for whom He died who would still reject Him, who would not accept His sacrifice on their behalf. What a painful thought! And yet, Scripture says, "Who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross...," and we know that Jesus is rejoicing with the Father now, despite the hard hearts of so many men towards Him. As the Easter hymn says, "All his woes are over now. And the passion that he bore, sin and pain can vex no more." We know, too, that our own joy in heaven will not be undermined by the knowledge that there are those who have rejected God's mercy.

Ultimately, the continued rejection of man cannot undermine Jesus' joy. Yet at the same time, as long as this world lasts, He stretches out His nail-pierced hands all day long, and by many for whom He died He is still scorned.

Truly it is all a great mystery beyond my comprehension. I'm just humbled beyond words that He died for me.

This year, I learned a new Passion hymn. It's astonishing that I've missed it all these years. It's truly lovely, but it seems to have fallen out of use even in the Anglican church. I never heard it in the high Anglican church I attended in Nashville nearly thirty years ago and have not heard of it at St. Patrick's here in the twenty-two years I've been here. I'll probably see if I can introduce it during Passiontide next year. I stumbled across it while singing hymns with my family on the evening of Good Friday. Here are the words.

His are the thousand sparkling rills 
That from a thousand fountains burst, 
And fill with music all the hills;
And yet he saith, "I thirst." 

All fiery pangs on battlefields, 
On fever beds where sick men toss, 
Are in that human cry he yields 
To anguish on the cross.

But more than pains that racked him then 
Was the deep longing thirst divine 
That thirsted for the souls of men; 
Dear Lord! and one was mine. 

O Love most patient, give me grace; 
Make all my soul athirst for thee; 
That parched dry lip, that fading face, 
That thirst, were all for me. 

This text is by Cecil Frances Alexander. She was a 19th-century poet and hymn-writer who wrote such famous hymn texts as "Once in Royal David's City" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful." The tune, Isleworth, was written by an organist and composer named Samuel Howard (1700s) about whom I can so far find out relatively little. The tune is beautiful and really "makes" the hymn. 



I'd first run into this sort of meditation on Jesus' thirst in a completely different musical context--Southern gospel music. The Cathedrals' song "I Thirst" says the very same thing: "He said, 'I thirst,' yet he made the rivers. He said, 'I thirst,' yet he made the sea. 'I thirst,' said the King of creation. In his great thirst, He brought water to me."



We are so blessed to have musical riches from so many different traditions.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
here would I touch and handle things unseen;
here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,
and all my weariness upon thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the Bread of God,
here drink with thee the royal Wine of heaven;
here would I lay aside each earthly load,
here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
I have no help but thine; nor do I need
another arm save thine to lean upon;
it is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;
my strength is in thy might, thy might alone.
Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness;
mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing blood;
here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace;
thy Blood, thy righteousness, O Lord my God!

Here is an old post on the Real Presence, rather brief. A few repetitions from it:

As creatures of flesh and blood, we crave the ability to give and receive tangibly and physically. The Book of Common Prayer says of the Sacrament that Christ has "ordained holy mysteries as pledges of his love." A side note, or maybe not such a side note: Edmund Spenser, when he portrays the lady Charity as married and surrounded by her babies, calls them "pledges" of her husband's love.

Here is the prayer of thanksgiving after receiving the Sacrament. It was, to add to the head-shaking, convoluted uniqueness of Anglican history, apparently written (rather than translated) by Thomas Cranmer, who died because he was unwilling to return to Rome and accept the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
He "assures us thereby of his favor and goodness towards us." By giving us these gifts and coming to us in them, by deigning thus to condescend to us, He continually assures us, week by week, of His favor and goodness towards us.

And here is my apologia for the doctrine of the spiritual Real Presence.

Even though it is almost over, I wish a nearly-belated blessed and joyous Maundy Thursday to my readers.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

This is the true face of the Alt-Right II

My first post by this title is here. It was sparked, in part, by a vile article at Radix Journal deploring the pro-life movement for being "dysgenic." Just to show anyone who is listening that this is not a mere accidental aspect of the alt-right, the infamous Richard Spencer has recently come out with a similarly despicable rant of his own, apropos of Tomi Lahren's firing for being pro-abortion. Jonathan von Maren quotes his comments at length here. I'm having a bit of trouble finding a link to Spencer's own video from which von Maren is quoting, but I'm going to assume that the lengthy quotes are accurate. Here are some doozies:

And if you look at the writing of people like Ramesh Ponnuru (of National Review) it is directly associated with this…that every being that is human has a right to life and so on. Well that’s not how we think as identitarians, to be honest. You are part of a community, you’re part of a family, you’re part of a collective. You do not have some human right, some abstract thing give to you by God or by the world or something like that. You’re part of a community and that’s where you gain your meaning or your rights. The anti-abortion crusade is often associated with family, the traditional family, but to be honest it’s descended into not just a human rights dogma but a kind of dysgenic “we are the world” dogma.

