Saturday, October 20, 2007


Don't Take The Devil Seriously

Among the many tracts urging Christians to boycott Halloween is one being passed around this year by one D.A. Waite, Th.D, Ph.D, (no information available what school awarded either degree). Waite is Pastor at Bible for Today Baptist Church, in Collingswood, NJ.

I appreciate the Baptist faith. Baptists added many dimensions to the Protestant Reformation lacking in the work of Martin Luther or John Calvin. Roger Williams, the apostle of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, was a Baptist. But today, there are so many doctrines presented to the world as Baptist that it is hard to know what the name means. (I highly recommend the Wittenburg Door's 2006 interview with Will D. Campbell, a native of Kentucky who understands the historic legacy of the Baptist faith better than most, although the interview unfortunately is NOT among the on-line archives.)

Waite begins by referring to October 31 as The Devil's Birthday, which is odd, since by any Christian theology concerning Satan, or The Devil, it would appear his creation came before there were such things as years, months, and dates, and dubious that he had any "birth" at all. Wasn't he created an angel? Who was his mother? Did Anton LaVey ever pick a day to serve birthday cake to his "god"?

Waite then headlines the occasion as "A Satanic Druid Holiday." Stranger still, because Satan and Druids have nothing to do with each other. Druids were pagan, heathen, practiced the abomination of human sacrifice, may not exactly have been idol-worshippers in the sense that the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans worshipped elaborate statues of their pantheon of gods and goddesses... but Druids certainly worshipped at sacred rocks, wells, and trees. However, Satanic worship is different.

Devotion to Satan is impossible without Christianity. Satanic worship is a mockery, a parody, a perversion, of the Christian faith. Satan, as Christians know him, has no precedent prior to the teachings of the Christian church. Certainly the Jewish understanding of Satan, which applies to the entire Old Testament, is not that of God's enemy, but God's tester, a role exemplified in the book of Job, and even in the Temptation of Jesus. The Druids had no notion of Satan's existence, any more than King Nebuchadnezzar did. They didn't read the Bible.

Unreal Mockery, Hence!

Then, Waite gives The Devil far more credibility than such a malicious creature deserves. "There are real witches, real spells, real rituals." REAL? Unreal mockery, hence! What power do spells have, except in the mind of those who cast them, and those who tremble at them? Does anyone believe that a modern self-styled witch, or more likely, a practitioner of Wicca, has any REAL power over anything in God's creation? Oh ye of little faith!

Remember that the most potent argument against the Salem witchcraft trials was simply that such superstitious beliefs had no real power at all. When fearful villagers blamed unknown witches for an epidemic of debilitating illness, it was in reality typhoid, or malaria, or dysentery, which have causes modern medicine has swept away, not by spells, but by hygiene and vaccination.

Wicca is not worship of Satan, any more than Druidic rituals were. But Wicca is also not a continuation of some ancient rituals or lore. Wicca was more or less invented from whole cloth by bored 19th century intellectuals, and magnified by alienated 20th century intellectuals, who wanted a romantic, nature-centered alternative to the stuffiness of post-revival established churches. Most Wiccans would cringe at the notion of human sacrifice, which is pathetic for people who think of themselves as a Druid revival.

The formal existence of the laughable nonsense that passes as "Satanic worship" is also a 20th century invention. It has no centuries of history behind it. Worship Satan? Pagans had their own gods, so they had no need to borrow devils from their Christian neighbors. Odin perhaps, but not Satan. An entirely different evil.

As to the possibility that Satanists sacrifice cats, dogs and other animals, or even their own children, let us remember that Christians were once thought to drink the blood of ritually sacrificed babies in the catacombs of Rome. No doubt there have been people who deluded themselves that they were witches or worshippers of Satan. A few have even indulged in human sacrifice. Some are serving life sentences in prison as a result. But their own delusion was a hollow one. There is no reason we should give it any credit. They were not serving a real god. Remember how Elijah mocked the priests of Baal? "You'll have to shout louder, for surely he is a god." He was no god at all. Baal did not exist.

Co-opted Christian Festivals

It is true, as Waite says, that the Celtic festival of Samhuinn (pronounced Sam-Hayne) was co-opted by the Christian church and changed to All Saints Day. (In Celtic tradition, as in Jewish tradition, a "day" begins at sunset and ends the following sunset. So the daytime of Samhuinn became All Saints Day, and the previous night became All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.) Most Christian holidays are co-opted pagan festivals.

We have no knowledge, by history or by revelation, that baby Jesus was born December 25. This was however a popular holiday season for Christian converts from various pagan cultures. For the Romans, it was Saturnalia; for the Celts, the season of the Yule celebration. The Christian Church co-opted nearly all its holidays from pagan celebrations, and that includes Easter. Some modern Christians refuse to celebrate any of them. Halloween is no better and no worse.

