Saturday, June 30, 2007

Embryonic Shell Game?

The June 29th 2007 LA Times carried an article heralding “Embryonic stem cells created using unfertilized eggs.” The article had multiple paragraphs on the theoretical benefits of stem cells from embryos grown from a woman’s eggs. In the middle of the short article the scientists apologized for their experiments, one saying: “It’s a new type of embryonic stem cell line from a different kind of embryo.” Another said “People will see that these are activated eggs . . . They do not of themselves ever develop into human a being . . . This is not biologically or morally like a human embryo.” Really?

According to the news article each of the embryos destroyed for stem cells in these experiments is created by “stimulating an unfertilized egg to begin development.” I must admit that I have not seen the technical explanation, but from what appears in the news article this sounds like the same old shell game to trick us into ignoring moral concerns and allowing humans to be created and killed for the purposes of scientific experimentation.

Though I am no scientist, it is my understanding that one of the oldest ways of attempting to create a clone was to take an egg and stimulate it with electricity to cause it to begin the developmental process without introducing the DNA of a seed into the egg. Frogs and rabbits have been cloned this way, but they die quickly because any defects present in the DNA are replicate rather than “covered” by the presence of a second set of DNA as in normal sexual reproduction. The “new” technique sounds, on the surface, like the very old and primitive way of cloning – now applied to create sick and defective tiny humans instead of sick and defective rabbits or frogs. If so it is not more moral than other means of creating humans so they can be killed in research while at an early stage of development. And, if the stimulation is new and different from the old electrical shock, the results are not new and different. The whole purpose of the process is to create a human being that is an identical twin of the donor so that the embryonic stem cells in the tiny new human, with DNA very similar to the adult donor, can be harvested from the new tiny human and injected into ailing parts of the donor.

It does not matter what artificial process results in the creation of a human being. What makes a human human is being the kind of thing it is – not correspondence to a laundry list of characteristics or being made the old fashioned way. If the tiny new creatures were not human, their DNA would not match the donor and they would be useless for matching stem cells. If they were not living humans they would not grow and develop. The fact that they will die soon on their own because they are defective as bred does not make creating them or killing them less immoral. The fact that they are bred in an unusual way also does not alter their humanity. If science learns to make humans from rocks it will not make those humans less human.

There is always a temptation for the sake of profit, pleasure and health to say that some humans are not really human and so can be used and disposed of as we wish. For centuries people with black skin were treated as though they were less than human for just such reasons. We now treat the unborn as less than human by giving mothers a license to kill their offspring provided they do it before they emerge completely from the womb. Cloning for stem cells is just one more scheme for profit at the expense of human souls and bodies whose humanity we have rationalized away.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Dealing with Religious Differences

It is always difficult dealing with religious differences. So difficult, in fact, that many people either demonize those with different religious views or to ignore the differences of religious opinion, claiming that differences are irrelevant. The proper way of dealing with religious differences should be both loving and willing to recognize that differences exist and can be significant.

I recently wrote an article in which I discussed whether or not voters should take a presidential candidate’s religion into account when casting their votes. I was surprised at the emails I received. Some indicated that I simply did not like people of a particular religion. Others claimed that that religion did not hold to the tenets that it has proclaimed in many of its writings and even in the displays that it uses to attract converts at its historical sites. I am also surprised at how many people want to say that significant religious differences are irrelevant in life. And I am horrified by people who are willing to respond to religious differences with violent hatred and bitterness.

All human beings are created in the image of God. They all have an inherent dignity and are entitled to be treated with respect. But for God’s grace, everyone would be mired in religious falsehoods. We need to deal kindly and graciously with those who we believe to be in error. Besides, if we really want to convert others to Christianity, we really need to remember that people are much more likely to respond to the love we show than to bigotry or hostility.

But it is not inherently bigoted or wrong to admit that religious differences exist or that they have significant impacts. Many speak as if religion was akin to sex, race, or height - something that is somehow passed down from our parents or created in us by our environment – something beyond our control. Even though as a reformed Christian I believe in the doctrine of election, it is nevertheless the case, that from a human point of view, religion is based on what we choose to believe, not upon our genetic makeup or our birth. One of the great shortcomings of some of the world’s “great” religions is that they maintain adherents not through persuasion, but through coercion that extends from birth to death. When Christians have used coercion to make or maintain adherents, they have been wrong in doing so. One cannot be coerced into believing the truth or having a genuine relationship with God.

