• We should keep only the smart ones. So says Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu, who recently declared that we will have a “moral obligation” to reproduce via in vitro fertilization and screen the resulting embryos for intelligence as soon as it becomes technologically possible to do so. Embryos not passing the test for intelligence should be destroyed for the good of society—the “economic and social benefits of higher cognition,” as he puts it.
Savulescu’s academic detractors have so far focused on the practical implausibility of his plan to screen for intelligence, whether because it would cost too much or the technology won’t do it, or argued that the money would be better spent improving the early lives, and therefore the IQs, of poor children in places like sub-Saharan Africa. They all miss the heart of his suggestion: that human beings are done a service by being engineered. Or maybe they saw it and didn’t think it worth commenting on.
Ethical concerns about engineering humans aside, even on his own utilitarian terms we should ask: Is there anything more frightening than a world full of clever people like Julian Savulescu?
• Like many brave new worlders, Savulescu should be careful what he wishes for. Continuing a trend suspiciously common to bioethicists, he essentially crowns them as society’s philosopher-kings, charged with the grave duty to decide who is to live and who is to die. Dealing with embryos and fetuses, the bioethicists themselves, or at least his sort of bioethicist, don’t have to worry about their own rules about life and death, all of them having already been born. They’re on the boat and they’re happy to shove other people back into the water.
But fair is fair. We’ve heard since childhood that there are many different types of intelligence. Admittedly, this is often said by teachers trying to comfort children who would have been among Savulescu’s unchosen embryos. But still, there’s something to it. So why restrict the selection of embryos to those with higher IQs, and why restrict the selection to embryos? Why privilege the smart embryos and those who managed to get born? Suppose—as we said, Savulescu should be careful what he wishes for—someone decides to screen bioethicists for moral intelligence? How could he object? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and what’s bad for the embryo is bad for the academic.
• You will see, sometimes, people talking on their cell phones or typing out text messages—in church. You may even see (we have) someone bring in his coffee and sip it during the opening prayers. But that informality isn’t the real reason for the new culture of casual worship, writes Donald Nevile in the Forum Letter. It’s the music, he says: “More and more we choose the musical styles of light rock, New Age, and easy listening for our ‘contemporary’ or ‘blended’ worship. But there is no grit, no substance, no friction here between this world and the next, or between the gospel message and the dominant pop culture.” He calls it “spiritual elevator music.”
Marty Haugen’s, for example. The Magnificat in his Holden Evening Prayer, “with its smooth melodies, rhythmic monotony, and harmonic simplicity” presents a Mary who is “a spineless, wishy-washy girl, pretty and full of sweetness, but with no resolve, determination, or guts.”
The settings of the Magnificat in the classic Lutheran sources, in contrast, “are sturdy, unvarnished, gritty compositions, built like Shaker furniture.” “They convince us that Mary knows what she is talking about when she proclaims, ‘He has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.’ Tough words from a teenager, and words which need tough music—not sweet melodies or empty Muzak.”
• Americans take religion seriously, and it’s a good thing, too, although we have heard more than our fair share of complaints from secularists that American politicians take it too seriously. But even the most egregious offenses against the separation of church and state identified by secularists are cases in which the government gives a backhanded endorsement to the cultural trappings of religion—the Pledge of Allegiance’s vague, unidentified god, for example—not a full-throated endorsement of a theological position.
So you can imagine our surprise when we came across a story on an officially atheist government’s interest not just in religious culture, but religious metaphysics. We missed the story when it first appeared, but were so struck by it we thought we should mention it now. Chinese government officials handed down an order to the living Buddhas of Tibet prohibiting them from reincarnating without official permission. “The so-called reincarnated living Buddha without government approval is illegal and invalid,” said China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs. We have our doubts about the transmigration of souls, but should it exist, it would surely be a difficult thing for a government to stop.
The government has exerted more material forms of control over the Tibetan people’s religion, with Beijing taking charge of the appointments of Tibet’s two head monks, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Some who have attempted to skirt the system of control have disappeared without explanation.
The Chinese authorities have tried to have their way with Christians as well, attempting to select Catholic bishops and imprisoning Catholic clergy, while persecuting house church members who refuse to join the officially recognized Protestant church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. (Interestingly, its three principles of self-government, self-support, and self-propagation were first articulated by an English missionary.) But we can be grateful that the regime has not yet handed down an official opinion on the authority of Scripture or the nature of salvation (by faith or by faith alone?).
Christians in China have a hard enough time living as Christians without having the government tell them what they have to believe, although we are amused at the thought of the government issuing a statement declaring that “so-called transubstantiation without government approval is illegal and invalid.” It would be a difficult thing for a government to stop.