If we really want to throw out all traditions tainted by pagan origins, the theme of the Divine Son of the Virgin Mother is an ancient pagan icon, known to the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and the Celts (Mabon ab Modron). Perhaps the worship of Jesus as the Son of God is "a very serious Satanic practice"? As a matter of fact, Orthodox Jewish scholars have long criticized Christian worship as a pagan syncretism precisely because it conforms to a pagan image. OK, we are not about to take the baby Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice reconciling humanity to our Creator, and throw them out with the pagan bathwater. And Halloween isn't nearly so precious. But let's lighten up a little.

Waite quotes from the World Book Encyclopedia. If he quotes accurately, the source is a very unreliable one. "The custom of using leaves, pumpkins, and cornstalks as Halloween decorations comes from the Druids." Huh? Pumpkins were unknown in Europe until well after Columbus tripped over America trying to find his was to India. Same with what we now call corn (maize) with its distinctive leaves and stalks. There were jack-o-lanterns of a sort in medieval Europe, carved out of turnips, but the Druids were entirely unfamiliar with pumpkins.

The cited article also informs Waite that "Samhain, lord of death, called together the wicked spirits..." Sorry, there was no Druid tradition of a "Lord of Death" called "Samhain." Traditions concerning the dead were more akin to modern customs in Mexico, the Dia de los Muertes. The dead might be restless, might need to be propitiated, but they were not looking around for animal bodies to inhabit, they were, on the contrary, seeking to return to their living relatives. They were fearsome, because they were dead, but not wicked. They were grandmas and uncles and aunties.

Laughing at Superstition

Christian faith is in essence the enemy of superstition. Various superstitions have been tagged onto Christianity by Greek philosophers, German tribal kings, Roman emperors and Celtic peasants. Taking these superstitions seriously has always resulted in shame for the Church. There is only one God. The others, pagan or satanic, worshipped by whole peoples or by a handful of misfits, are "silver and gold, the work of men's hands." Our God is The God, there is no other.

Martin Luther wrote "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." Thomas More said in the same spirit that the devil "the proud spirit... cannot endure to be mocked." That was the original meaning of Halloween. For a more detailed historical background, check out Biblical Horizons: Concerning Halloween. All the dressing up as ghosts and witches and goblins and devils was to mock, jeer, laugh at, the powers of evil conjured up by the human mind, not to celebrate them or give credence to them. That is the spirit of Halloween we must recapture.

Hollywood horror films, and tracts denouncing Halloween as "the devil's birthday" are flip sides of the same coin: both take the powers of evil seriously. Certainly fall festivals of corn shocks, pumpkin faces, cider, donuts, apple bobbing and trick-or-treat pose no evil. Fall is a beautiful season, October is a beautiful month. Before it gives way to cold, grey November, it is an innocent past-time to enjoy the bounty of the harvest and the beauty of empty fields. Dressing up children as ghosts, witches, goblins, devils, is just fine also, as long as they understand, we are scorning these images with our laughter, playing with their hollow identies because we are not afraid of them. We are free to make them the butt of our jests, because they have no power over us.

Chris Redford left the comment below. Blogger doesn't seem to be set up for me to post a direct response to her comment, but she has an interesting article at Secular Evangelism, and I posted a brief reply there. It is good that we can all think, and all talk to each other.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Genetic Self

Observations on Richard Dawkins's Speculative Fantasy

Richard Dawkins's published and quoted public statements have never impressed me. They certainly don't inspire me to buy his books. He comes across in print like a juvenile who makes provocative statements just to enjoy the anger of those who find him disagreeable. He is probably nothing like that in person. In any case, it is less than credible to make critical remarks about a published author, without actually reading any of his books. So when I saw a copy of The Selfish Gene on sale for 50 cents, about the value of a used-up rapper, I snapped it up.

His Introduction actually suggested some common ground for dialog with Christians, or with Jews or Muslims or any other monotheists. He does not, of course, opine that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Nor does he say that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, or that there is no God but The God, and Mohammed is his prophet. But he does say "Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to." Not exactly Original Sin, but a bit of convergence among different philosophies toward the same limited physical truth.

The weakness of his book is that it is entirely speculative, and not very well informed speculation either. The book's Preface announces that this is "not science fiction," and that is true, because good science fiction, unlike fantasy novels set on another planet, contains some sound application of scientific fact and method to create the story line. Then he announces that his book "is science," and this is pompous nonsense. Science is generally absent from the main theme of the book, although there is some sound science in various sideshows offered as examples or analogies.

The entire story rests on Chapter 2, "The Replicators." Dawkins begins with a fairly well established line of research, that if electricity is sparked through a mix of chemicals likely to have been present in the early eons of our planet, complex amino acids will result. Water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia are all compounds used in such experiments, and all are present on some of the other planets in our solar system. From this beginning, Dawkins jumps to the idea that free-floating amino acids learned to copy themselves, and filled up the oceans with a soup of mindless strings of complex compounds. New varieties developed due to errors in replication. Then they started eating each other, because there were no more free atoms in the ocean to build copies from.