An example of how modern man has treated religion is in John Rawls’ foundational myth of the “Original Position.” In order to design an ideal polity, Rawls uses the argumentative device of mythical people placed in a situation in which they do not know things about themselves which would lead them to design the system to favor people with their genetic or circumstantial attributes. Rawls called this lack of self knowledge the “veil of ignorance.” So Rawls “founders” do not know if they will be healthy or sick, rich or poor, wise or foolish—but according to Rawls they also don’t know what religious beliefs they will have. As a result, they do not take anything religious or metaphysical into account in designing the ideal polity. They would not do so because they do not know anything about what they believe religiously.

Of course Rawls’ myth does not ring true. Ultimate beliefs about reality are “religious” beliefs, including beliefs about justice, fairness, equality, etc. Rawls regime is based on belief in the appropriateness of reciprocity – but that is a belief that is ultimately “religious” in the sense that it does not come by measurement or randomness – but by faith in the idea and faith that it will produce desirable outcomes and corresponds to what we feel is “right.” (From a Christian world view a regime based entirely upon reciprocity has a certain degree of fairness, but is not necessarily based on the highest or most pure truth.) Rawls shows his colors—his belief that religion is something that we sort of end up with rather than something that is based upon an evaluation of objectively available truth.

I would agree with Rawls that an ideal society would be a society in which we respect religious differences and have religious freedom. But I also believe that an ideal society is one that takes available truth into consideration, and that some truths that are foundational to the existence of freedom and to the achievement of social good are truths that can only be honestly described as religious. In some instances, they are truths that all the orthodox versions of the world’s major religions generally agree upon. But they are nevertheless truths that are not established through the measuring regimes of science or through universal selfishness or self-interest. Many of the most important truths are based upon the universal moral revelation that God has provided to us in the natural law.

By contrast to the attitude evidenced by Rawls, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not imply that religion is simply something we are born with and stuck with, but rather that religion really is a matter of thought and freedom. In article 1 and 2, it states that even people with whom we have major religious differences are entitled to dignity and to human rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in the spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

“Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also acknowledges the freedom of debate in Articles 18 and 19:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and deceit, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As I have said before in this blog and still maintain, if the United States and the West are going to win the war on terror, the only long-term solution is going to be to persuade radical Islamists to believe something else. We can succeed in so defeating the radical Islamists militarily that they no longer see a short-term chance of success and decide to recede into the woodwork until at some point in future generations they feel they have a greater opportunity at success. But the problem is only going to really go away permanently when we succeed in changing the minds of those who hold Islamo-Fascist views. It would at least be somewhat better for the West if they came to believe a traditional, more moderate and less violent version of Islam that is more affected by mysticism and less affected by Heidegger. But what would really be best not only for the West but for the Islamists is if they came to lose their beliefs both in a radical version of Islam and in a fascist outlook on philosophy and life and instead became true believers in Jesus Christ. I know that this will shock many and particularly dismay those atheists among us who blame religion for all the world’s violence. But it must be remembered that it was essentially anti-Christian and anti-religious regimes in the form of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s Korea, Castro’s Cuba and Pol Pot’s Cambodia that have been responsible for massacring more people in the last century than all of the religious wars in history combined.

Religious differences may also be relevant in politics. In the political realm we need to be honest about beliefs and characterizations of other religions. But when a religions’ views affect how that religion’s adherents see the world around them, that may be relevant in political debate. A candidate can always say “the official position of my religion is X, but I personally do not hold to X” when an examination of the presuppositions of their faith does not accurately reflect what they personally believe. If a candidate separates their personal understanding of man and reality from the political process, that is also relevant – although then the hunt is on to understand what faith they do apply to politics- materialism? A composite civil religion? It really does matter.

Religious differences are significant. What people believe really does affect how they act and how they treat others. But change in religious opinion cannot be had through coercion; it must be had through gentle persuasion. We should not seek to coerce others, but we should seek to persuade them. But persuasion requires the ability to actually discuss our disagreements in a civil way – not ignorance of real differences, name calling toward those who identify differences, nor the violence offered by the Islamo-fascists.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review: Mars Hill Monograph - Is there a Natural Law?

Mars Hill has a new Monograph pamphlet out. It contains a ten page excerpt from the writings of third generation reformer Francis Turretin with the title Is There A Natural Law?, a short essay by Kenneth A. Myers entitled On Not Being Ashamed of Natural Law, and an annotated bibliography on Protestant Advocacy of Natural Law by Rev. David F. Coffin, Jr.

