Monday, March 2, 2015

Mohammed was wrong

The prophet Mohammed erred. The Koran, which allegedly Mohammed received as a message from God, describes Jesus' birth as a virgin birth, that is, Jesus' mother Mary had, in the words of one English translation of the Koran, "neither been touched by any man nor ever been unchaste" (19:19).

Jesus was not born of a virgin. Although biologists know that virginal births are a very rare possibility, such births would almost invariably result in a girl and never a boy because the man contributes the Y chromosome that distinguishes males from females. Over the last couple of centuries, Christians have helpfully moved from reading scripture literally to reading it metaphorically. The story of the virgin birth is significant because of what the gospel authors want to say about their experience of Jesus and not because the authors are making a biological claim.

Muslims extremists have not made a similar shift, but still read their scripture literally. In other words, they believe Jesus was born of a virgin because both that is what they read in the Koran and Mohammed accurately recited what God had spoken to him.

Either God lied (I find the notion of God intentionally deceiving anyone ludicrous) or Mohammed got it wrong. Jesus was not born of a virgin.

Am I, like the Charlie Hebdo satirical cartoonists, disrespecting Mohammed and Islam? Alternatively, am I expressing an opinion based upon analyzing a text in light of scientific information?

Ideally, individuals express their ideas in ways that are respectful of others. However, respect for others that precludes an open, honest exchange of views is in fact insulting of others. It's naïve to imagine that everyone agrees about anything. Differences of opinion and value are endemic to the human condition. I know that some Muslims will disagree with my conclusion that Mohammed erred; some Christians similarly continue to cling to the anachronistic notion of a virgin birth.

Stifling public discourse by insisting that persons only say that to which nobody will take offense is equivalent to completely ending public discourse. Adversarial legal systems exist, in part, because communities have recognized that the best approach to discerning true from false is to encourage open debate. Admittedly, the process often results in partial truths or even upholding falsehoods. Nevertheless, open debate, in which we weigh evidence and arguments and test hypotheses, generally yields the most progress in science, law, and religion.

My hope is that in time, both Muslims and Christians completely abandon the rigid fundamentalism that leads to hatred, enmity, and violence because they find it so unbelievable in view of everything else that they know about the world. Until then, refraining from voicing about controversial opinions to avoid giving offense or out of concern for one's own safety allows extremism to continue unchecked.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Charting historical trajectories

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

That question presupposes that history is dynamic and not static. Hoping that an aspect of life or existence will attain equilibrium, as I often do, is generally pointless. The cosmos is dynamic. Careful examination of anything reveals a dynamism; periods of waning inexorably follow periods of waxing, seen in the cycles of the moon, life that moves from youthful energy to the tiredness of old age, etc. In total, the cosmos appears to move toward entropy, the dissipation of its energy.

Correctly discerning the direction of flow can provide an individual with life-giving information, e.g., knowing the tide tables can help a skipper avoiding grounding her or his vessel.

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

Several indicators suggest that the US has passed its apogee and now heads toward an inevitable decline:

  • The apparent increase in the political influence of the wealthy and the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the poor suggest that a plutocracy may be pushing democracy aside. Something similar happened in ancient Rome. Democracy engenders innovation, energy, and loyalty that a plutocracy cannot match.
  • US global hegemony, perhaps at its peak at the end of the Cold War, seems certain to decline as China's economy overtakes the US economy in size, with India's economy poised to follow suit.
  • Chinese and Indian citizens, who are less assured of affluence and therefore have less to lose, are more likely to push for greater democracy; US citizens appear willing to trade security and comfort for freedom. They may also be more willing to take risks, and therefore to be more creative and prolific inventors and entrepreneurs than US citizens.
  • The huge and relatively constant proportion of the US gross domestic product tied to wasteful defense spending. The US spends a higher percentage of its total economic output on defense than does any other state and yet faces less of an existential threat, because of its geography, population, and excessive military strength than do most other states. Meanwhile, the US underfunds both the effective education of its citizens and investment in critical infrastructure.
  • The credence given to superstition and myth, with a concurrent disregard of science, is glaringly manifest in unnecessary death and contagion (e.g., the silly ideas, which have no scientific basis, that measles vaccine can cause autism or that humans are not the result of evolutionary processes). No allegedly developed nation is more handicapped in these ways than is the US, handicaps that appear to be increasing instead of diminishing.