What led to cells and and complex plant and animal bodies? Oh, these mindless strings of replicating amino acids somehow surrounded themselves with cell walls to protect themselves from each other. They didn't plan to mind you. They had and have no minds. They just did it, blindly and spontaneously. There is, of course, no evidence at all for this vicious amino acid soup, or the spontaneous replication of amino acids floating freely in the ocean. Nor is there any attempt at explanation of how these complex proteins assembled themselves into the much more complex DNA molecule.

Even for nontheistic theories of the origins of matter and of life, this is a very long stretch. Genes do not exist as the code for reproducing life, life exists for the purpose of providing security to our genes... There is a test for this kind of speculation, called Occam's Razor. The test is, the more simply a theory explains the known facts, the more likely it is to be true. Dawkins's speculation on the origin of life fails Occam's Razor miserably.

As it happens, there are other, better supported theories, and not coincidentally, these pose no conflict to the notion that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," or that "God said, let the waters bring forth the living thing that hath life." No theory proves or depends upon the existence of God. Those who "live by faith and not by sight" would be profoundly disturbed if sight could provide proof positive of an omnipresent, omnipotent God. What experiment could test for whether God is a reasonable hypothesis? That is why "Intelligent Design" borders on blasphemy, and certainly lacks intelligence. Actually, there is no particular reason that God could not have done things the way Dawkins says they happened, but there is no good reason to think he did. "Let the waters bring forth the self-replicating amino acid" is a long way around when a simpler, better understood, more subtle, but more direct sequence of more likely events is clearly available.

A good alternative scenario was presented in American Scientist, Volume 94, page 32, by Michael Russell, a research fellow at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center, and at the time of publication, a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. No doubt this article only scratches the surface of available research and publication. But for the general reader, trying to keep up with what science has to offer, while lacking time to become an expert, it's a good article to check out.

The author may be personally acquainted with Dawkins, or not, may be his close personal friend, or caustic rival. Russell may be a devout Christian, like Cambridge University biologist Simon Conway Morris, or a convinced atheist, like astronomer Fred Hoyle. That really doesn't matter. Science is not a competition between political orthodoxies, although, unfortunately, scientists do engage in political competition. Russell builds his analysis on the previous work of many others, who each have their own beliefs and disbeliefs. Whatever these are, the truth is the truth, however dimly understood. What matters is that "First Life" offers a simpler and more plausible speculation, a more factually-grounded speculation, about the origin of life, than Dawkins's Selfish Gene.

"First Life" begins with the basic chemistry of respiration, not complex genes seeking a fortress to dwell within. At the bottom of every food chain, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are used to synthesize organic compounds. All more complex life depends on it. Organic molecules require other materials: nitrogen, sulfides, phosphates, metals such as iron, nicket, manganese, cobalt and zinc. Where were these found on the newly formed earth? Around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Deep in the sea was the only place fragile potential for life could have survived in those early times: the oceans were a sterile desert, vaporized frequently by the impact of meteorites, the moon was much closer, causing frequent tides and storms. Dawkins's replicators would have been smashed, physically and chemically, faster than they could form. A warm spring, on the deep ocean floor, protected from raw ultraviolet radiation, never dry, never too hot or too cold, never too acid or too alkaline, was the place for life to survive.

Before life was truly life at all, iron sulfide precipitate naturally formed a gel with pores and bubbles, providing enclosed sites for chemical reactions. This may have been the beginning of the membranes that today surround all living cells. But the first chemical reactions needed a catalyst, and the availability of a mineral called greigite, an iron-nickel sulfide, provided one. There is even a plausible explanation for the emergence of the proteins that contain the genetic codes of all life today, RNA and DNA. The raw materials were freely available in this nurturing environment, but how did molecules so complicated happen to form? What came first? Perhaps adenosine triphosphate, still the engine of every living cell today. It would have played a role in respiration before genetic codes even existed.

For all the details, the article is highly recommended. The plausible scenario of raw materials, sources of energy, increasingly complex chemical reactions started by conveniently available catalysts, could be wrong in one or many details. It probably comes closer to how life began than a soup of selfish genes with no will to be selfish which just happened to surround themselves with living bodies. Either scenario is statistically improbable, but the hydrothermal vent theory corresponds to actual chemistry and real conditions that probably existed. It offers a precise series of chemical reactions. And if a reader happens to have faith that there was a divine purpose, intent, and initative behind it all... it calls to mind the recent worship song "Where would I be, you only know... an empty space, a hopeless place, if not for grace."