• “Both the Lutheran and the Catholic churches have violated the Eighth Commandment in speaking of Luther,” insists Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, editor of the Lutheran Forum, a substantial and thoughtful quarterly. Wilson, a former editorial assistant at First Things, believes that “the real Luther challenges both of our self-images as church.”
“What the Church was given in Luther was a dogmatic development on the level of the Trinitarian and Christological developments of the early Church,” she writes, though she doesn’t exactly explain what that was. In any case, a “large part of the Western Church” didn’t receive it (that would be the Catholics), while the parts that did (that would be the Lutherans and the Calvinists) “were forced to receive it in such a way that they were all too often cut off from the very sources that gave Luther his profound insights.”
She argues that at the Second Vatican Council and in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the Catholic Church essentially admitted that Luther was right, and church life would improve right away if the Catholic Church just said so. In fact, Lutherans and Catholics should admit their failures and ask each other for forgiveness and “finally give up the self-gratifying illusion that one or the other of us is right. . . . Either we are really one Church in our Lord Jesus Christ . . . or we are no church at all, but only mutually parasitic sects striving against one another in vain.”
Both Catholics and some stricter Lutherans, like those in the Missouri Synod, would want to argue with Hinlicky’s reading of the present relation of Lutherans to Catholics. But we will get some ways closer to becoming one Church in our Lord Jesus Christ if we look back at Luther and his time with a critical eye and ponder what our sides could have done differently.
• Pro-abortion-rights figures pride themselves on their tolerance. (We would put the word rights in quotes, but it would get hard to read. Assume, however, that we don’t believe that Americans have any such right.) However, just as that movement’s much advertised promotion of female politicians means only the promotion of pro-abortion-rights female politicians, its attitude of tolerance seems only to extend when no ideological disagreement is involved.
Two stories confirming this distressing trend caught our eye recently. The first is news that a settlement has finally been reached in the case of eighteen pro-life protesters, including several college-age girls, who during a peaceful protest in Maryland were arrested, shackled, strip-searched, and detained overnight in jail, all without explanation. No formal charges were ever filed.
The case suggests that the onus of pro-life toleration often lies not just with the public, but with the select few of them charged with enforcing the law. Reports on the case say that the arresting officers responded sympathetically to a pro-abortion-rights heckler who called them in, not to complain that the protesters were breaking any law, but to complain about the content of their exercise of their rights to free speech.
The story’s most maddening irony is the gruesome addition of strip-searches for the college women. While appropriate for drug dealers who might be hiding controlled substances in out of the way places, they amount to sexual violence against these women who, ironically, were protesting a form of violence against women.
The second story took place in New York, a city marked by both an alarming 41 percent abortion rate and a reputation as a haven for tolerance for the wildest examples of free speech. The New York Press and the Village Voice, which offer stories featuring and advertisements selling all sorts of debauchery, can be picked up for free (and by children) all over the city. You would not think anything so bland as a picture of a small child would faze the famously laissez-faire New Yorkers.
But you would be wrong. A billboard appeared in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan last month portraying a young African-American girl, and below her the words, “The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb.” Which is undeniably true: 60 percent of African-American babies in New York are aborted. Even the ancient Spartans didn’t dispatch their children with that sort of efficiency.
The self-appointed spokesmen for New Yorkers reacted fiercely. One legal advocate for the city claimed the billboard “simply doesn’t belong in New York City. . . . [It] violates the values of New Yorkers.” He is correct, if New York’s tragic abortion numbers, and not its belief in tolerance, indicate its most basic values. Other accusations included the risible charge of “fear-mongering,” though the city’s abortion statistics come from its own internal medical authorities. The president of Planned Parenthood in New York City expressed offense that the ad focused on high abortion rates rather than “high rates of unintended pregnancies.”
The billboard was taken down within a week of being posted, in response to political pressure and harassment of the employees in the building on which the billboard was perched. The advertising company said it feared violence would result if the billboard remained standing. Tolerance of profound evil, it seems, means profound intolerance of the truth about it.
• “Unfortunately,” complains a reader, “the concept of church discipline is foreign to many evangelicals.” But it was not always so, he continues, sharing some examples from the 1840s, taken from The Glory of the Lord Risen Upon It: First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC, 1795–1995 by David B. Calhoun. It reveals a church life apparently long gone. For example, the church denied the request of a woman who had not come to church for two years to baptize her child until she gave “some evidence of repentance.”
