How Long a Life Is Enough?

I don’t subscribe to a lot of online periodicals, even though the temptation is there, courtesy of Kindle. New York Times Review of Books, a weekly news ezine, and Philosophy Now, to which I have occasionally referred on this blog. It’s the latter which I have found the most enjoyable reading. The editors have done well in their theme selections for issues I’ve received, meaning only that the subjects intrigued me at the time.

Take, for example, the current volume dealing with the subject of death and morality. It’s not so much about what happens after death or about why people die in the first place as it is about whether or not we can or should be successful in defeating it, or at least significantly delaying its intrusion. It asks some rather important questions about life in this world and what we ought to do about what we almost universally perceive as the last enemy. It begins with the optimism of scientific advances toward the goal of slowing or even reversing the aging process.

The thought on one side, championed by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, is that this is a quality of life issue, one which therefore demands of us that we invest whatever resources are necessary to speed the research. It becomes, for this argument, a moral imperative. Others, however, question whether the abolition of aging is really a good thing at all. The leading voice for those who say “not so fast” is that of Mary Midgley. You may remember (but may be forgiven for not doing so) that Dr. Midgley was named the first recipient of the journal’s new award for fighting against stupidity. In my opinion, her entry in this March/April issue further validates that selection. She asks critical questions about what we may not intend but will have to live with. Would we soon face severe issues of overcrowding, necessitating that we stop having children? What about the stagnation which would almost surely result from the loss of fresh, vibrant voices—not to mention the sense of joy and enthusiasm they inject into our lives? Can we adequately predict and prepare for other psychological effects on individuals and cultures?

I have consistently suggested in theology classes that death is a good thing in spite of the pain it leaves in its wake. It is good, that is, given the fallen nature of humans and the worlds they create. It’s hideous to even begin imagining tyrants with virtually assured longevity; but do we really know ourselves if we are tempted to think that we too would not indulge ourselves in the knowledge that we very likely have much more time to fix things—to repent and mend our ways? I wonder if we really would do better morally. And just how much more life would be enough? Would not the same questions come about?

I also wonder, as does Midgley, whether it is a morally sound idea to invest in extending our own lives (and pleasures) and contributions while much of the world continues to struggle with survival issues, where life expectancy is still in the 30-yr. range? We know what can be done with greater generosity; we don’t know what can or cannot be done or what the results might be if we put all our eggs in the longevity basket. Is it just pride that leads us to say that we should think of how much more we could contribute were we to last much longer? Maybe the desire is simply a way of expressing the longing for eternity without the bother of answering to the God who made us.

What do you think? How long a life should we desire in this world as it now exists? Should we invest in extending it if we can? How long a life would you want to live before you die?

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Lots of material to close with this week, much of it probably worth pursuing in more depth. I am including a few links for those who would like to delve more deeply into some of the subjects to which I have strayed.

The Church of England to Get New Leadership
While many readers may not have given much thought to the state of the Anglican Church over the years, there was news this week out of England that Rowan Williams is stepping down from his post as the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide communion. He was something of an enigma to many observers; some expected a very liberal leaning under his leadership, but he has been much less predictable than expected. One British publication described his task as impossible—bringing together the very conservative Anglican Church in Africa and the very liberal Episcopal Church in America. See the article at http://m.guardian.co.uk/ms/p/gnm/op/shk7XQ0GEr_7e3RtcOrYA_w/view.m?id=15&gid=commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/16/rowan-williams-failed-bridge-chasm&cat=most-read. Sorry, no short link provided. One of the people suggested as a possible replacement is from that African expression of English Christianity, and would bring a more conservative bent to be sure. Liberals would howl in protest; but the undeniable fact that this is where growth is occurring (along with conservative pockets in America initially directed by African bishops). Stay tuned; this will get interesting.