Grace is not a necessary hypothesis for this theory to be plausible, but it may be a necessary precondition for all the right materials to be in just the right place, and move through just the right set of opportunities in the face of so many hazards. Perhaps there was a certain grace which provided that a sterile desert of ocean, irradiated by ultraviolet, could bring forth the living thing that has life, from which a God who, as Einstein said, is "subtle, but malicious he is not" could make great fish and every living creature that moves.. .But whether there is a God or no, this is sound science, and Dawkins's fantasy is wishful thinking, conforming a vision of the past to his own didactic polemics in the present.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Beast of the Mark

Michael Schwartz and the Prejudice of Persistence

Among the books on my shelves are Paul Blanshard's American Democracy and Catholic Power, and Michael Schwartz's The Persistent Prejudice. The subject of the former book is obvious. The prejudice which the latter book denounces is anti-Catholicism, or more accurately, anti-Romanism. (Catholic means universal, which the Roman church is not, and has never been. Many Protestant churches still use the words "holy catholic church," small c, to mean the church universal.) The books are old; I found both at used book sales for bargain prices. The controversy is still very much alive, and worth taking a look at.

I was raised Protestant with a Jewish name in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood, believing for many years that the population of the United States was one half Catholic, one third Lutheran, and the rest minor sects such as Baptist, Congregationalist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Unitarian. Obviously, I grew up in Wisconsin. In between such embarassments as Joseph McCarthy and Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin has been one of the more progressive states in the nation, with a good number of Catholic working class voters helping send socialists to Congress, and electing socialist mayors in Milwaukee, not to mention the LaFollettes.

Almost all my childhood playmates attended Roman Catholic services with their parents. I heard them from time to time chatting seriously about the Seven Sacraments and the nuns. Some went to public schools, as I did, others went to Roman parochial schools. (Only the elite from the parochial schools got into Xavier High School; in 9th grade, the rest rejoined the public schools. The kids from Xavier tended to be the ones to start anti-Vietnam War protests.) All of the disparaging jokes I have heard about the Roman Catholic faith have come out of the mouths of parochial school students and graduates. Who else knows the church and its rituals well enough to lampoon them? Who else has a motive for doing so? I have attended Roman mass a few times, in California, with elderly Hispanic friends, finding it to be an inspiring and moving worship service. Naturally I did not take communion, since I respect the right of any church to set its own rules.

I must admit that I find Blanshard's book more objective. It concerns the official statements and acts of the church, not a dissection of its dogma. Schwarz describes Blanshard's book as "the greatest anti-Catholic polemical tract in U.S. history." Certainly it is one of the most effective criticisms of Roman influence in American politics. Blanshard does not resort to lurid tales about priests raping nuns, or murdered babies and bloody rituals – the sort of tales pagan Romans told about Christians, medieval Roman Christians about Jews, and paranoid Protestants about Roman Catholics. Nor does he indulge in theological speculation that the Roman church is built on a foundation of idolatry. Blanshard quotes extensively from the public pronouncements of bishops, and the honest, uncompromising assertions of such undoubted Catholics as Hillaire Belloc. He cites Monsignor Matthew Smith openly expounding that "where Catholics are in overwhelming majority, it is theoretically better to have an official union of Church and State, with the state participating from time to time in public worship and using the machinery of government, when needed, to help the church." Blanshard, not surprisingly, finds such assertions to be a violation of American constitutional law and sovereignty, because they are.

Schwarz's more passionate protest is obscured by a subjective distaste for any criticism of his beloved church. To be a Roman Catholic, Schwarz admits, is to claim supremacy. It is not enough for prejudice that bars equal participation by members of his church in public life to be swept away. Schwarz will settle for nothing less than the freedom to seek supremacy, because, he maintains, that is the essence of faithful adherence to the Roman faith. He has a right to say that. It is called freedom of speech and of the press, rights firmly established by Protestants and by the traditions of the Enlightenment, with the enthusiastic participation of the small number of Roman Catholics then resident in the United States.

He displays an awfully thin skin when he denounces as "prejudice" the natural doubts of others about the Roman hierarchy's claim to supremacy. Schwarz has a right to submit to the hierarchy of his choice in spiritual matters. The laws of our nation will not interfere, being restrained by the first two clauses of the First Amendment. When he asserts the right of that hierarchy to dominate others, it ill becomes him or anyone to cry "bigotry" because the rest of us raise significant objections. Millions of us adhere to Wycliffe's assertion that man has no earthly spiritual overlord but Jesus, that spiritual Truth is a matter between me and God. Like Lutherans, we believe our own reading of the Bible is not subject to the direction of any hierarchy.

At its best, if such a comparitive term may be applied, American nativist anti-Roman prejudice arises from fear that the Roman Catholic hierarchy desires to subject and subordinate the civil government of every land (including the United States of America) to its own temporal power. Certainly such power has been openly claimed and sought throughout many centuries of the Roman church's existence. The words and deeds of successive bishops of Rome, their cardinals and administrators, have never justified absolute confidence that this goal has been unequivocally abandoned.

John F. Kennedy satisfied American voters that he himself would have no part of advancing such a purpose. For this, he was sharply criticized by conservative Roman Catholics who fully expected that any Roman Catholic elected as president darn well should advance the Vatican's agenda. Even Schwartz, in the midst of a book denouncing prejudice against Roman Catholics, is critical that Kennedy "laid the fears of anti-Catholics to rest by the simple expedient of not taking the Catholic side on sensitive issues." Schwarz, among others, misses the point: IF there is a "Catholic side" to a public issue, and IF any Catholic holding office is expected to take "the Catholic side" on that issue, then the nativist prejudice against Roman Catholics in public office is fully justified!