So if your community is dysfunctional or thinks you should die, you're outta luck, buddy. It's the community that makes it wrong or right to kill you. I guess exposing infants on hillsides in the Roman empire was just fine as long as they were exposed according to the rules of their community.

The most popular propaganda line for the pro-life movement is about “black genocide,” how this is “destroying black communities” and indeed is a racist plot by Margaret Sanger and so on. This gets to something that I think is a bigger point, and that is that the alt-right or identitarians, we can’t think about these issues in this kind of good or evil binary. We actually have to think about an issue like abortion…in a complicated manner, something that that issue deserves. Lothrop Stoddard talked about contraception, not so much abortion but contraception, as a potentially world-changing—for the good—technology, or something that could change the world for the worse. In a way he was absolutely right and I think contraception has to a large degree changed the world for the worse. Intelligent people will engage in family planning because they naturally have long time horizons, they think ahead. They aren’t just going to go run and have sex with someone without a condom and get them pregnant and so on…In a way, contraception has been terribly dysgenic in the sense that it is only the smart people that really use it. Smart people are not using abortion as birth control. Smart people are using abortion when you have a situation like Down Syndrome or you have a situation where the health of the mother is at risk. I would say that it is the unintelligent and blacks and Hispanics who use abortion as birth control, as a kind of late-term birth control. [snip] What I’m saying basically is the abortion issue is just a much more complicated issue than this kind of “good or evil” binary that the pro-life movement and the Christian movement want to use. We need to be more adult than they are.

I don't actually think the "black genocide" claim is the most popular pro-life line, but whatever. Spencer's point about what makes this "complicated" is that if the right babies are getting killed in the womb, it's okay. That's the "adult" way to think, according to Spencer.

We should recognize that the pro-life movement—this is not the alt-right, this has nothing in common with identitarians, and I think we should be genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country and who get caught up on this issue. We want to be a movement about families, about life in a deep sense, not just “rights” but truly great life, and greatness, and beautiful, flourishing, productive families. We want to be eugenic in the deepest sense of the word. Pro-lifers want to be radically dysgenic, egalitarian, multi-racial human rights thumpers—and they’re not us.

As von Maren says, this does a service to conservatives. Spencer is absolutely right that pro-lifers are not the alt-right, and if he wants nothing to do with pro-lifers, the feeling should be heartily mutual. Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering if a campaign official for the Trump campaign was dog-whistling the alt-right when she referred to Mitt Romney as pro-adoption, I'd say this last paragraph bears on that.

Beyond drawing attention to this new evidence of the despicable nature of the alt-right with regard to the abortion issue, what I want to do in this post is to take you all the way back to 2009 and show some eerie similarities between Richard Spencer's disgusting recent comments and a bizarre, not-wholly-coherent column by paleoconservative guru Thomas Fleming. The overlap, I emphasize at the outset, is not total. Fleming, as a Catholic, is clearly somewhat "conflicted" (to use a jargon term) about the abortion issue, whereas Spencer is a full-bore fascist eugenicist pro-abort as long as it's the right people being aborted. But the similarities are there and are instructive, especially if one wonders how various paleocons who should know better have gotten caught up in the alt-right. Also instructive for those who want to draw a sharp distinction between paleoconservatism and the alt-right. As I've already pointed out, historically such a sharp distinction is dubious, since Paul Gottfried did an explicit "handoff" of the paleoconservative movement to the "alternative right."

Here is Fleming's column. It got negative commentary at the time at W4 from one of my co-bloggers in a main post and even more in the comments to that post.

