Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The only bright spot to this article is the last three words of the first paragraph.

The really, really sad part is that such an egregiously repugnant platform will make the merely immoral seem moderate by comparison.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

So, I guess the fact that (in the Catholic tradition) widowed persons can remarry and divorced persons cannot does not much matter to these folk.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's a cruel world out there

Yes, it is. A recent study suggests that healthy lobsters avoid sick ones like . . . well, like the plague. This is a very effective means of infection control, of course, so we can't blame the crusty old beasts.

I could make some comments about how humans do this too--how modern medicine allows us to shunt the sick off into some other place, where we only have to see them at our leisure--but I won't.

Because, in fact, I think the important part is that it is, to use Thomas's words for an idea with which he may not agree, proper to humans to care for the sick, even at their own peril. It is morally praiseworthy in most societies, and positively obligatory in Christian ones, to risk infection, inconvenience, and intimacy by caring for one whose body is in revolt.

Thomas says that man's proper activity--the activity that distinguishes man from other animals, the activity that is most emblematic of man and therefore whose exercise is most necessary to man's happiness, the activity without which man would not be man--is Reason. Rationality is that activity which man shares with the higher beings (angels, God), and in which the lower ones (animals, even the highest non-human animal) do not participate. It might almost be said to be the imago dei.

Sometimes I buy this, but other times I sense that Thomas was dead wrong.

Sometimes, I think self-sacrificing compassion is the imago dei, man's proper activity, the activity without which man would not be man.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Least Stressful Test Ever

Well, I passed my French language exam.


Actually, I did have a scary moment or two. I had been reading Lossky's Theologie Mystique de l'Eglise d'Orient to prepare for the exam. Tough stuff--great writing, very heady. But the exam was two pages of what appears to have been a preacher's manual. It was a pop-level analysis of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. It had colloquialisms. I almost panicked. But fortunately, my RogerCollins had colloquialisms. I passed.

Fortunately, it wasn't street French. That's indecipherable.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

And in another shocker, research reveals that funding may bias findings.


I wonder who funded this study?

Just kidding.

In all seriousness, y'all knew about this anyway, right? Do you know how it happens? When self-interested profit-making enterprises (read: drug companies) fund studies, they fund the same study in many, many cities. Then, they keep tabs on the studies in all the cities. When a particular city's study is not going well, they *yank the study* before its completion, so that they don't have to report adverse findings. If a study is not completed, it has no findings to report.


I'm sorry to say this, Bacon and Descartes, but even the Scientific Method is prey to the vicissitudes of human self-interest.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Those who make predictions about such things are predicting a precipitous decline in the number of dissertations completed in the next ten years.


Because of this. Alarming news indeed.

Monday, May 15, 2006

I'm always . . . shocked? baffled? incredulous? at the arguments offered by reproductive endocrinologists when they are questioned about the ethics of this or that aspect of their work. I'm often led to wonder how our educational system can allow someone that deficient in basic logic not only to graduate from high school but to have an advanced medical degree.

This article on sex selection in the US really contains some doozies.

My favorite, of course, is the most wide-ranging, the one which blesses all:

"In the United States we really guard and cherish reproductive choice and we are very reticent to allow the government to impinge on that."

(This is from the reproductive endocrinologist featured in the article, a Dr. Steinberg.)

Note how "choice" itself is a value--a virtue?--irrespective of the actual choice made. Because we value choice, he's saying, the government is not allowed to discriminate between good and bad choices. What's interesting, of course, is the implication that neither is he. He is a service provider; he is under no obligation to exercise judgment over his clients' choices; indeed, he too must honor their choices, whatever they may be.

Now, even if one grants the inadvisability of government intrusion in certain life choices (I do not, but I'll play along), one does not thereby require that individuals lend their aid to those making choices. It is perfectly legal for a man to drink himself into a coma every night of the week, and twice on Sundays, but no bartender, liquor store owner, or airline attendant is legally required to provide him with a single drop of alcohol. It is perfectly legal for a woman to take an entire bottle of Tylenol in the hopes of killing herself, but it is not legally required that her husband help her with the child-proof lid. It is perfectly legal to fire someone for having red hair. It is perfectly legal to . . .