This new monograph is the best single source I have seen on a Biblical understanding of Natural Law. Everyone interested in Christianity and human law should read it and share it with friends.

Turretin was the second successor to Calvin in Geneva. Like John Calvin he believed in general revelation and Natural Law as important elements of legal and political theory and practice while remaining orthodox on human sin, rebellion etc. Turretin understood God’s own nature as the source of objective standards of good. Turretin knew the value of understanding the difference between the positive laws of God and man, and God’s objective standard of what is unchangeably good. Myers does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of the Biblical Natural Law position outlined by Turretin.

For too long Protestants have been under the false impression that Natural Law is a “Roman Catholic thing” when it is really a belief of continuous Christian faith throughout the centuries, including the reformers. As I have said before, Natural Law and general revelation are more in accord with protestant teaching than Roman Catholic teaching because they explain how humans are accountable to God for the truths revealed in scripture without needing a Pope to give an authoritative interpretation of the scripture.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I am back from vacation.

During the trip my wife and I especially enjoyed the new exhibit surrounding and including the captured WWII German submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It was very well done, and worth the extra charge for that part of the museum. The exhibit did an excellent job of making the drama and significance of the capture come alive.

We were also very impressed with the new Lincoln Library Museum in Springfield Illinois. The multimedia presentations and dioramas were spectacular. I was also happy that the museum was fair in its presentation of Lincoln and did not fall into the historical revisionist schools of thought about Lincoln or the civil war while being honest about some of the real controversies surrounding Lincoln.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Are Christian Ethics Suicidal for Civilization?

In a discussion on the blog Conservative Swede, participants discussed the problem of pacifist ethics in the era of Islamist terror. I have posted my (rather long) comment here bellow as well as at the other site:

"I have read this post and the comments with great interest. I am an evangelical Christian in the United States. One of those people who still has God and Christ in the equation of Christian ethics. I think you are right that the ethics of many of those here in the United States called “liberal Christians” have ethical ideas that are nothing short of suicidal. I question whether or not those ideas are really particularly Christian. There are Christians in history who have held such ideas, but I don’t think they represent the dominant belief of the core of committed Christianity over the history of the church. I also have to disagree with James C. Russell’s book, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. While Mr. Russell is correct that the Middle Ages brought about some changes in some of the leadership of Christianity, most of these changes were unraveled, at least for Protestants, at the time of the Reformation. While it is true that during the Middle Ages Christians were probably more willing to tolerate bad behavior on the part of others (such as looting, pillaging, torture, etc.), this was never actually part of the core of Christian doctrine. The writings of John of Salisbury are far more representative. Salisbury is no pacifist. He believes in what we would call the just war theory. And he doesn’t believe in the modern wimpy just war theory that never allows a first strike or the initiation of a war for a just cause, he actually believes in fighting for causes that are just. But Salisbury also disagrees with the destruction of church property or the taking of innocent lives without military necessity. Certainly this is also represented in the many writings concerning Christian chivalry. The actions of the Crusaders who massacred the citizens of Jerusalem were not within the core of medieval Christian teaching, but were the sort of aberration present in all ages because of the sinfulness of human beings—even Christian human beings.

As for early Christianity, the pacifism of early Christianity is highly overstated by modern pacifists. Most evangelical Protestant Christians and most Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified not because He believed in pacifism, but because He was a willing sacrifice to save those who would believe in Him from their sins. He is the Lamb of God described in Isaiah as bearing our iniquities and being wounded for our transgressions. Christ’s death satisfied God’s demand for justice and His righteous life is attributed to Christians so that they are righteous before God. This sort of legal transaction seems alien to many literalists and sometimes to those of the Roman persuasion but has not only been accepted historically by Christians from the time of Christ’s resurrection to the present, but is also evidenced in Scripture (particularly the book of Romans) and has been quite in line with the thinking of canon law and common law lawyers throughout much of the history of western Europe.

There were some early Christian writers who were opposed to Christian participation in the Roman legions because legionnaires had to offer incense to Caesar and had to effectively worship idols in the form of the standards of the legions. Despite this concern, archeology and other sources show that there were many Christians in the early Roman legion. Roman writings actually give praise for the victory to Christians who, in one battle, prayed and obtained a change in the tactical situation (and this long before the Christianization of the empire). It is also likely that Christianity spread to Great Britain and the other far corners of the Roman Empire through Christian soldiers. It must be remembered that Paul undoubtedly evangelized the Praetorian Guard while he was imprisoned waiting his appeal to Caesar. When the empire became Christian, at least in name if not in practice, there was no longer any reason why Christians could not serve in the military since the problems relating to idolatry were no longer present. From that time forward, there were many Christians who served in the military.