There are some interesting similarities between what Fleming says and what Spencer says. First, both of them use a kind of vague communitarianism and the dislike they feel (and their followers feel) for the language of individual rights as sticks with which to beat the pro-life goal of outlawing abortion. Spencer says outright that you get your rights only from the community. I kind of doubt that Spencer would want to take that to mean that he can be killed with impunity by a private entity, without having committed any crime worthy of death, if that's what "the community" decides, but he's very eager to apply this "nobody has an individual right to life" mantra to the unborn child as an argument that it's perfectly fine for unborn children to be killed at will by their parents. Especially if it's the "right" babies being aborted.

Fleming, similarly, seems quite opposed to the idea that abortion should be illegal and that it should be deemed a harm to the individual child.

But the fact remains that natural reason did not teach the Greeks and Romans that it is wrong to kill an unborn or newborn child, though some thought abortion shameful. There was no prohibition on abortion in Roman law, except where the father was not consulted. In that case, she was guilty of depriving him and his ancestors of an heir. This is, at least, a more wholesome approach than our current abortion law, though it rests not on reason but on family loyalty. [LM: How nice. What if the father is the one who wants the baby dead?]
[snip]
The most basic error is to cover Christian truth with the tinsel trappings of Enlightenment universalism that makes everyone owe everyone else the same duties. Thus, we hear sweeping claims, expressed in a Kantian idiom, that it is everyone’s duty to prevent a nonChristian female from killing her child, whether she lives in China or Peru.
[snip]
Mothers, in this tradition, do not have a universal obligation to prevent abortion but a specific obligation not just not to kill their children but to nurture and cherish them.

Fleming's sweeping talk about giving each mother an obligation to prevent other people's abortions is, of course, a strawman. I don't expect every individual pro-life mother to be out there marching for pro-life laws. She may be busy nursing her baby or doing any of a number of other good things! But Fleming's clear "down" on a duty to prevent non-Christians from committing abortion certainly looks like a "down" on pro-life laws.

The money quote is this:
The cumulative effect of much of the professional pro-life ideology is to distort and deflect the question, away from the really important thing, which is how to convert nonbelievers, who will then be far less likely to kill their babies, toward comparatively trivial legislative policies and judicial agendas.
One wonders if Thomas Fleming would regard it as similarly "trivial" to outlaw the private killing of himself. As opposed to "the really important thing"--converting people to Christianity so that they are much less likely to go out and murder Tom Fleming! Like Spencer's, Fleming's disdain for the outlawing of private murder and his disdain for the wrong of murder to the individual killed is highly selective. That is, it is most likely confined to those he doesn't think much of, though he doesn't show any good reason for thinking less of an unborn child than of an adult paleoconservative.

It is not necessary to talk, if one hates "rights talk," about a right to life in order to say that abortion is always wrong. And not just a wrong to the community, much less to the father (who may be as murderous as anyone else in a given situation), but wrong because it is murdering the baby--hence, a wrong done to the baby. So if you don't like "rights talk," don't use that as a stick to beat the pro-life movement any more than you would use it as an argument for removing laws against murdering you or your five-year-old. As usual, it all comes down to the status of the unborn child and to whether it is always wrong deliberately to take the life of the innocent. Smug "communitarian" talk and pushing people's buttons about "Enlightenment universalism" and what-not are no substitute for argument on this central point.

Second, Fleming's argument resembles Spencer's horrible rant in that Fleming clearly thinks that, if you're not a Christian, you don't have any really good reason to oppose abortion in all cases:

The argument, then, that all seriously moral people would oppose abortion cannot be true. It is a little like saying anyone remotely interested in science would agree with Newton or Einstein.
[snip]
Now, there is an element of truth in the argument, which is that just as we do not wish to be killed unjustly, we should not kill unjustly. But what if abortion is not unjust? What if we regard it as, in some cases, a necessity or at least a preferable option? After all, just because we do not wish to be executed does not mean that we necessarily oppose the death penalty. We might even say that were we to commit a cold-blooded murder, we should deserve killing. Thus, if we think life is not worth living without an IQ above 75 or without a reasonably healthy body or without loving parents, we might say that abortion in such cases is reasonable and just...

Wow, that's a toughie. I'm sure George Weigel, at whom Fleming is launching his ire in this piece, would find himself utterly at a loss for words in the face of such an argument.

Speaking for myself, I find Fleming's words here extremely creepy. He obviously has a lot of sympathy for this pro-abortion "argument." Throughout the piece he repeats statements to the effect that Christian women don't kill their unborn babies (that's nice), and he regards himself as a Christian. So presumably he thinks (to this extent unlike Spencer) that it's actually wrong to kill unborn children.

