Friday, July 25, 2008

The Second Coming of J.C.

The media are going gaga for Barack Obama. He clearly arouses the kind of hope and love that can, with only a little exaggeration, be described as messianic. Given the criticism the media have endured recently for their uncritical acceptance of President Bush's case for war against Saddam Hussein six years ago, one might think they would take extra care now to put politicians through their paces and evaluate their responses critically. But they are once again failing in this responsibility and allowing themselves to be swept up a wave of popular sentiment.

The U.S. media's fawning over Obama is now beginning to draw attention in the foreign press. Today the Times of London published this hilarious satire, which tells the story of Barack Obama in a way that parallels the story of Jesus in the Gospels: And this is the testimony of one who speaks the truth and bears witness to the truth so that you might believe. And he knows it is the truth for he saw it all on CNN and the BBC and in the pages of The New York Times. (Hat tip to CDL.)

Meanwhile, John McCain's campaign assembled a video collage of reporters and pundits expressing their infatuation with Obama and posted it on YouTube. There were two versions, each set to a different Frankie Valli recording: "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "My Eyes Adored You." The former version was the overwhelming favorite of McCainiacs, drawing over 80% of the votes. Unfortunately, both versions were taken down after Warner Music Group objected on copyright grounds, but you can read about it here. (Warner apparently had no objection to non-Obama versions of the songs on YouTube, which you can hear by clicking on the song title links above.)

Obama reminds me not of Jesus Christ, but of a different J.C. – Jimmy Carter. In the early post-Watergate years, Carter was a fresh face who combined a moderately liberal political record and a promise of an end to Washington-business-as-usual with personal integrity and sincere religious values. He was the sort of person on whom many Americans – a majority, as it turned out – could project their hopes for a White House free of the corruption and power politics that prevailed under Nixon. Now, in the wake of another discredited Republican President, Americans are looking for a new Jimmy Carter, and they like what they see in Barack Obama. However, it appears to me that Obama shares Carter's weaknesses as well as his strengths – particularly his inexperience and vagueness on the issues. If elected, Obama, like Carter, will probably turn out to be an ineffectual one-term President.

And then we will once again excoriate the media for failing to do their job.

P.S. While looking for the above picture of Obama and Carter, I came across this article from The New York Observer, which noted the similarities between the two Democratic Presidential candidates five month ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Anglican Meltdown

I have been reading about the accelerating Anglican meltdown for the past week. It is all playing out pretty much like I expected, but much faster. The usual Anglican proclivities for stalling and compromise seem to have been forgotten everywhere but in England itself, and they're in danger even there. For those not in the loop on Anglican news, here is a summary of recent developments:
  • The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), a group of conservative, mostly Evangelical, Anglican leaders meeting in Jerusalem last week, announced what is being widely interpreted as a move to sidestep the Anglican Instruments of Unity and either take over the communion or create a new church within the shell of the Anglican Communion.

  • Also last week, more than 1,300 clergy of the Church of England, including 11 bishops, signed a letter in which they threatened to defect from the C. of E. if this week's meeting of the General Synod gave the go-ahead for consecrating women bishops without providing legal protection to those who cannot accept the validity of priestly orders for women.

  • This week the General Synod, meeting in York, defeated all compromise proposals and took the next step towards the consecration of female bishops with only a flimsy "code of practice" to protect Anglo-Catholics. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York both spoke in favor of stronger protections, but the synod paid them no heed. This not only ensures a significant split in the C. of E., but it also further weakens the authority of Archbishop Rowan Williams.
It looks like most of the traditional Anglo-Catholics in the UK will soon begin a mass migration to Rome. The main obstacle to this in the past has been the UK's liberal RC hierarchy, who don't want a bunch of well-educated, conservative Anglo-Catholic clergy crashing their party. In the early 1990s they successfully thwarted the mass conversion of Anglo-Catholics. This time, however, the Anglo-Catholic bishops have gone straight to Rome, where they have found a sympathetic Pope who is not afraid to upset his English bishops by circumventing their schemes. (He was already peeved at them for defying his recent Latin Mass edict.) By the end of the year, there could be the beginning of some sort of Anglican Uniate arrangement in the UK.

Unfortunately, I don't think many of the UK's Anglo-Catholics will head for Orthodoxy. Most of them are already closet Romans. Also, the Anglo-Catholics who would be most inclined to Orthodoxy are the same ones who are likely to "stay and fight" until the first woman bishop is actually consecrated. And Orthodoxy in the UK is really not set up to encourage converts. For example, there is no provision for use of any Western Rite. The Oriental Orthodox might actually be in a better position to pick up converts, with their British Orthodox Church, which is under the Coptic Pope.


I wrote most of the above to a friend yesterday. There have been new developments today.