Well, I could go on. But the point is that legal permission does not on any account equal moral obligation. One cannot point to the law and say, "See, it's allowed, so I must help!" If there is a realm of judgment into which we are reluctant to allow the government, that realm does not suddenly become a judgment-free realm.

But there are others!

The article, of course, brought up some of the ethical problems with Steinberg's work. One was the potential demographic effect: if parents were allowed to choose the sex of their child, demographic imbalance might result. (I am confident, by the way, that whichever way the demographic imbalance swung, it would be bad news for women. Too many men, too few women? The women would become the slaves of the men. Too many women, too few men? The women would become the slaves of the men.)

One ethicist's response to this problem was. . . well, it bordered on hilarity: the particular procedure that Steinberg uses (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) is too expensive to make much difference in global demographics.

So, poor people in India and China resort to infanticide (they peek at the genitals and kill newborns who have the wrong ones), but rich people can afford to do it differently, so we don't have to worry about them. The moral weight of their act is excused because it is presumed to have little statistical impact. Even if this were the case, we all know better than to do morality-by-statistic, don't we? But in fact, the recent research on this very topic demonstrated that the wealthiest provinces in India have the greatest gender imbalance. Precisely because the wealthy can afford to fly to the United States and do what is illegal in their country.

The article also referenced concerns about waste embryos. (We can talk some other time about how the journalist cast this as a concern only of "conservative Christians.") When a procedure produces five to ten "waste" embryos for every two implanted, oughtn't we be concerned about the reasons people are using it? Can't we prioritize? Doesn't "family balancing" seem a little inadequate to the moral weight of discarding ten embryos in order to implant two?

No, no! Dr. Steinberg responds: "His clients mostly opt to keep fertilised eggs in his eggbank rather than discard them."

Oh, well that changes everything! They're not throwing the embryos away--they're just storing them for all eternity. That's totally different.


In fact, Dr. Steinberg has a ready response to any ethicist that suggests negatives to his work:

"People have been warning of that slippery slope since the first in-vitro baby was born more than 25 years ago, but we haven't gone down it yet."

Do you remember some of the things people were worried about 25 years ago? I do.

That post-menopausal women would use IVF to bear children.

That excessive numbers of waste embryos would be created. (Current estimates on the number of stored embryos ranges from 100,000 to 400,000. No estimates exist on the number of embryos simply discarded.)

That such embryos would be treated as research material.

That people would use the technology to select for the sex of their baby.

I wonder what would count as evidence that we're on that slope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I'm not sure they're ready for him!

Stanley Hauerwas told me this morning that he's finally being translated into French. They--whoever "they" are--are translating The Peaceable Kingdom; he is going to Paris in the fall for an academic Hauerwas extravaganza.

This truly boggles the mind. I really think he will hit them like a depth charge. I can't think of any theologian less amenable to the French mindset than Hauerwas.

But we both hope that he'll catch on.

He hopes that his work will help break up the logjam between liberals and conservatives, as well as finally move France past the Revolution, where it is still hopelessly mired.

I hope that French-speaking Europe will suddenly be looking for Hauerwas students (e.g., ME) to teach in their schools.

Monday, May 08, 2006

So That's Where He Got It!

One of the many things I enjoyed about David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite was his analysis of the modern market mentality.

As I've written in a fuller review elsewhere:

Where most Christians criticize the market for being too "materialist," he accuses it of disguising or rejecting material reality. What the market buys and sells is not "things" and "stuff," but novelty, popularity, or happiness. (Looking at advertising throughout history is always an enlightening activity.) It is not the physical, material worth of an object that determines its price, but its immaterial value. The reason for this, he says--and this is a brilliant point--is that material needs can be fulfilled, at least for a time. When you've eaten enough, you leave the table. But when your needs are not physical or material, they are eternal, and will never be satisfied. You'll always buy more--especially when your need is for novelty!