Not all indicators are negative:

  • Lower oil prices, especially if coupled with increased reliance on alternative energy sources, may reverse the flow of oil wealth from petroleum importing states (e.g., the US) to oil exporters (e.g., OPEC members). If the US becomes a net oil exporter, that might also reverse the flow of US wealth. Rapidly growing Chinese demand for oil could magnify the positive effects of these trends for the US.
  • To the extent that the US becomes a more just society (think of increasing racial justice, increasing equality for women, and diminishing gender bias), the odds of US democracy continuing to survive improve.

History is rarely linear, i.e., history rarely moves in a consistent direction. Short-term reversals do not necessarily presage a long-term decline. Where do you want the US to go in the future? What can you do to make that future more likely to happen?

Ultimately, the future of the US seems tied to both the future of the world and of the globe. World future connotes the flattening of the world; the futures of all humans are increasingly linked. Our best hope for the future is if competitive nationalism and selfish atavism yield to an emerging awareness of a human community that transcends all differences and respects all people equally. Global future connotes the interdependence of all life. Unless we, and a majority of other humans, accept responsibility for our duties as stewards of nature, we will destroy the planet's ability to sustain human and most other forms of life.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jesus' descent to the dead

Perhaps you've heard of the bestselling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and his son, Alex. The book purports to recount the son's death after an automobile accident, his going to heaven, and his return to life. This past week, Alex, the young co-author, revealed that the book was a fraud.[1] Ironically, the authors' surname – Malarkey – means nonsense.
Given our awareness of our own mortality, interest in what happens to a person at death is unsurprisingly widespread, perhaps even universal. Christianity asserts a claim similar to the Malarkey's that Alex had visited heaven. The Apostles' Creed, which is part of our liturgy for Holy Baptism as well as for Morning and Evening Prayer, declares that he (i.e., Jesus) descended to the dead. In prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer, preserved in Rite I, the wording feels more troubling he descended into hell. What's the origin of this claim? What does it mean?
The primary biblical bases for thinking that the crucified Jesus descended to the dead are a verse in this morning's epistle reading and one in the following chapter. Contemporary English translations of 1 Peter 3:18 describe Jesus going and proclaiming the gospel to those who are in prison. The Greek word is actually hades, incorrectly translated as hell, sometimes translated with accuracy as the place of the dead, and occasionally translated as prison.
The idea that the dead are in prison, presumably awaiting judgment, reflects Jesus having lived during a transitional time in Judaism. Before the second century BC, Judaism taught that a person's life ended at death. During Jesus' lifetime, Jewish thought was divided on this issue. In sharp contrast to those like the Sadducees who held to traditional teachings, the Pharisees, the Qumran community, and others, including the first Christians, believed that a person's existence continued after death.
Secondary biblical bases for the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead are allusions to the sign of Jonah in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Jonah's three days of captivity in the fish presage the three days that these gospels report between Jesus' death and resurrection. In the wider cultural and historical context, several Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities visit the place of the dead; the Qumran scrolls also mention the Messiah visiting the realm of the dead.
Christian preaching has traditionally linked three motifs of enduring importance to the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. First, the claim underscores Jesus' humanity. Jesus' death was no different from the death of any other human. Too often, Christianity has emphasized the deity of the second person of the Trinity at the cost of ignoring his humanity. Saying the Apostles' Creed and declaring that Jesus descended to the dead, affirms that he was a human, just like us.
The second motif tied to the Christian teaching that Jesus descended to the dead is that while in hades Jesus preached to the dead. A wealth of interpretations cluster around this idea. Some have Jesus preaching to fallen angels, some to righteous Jews, some to all of the dead. These interpretations express the confidence, dating almost from Christianity's beginning, that God's salvific work in Christ extends to all creation. In other words, the claim that Jesus visited the dead is a traditional formulation of saying that God welcomes all, that God's love embraces not only humans, but also all living things and all creation. God's love is inclusive and not exclusive. Even as the rainbow is a sign of universal hope, so is Jesus' descent to the place of the dead a sign of universal hope.
The third motif linked to claiming that Jesus descended to the dead is that Jesus defeated the power of death. We can experience this deliverance occurs in the present. Sometimes we, though nominally alive, may feel dead. Life's crises, compounded by the challenge of making sense out of the Christian tradition in a post-modern world, have created a hunger for evidence of God's continuing care and love that the unscrupulous exploit, perhaps explaining the popularity of books such as The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. This sense of being alive yet dead probably contributes to the current popularity of vampires and zombies.
Christianity's good news is that in Christ God defeated the powers of death. In Holy Baptism, a dove alights upon each of us, symbolic of God's Spirit in and with us. And, if we listen carefully, we can hear God communicate, softly but distinctly, not only in Holy Baptism but at other times as well, You are my daughter, my son, my beloved. Death has no more power over you.

