Sunday, April 29, 2012

Blackberry pie v. chigger bites

This is more of a personal note than a proper post. I love blackberry pies, and every spring I go out to the nearest blackberry patch and get enough berries for 2 pies. Anyway, this year I was careless and ... the topmost thought on my mind tonight is, "Is blackberry pie really worth this many chigger bites?" Next year I'm really planning on wearing some repellant.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ethics: What makes an action good?

A college-level course could be spent on the topic of "What makes an action good?" What I'd like to do here is give a simplified overview of the main ways that question has been answered, and then make a few follow-up comments.
Q: So: What makes an action good?
  1. It fulfills or harmonizes with natural law. (Natural Law)
  2. It fulfills an essential moral duty. (Deontology)
  3. It will achieve a good purpose. (Consequentialism / Utilitarianism)
  4. It is the outward expression of inward virtue. (Virtue Ethics)
  5. It fulfills a divine command. (Divine Command Theory)
There's nothing preventing an action from being "All of the above". First, a quick survey of some potential problems of each approach:
  1. Natural Law is limited in that all kinds of human actions are not necessarily associated with some sort of immutable natural law. Also, emphasis on some natural laws -- notoriously, "survival of the fittest" -- can lead to some brutal results.
  2. The "essential moral duty" begs the question of how we know what that essential moral duty is, and why exactly those duties are good.
  3. The utilitarians are the ones for whom "the ends justify the means". It is the only theory that bets everything on being justified by a future outcome. There is a blind spot in that we don't know the future, so the true consequences of an action are not actually known in advance. There is no safeguard against causing all kinds of actual harm in the name of good intentions and hoped-for results. Also, there is such a thing as a method that sabotages its intended goal; that risk is typically not recognized.
  4. The outward expression of inward virtue begs the question of what exactly is virtue and why exactly is it good. It has nearly the opposite risk compared to the utilitarians, in that for the "virtue ethics" view, the end result is, in practice, nearly irrelevant. In its weaker moments, it tends toward narcissism; it has a self-congratulatory streak.
  5. The "divine command" theory presupposes a way of knowing God and a way of knowing his will. Beyond those hurdles, it then bets everything on the character of God. If God is not actually intrinsically good, then "divine command" is not necessarily intrinsically "good" either. (This last point is not at all academic. Not all religions hold that God / the gods are always intrinsically good. According to some religions, God / the gods may not act out of goodwill or virtue.)
But it is plain that there is a lot of overlap between the different approaches:
  1. Natural Law has roots in the real world around us. If we look for what harmonizes with nature, what makes the natural order grow and flourish, then working according to natural law is also working for a good end, but with better quality control over the means employed to reach those goals.
  2. The "essential moral duty" could coincide with nearly any of the others. the "essential moral duty" is a blank list waiting for someone to fill it with its vision of what is moral, essential, and obligatory.
  3. The utilitarians provide a useful foil for the "virtue ethics" view, insisting that we consider the results of actions.
  4. Likewise the "virtue ethics" perspective is a useful check-and-balance against utilitarians, noticing that some methods are not consistent with the good intentions that are the stated goal.
  5. If God is the creator, then "divine command" may largely reflect natural law, in the sense of aiming for what makes the natural order grow and flourish.
From a Christian point of view, the theories largely coincide. As a list of considerations, they are to be weighed together, not separately; any separation amongst them is a warning sign that something vital has been overlooked. In Christian ethics, all the ethical theories are bound together by Christ's teaching of the highest good: Love of God, love of neighbor; some would also say by the Genesis account of creation being inherently good. On this view, the objective reality that grounds all of our ethical decisions is the goodness of what God has made. From there, love of what God has made is the natural law, the essential moral duty, the driving force that motivates and identifies good results, the definition of real virtue, and the content of divine command.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Prodigal Son - the most life-changing parable ever told?

Once there was a son, Jesus said, who treated his family badly and despised them and left home; it looked like he never meant to come back. He fell on hard times and realized he had been an idiot and a jerk, and that his best course of action was to go back home and beg his father for forgiveness. His father was beyond relieved - he was glad. He had always wished his son good and not harm. He celebrated his son's return.