Is There Moral Decline?
I’m a follower of Scot McKnight (in the facebook and twitter sense of the word). His blog (Jesus Creed) has encouraged many serious discussions and has introduced significant new books and arguments to audiences that might not see them otherwise. I also resonate, as noted in an earlier series here, with his book The King Jesus Gospel. Today “Jesus Creed” posted a question: Is there a measurable moral decline in America? The post cites declines in statistics in murder, property crimes, vandalism, abortion, divorce, infidelity, and teen pregnancy, and then asks where the evidence of moral decline might be found. The implication seems to be that it may not be so. Count me not among the skeptics, but among the protesters to such a thought. I would point to several other factors that impact these statistics. Divorce and infidelity, for example, are down only because fewer people are bothering to get married in the first place. Births outside of wedlock now outnumber those within. There’s the entertainment of America, or so it is called, with many Christians sucking it up right along with the rest of the culture. There is the overall lack of civility and grace. Granted, this is not quantifiable; but this morning’s local news included an incident in which a woman was followed by car to her destination, verbally abused, then punched in the face and hospitalized because the assailant thought she had cut him off on the road. No accident; just the taking of offense so common in our world. What do you think? Here’s the link: http://ow.ly/9llky

Santorum Stirs a Larry Flynt Citing
Remember Larry Flynt, the “hero” of free speech as a covering for the pornography industry? Hadn’t heard from him for a while. On one hand, that might well be perceived as a good thing; on the other, his cause didn’t seem to need his voice, as pornography has flourished quite well without his sympathy-driving appearances (he’s in a wheelchair). But in one of the few substantive policy statements of the campaign, Rick Santorum has declared a war on hard-core porn, and Flynt was sufficiently roused by such a specter to make public statements about such a idea. The facts about pornography and its detrimental effects are very well documented. The 1986 (I think) report of the Reagan administration’s report on the subject made this very clear. Yet Flynt and his cries of free speech–along with dollars to the coffers of many legislators from the porn “industry” prevented any meaningful action on the recommendations of the commission. Is it time for another try? Santorum thinks so; I agree.

Whither Pastoral Education?
Changes are afoot in education across the board these days. Some of the changes are economically driven, as it costs more and more to do what we’ve always done. Some is due to the availability of alternative means and methods of teaching and learning. Some is due to an attitude suggesting that we do not really need what the educational process was delivering. All of these factors are seen in the seminary version of education–yes, seminaries, the places designed to provide pastoral candidates with the wherewithal to competently fulfill there Spirit-given calling. Many seminaries, however, are finding finds in shorter supple as expenses continue to climb; many are trying out the technological alternatives to delivering the good. But it could be that the third of the changes mentioned above is what is most responsible for the hard times many such schools are facing. Churches and individual believers think they can do without a trained ministry. Yes, I am quite biased on this matter. In my own denomination, the statistics clearly demonstrate that the untrained approach is not working. The need for deep engagement of the questions to be faced in life and ministry in this world is undeniable, unless one is content with a faith that simply preaches eventual escape from this evil world. The manner in which that deep thinking and wrestling with texts and ideas, how those of the biblical story conflict with or walk together with those of culture is not sacrosanct; but that it happens in a meaningful way is critical to having a vibrant and relevant witness in this world. Ideas are most welcome.

I’ve strayed far enough for one Saturday. There’s March madness to consume, yard work to be done and my daughter’s in-laws-to be to meet. May God bless you well today.

What Makes Business “Christian”?

I’m going to do a few posts on creation next week—no, not creation as in the story of origins, but as in the part we play in creating things as bearers of the divine image.

But before beginning those posts I want to ask simply what makes a business a Christian business. It’s a straight-forward question, but just to get things started, here are a few possible answers, which readers may embrace and defend or reject; alternative proposals or combinations and nuances are also encouraged. So let’s begin.

A. A Christian business is one which is owned/operated by a Christian person or persons. This answer is more about the claim to Christian identity on the part of the owner(s) than about anything dealing with the business itself. It might be defended by pointing to ones’ identity in Christ, which makes anything one does Christian by extension.

B. A Christian business is one which displays Christian symbols in advertizing, on the premises of the business operations, on the product, or in any other publicly recognizable way. This makes the case very clearly that what we do is an offering to the Lord, who provides for all things.

C. A Christian business is one which operates on principles drawn from the Bible. These principles may or may not be prominently displayed, but are nonetheless diligently promoted in the company’s culture.

D. A Christian business is one in which specifically Christian products are made. Whether pencils or vans, they are designed specifically with a Christian consumer in mind.

E. A Christian business is one wich is used primarily as a vehicle for witnessing; it provides opportunity to share the gospel, and does so by opening doors which might otherwise be closed to the one(s) who operate the business.

