Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Roe Vs Wade, Karen Swallow Prior, Trump and Israel Folau

The end of Roe vs Wade is a wonderful thing and a culturally and theologically significant moment. Christians have always opposed abortion (Abortion and the Early Church) and there is a good philosophical case against abortion (The Unaborted Socrates). Abortion is also a transcultural and global issue. For example, back in 2004 I clipped this article from the Australian newspaper about a Dutch ship providing abortion services to Polish people, then in 2016 I noted how the French Government banned a pro-life video featuring down-Syndrome kids and then most recently it was interesting to read the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, condemning the decision to overturn Roe vs Wade. 

Abortion is a sensitive topic to research and write about. Each Australian state has its own laws about abortion and most allow abortion and restrict protests around abortion clinics. You can get a rough idea of how many abortions take place in Australia by looking at the Medicare item number 35643 here. I want to make a few comments about how Christians have and should respond and then some practical suggestions for Christians in Australia in the light of Roe vs Wade being overturned. 

Sadly, sometimes Christians have been tricked by the myth of over-population, thinking that reducing population, instead of improving technology and living less exorbitant lifestyles, will help our natural environment. I don't have a link for it, but I've heard some Christians in Australia argue that the embyro has increasing moral value, therefore making the abortion of a zygoyte less morally wrong than partial-birth abortion. Initially, this argument appears cogent, a zygote lacks recognisable human features. However the implied measure of human fullness is never described, making that argument useful for eugenics, slavery and various forms of euthanasia. This is where Israel Folau comes in. Israel Folau, a Rugby player was kicked out of Rugby for posting a verse about sexual sins on his social media.This became a larger debate about religious freedom. 

The Australian Christian Lobby embraced the cause despite Israel Folau not technically being a Christian - belonging to a group that denied the Trinity, but the Trinity is the historical and theological boundary of Christianity. The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), marks the moment Jesus is conceived in Mary. The key verse, verse 35 says: “The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.'" This verse is both Trinitarian and pro-life. The Son of God begins his 'humilation' as a human zygote. Interestingly, both progressive and conservative Christians are in danger of forgetting the Annunciation. 

Christians can make a philosphical and Biblical argument for being pro-life. Things exist and have boundaries, in the case of people, they have beginnings and ends. Conception is the beginning of a human. Ideal forms, or essences, exist for everything including humans. A zygote, contains the ideal form or essence of a human. We see this in Luke 1:35, the moment of conception marks the moment the Son of God takes on human nature. Deformities, changes in circumstances or capacity doesn't negate this essence, they just highlight the need for us to be protective, careful and kind. In a Darwinian-world they would be cast aside in favour of humans able to reproduce. Another interesting theological implication of being Pro-life. 

Christians on the other side of the debate are also tricked by unhelpful arguments. I once heard a sermon in Hobart that condemed any lady in the congregation who'd had an abortion as a murderer, it was as horrible as you can imagine. Christianity is about grace, there is a path back to Jesus for everyone, no sin except rejecting Jesus' forgiveness is beyond the pale. This is the scandal of Christianity, grace for everyone who accepts it. Christians find it hard to be Christians, hypocrisy is the root of Christian sin.

This is where Trump and Karen Swallow Prior come in. Politically Trump took the second-last step of overturning Roe vs Wade by appointing pro-life judges, particularly Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some conservative Christians want to make the overturning of Roe vs Wade into a political event. Which is where Karen Swallow Prior comes in. She is a prominent American Evangelical academic who is both strongly Pro-Life (arrested for protesting at abortion clinics) and strongly opposed to Trump. The end of Roe vs Wade is a good thing, that Trump helped create, but you don't need to support Trump or other conservative shibboleths to be Pro-life. 

Which finally brings us to the practical aspect of the end of Roe vs Wade for Christians here in Australia. I think there are five practical things the end of Roe vs Wade and the publicity around it can spur Christians in Australia to do.  Firstly, we need to keep working to reduce the stigma around teenage and single mothers. Secondly, we need to be conscious of how cost-of-living pressures impact our congregations. Thirdly, we need to financially support our local pregnancy centres. Fourthly, we need to be politically active in encouraging adoption and foster care.  And finally, we need to pray that we keep living consistent lives.     

Friday, June 3, 2022

Christians, online warfare, attention and the Algorithm

A machine from 'Mortal Engines' (2018)
1. Cannibalism

What is our attention focused on? Jesus knew how to focus our attention. He said trusting him was like being a cannibal, eating and drinking Jesus' body and blood (John 6). If that didn't make you wonder, the Holy Spirit said, through the Apostle Paul, that belonging to God is like the sexual union of a marriage (Eph 5)! There are all sorts of theological reasons for these metaphors, but getting and keeping our attention is part of it. God also used more ordinary metaphors for belonging to him: a branch in a tree (Romans 11) or a stone in a wall (1 Peter 2). If Jesus had said trusting him was like being a business colleague, that wouldn't have focused our attention in the same way, wouldn't have conveyed the full impact and depth of committment that comes with being a follower of Jesus. 