It is worth noting that despite people’s feeling that the New Testament is a pacifist book, the New Testament does depict the return of Christ as involving violence against His enemies at the battle of Armageddon. A sorcerer is struck blind in the book of Acts and a couple who lies to the early church are struck dead. The notion that early Christianity was all warm fuzzies is a misunderstanding of Christianity and what the Bible actually says. Those Christians too have believed in the organic unity of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Old Testament is obviously no pacifist book. But even in the New Testament, Paul says that the government does not bear the sword in vain. The government is there to punish evil and reward good. It must utilize coercion to do so. But when it does so, it is not acting in a way that is inherently evil. Instead, it is “God’s servant.”

The real moral distinction between correct and incorrect violence in the Bible is different from secular views of violence however. In the secular world, justified violence tends to be based primarily upon self-defense. In the biblical worldview, justified violence is primarily about defense of others. One may sometimes be justified in defending oneself because of one’s value to others and the role in which you are reacting to others. If it was purely about saving one’s individual self when there was no appropriate role for you to play toward another, then martyrdom could actually be the appropriate thing. But when innocent lives such as those of women and children or those in the community are at stake, martyrdom in the face of aggression is not appropriate, but rather the defense of the community from aggression, injustice and oppression is appropriate. This was the basic belief of the Christian reformers such as Luther and Calvin. But this view began to be distorted during the 1600s when there was an increased emphasis on trying to make the theory of law and international relations appeal to an audience without direct reference to the Bible or to faith as the sole argument. Writers like Locke and Hobbs made self-defense more important and neglected the primacy of the defense of others. This had two negative effects. First, it emphasized selfishness in foreign policy and second, when combined with a misunderstanding of the Christian belief in willing martyrdom of the self, it made entire civilizations more suicidal. But this was not the direct result of Christianity, but rather the combination of Christianity with the skeptical secular theories of writers like Thomas Hobbs.

As skepticism grew in Europe through the writings of people like Hobbs, Hume, Kant and ultimately Nietzche and the existentialists, and as Europe slipped from immorality being primarily the prerogative of the upper classes to being the ambition of every class, Europe rejected the role of God and an honest view of God’s commands and teachings in favor of a system that included a greater and greater distortion and disingenuity about good and evil, honorable and dishonorable behavior. The problem of slavery added greatly to this distortion.

Slavery was on its way to extinction during the Christian Middle Ages. But upon the discovery of the New World and the economic benefits of making slaves of Native Americans, Africans and others, Europe delved once again into the depths of slave owning and slave trading. To be sure, the Arab world was involved in providing these slaves and the wars within Africa and South America contributed to their availability. But Europeans compromised Christian beliefs in order to justify the holding of slaves. The same thing happened in the early United States. The United States compromised and gave up its original natural law/common law perspective in order to adopt a positivist jurisprudence that enabled the legal justification of slavery despite its obvious immorality. In the end, what people regard as a “Christian” system today is far different from what Christianity actually suggested or required. As G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but tried and found difficult.

If genuine Christianity were to return in Europe and to remain ascendant in the United States, and to finally seize back the American ruling class from those in America who hold the European view of man, the world, and things, there is no question but that western civilization could triumph over the current threat from radical Islamo-Fascism. But as long as the West continues to idolize the beliefs of Hobbs, Hume, Nietzche and Heidegger, we will fall prey to those who combine the teachings of Heidegger and Mohammad.

In one other important detail, I think that in asking what system one should adopt, consideration ought to be which system is true? I know that it has become fashionable to believe in objective truth these days, but to adopt a system like Greek or Roman paganism simply because you think it is effective is quite foolish unless there is some reason to believe it is also true. Contrary to the beliefs of the skeptics, I and many like me in America and the rest of the world find no intellectual and logical reason to believe that Christianity is false. Quite the reverse. Christianity as it is truly to be understood is systematically consistent and meets the facts of reality. Christianity also has solutions to our greatest needs such as dealing with death, alienation, loneliness, addiction and sin. The modern world has not liked Christianity because the Bible objects to sexual immorality (but not sex in marriage) and other popular modern addictions. The modern world has been looking for data to justify the rejection of God for hundreds of years. The oldest anti-Christian writings are easily seen as absurd today. In time the current waive will be seen to be foolish distortions as well. I hope and pray the men and women of the West come back to God on His terms as soon as possible – before it is too late.