That would be equally applicable to other faiths if there were a "Baptist side" or a "Methodist side" or a "Pentecostal side" to any given issue. Despite efforts by pollsters, editors, reporters, and campaign managers to stereotype voters and dump us into "niches", despite the strident demands for obedience from the hierarchies of various churches, the truth is that there are members of any religion in America who vote Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, this way and that way on any given issue. The USA is far less threatened than are many European nations by the existence of a growing Islamic population within our borders, precisely because our politics and culture do assimilate immigrants into the mainstream of our nation. No immigrant has been asked to give up their faith in order to assimilate, but most who remain and become citizens do embrace our own national traditions. Anti-Roman prejudice is likewise misplaced, because Americans of the Roman Catholic faith do not act monolithically as a voting bloc, however much their more fanatical co-religionists might call upon them to do so. There are as many pro-choice Catholics as there are Catholics with bumper stickers saying you can't be Catholic and pro-choice. Thank God.

Still, Schwarz repeatedly sabotages his own case. Schwarz takes a position of uncompromising principle with regard to abortion, a position firmly in line with that of his faith. So far, so good. But if the Catholic community seeks an accommodation with the prevailing culture on that issue, Schwarz insists, "U.S. Catholicism will have been defeated and denatured by the anti-Catholic host culture." Defeated? Denatured? Host culture? What choice of words could better justify anti-Roman prejudice? Is this a Freudian slip, admitting that the Roman Catholic Church is an invading virus, trying to take over a biological host? Shooting himself in the foot yet again, Schwarz openly calls for Catholics to "take on the task of helping to shape American life from a Catholic perspective."

Religious bigotry tends to run around in circles, taking on a variety of political and economic overtones. When the Bishop of Rome could truly exercise authority across many national borders, having heretics slaughtered, tortured, or burned at the stake, there was no question who was engaged in tyranny. Martin Luther, for one, had to denounce the church as the "Whore of Babylon," not only for its corrupt practices at that time, but because it sought to militarily suppress the Reformation. When England withstood the Spanish Armada, its Protestant faith was the banner of freedom. When English capitalism conquered its first colony in neighboring Ireland, the Roman Catholic church became the faith of the oppressed. On the other hand, many Irish were profoundly anti-clerical, while the priests and bishops often collaborated with British rule.

When a tiny Roman Catholic minority gave substantial support to the American Revolution, an overwhelming Protestant majority gratefully extended full political participation. It wasn't even a question subject to debate, it was simply a done deal. When massive numbers of immigrants, many illiterate, began arriving from predominantly Catholic nations in Europe, to work in the factories of nativist Protestant capitalists, a whole host of different prejudices were unleashed. (It must be noted that the Protestant factory owners were no more interested in stopping the immigration of cheap labor, Roman Catholic or not, than today's industrial employers are interested in "immigration reform.") When Roman Catholic bishops felt sufficiently entrenched to demand the reshaping of American political life to their own satisfaction, the specter of the Inquisition naturally reappeared on the horizon.

To the extent that "Catholic thought" rejects the separation of the authority of church and state into distinct spheres, "Catholic thought" is indeed in direct contradiction to the constitution which brought the United States of America into being. Those Catholics who participated in the American Revolution had no problem with this separation – they helped to enshrine it as fundamental law, and benefitted enormously from it. It is fundamental to our republic both that true religion not be tainted by the corrupting influence of the state (as advocated by both Roger Williams and James Madison), AND that contention between rival denominations for preferment would damage the unity and peace of civil society (as advocated by Thomas Jefferson). Every immigrant of whatever nationality or faith, who became a naturalized American citizen, took a solemn oath to support, among other things, these fundamental principles.

It is of course the right of any citizen to accept the authority of any church with regard to their own spirituality. It is the right of any church to determine what writings properly represent its own dogma. Schwarz therefore not only has the moral right to submit himself to the authority of the Holy See, he has the legal right to do so without government interference. He has a valid point that if the church merely informs a teacher at a Catholic university that their writings are not approved by the church, it has acted within its proper sphere of authority. But the Inquisition was a very real institution, and the behavior of the Roman bureaucracy has never extinguished the thought that, if it had the temporal power and opportunity, the church might resort to such measures again.

Enduring skepticism of Roman intentions derives from the church's historical exercise of power, not from any sense that to be Catholic is to be intellectually or morally inferior. As long as the Roman hierarchy claims the unique and exclusive right to universal spiritual domination, the right to judge worldly affairs from a unique position of spiritual authority, so long as the Roman church claims to be something more than one among many denominations, there will remain a justifiable distrust of the Roman Catholic Church among all who decline to grant that church the authority it claims. While it is true that citizens professing the Roman Catholic faith have demonstrated their willingness to accept the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, the church as an institution has never totally accepted their right to do so.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Roe v. Wade Affirmed Again

The real math in the Supreme Court is still 7-2

I make it a rule never to comment on a Supreme Court decision until I have actually read the court's opinions, or at least the syllabus (that's a sort of final rough draft released before publication). They are easily accessible at, by clicking on OPINIONS and then the name of the case.