Two Anglo-Catholic bishops have written letters announcing the inevitable departure of their flock for Rome. The Rt. Rev'd Andrew Burnham is Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and the Rt. Rev'd Edwin Barnes is the retired Bishop of Richborough and President of the Church Union. Ebbsfleet and Richborough are the suffragan sees of Canterbury occupied by Provincial Episcopal Visitors, better known as "flying bishops," who minister to traditionalists who do not recognize the priestly orders of women. At the same time, Catholic blogger Damian Thompson, who has been reporting on secret meetings of these same bishops with Vatican officials, has now unveiled the outlines of a plan to allow Anglo-Catholics to move Romewards as a group. Rome will appoint a bishop to offer pastoral care to ex-Anglicans, who will gather under the umbrella of the Fellowship of St. Gregory the Great.

Meanwhile, the leading Orthodox sympathizer in the C. of E., the Rt. Rev'd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, released an eagerly awaited pastoral letter in which he expressed hope that the London Plan, under which traditionalists in his large diocese have been accommodated, could continue into the future.

Coming next week: The Lambeth Conference.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Common Human Nature

On Friday in the Times of London, religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill’s headline was “Archbishop of Armagh invokes scripture in defence of homosexuality.” While that was a bit more sensationalistic than necessary, the Most Rev’d Alan Harper, Primate of the Church of Ireland, actually did begin to lay the groundwork for a theological, rather than merely political, rationalization of the acceptance of homosexual relationships by the Church. But his theological argument, in turn, rests on his anticipation of future scientific developments.

In a speech to the annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Archbishop Harper pointed to Richard Hooker as the source of the Anglican method of interpreting Scripture through the application of Tradition and Reason. He also recalled the importance that Anglicans place on science and knowledge. For illustration, he applied this method to the first chapter of Romans, where St. Paul writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another . . .”

The archbishop conceded that science had not yet rendered a final verdict on whether or not people are born homosexual, but he believed (in Gledhill’s words) “that it seemed increasingly likely that they had no choice in the matter.” He concluded that if this were the case, then the Church would have to revisit the question of whether homosexual relations were really unnatural, rather than natural: “If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.”

Here is the flaw in the archbishop’s reasoning: It implicitly denies the existence of a common human nature. Instead, it imputes a different nature to homosexuals than to heterosexuals, such that they are subject to differing moral standards, based on their differing nature. As if homosexuals were a different species.

But why stop there? Some progressives of a more gnostic orientation go much further, essentially classifying each person as a sui generis being. Every individual is so distinct that there is no human nature. The concept of species, if it is valid at all, does not apply to us so-called “humans.”

Others, who call themselves transhumanists, do not assert that this is now the case, but they long for the day when technology will make it so. Through a combination of eugenics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cyborg implants, and other things we have not yet imagined, mankind will “take control of its own evolution.” Unless mankind came to an agreement on the direction this development was to take and enforced it rigorously, it would obviously lead to a branching of humanity in many directions away from its original nature.

If there were really no common human nature, what would be the implications?

1. If we do not share a common nature, there is no basis of a common morality. If homosexuals are a different species with a distinct nature, then they could have an entirely different natural law. In addition, they would not automatically be able to make claims based on human rights.

2. Anyone who does not share the human nature is not saved by Christ. As the Cappadocian Fathers taught, what is not assumed by Christ is not saved. In the Incarnation, Christ assumed our human nature in order to rescue and heal mankind. Those who do not share in this nature do not share in the salvation. Moreover, if you abolish human nature entirely, as the radicals do, then the Incarnation becomes meaningless or moot.

3. If there were no human nature at all, it would obviate the applicability of Darwinian evolution to mankind. Evolution is all about the origin of species. If we are not a species, then the question of our evolution is moot. (Note: It would be inconsistent for anyone to invoke Darwin at any stage of an argument against universal human nature. Some of the leading exponents of evolution have occasionally fallen into this trap.)

How, then, should one who takes the existence of human nature as given (whether from an Incarnational or a Darwinian basis) respond to Archbishop Harper? I think he is right to think about how the Church ought to respond to the likely reality that at least some instances of homosexuality have a biological basis. But I think he is wrong to proceed based on the inference that homosexuality is therefore “natural” for some people. On the one hand, this would separate homosexuals from other humans. On the other hand, it would seem to lump all homosexuals into the same category with each other. In short, it would herd homosexuals into a conceptual ghetto.

I would propose that it works better to think of homosexuality as a minor congenital anomaly. (The older term, birth defect, seems a bit too harsh, so I’ll eschew it here.) Few of us are born perfect. I have a couple of minor congenital anomalies myself – so minor that I was not even aware of them until well into my teen years, and they have no effect on my day-to-day life. Following the archbishop’s logic, I might say that these are not actually anomalies, but rather characteristics that make me a different sort of creature – and a perfect example of that sort of creature, to boot. Perhaps the only instance of that sort of creature in existence.

The more traditional approach is to say that these anomalies are unnatural, and I am therefore an imperfect manifestation of human nature. My anomalies do not make me my own species. They do not subject me to a different morality. They might sometimes make living as a human more challenging than would be the case for a more perfect human, but they do not separate me from the common human nature.