[1] Ron Charles, "'Boy Who Came Back from Heaven' actually didn't; books recalled," Washington Post, February 16, 2015.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Supporting our troops

An Ethical Musings' reader suggested that I write a post regarding support for our troops. Previously, I posted some thoughts on this subject in What the Church, and our nation, owe veterans. In this post, I explore three ways in which a nation can best support its active duty troops.

First and most importantly, a nation best supports its active duty military by sending those troops into harm's way only when essential for protecting vital national interests. Vital national interests can be difficult to define. Unfortunately, politicians often employ the phrase without bothering to define it. Vital national interests denote interests that, if not protected, jeopardize a nation's continued existence. This definition generally precludes citing economic factors to justify deploying troops. For example, the repeated US interventions in Latin America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries known as the Banana Wars were all wrong because they benefitted US corporations but were never a response to an existential threat against the US. Protecting or improving the economic well-being of some citizens or businesses is insufficient to justify military missions that pose an existential risk to military personnel, i.e., expecting others to be willing to die to protect my standard of living is morally wrong. Using military force in that manner reduces military personnel to a means to an end that lacks lasting value. This restraint on the use of military force is another way of expressing Just War Theory, the historic Christian perspective on when using military force is morally justifiable. Incidentally, failing to aid another nation or people when it faces an existential threat would also satisfy the test I propose for when using military force is morally justifiable. Left unchecked, evil that destroys another nation or people, as exemplified by Nazi Germany in WWII, will continue to pursue its evil goals until stopped, eventually posing an existential threat to the globe. Stopping genuine existential threats early prevents unnecessary harm to life. Conversely, mislabeling something as an existential threat will often result in increased harm, as occurred with the misguided US invasions and conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Second, a nation supports its active duty personnel by adequately compensating them for their service and the risks they may face. The current military pay system falls short of that standard. We pay junior personnel too little. We promote too many officers, creating bureaucratic bloat and incompetence, because of the up-or-out promotion system. The all-or-nothing retirement system that requires a service member to serve twenty years or leave with no retirement benefit both exploits those who serve a lesser amount of time and needs adjusting to reflect longer life expectancies. Moves to reduce health benefits for military personnel and veterans shift compensation in the wrong direction: military service in peace and combat is hazardous and a nation has a moral obligation to care for those who serve.

Third, a nation best supports its troops when everyone serves (cf. my Ethical Musings' post, Memorial Day). A program of national service in which everyone, regardless of gender or ability, serves would renew commitment to the nation and represent a major investment in the nation's future. I would propose that everyone serve for two years, post-high school. Compensation would be set at the minimum wage. Education deferments would be freely available, but would be just that, a deferment. Upon completion of her/his education, the person would still have the obligation to serve for a year at minimum wage. The advantage in granting deferments is that the nation could reap the benefits of the person's education without having to pay additional compensation, e.g., a doctor would serve as a doctor, but receive the same compensation as someone who served immediately following high school. There is no exploitation in this: those seeking a deferment would know the terms. A parental leave provision would function similar to educational deferments: new parents could take two months off and then return to complete their service, earning the same compensation as everyone else completing national service. Assignments could reflect personal preference, abilities, education, and the needs of the nation. The more professionalized the military becomes, with increasing numbers of career personnel being part of multi-generational military families, the weaker the connection between a nation and its armed forces becomes. The weaker that connection, the more prone a nation is to misuse and to fail to support properly its military.