Now I have read Gonzalez v. Carhart, the decision which upheld the constitutionality of the federal law banning the so-called "partial birth abortion" procedure, better known among physicians as Intact Dilation and Evacuation, or Dilation and Extraction. While the media rushes to extract a sound byte and a quick headline, while advocacy groups rush to celebrate or bewail the decision, it turns out the Supreme Court acted with the deliberation of a court. What has changed? Darn little.

The court has no jurisdiction to determine whether abortion is a morally good thing, a morally bad thing, or a morally ambiguous thing. With the possible exception of a catatonic note from Justice Thomas, the court stayed within its proper jurisdiction as a court. It examined whether this particular challenge to this particular law was legally sound. Federal courts have a guiding principal that if there is any reasonable interpretation of a law that would make it constitutionally acceptable, courts will adopt that interpretation. The court did so, and in doing so it has ruled out most of the dangers feared by the original plaintiffs who asked for injunctions against the law's enforcement.

The court didn't even say that Congress used good judgment in passing the law, only that, good law or bad law, it was within the discretion of Congress to adopt it. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both wrote in The Federalist Papers that if the legislature exceeds the powers granted to it by a constitution, it is the duty of the judiciary to declare such law null and void. The Supreme Court carefully considered whether this was such a law. By prudently trimming the possible applications of the law, a majority of five justices found that it was not.

There can be little doubt that the authors of this law hoped to open the door to a series of chilling prosecutions of doctors who perform abortion, stretching the law to leave physicians in genuine doubt about what they would or would not be arrested for. There is no doubt that there are a certain number of U.S. attorneys and state prosecutors who were slobbering to do exactly that. In order to find the law constitutional, the court had to slam that door shut. They did. Any doctor who is prosecuted for anything but an overt and deliberate violation of very specific rules has only to cite the court's ruling and majority opinion to get the charges dismissed.

It is important to keep in mind that by the explicit terms of Roe v. Wade, any state may prohibit abortions during the third trimester, unless the life or health of the pregnant woman concerned are in danger. I can't think of any state that has not done so. As the court majority noted, between 85 and 90% of abortions performed each year in the United States occur during the first trimester, and most of the rest during the second trimester. Abortions in the third trimester are almost always performed precisely because the mother's life is in danger. In effect, her baby is killing her. Orthodox Jewish law, for one, absolutely mandates abortion in this circumstance. (There have been times and places where Roman Catholic priests have openly demanded that the mother must die in order to save her baby.) It comes down to a choice between the mother's life or the baby's. To save the mother the baby will be destroyed.

Whether it is called partial birth abortion or dilation and extraction, if the mother's life is in danger, the law explicitly allows this procedure to be used. As narrowly interpreted by the court majority, as long as the head of the fetus is not actually outside of the birth canal, the procedure is perfectly legal to protect the mother's health also. Just don't let the head get out of the mother's body. The difference between a Nebraska law overturned in Stenberg v. Carhart and the current federal law is that the current law provides very specific benchmarks. The Nebraska law referred only to whether "a substantial part" of the fetus was delivered out of the uterus, not even out of the mother's body.

The real math on this ruling is unchanged since Roe v. Wade. Two justices favor overturning Roe, the perennial Thomas and Scalia. Seven justices rely on Roe and the cases that rest on Roe as decided law. They just disagreed on the details. Congress said that in passing the law, it was attempting to "draw a bright line that clearly distinguishes between abortion and infanticide." Those who call themselves "pro-life" have claimed that there is NO line that distinguishes between abortion and infanticide, but Congress said with a straight face that it was drawing one, and the Supreme Court took them at their word.

In that light, Justice Ginsburg's dissent waxes a bit hysterical at times. There is nothing particularly alarming about the net impact of the majority ruling. The full and independent legal status of women under the constitution is not threatened. But she makes some good points. The factual findings on which Congress based the law indeed "do not withstand inspection" and "many of the Act's recitations are incorrect." That is a polite way of saying that the congressional authors either lied to the American people, or were ignorant to the point of gross incompetence. Or perhaps they were just "factually challenged." In specific, there is no medical consensus that the procedure is never necessary, and there are in fact many medical schools which provide training in how to perform it.

It is probably true that if Justice O'Connor were still on the court, instead of Justice Alito, the 5-4 decision would have tipped the other way. But in practical terms, it wouldn't have made much difference. Otto von Bismarck once remarked that no one should see how laws or sausages are made. Here we have a good example of how laws are made. Everyone is tip-toeing around what they really want to accomplish. Everyone is using bland language and logic that may be quite different than what each justice would really like to say or to accomplish. But the result is not at all bad. A court can't make law, it can only interpret law. Five justices wanted to save this law from being overturned, and they did so in a proper legal manner. By the time they were done, there wasn't much impact left to the law they upheld. They even, quite properly, left the door open that a woman with a specific set of facts could go to court and seek an injunction against the law as it applied to her individual situation.