I thought this was (as I said) a brilliant point, but it was not original! Apparently, Hart has read his Thomas. (Big surprise.)

From the Treatise on the Passions, ST I-II 30.4:

I answer that, as stated above, concupiscence is twofold; one is natural, the other is not natural. Natural concupiscence cannot be actually infinite: because it is of that which nature requires; and nature ever tends to something finite and fixed. Hence man never desires infinite meat, or infinite drink.
[Thomas then makes the point that humans desire food in successive infinity--that is, we will get hungry again--rather than actual infinity.]
But non-natural concupiscence is altogether infinite. Because, as stated above, it follows from the reason, and it belongs to reason to proceed to infinity. Hence, he that desires riches may desire to be rich, not up to a certain limit, but to be simply as rich as possible.

In other words, any desire that is prompted from our animal nature is a desire that belongs in the natural order of things, and will be limited. I hunger, I eat, I am filled. I feel cold, I clothe myself, I am warm. Any desire that comes from our reason, however, which pertains to our infinite soul and is designed to perceive things as rational beings (God, angels) perceive them, is at least potentially infinite in scope and duration. But as his example makes clear, either the object of the desire or the working of the Reason may be wrong. My fallen Reason may perceive something as good, though it is, in fact, bad, and lead me to desire it infinitely.

But there is a second way in which infinite vs. finite desires may be parsed: whether they are means or ends.

Another reason may be assigned. . . . Because concupiscence of the end is always infinite: since the end is desired for its own sake, e.g., health: and thus greater health is more desired, and so on to infinity. . . . On the other hand, concupiscence of the means is not infinite, because the concupiscence of the means is in suitable proportion to the end. Consequently those who place their end in riches have an infinite concupiscence of riches; whereas those who desire riches, on account of the necessities of life, desire a finite measure of riches, sufficient for the necessities of life, as the Philosopher says.

This starts to sound like Augustine (although he's taking it from Aristotle, of all people!!): whatever object is desired as an end will be desired without limit. But the implication is that placing the wrong object in the position of "end" will lead to an inordinate desire of it. There are appropriate ends to desire--good health, happiness, friendship, and, ultimately, God. These things ought to be desired as ends, and certainly God ought to be desired infinitely. Placing that which ought to serve as a means in the place of the ends--money, food, reputation, "stuff"--disorders their pursuit, such that one pursues them with the infinite desire with which one ought to pursue the truly good (ultimately, God).

Brilliant stuff.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Well, I don't envy Broadhead his job.

When I'm in front of my ordination board, I talk about vocation and giftedness. I say things like, "My calling is clearly to teach pastors. My seminary professors--particularly the ones who were ordained themselves--made such a difference in my understanding of the pastoral life that I want to share it. Seminary professors are crucial members of the ministry of the church."

And so on.

Really, in my heart of hearts, I just. don't. want. to deal with this. I have no interest in playing nursemaid and policeman to a bunch of over-privileged, over-grown toddlers. I'd rather be teaching remedial grammar to second-career pastors than remedial ethics to well-educated undergrads.

Now, I'm not naive about the problems that go on in seminaries. (Our own institution dealt in its recent history with a professor and one of his graduate students leaving their respective spouses for each other.) But it's a different set of problems. And dealing with them is different when there is an underlying agreement that something called Christian Ethics might exist, even if we don't always know what it is and how it relates to us.

When everything's up for grabs, you can't even begin the conversation.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

So, Children and Family ethics specialists out there, tell me:

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

I wonder when the studies on the "Brangelina Effect" will start.
And now you can be there too!!!

Duke has put last week's lecture/debate on their website: yes, an audio recording of THE WHOLE EVENING.

I think this Internet Age thing might not be so bad after all.