That’s a short list, and it leaves many things unaddressed, but it’s only intended as a conversation starter. An additional question to consider is whether you make a concerted effort to make purchases of goods and services from Christian businesses, or whether that form of selectivity should be encouraged.

Waiting to hear from you.

Business As Usual? We Hope Not

The big news of the day, other than the Republican primary campaign and the spin placed upon the Santorum victories in Alabama and Mississippi, has to revolve around the resignation letter of Greg Smith from the financial firm Goldman Sachs. Coming on the heals of a report stating that approximately 70% of the requirements of the Dodd-Franks Act aimed at cleaning up Wall Street have been unmet, the nature is Smith’s letter gives credence to the notion that little if anything has changed in the corner offices of New York’s financial district.

Smith resigned via an open letter placed in the New York Times, which has to rank this as one of the all-time greatest examples of bridge-burning. Here is a portion of his letter:

<emAnd he opines that when he joined the company, the working culture revolved around “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and doing right by our clients”.

He says: “The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years … I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years.

“… These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, ‘How much money did we make off the client?’ It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave.

“Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about ‘muppets’, ‘ripping eyeballs out’ and ‘getting paid’ doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.”

The question of how widely spread the attitudes Smith exposes really are will undoubtedly be the topic of conversations in many places, with executives rushing to distance their own firms from any such practices or corporate philosophies. Goldman Sachs, of course, is doing everything possible along the damage control front. I’m not in a position to know the extent of what really happens in such offices. Few people are. Yet what happens has a significant effect on how the rest of us will live, in that the national and global economies are dependent on what happens in those corner offices. Is profit the only motive for decisions, or is public interest anywhere in the equation?

On one level, this might be a topic best left to the experts in finance and economics; that’s a position for which I do not qualify, since my experience therein is limited to managing some of the investments made by a very small bank for a short period of time (a long time ago). Why bother with it when there is little we can can do about it? On the other hand, we can at least use this as a lens through which we peer into the soul of a culture—not just the financial culture, but our entire western, specifically American culture. And the view isn’t pleasant.

I doubt that the people alluded to by Smith are all that different from the majority of folks. They’ve been brought to this point in their lives by the same values and attitudes that have been carrying the culture, many of which are the inevitable result of a morally destitute worldview. The culture that doesn’t know anything for sure except a badly skewed idea of tolerance and diversity will have a hard time producing leaders in any segment of the business world, political world, or entertainment world who have a true (no, really, I mean ‘true’) sense of the interests of others at the center. What the Smith letter frighteningly reveals is that not even when our own interests in the long-term will be jeopardized by ignoring others in the short-term are some folks capable of doing what is right.

I also suspect that there may be an underlying fear among those who take what they can take now. It is the fear of someday not having enough and not having the opportunity to obtain it. And this may well be an indicator of the lack of hope that lies at the core of the culture without grounding in truth. Hope. Where can it be found? When we yield the ground of truth, hope cannot be anything more than wishful thinking—and that’s not a very convincing resource to take with us into the battle we all have against the temptation to accumulate for ourselves at the expense of others.

On Being Nice and Being Right

Where have all the nice guys and gals gone? They seem to have disappeared. At one time it was not necessarily a compliment to refer to someone in such terms; it was the sort of thing one might say about someone who was not distinguished in any way, but had also managed to avoid giving any particular offense. The result is a nice, as in unremarkable, person. But how often do we hear of someone being admiringly referred to as a nice person, one whose manner of being is such that it stands out for its consideration of others, its unrelenting search for something good to say about a person others would just as soon dismiss? It’s the sort of person U2 sings about: “Grace finds goodness in everything.”

They certainly are not found on tv, though once they were. For all of the bashing 1950s and early 60s shows have taken, there were nice people on virtually all of them, from June Cleaver to Ben Cartwright. See any of them on “Desperate Housewives”? Even the main characters of today’s shows always seem to have an edge about them, one that encourages us from getting too close because of a dangerous personality quirk or thinly veiled troubled past. Nice people are harder to find, maybe because we have this tendency to prove the flaws in anyone presented as a candidate for the title. It’s almost as though one should apologize for being referred to as such, hastening to point out the flaws which disqualify them from holding it. And we all know what happens to good guys in politics. Where do we turn to find lawmakers like Senators Simon and Brooks these days? It’s little wonder that scoring points with the cameras and microphones counts far less than compromising and actually legislating. Woe be to the candidate who doesn’t have swarms of operatives digging up dirt and innuendo on his or her opponent. Again, soundness of positions and proposals is secondary.