It was a good conservative decision, by justices determined not to be judicial activists. There are only two judicial activists on the court right now, Scalia and Thomas. But the most they could get was to go along with this ruling. It was a good day for the majesty of the law.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Are Those Jesus's Bones?

No, but they may be

Yehoshua ben Yosef's

There has been another spiritual tempest in the secular tea-cup brewing over the anouncment that a set of ossuaries dug up some years ago in the middle east may (or may not) contain the bones and ashes of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary, his brother James, his wife Mary of Magdala, and their son.

For Protestants, the possibility that Jesus had a brother is no big deal. It is well known that the author of the Epistle of James was referred to as the brother of Jesus. For at least some Roman Catholics, and possibly for Greek and Coptic Orthodox Christians, it could be a problem. Official teaching of the Roman church is that Joseph lived a chaste life with Mary, so that her womb would never be devoted to a lesser purpose than it had already served. There are of course references in the gospels to "my mother and my brothers." One explanation, by no means a certain one, is that in many middle eastern cultures, to this day, various degrees of cousins are commonly referred to as brothers and sisters.

The possibility that Jesus married and had a son is not critical either, although most Christians would find it unsettling. In the most orthodox Christian doctrine, Jesus became "fully human." It is by no means closed that he might have had a wife or son. If he did, they were of no significance to the writers of the gospels. The early Christian community did not have questions of succession which plagued the early Muslim community, leading to splits between Shia and Sunni. There was never a claim that blood relatives, let alone descendants, of Jesus had a special right to lead. Also, Christianity did not spread by establishing a new empire, such as the Caliphate, but among the lower classes of a well-established empire.

But the suggestion that Jesus's bones remain on earth certainly pose a question about the Resurrection. And Christianity is nothing if not a ressurection faith. The Nativity pales by comparison.

It appears that nobody is asking what may be the most pertinent question:

Suppose there were detailed, exact, comprehensive, irrefutable scientific PROOF that these bones are indeed the bones of Jesus, Mary, Mary, Jesus's son by Mary, etc. etc. etc.

(At present, there is no such proof. There is only interesting speculation about the possible reading of some inscriptions, and what they may or may not mean. Remember the similar case of the ossuary alleged to contain the bones of Jesus's brother James? The inscription turned out to be a very clever and well-done forgery by a modern antiquities dealer, who hoped to increase the sale price of the item.)

But if there were proof:

  • Would you leave the church you currently belong to?

  • Would praise and worship cease to inspire you as they do now?

  • Would you feel cut off from God, lost and abandoned in an indifferent, morally neutral universe?

  • Would your prayer life wither and die, because after all, it had no point?

I would bet that for 99.99999999999% of current believers, the answer would be "No." After all, the current outcry comes, not from those who have detailed scientific evidence for a contrary position, but from people who are quite certain they know better regardless of the current state of the scientific evidence.

Few Christians of any variety, and fewer who have had a born-again experience, gave their lives to Jesus because they came to an intellectual understanding that "By golly, all the weight of scientific evidence shows that this man did indeed rise from the dead, approximately three diurnal cycles after his lifeless corpse was placed in a tomb with a big heavy rock rolled over the entrance. I guess that makes him worthy to be praised."

Christians become and remain Christians because "there's something about that name," because they have experienced that Jesus IS "the lover of my soul," because in their heart and soul, maybe even in their bones, they feel "holy is the Lord God Almighty," because the heart feels "strangely warm," because the weight of known sins falls away at the altar. Is anybody going to give that up because some bones in an urn have been conclusively identified as those of Jesus? Very unlikely.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the introduction to The Screwtape Letters, that belief in the existence of devils, and of Satan as a fallen archangel, "is one of my opinions." If it were proven to be false, his Christian faith would not be shattered. It would be much more difficult, logically, to say that the Resurrection is "one of my opinions" and that if certain bones still on earth were proven to be those of Jesus Christ, my Christian faith would remain intact. But the truth is, most Christians would continue to believe, even if the proof that those are Jesus's bones were beyond any possible doubt. Those who do not believe might raise the level of mockery several notches, but believers would continue to believe.

At most, we might have to rethink what Jesus meant by the words he used, how well the words he really said have been conveyed to us through translations and interpretations and incomplete transcriptions and faded memories of the apostles. Most of all, we would have to ask ourselves, how much has our human reasoning, and human unreasoning, distorted the pure essence of the message and the salvation that Jesus brought into the world?