I've seen it a few times in real life now: the child who does not value his family and leaves home in a bad way. I have seen the hurt on the parents' faces, heard the anguish in their voices. But there's always one more thing: hope. They heard Jesus tell the same story, and they know how it ends. They look forward to that day when things are right again. They're ready to play their part. They've made sure their child has heard the story too, and that the child knows how it ends. The child knows what kind of welcome he can expect from parents who follow Jesus. And the day comes when the child is ready to come back home. And the reconciliation is following a script that Jesus laid out for us all. He made us expect that the prodigal comes back, and that the parent receives with open arms.

How many families throughout the centuries have been reconciled because Jesus told that parable?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Walking after God: Noah and the animals

We've seen before how the ancient Israelites understood their duty to walk after God as a duty to imitate his good acts. They demonstrated a duty to visit the sick from God visiting Abraham after his circumcision; they demonstrated a duty to comfort the mourners from his blessing Isaac at the time of Abraham's death.

From the same line of reasoning, we could deduce an obligation to preserve all species of animals:
As the Almighty preserved every kind of animal on the ark, so do we also preserve every kind of animal.
I'm not here entering into the debate over whether certain animals were entered on modern "endangered" lists because of true preservation needs or merely in order to prevent construction. I'm saying that, regardless of the debate over whether any particular regulation was necessary for any particular species, based on the story of Noah and the ark we can still deduce that it is our duty to work with God to preserve all species.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Reinstating Peter" - as a pattern for forgiveness

On the night of Jesus' arrest, Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus. This was right before Jesus' execution. After Jesus' death, after his resurrection, he met his disciples by the sea again -- and he asked three times, "Simon, do you love me?"

Some see this as Jesus reinstating Simon Peter. No doubt that Peter was accepted again, and forgiven, still a disciple of Jesus, still beloved. But we also see Jesus going out of his way to present Peter with a chance to restore things, a chance to take back what he did, a chance to do what he wished he had done. Jesus could have said, "I forgive you" and left it at that. He could have said it three times, if he wanted to bring home the message that this was in answer to Peter having denied him three times, and it was fully forgiven. There are all kinds of ways that Jesus could have reinstated Peter. He chose to do it by giving Peter his dignity again, by letting Peter do something good and have a hand in restoring things between them. Jesus made it very simple for him; Peter could hardly have missed.

It's really easy for forgiveness to be condescending; that restores nothing. Sometimes the "forgiving" person actually humiliates the person they claim to forgive; that kind of "forgiveness" is more an act of revenge than an act of love. Jesus' forgiveness was genuine and welcoming, even presenting Peter with a chance to look back gladly about what he himself had done (though he didn't seem to realize it at the time). Peter didn't create that opportunity; Jesus handed it to him.

There are so many things that need restoring in my life that I'm hoping I can figure out how to follow Jesus in this. Just imagine all the currently-broken relationships: what if people could look at each other without resentment or shame?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Job and his comforters

Have you ever wondered why Christians, of all people, aren't more open with each other? We acknowledge finding God's strength through our own weakness. We acknowledge that not one of us is faultless. Our sacred books teach us to be patient with each others' faults and weaknesses, to hold ourselves back from judging each other -- not even for the sake of possible innocence, but in the humility of shared guilt. We know that we can't speak against someone else without speaking against ourselves. We acknowledge that hope comes to the world through God's mercy, and that we walk in God's ways through acts of mercy.

And still we keep so many things to ourselves. Maybe it's our own failings or fears, or some sadness or sorrow. Or it may be that people we love make mistakes and find themselves facing problems. And I think I know why we keep to ourselves: whenever we open up, there's a risk that Job's comforters will come out.

We probably all remember the book of Job: a good man faced some horrible problems for a time. There was a lot to that story, but today I want to mention: his friends made things worse. When you're hurt, or sad, or worried, there's one thing that can always make it worse: someone coming to tell you it's all your fault, or that you shouldn't be sad or worried because God is in control or something like that. Spiritual one-upmanship wearing a mask of compassion.