Maybe we can find the nice people in the churches of our land. And, indeed, there are many there who might fit the description. Yet I sense that many of them are so in spite of, not because of the leadership of many of our more prominent spokespersons and influence peddlers. In what might be termed the power centers of many a Christian movement or organization, the need to distinguish one’s interpretation, goal, or cause from the plethora of similar ones provides powerful temptation to leave behind the thought that Jesus might want us to actually consider kindness, gentleness, and peace as qualities worth cultivating. Some of the same sort of dirt-digging which we despise in politics happens in churches that need to point out all the obvious errors of others, leaving the listener to conclude that only here will the truth be found.

Don’t misunderstand. Niceness is insufficient for the furtherance of the gospel and its leavening effect in a culture and its call to a rather broken world to seek wholeness in Christ. Niceness in itself does not redeem. There is a real Christ among the various and variously limited presentations of his nature and his continuing ministry in the world; and we should be diligently seeking the real thing. But I suspect rather strongly that this real thing is found equally in the doing as in the seeking. In other words, we cannot—absolutely cannot—get the right answer without being concerned about “doing” the very kind of life He told us to live. And most of us would do well to begin that with a simple commitment to be nice in a very unkind world. Maybe someone might actually ask us what’s up with that; and we’ll be able to tell them what we think is right.

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

A return to a subjects old and a testing of subjects new. Let me know if the latter our of interest as future post topics.

To start this edition I am drawing attention to a subject to which I am likely to return—the story out of England that raised again the idea that ending the life of newborns is just as acceptable as ending the lives via abortion. The twist is that this is not a pro-life position, but one that acknowledges what prolifers have said all along, with every scientific argument on their side: prenatal life is human life. A segment of those who support legal abortion now agree; but the argument turns on the personhood rather than on humanity of the fetus/child. The critical issue to which we absolutely must give attention here is that personhood cannot be scientifically but only philosophically established. And the nature of the reigning philosophy can take us in a number of directions, some of which are reminiscent of a certain twentieth century movement in Germany or another in Russia. Stay tuned.

Since I’ve made reference to the presidential campaign in previous stray thoughts, I’ll simply observe here that there isn’t a lot of reason to get excited about the Republican candidates. I am trying, however, to make sense of Mrs. Romney’s comment early in the week that she doesn’t think of herself as rich. Now that is certainly a statement over which Democratic strategists are salivating. But the context of the statement was one in which she continued by saying that her riches were in her family, relationships, and other non-material goods. I wonder whether that will do. On one hand we would certainly agree that these goods and values are a better measure of anyone’s possession of the good things in life; on the other, does not the possession of so much monetary wealth as the family undeniably holds come with a responsibility of recognizing and acknowledging the privileged status it provides? Whatever its source, wealth does give tremendous advantage in terms of whether one’s voice is heard and one’s overall interests are protected. These privileges can be borne well or poorly. But pretending they do not matter is darn close to arrogance.

It seems apologizing is becoming one of the necessary practices of life. Fair enough; it should be practiced as often as it is called for in one’s personal life as an expression of both one’s humility and of the other person’s humanity. I’m not so sure, however, about public apologies being demanded for offenses real and imagined, most of which had nothing to do with the intent or knowledge of the alleged perpetrator. Sometimes it is asked for by groups one might not even be aware of, whose symbols and beliefs are therefore unknowable. Or we are asked to apologize for something done generations ago by people to whom we have only the faintest connection to. That seems meaningless. It’s not that there is nothing to do about those things which have resulted in injury and injustice; when these things come to our attention we should seek to correct them for the people now living, lament the difficulties brought upon previous generations, and work for the redemption of what is now redeemable. I raise this because of the increasingly divided and divisive culture we now live in, according to which self-definition is the prize. When self-definition turns on the identifying of “the other” there will always be new things to apologize for when we find ourselves in the role of that other.