But he clearly regards the wrongness of abortion as really hard to see and as a distinctively religious proposition, which explains his disdain for the "trivial legislative policy" of outlawing abortion. One can gather, hopefully, that as a Catholic he would say that it's even wrong to commit abortion if the child would otherwise have to live with an IQ of 75 or below (!) or without loving parents, but Fleming takes little trouble to say so, and he certainly has no passion for saying so. Instead, all his passion is directed at spitting out the word "liar" at Weigel for arguing that abortion can be seen to be wrong by the natural light:

The real question is not whether abortion is consistent with reason but rather,whether it is right to lie in a good cause. That is, at best, what Weigel has done. Many pro-life arguments I have studied come down to well-intentioned lying, by which I understand not only a conscious and deliberate lie but the reckless disregard for truth engaged in by pseudo-intellectuals who pretend to learning and authority they do not possess.

What did George Weigel say to bring down the charge of "lying"? This:

[The Pope] told Pelosi, politely but unmistakably, that her relentlessly pro-abortion politics put her in serious difficulties as a Catholic, which was his obligation as a pastor. He also underscored — for Pelosi, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Mikulski, Rose DeLauro, Kathleen Sebelius, and everyone else — that the Church’s opposition to the taking of innocent human life, at any stage of the human journey, is not some weird Catholic hocus-pocus; it’s a first principle of justice than can be known by reason. It is a “requirement of the natural moral law” — that is, the moral truths we can know by thinking about what is right and what is wrong — to defend the inviolability of innocent human life. You don’t have to believe in papal primacy to know that; you don’t have do believe in seven sacraments, or the episcopal structure of the Church, or the divinity of Christ, to know that. You don’t even have to believe in God to know that. You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument — which, of course, means being the kind of person who understands that moral truth cannot be reduced to questions of feminist political correctness or partisan political advantage.
And just reading that should make it evident that the charge of "lying" is the merest spittle-flecked silliness.

Also slightly creepy is Fleming's attempt to play gotcha with other arguments against abortion:
Among the worst are the utilitarian arguments that tell us we may be losing countless Beethovens and Shakespeares, to say nothing of millions of taxpayers who will pay my Social Security. But what if if turns out that in economic terms, abortion is a net gain, in preventing the birth of millions of welfare-dependent blacks and Mexicans? Would that make abortion a civic duty? Live by bad arguments, die by bad arguments.

I hold no brief for the "countless Beethovens" argument against abortion. But it's obvious from everything else in the article that Fleming would have no more sympathy for a pro-life argument that started with the premise that it is always wrong even to kill eugenically inferior unborn babies because all human beings are intrinsically valuable. That would be "Kantian idiom" and the "tinsel trappings of Enlightenment universalism." So the non-utilitarian pro-lifer can't win either with Fleming.

At a minimum, we can say that Spencer's position represents the non-Christian logical outcome of Fleming's position concerning non-Christians and abortion. Richard Spencer doesn't pretend to be a Christian, so he does believe that eugenic abortion is great, that killing millions of (otherwise) welfare-dependent blacks and Mexicans is good, and that it wouldn't be a bad idea to bump off children in the womb if they will (shudder) grow up with an IQ of 75 or below. And Fleming, by his own lights, has nothing to say to him. Unless Spencer converts, I guess it's impossible for him to see that his position is monstrously wicked.

Meanwhile, both of them play to their base's gut-level loathing for "those other guys"--the Satanic neo-cons, for Fleming and his paleos, and the c------s, for Spencer and his alt-rightists. Isn't it interesting that these are pro-lifers in both cases?

The morphing of paleoconservatism into the alt-right is not an accident. There are many morals of the story. Here's one: When your movement is defined entirely by what it hates rather than what it loves, to the point of despising those opposing heinous evils, don't be surprised when your movement turns into something purely dark and destructive.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

As for the Annunciation--The artificiality of "salvation history"

(This post should have gone up yesterday, but I thought of it only late last night.)

Imagine the Virgin Mary, sitting in her home in Nazareth, engaged in her work, or perhaps praying. It is an ordinary day. Nothing has warned her that this day is to be the day that lies at the center of all history.

Suddenly, an angel appears and salutes her and tells her that the Holy Ghost will come upon her and that she will give birth to the Messiah.

Mary realizes that it is an angel. The text leaves us with no doubts on that point. It is not as though she is confused into thinking that some merely natural being has visited her.