We are received into Christ in baptism; not as people proclaiming our own worthiness, not as people who have rendered judgment on Christ, or who put Jesus on trial and found that he passes our tests, who have judged that his life and teachings find favor in our eyes. We are received into the church as people receiving the forgiveness of sins, as people who bless God for his redemption of the lost. All of Christ's followers are welcomed in baptism, so we see that all of us -- without exception -- are welcomed as sinners in need of forgiveness. After baptism, our great act of continuing fellowship is receiving the gift of God's mercy in the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. We are drawn together by our need for God's mercy, and by our hope in his goodness. We, of all people, should know that there is no comfort -- and no fellowship -- in judging each other.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lent: Anti-Virus Report

"And so Lent is starting out like running an anti-virus on my mind." (4/23/2012)
This Lent, tracking the thoughts in my mind for ones that were destructive, was like running a full system scan on a computer and coming up with 5 pages of security warnings. Ok, my mind has some low-risk stuff like adware. (So does yours; whenever you find yourself humming the tune to an advertiser's jingle or quoting their slogan, keep in mind: the advertisers have successfully installed adware in your brain, almost like a popup.)

The adware is only a petty nuisance; it's the malware that can drag you down and make things crash. I think my next goal has to be to recognize the malware. Or -- maybe more to the point -- recognize the bait and stop taking it. Out on the internet, if I get an email from a "Nigerian prince" I know better than to reply to it. If I see an email from an old friend, and the email has a generic title and a link they would never have sent me, I know it's not really from an old friend, and I know better than to follow the link. When a pop-up comes along and gets past that blocker somehow, the mere fact that it's a popup will alert me that its sender has his own agenda, and the only purpose in sending the pop-up is to take me for a ride. (And Facebook is just as bad, but there they don't call them "viruses" they just call them "applications", and almost all their applications are privacy-compromising programs that daisy-chain through contact lists to collect personal data; but I shouldn't digress. The point is that there is suitable bait to get around our nagging sense that it's a bad idea to click that link or submit that form.)

So why, when it's in the privacy of my own mind, am I so gullible? I know for some people the big temptation is porn; for me the big temptation is resentment of people who have wronged me. They're both impure thoughts; resentment is hatred with a polite veneer. Is that polite veneer there because my mind has the decency to be ashamed that it's hateful, or because it's not even honest enough to admit what is going on? (Both, I figure, because of the two sides of the struggle in my own mind. And so the two sides reach a truce on that much: to stick with the euphemism of "resentment".)

But why do I take the bait? The temptation to mentally score points on somebody by replaying old memories -- it might as well be another notice from the Irish Lottery Commission notifying me that I won the jackpot for a drawing that I never entered. Do I really think of scoring points on these people as winning the jackpot? If not, then why do I entertain the thought? What's the gain?

I'd like to think that my mind, my heart, my soul, should be at least as well-guarded as my computer. But they aren't. You know, when my kids started using the internet, I went over all the basic security with them: how to keep your computer from getting corrupted, compromised, or hijacked. Beware of strange emails, impersonations, pop-ups, bait-links, or searching for questionable things. Keep a close eye on things coming in, and don't assume everything deserves your trust. The "Nigerian prince" is about as royal as the checker at the grocery store and has even fewer honest reasons to want into your bank account. You didn't win the Irish Lottery. And defacing the memory of people who have wronged me is not winning the jackpot.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An ancient teaching about calling down judgment on others

Sarai said to Abram, "The wrong done me is your fault. I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The LORD decide between you and me." (Genesis 16:5)
So how did that work out for her, calling down God as judge between herself and her husband? In later years:
And Sarah died ... Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. (Genesis 23:2)
From this the ancient Israelites derived the teaching:
He who calls down divine judgment on his neighbor is himself punished first. (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b)
The same principle is well established in Jesus' teachings: Do not judge lest you be judged; the merciful will be shown mercy; with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. But speaking for myself, I'd never made any connection between Sarah's call for judgment and Sarah dying before Abraham.

Sarah was sure that her anger was righteous anger. Even if she was right about her husband's sin, she had to limit her thoughts to one narrow thing to see his fault but not her own, to get "righteous anger" instead of "shared blame".

We live in an age in which people "throw the first stone" all the time -- standing up as each others' accusers and judges with the same certainty as Sarah. We criticize and call down judgment on others routinely, showing no restraint in harshness or certainty about the other party being totally in the wrong, about being entitled to put ourselves above someone else and call down judgment on them. We might want to think twice about that.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

He Is Risen!

And he said to them, "Don't be frightened! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.