We all know that perverse and bloody crimes have been committed in the last 2000 years, in the name of Christianity, even in the name of Jesus. During World War I, the Wobblies sane a parody of "Onward Christian Soldiers" that included unfortunately accurate phrases like "let the gentle Jesus, bless your dynamite" and "slay your Christian neighbors, or by them be slain." Do we even understand, truly, what Jesus really meant to tell us? What we have is better than nothing, but how well do we really know Jesus? Are we so wrapped up in doctrines, and in our own certainty about physical events as we understand events in human experience, that we have missed the essential Truth?

Maybe not. This tempest in a teapot about some old bones may blow over like all those that came before it. But if we are unwilling to abandon our faith in the face of proven facts, or deny the possibility of physical evidence because we will not abandon our faith, only one truly honest course remains: we must examine how well we understand the foundations of our faith. Jesus said that his Kingdom is "not of this world." Why are we looking to events in the world, as the world knows them, to validate that Kingdom?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

What Abortion Campaign?

Crisis Pregnancy Centers are Roe v. Wade in action

(Also see Roe v. Wade Affirmed Again)

The February 26 (2007) issue of TIME magazine features a front-page introduction to The Abortion Campaign You Never Hear About: Crisis pregnancy centers are working to win over one woman at a time. But are they playing fair?

There is something missing from the premises of this article. What abortion "campaign" is TIME talking about?

"Crisis pregnancy centers" is a catch-all term for citizens who believe abortion is the wrong choice, reaching out to pregnant women, offering various levels of assistance and/or propaganda. The goal, obviously, is to influence the individual choice whether to carry the pregnancy to term, or seek an abortion. (Propaganda simply means to present information, selectively, with the intention of winning others over to a distinct viewpoint).

In First Amendment terms, crisis pregnancy centers are engaged in freedom of speech and freedom of association, not unlike Planned Parenthood. They just have a different viewpoint. Nothing better demonstrates the enduring wisdom of Roe v. Wade.

No decision by the United States Supreme Court has ever said, or even implied, that abortion is a good choice, the right choice, or a socially desirable choice. All that Roe v. Wade ever said is, the decision to carry or terminate a pregancy, particularly in the first trimester, is so initimate, involves so many medical and personal variables, that in the finest traditions of American constitutional law, the police powers of the state have no legitimate role.

If not one woman in American chose to have an abortion, it would take nothing from the validity of that ruling.

Most Americans fervently believe that we have a right to privacy, to be left alone by our government in personal decisions that are nobody's business but our own. We disagree about what is private and what is a matter of public concern, but we darn well want the government to stay out of anything we personally believe we can handle without bureaucratic meddling. Applying constitutional analysis developed by Justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court has in may cases agreed, and restrained the legislative branches of government from intruding too deeply into our private lives. Roe v. Wade was one result of this vigilant defense of our cherished liberties.

It is well established that the choice legally belongs to the pregnant woman. There are many organizations dedicated to assisting women in exercising that choice. Some make medically proper abortions, in sterile surroundings, performed by qualified medical teams, available to woman who could not afford the procedure, or could not find any other doctor to perform it. There are also organizations dedicated to offering assistance with the economic and emotional costs of carrying a pregnancy to term, and raising a baby after delivery. Some organizations, offering various viewpoints, offer more rhetoric than substance. Some organizations distort the truth, offering dated or doubtful information.

That is what free speech and public advocacy are all about. Everyone gets a voice. Everyone gets to choose what voices each of us will listen to. Nobody has the right to coerce another person's choice. If someone is so zealous in their advocacy that they cross the line into criminal fraud, that can be prosecuted. If someone provides detailed, and false, medical information, that may reach the point of practicing medicine without a license. Short of that, it is not generally a criminal offense to lie to another person. The remedy is for competing viewpoints to vigorously provide more complete and accurate information.

The fruitless and destructive debate over legislative action, to restore criminal penalties for abortion, is fought on very different principles than freely offering information, advice and aid to women who have the undoubted right to choose. To assist a woman in delivering a healthy baby is a far cry from threatening her with several years in prison. The important different is that crisis pregnancy centers have to say "Please" rather than saying "We will place you under arrest and prosecute you."

It remains true that there are indeed two lives concerned with every pregnancy. The two are not equal at all points during pregnancy. The Supreme Court wisely left open that states may prohibit abortion in the third trimester, when the fetus is an almost fully developed baby who could survive outside the womb if necessary. The only thing the state may not do at that stage is mandate that a woman facing serious complications sacrifice or risk her own life to save her baby. (A woman may of course CHOOSE to do so.)But in the first trimester, medical technology does not yet exist which would allow a determined right-to-life advocate to tell a pregnant woman "If you won't carry that baby for the next seven months, if you won't endure the morning sickness, if you won't go through delivery, transplant that precious life into my womb and I will take it from here." And it is not yet a baby. It is a new life growing within the womb of another, not yet capable of independent existence.

Crisis pregnancy centers may offer and advocate. So may Planned Parenthood. The CHOICE belongs to the pregnant woman. No matter what viewpoint is offered, that is all Roe v. Wade in action.