Just when it was seemed safe to allow the Jerry Sandusky case to be just that, and not a story about his former boss, the governor of the commonwealth renews the charge that the now-deceased boss in question should have done more to pursue the case. Let’s get this straight: a man who was not a material witness to a crime, had only incomplete, second-hand knowledge of an incident which, according to what he was told, might or might not have been criminal behavior, directed the witness to go to the authorities with his information—this man is said by the attorney general, whose office had knowledge of the allegations and responsibility for prosecuting the same, to not have done enough to pursue the case. So if Joe Paterno had done what might have been construed as interfering with an on-going investigation, then maybe Tom Corbitt would have done what was already his job. Okay, got it. What is totally incomprehensible is why Corbitt feels the need to raise this yet again. The tributes to Paterno and his character, care, and investment in the lives of people appeared yet again in “The Penn Stater”, the alumni association publication. Coincidence? Probably not. One thing is certain. When Corbitt leaves this earth there will not be the kind of remembrances and outpouring of love and respect from thousands of lives as we continue to witness for the former coach. Yeah, this last thought is given in some measure of anger.

I’ll have to work on that.

Something more positive to close. I attended a session of the state high school wrestling championships this week, in support of a friend whose son was competing. When I met this boy a few years ago as interim pastor of his congregation he was a somewhat skinny kid, not terribly imposing or vocal. Now in the state championships, with the body one would expect of a competitor in this arena; but also with a desire to continue his education toward ministry. That’s good stuff. And even better is the investment made by his family in shaping and directing him; by caring coaches and mentors along the way; and by the almost countless number of people who volunteer or receive minimal remuneration for their time and efforts to make such events possible. We need these things and these people. Oh, you might want to remind the governor of this.

Atheistic Biblicism?

Anyone watching news from Harrisburg, Pa., has undoubtedly come across a recent flap over a billboard sponsored by a group of atheists and unbelievers (I’ll let them quibble over the difference). The billboard, placed in a predominantly African-American community, consisted of Negro (the word being used at the time supposedly represented) in neck shackles, above which were the words, “Slaves, Obey your Masters. Col. 3:22.”

The ad was in response to the Pennsylvania legislature’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the Bible, something about which this blog commented a few weeks ago. The intent of the prominent sign was to show that the Bible is in fact an evil book, one which is totally inappropriate for the dignity granted by the legislature. There are a couple of additional posts which come to mind, one dealing with stupidity and several dealing with the issue of biblicism. As to the former, the working definition was “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” The reader may draw her or his own conclusions as to whom the label may apply; I’ll draw mine. As to the latter, however, there is little doubt that the atheist responsible for the choice of messages was doing just what too many Christians have done for far too long: using a non-contextual verse or phrase as the entirety of what “biblical” teaching is on a given subject.

The ad seems to have backfired, though they have promised to give us more of the same. It backfired for a couple of reasons. First of all, it failed the sensitivity test. The persons in charge had no understanding of the people who would have to look at this billboard, thinking nothing of how deeply the very image was to them, as it has been for several generations. Compounding this failure of discernment, however, is the fact that many of these same people are devout Christians. While the intent was to show them from the Bible that Christianity was inherently contrary to their own interests and well-being, the opposite happened. The believers in the community know their Bible better than that; and more than that, they know the purpose of the Bible better than that.

The purpose of the Bible is Jesus the Christ; Jesus, the Liberator; Jesus, who frees from oppression that goes even beyond the horrors of slavery and relegation to second-class status; Jesus, the one who gives hope, a commodity never delivered on by any form of atheism, in spite of the false inspiration of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And the irony is that they know it better than most White American Christians, who rightly or wrongly are associated with those who use the very verse in question as the devil’s justification of nineteenth century slavery. And, by the way, that form of brutal slavery had very little in common with the practices of the first century world in which the words of Paul were offered. In that context, servants were far more like household helpers, with their families being considered the responsibility of the homeowner. Some were well treated and loved; some were not—just as employees experience in different work settings through the ages. But none were treated the way all too many plantation owners treated those whom they bought and sold.

I am curious to see the promised future ads from the atheists and unbelievers; maybe some of them will last more than the one-day run of the billboard in Harrisburg. I do hope they’ll be better reasoned and more worthy of debate. This one was just plain stupid.