He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you into Galilee: there shall you see him, as he said to you." (Mark 16:6-7)
And the announcement at the empty tomb has echoed down the years to today: He is not here. He is risen.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Jesus' day in the tomb

Even on the Sabbath, he labored for the sheep which he found fallen into the pit. (Gospel of Truth, saying #33)

For anyone not used to that way of looking at Scripture: That takes Jesus' teaching about how a shepherd will rescue a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath, and applies that to the Sabbath between Good Friday and Easter when Jesus was in the "pit" of death to rescue the lost sheep.

I think the "Gospel of Truth", which contains that saying, is misclassified; it's not a gospel of Jesus in the sense that we typically mean the word "gospel". It doesn't try to present a biography of his life. It doesn't try to record his teachings. It's more of an early commentary on how to understand Jesus' life and teachings, written somewhere around 160 A.D. (give or take a couple of decades). It was one of the earlier writings considered to be heretical; if you read it, you'll probably see why. Some of its teachings are a little bit off-base if we consider the apostles' information about Jesus as the best information about Jesus, and if we consider Judaism to be the right background for understanding Jesus' life and teachings. But it's reassuring in this much: even in Christian groups that have some questionable views, they may have decent views on other things, even on important things.

So I figure if St Paul can quote a non-Scriptural poet in one of his sermons, perhaps a lowly blogger could be forgiven for quoting a document with some known problems -- in a part that I think it got just right. Some things are a little too good to ignore, even if the surrounding material isn't necessarily the same quality. (Jesus also mentions -- referring to teachers who mislead -- that if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit. That is another pit that the Good Shepherd saves us from.)

Thanks be to God that Jesus is the good shepherd, who went even on the Sabbath to rescue the sheep from the pit.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Holy Week in Prophecy

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem
Say to the daughter of Zion, "See, your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zech 9:9)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Psalm 118:25-26)

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise. (Psalm 8:2)

Cleansing the Temple
In that day there shall be no more traders in the house of the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 14:21) (JPS)

Zeal for your house shall consume me. (Psalm 69:9)

My house shall be called a house of prayer. (Isaiah 56:7)

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of thieves? (Jeremiah 7:11)

Rejection by the Leaders
The stone the builders rejected has become the chief stone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. (Psalm 118:22-23)

Lord, who has believed our message, or to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1)

Make the heart of this people dull, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10)

A stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. (Isaiah 8:14)

They hated me without cause. (Psalm 35:19; Psalm 69:4)

The kings of the earth taken their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. (Psalm 2:1-2)

Betrayal, arrest, and trial
He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9)

So they weighed out my wages, thirty shekels of silver -- the noble sum that I was worth in their estimation. The LORD said to me, "Deposit it in the treasury." (Zech 11:12-13) (JPS)

I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. (Zech 13:7)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

They divided my garments among themselves and cast lots for my clothing. (Psalm 22:18)

He made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12)

He was counted with the lawless ones. (Isaiah 53:12)

For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. (Psalm 22:16)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)

They gave me gall for my meat, and vinegar for my drink. (Psalm 69:21)

All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, "He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him." (Psalm 22:7-8)

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

Not one of his bones will be broken. (Psalm 34:20)

You shall make his soul an offering for sin. (Isaiah 53:10)

They will look on the one they have pierced, and mourn for him as for an only son. (Zech 12:10)

Death and Burial
He was cut off from the land of the living. (Isaiah 53:8)

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:9)

And he said unto me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"
And I answered, O Lord GOD, you know.
Again he said unto me, "Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.' The Lord God says unto these bones; 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.'" (Ezekiel 37:3-5)

My body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your Holy One see decay. (Psalm 16:9-10)

He will destroy death forever. (Isaiah 25:8) (JPS)

After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. (Hoseah 6:2)

He shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the labor of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many. (Isaiah 53:10-11)

Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting? (Hoseah 13:14)

A helpful reminder on how the ancient Israelites decided if a prophecy was Messianic.

About that 4/1 post ...

As it did a couple of years ago, 4/1 this year falls during Holy Week. So my usual "category: humor" post will have to wait for another time. And this year's post was going to have a little fun with how the "New NIV" sparked off such translation controversies. The "translation" I was working on was ... truly special. Ah well. Some other time, perhaps. I'll be posting something more appropriate to the day after church.