2. Attention

John Vervaeke is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto and is studying how attention works. Attention is part of existing as a human being. When you drive, you focus on certain movements, signs, sounds and patterns. When you talk to someone or complete a task you focus on some things and not others. What's just above the screen you're reading this on? (That's a clumsy gimmick, but illustrates practically the power and pervasiveness of attention.) Vervaeke is particularly interested in how our attention copes with the information rich modern world. Science is a useful way of getting things done, but can't provide an overall organising structure for why we focus on certain things and, perhaps even more importantly, which things we *should* focus our attention on. Vervaeke describes this awareness, that anticobotics, electricity and the printing press can't in themselves explain why there are things to think about, as "the meaning crisis."

3. The Algorithm

Paul Kingsnorth, an evironmental activist who has become a Christian, observes how our modern industrial world is a type of giant machine, producing and consuming. Global supply chains connect eveything, the wireless and the telegraph rely news from around the world instantly into our laps, companies and governments are an interconnected web. BJ Campbell of the Handwaving Freakoutery substack observes the patterns of social outrage, particularly in connection to gun violence. The name of his blog is an attempt to summarise the way in which we get outraged, freak out regularly about events or topics. Which brings us to the Alogrithm, capital A. Non-Christians like BJ Campbell describe the way outrage and alogrithm shifts around, bringing certain news stories or topics to our attention and not others, as an egregore, a type of emergent secular spirtual force that our collective attention creates. In other words the Algorithm is the sum of our personal attention, a magnified version of the way we pay attention. Dutch Reformed Pastor Paul VanderKlay, adjusts BJ Campbell's egregore model, correctly noting that the spirtual world is both bottom up (emergent) and top down (emanation). Principalities and powers exist in this world, some good and some bad, and as Christians we have a better opportunity to consider and organise the whole thing, because God has revealed a sketch of how the whole thing works. 

4. Online warfare

OK, one more idea to throw into the mix before I tie the threads together. Venkatesh Rao wrote this fantastic longform article about how we fight online; 'The Internet of Beefs'Rao's thesis is that the internet (social media, websites, comments, messages, all electronic communication) is a battleground. There are "knights" of varying importance who write articles or make videos, and the rest of us the "mooks", the soldiers of their armies. Each interaction online is a little conflict that adds up to giant internet wars. We feel passionately about our little battle but it gets lost in the bigger battles and the relentless tide of time. Tangentially, it's worth noting this how the 2nd Wave Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & Dennett) would view the Algorithm; not in Kingsnorth's, Pageau's or VanderKlay's spiritual terms but as a giant chaotic internet conflict without any final coherent rhyme or reason. However the "Meaning Crisis" is more than a big social media mess, it is the spiritual product of the massive attention management industrial machine we live inside. 

5. Where should my focus be then? 

There are so many things to pay attention to! New technology, ethical dilemmas, politics, history, injustice, cat videos and other people's personal joys and troubles. Let alone the process of learning and thinking about things. Christians add theology to this list as well. Because we can only be responsible for a few things and can only be upset about a few things, what then should we be outraged about? Who decides that? Well in a way the Algorithm already has, it gathers and sorts and presents us a steady stream of items. I keep returning and linking to the article by Rao, because I want people to think about how internet conflict works. But why should they give some of their attention to that? Which problem needs solving, who needs helping, how do we decide? 

6. The Christian Dilema 

The "Meaning Crisis" is especially acute for Christians, because we already have a frame to see and organise the whole problem, we have an attention guide. God, and his words both written and Incarnated. The tricky bit is filtering our attention through that guide. This is where the Algorithm connects back up to the larger industrial machine. Some publications have time and people to research and present things. Other publications operate on a much smaller footprint, and rely more on power of outrage. Since finding out about it, I'm still outraged by the Armenian Genocide. Hitler aparently said "no one remembered the Armenian Genocide". I think more people should know about it and be upset about it. If I use the word "Hitler" it drags a tiny fraction of your attention over to the topic. But you are your own person, with limited time and energy, you simply cannot correct every injustice or even give every single topic even part of your attention. 

This is where gatekeepers come in. (But don't forget the "knights and mooks" from a couple of paragraphs back.) We rely on institutional gatekeepers to keep our society running, doctors registered and flight controllers regulated. But even Christians use them to control the flow of information. Pastors need them, I can't read every commentary or monograph, I need a frame to sort and focus my attention. (John Frame's existential-situational-normative schema comes to mind.) Although because we are broken creatures, often sucombing to the corrption of sin, even our gatekeeping becomes skewed. Additionally some gatekeepers are part of the mainstream orthodoxy and others on the hetrodox fringe, or an insitution changes hands and so a new frames of meaning becomes dominate. 