I often use the Annunciation as an example of the artificiality of the distinction between "ordinary history" and "salvation history" or "religious narrative." This pseudo-distinction will be used by those who want to confine miracles to only some places and times. It's especially popular among naturalists, semi-naturalists, and methodological naturalists who are opposed to a) the use of miracles as evidences for Christianity or theism and b) God's use of detectable miraculous means in the creation of the world or of species within the world. Die-hard theistic evolutionists are especially fond of it, because it allows them to appear to have some theologically principled reason for rejecting divine miraculous activity in biology. "Oh, that wouldn't have been salvation history, so God wouldn't have done that. We must hold out for some naturalistic explanation and accept one when it is offered." When one points out that, as Christians, we are bound to believe that God sometimes does perform miracles, that God does not leave the natural order completely undisturbed, they will piously intone, "Yes, but that's different. That's within salvation history, within a religious narrative, and can be interpreted within that context. Outside of that we should look for natural means." Here is an example thereof.

What this fails to recognize is that salvation history is seen as such only in retrospect. The people within the actual stories have to recognize the miracle as a miracle without some special "tag" that tells them, "Note: You are now in salvation history, so you're permitted to set aside methodological naturalism and interpret what is about to happen as a miracle."

To return to Mary: Many other virgins in Israel did not conceive and bear the Son of God. Many other days in the life of Mary herself, prior to this day, did not include angelic appearances. Mary had to be willing to recognize that an angel was standing there and giving her a message, and she had to believe that message, without thinking of herself as "living in a story." It is we, looking back on what happened, who place it within a "religious narrative" of "salvation history." To Mary, it was just the day on which Gabriel showed up and told her she was to conceive by the Holy Ghost. And she had to be willing to admit the possibility of a miracle in the midst of her own day-to-day life, or else she would never acknowledge a miracle in the first place.

In fact, any attempt to apply the "religious narrative" criterion consistently would result in a vicious regress, and no "religious narrative" would ever get off the ground. The witnesses of the miracle would have to know already that they were living through a moment of "salvation history." But how would they know that? Presumably only by receiving a message from God, attested in some way that they could recognize as supernatural. But they could not recognize that message as supernatural unless they already knew that they were living through a moment of salvation history, which would require a yet earlier message or sign...And so on. Meaning that there could be no "salvation history" or "religious narrative" that was recognized as such.

The same was true of Moses and the burning bush. No sign flashed across the sky before he saw the burning bush that said, "Now entering salvation history," just as an angel didn't precede Gabriel, marching across Mary's chamber with a banner that read, "You are now entering salvation history." Moses had to recognize that he was actually talking with God, that the bush was burning without being consumed, or else mankind could not have received God's message at all.

The angel's appearance to Mary and the Voice from the burning bush are the very constituents of God's dealings with mankind. They need no annunciation, for they are the Annunciation.

If this was true for the first witnesses of the miracles themselves, it is true for us as well. We should recognize these to be miracles because it appears that they really happened, that they were miraculous, and that God sent them to us for a reason, not because they occupy some above-the-skies Zone that we call "salvation history." For we could not know that they occupied any such Zone, or even that there were such a Zone, without knowing that they happened, and we could not know that they happened if those who witnessed them had insisted on methodological naturalism...unless pre-empted by the previous knowledge that one is living in the Special Zone where miracles are allowed to happen.

Oh, and one other thing: "Religious narratives" are confirmed by miracles. It gets the order precisely backward to say that miracles are verified by being embedded in "religious narratives." For why believe this religious narrative rather than that one? It is not philosophical reflection from your armchair that will tell you that Jesus was God the Son while Mohammad was a false prophet.

So I suggest that we give up on methodological naturalism altogether. Just drop it in the dustbin of history. No, that doesn't mean that God performs miracles randomly. It does, however, mean that Aslan is not a tame lion. He doesn't safely confine his miracles to those places that you think you can accept in a purely "philosophical" way, as part of a "religious narrative," without tarnishing your image as a Man of Science. There is certainly no reason to think that he keeps his hands out of biology. Indeed, Scripture suggests otherwise from the very beginning.

That people should be more open to miracles in the realm of biology, or in any other realm, and that we should be robust evidentialists, may seem like odd lessons to garner from the Feast of the Annunciation, but I give you the thought for the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, that's different. That's salvation history."