7. Alcoholic Anonymous

What's the bottom line? Being self-aware. The first step of Alcoholic Anonymous is admitting you have a problem. The second step is realising you need a higher power outside your own attention. Sometimes it's good to be outraged about something, but we can't be outraged about everything. We need trusted gatekeepers to help us process our "combinatorial explosion". (John Vervake's term for the amount of information before us at any given moment.) The Algorithm isn't a conspiracy of globalists, it's our collective attention, channelled, pushed and pulled. But we were warned they'd be "principalities and powers" vying for our attention. The first step is to see the big picture, know how our individual attention and reactions are marshalled and distributed - and if not properly understood and interacted with, is a spiritual danger. The next step is to relate to each other as human beings, to have conversations (on and offline) that help us organise information and meaning without being manipulated by the Algorithmic machine. Thanks for your attention. 

[1st wave Atheism = Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger & Satre etc (1869-11 Sept 2001), 2nd wave Atheism = Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & Dennett etc (2001-2016) 3rd wave Atheism = Alain de Botton, Haidt, Scott Alexander & Alasdair Macintyre etc (2016-present)]

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Responding to Michael Jensen: Christianity is persuasive and not coercive


The church is a gathering of disciples. Singing, praying and sharing the sacraments together along with all the little incidental interactions around those activities and their organisation, is the communal crucible of our spirituality. God uses our sociality to help transform us. We don’t just gather because we are commanded to by God and don’t just gather because we were created as social creatures, we gather because together there is a different and important spiritual growth that occurs when we gather. A mob is possessed by an evil spirit, but when one or two gather in Jesus’ name they are possessed by the spiritual energy and power of Jesus. Of course Christians are forgetful, broken and sometimes corruptible so our gatherings can (and sadly have been) misused. But that’s part of God’s sense of humour, he uses people, prayers and the circumstances of this broken world to change us. Church contains the spiritual power of Jesus in spite of the recovering sinners who gather to form it. 

 So it was discouraging to read Michael Jensen’s recent article (‘Dear Sister in Christ … About the Vaccines’, 19 January 2022, Eternity) justifying vaccine mandates. You catch the sense of his argument in these two paragraphs: 
In the most beautiful passage about the unity of God’s people, Psalm 133, unity is shown as a gift that flows down from heaven like the dew on the mountains of Lebanon, or like the anointing oil on Aaron’s beard. I have acted (as I know you have), from the best of my knowledge and from my conscience, guided by Scripture. For me, this has meant taking the vaccines and strongly advising others to do so. It has also meant compliance with government guidelines around masks and lockdowns. It has meant temporarily excluding the unvaccinated from church meetings. 
We will simply disagree on whether that was a wise and godly cause of action. I recognise that I don’t know everything and that I could be wrong about this. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I am. With the greatest of respect, I think I am right about the vaccines, and I think the wisest and most loving cause of action for church leaders was to take the best scientific and government advice available in order to protect the most vulnerable and to protect the community in general. 
Michael starts by noting how good unity is, as per Psalm 133. This is a really good place to start. Unity isn’t just agreeable, its an expression of the supernatural way we all belong to Jesus despite our individual differences. Michael then correctly notes he needs to act to the best of knowledge, his conscience and guided by Scripture. This is how God wants us to make ethical decisions, communally, carefully and guided by Scripture. His next premise is that complying with the various government measures wasn’t just rational but also “the most loving cause of action for church leaders.” Many of the government measures have made sense; masks have been used in medical settings to prevent aerosolised transmission for many decades and temporary quarantines have been used since the beginning of societies and infectious diseases. And most Christians have agreed that muffled singing and gathering online was a reasonable workaround, not ideal but making the best of a serious and unusual situation. Additionally vaccines that are developed ethically are a rational risk worth taking. Humans are social creatures and ethical measures that reduce infectious diseases are, like Michael observes, a loving thing to do. 

Sadly though it feels as though Michael has forgotten the central impetus of the Reformation, which was the rediscovery of Grace, and his argument overlooks the fact that Christianity is meant to be persuasive and not coercive. A vaccine mandate is coercive. While there is medical value in vaccination, a vaccine mandate is a political calculation. Instead of continuing with work-arounds, churches that agree to enforce the exclusion of the unvaccinated are participating in a political coercive calculation. Excluding people from the gathering of believers was only ever reserved for church discipline, for people who were disruptive. Until this pandemic, exclusion was the sober exception. When churches exclude a class of people for arbitrary reasons it damages our spiritual unity. When Michael advocates for excluding people from gathering he goes against the historical and theological grain of Christianity. We persuade with words, sermons and articles, not enforce exclusion with COVID ushers and the threat of arrest. Lastly, it feels as though Michael’s stance is unnecessarily divisive. Some churches reluctantly enforced vaccine mandates, while theologically inconsistent, it was not presented as a “wise” and “godly” situation. When Michael doubles down on the goodness of excluding the unvaccinated it sharpens divisions among Christians and undermines our spiritual unity.