For two months in the summer of 1841, the session, or church council, spent a lot of time dealing with (the names half-disguised in good nineteenth-century fashion) the case of Mr. M— and Mr. B—. “B— had struck M— ‘with a whip of cow hide’ because M— had, B— charged, ‘seduced the affections of his wife.’ M— denied the charge. . . . The session decided to suspend him until he had demonstrated sincere repentance. Mr. B—, who confessed using personal violence against Mr. M—, also was suspended from the sacrament until after the next communion season.”
Admirable, we think, but imposing discipline was not so easy on the pastor and the session, whose discipline “was not always received in a repentant spirit.” (There’s a surprise.) The session decided a case involving “painful and scandalous disclosures.” The pastor, Dr. Palmer, “was warned that if he tried to read the session’s statement [on the case] to the congregation, as required by the Book of Discipline, he would be shot down in the pulpit. Very quietly he read the sentence to its last word, though the enraged offender sat with a loaded pistol in his pocket within twenty-five feet of the pulpit.”
Bully for Dr. Palmer who, our reader reports, was not shot after all. He did, however, threaten to resign when several of his people went to a benefit ball for the Mexican War—not because he had any objections to the war, but because “his conscience would not permit him to be the pastor of a dancing church.”
• Speaking of discipline, we’re constantly hearing that people dislike Christianity, or just ignore it, because Christians mistreat each other. If churches were better communities, it’s said, more people outside them would want to be inside. We’re sure that’s true, but it does ignore the fact that the churches are the way they are because they let in the imperfect. As the old joke goes, if you find a perfect church, don’t go there, because then it won’t be perfect. Or as Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This is where discipline comes in. Maybe our churches would attract more people if we took discipline more seriously. But then a lot of the people who keep saying they don’t go to church because the people there aren’t any different than anyone else probably wouldn’t want to come anyway. But perhaps some of them would, if they saw people brave enough to be disciplined, and brave enough to discipline each other.
• Do dogs go to heaven? Cats too, if we may be generous, though the odds for them seem distinctly longer. C. S. Lewis argued that they might, because God wills our perfect happiness and if we need Spot or Brownie or even Tiger to be perfectly happy in heaven, Spot or Brownie or even Tiger will be provided.
Pr. Chris Matthis of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Englewood, Colorado, also thinks they might, but for a different reason. Asked to do a funeral for his sister Melissa’s cat, Stoli, he read a bit of St. Paul from Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Of that he writes:
All of creation, including Stoli, eagerly awaits something better than the decay of our ruined world. Despite the ground being cursed because of Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:17–19), the ground and the creatures that walk upon it anticipate a future freedom in which they too will be glorified. Perhaps it is not the promised resurrection, but at least it is a kind of restoration. After all, if Revelation confirms there will be a river and the tree of life in the new heaven and the new earth, why not animals as well?
We would like to believe he’s right, thinking back upon beloved dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, and even cats. Though in the last case, the restoration of which Matthis speaks will require some improvement.
• The Perils of Prophecy: Writing in 1976 about a United Methodist vote against a “compromised and obviously inconsistent proposal” favoring homosexuality in the indirect way then favored by mainline liberals, a prominent mainline Protestant declared, “It seems that ‘gay liberation’ has reached its limit in changing the official moral judgment of major churches.”
The United Methodists have, of course, more or less held the line on this matter. The Book of Discipline says—it still says, to the church’s credit—that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” should not be allowed to serve. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church have all in various ways approved of homosexual behavior.
The optimistic prophet? Richard John Neuhaus.
• But not every Methodist is happy that the UMC has held a line its peers have now crossed (in the case of the Episcopalians, at a gallop). “I believe our mission to make disciples is in jeopardy by the current stance we have, and that’s a driving force for me,” says a retired United Methodist bishop, explaining a statement he and thirty-two other retired bishops (out of eighty-five) signed asking the church to change its position on homosexual clergy. Their Statement of Counsel to the Church – 2011 claims that “laity and clergy, gay and straight, [are] withdrawing membership or absenting themselves from the support of congregational and denominational church life.”
It’s a standard line for the moral innovators in the mainline churches that they must change their churches’ teachings for evangelistic reasons. We might remark that changing the teaching on this matter hasn’t turned the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians into models of church growth.
But there’s a silver lining in this. Older readers will remember when such innovations were proposed as matters of justice and liberation and the creation of a new world. It was a damn-the-torpedoes imperative. Even if it left the churches in ruins, it must be done. Now, everyone uses evangelistic language. They talk about bringing people into the church, not making a new one. That’s progress, of a sort.
The bishop goes on to raise another problem with the Methodists’ failure to change their moral teaching as he and thirty-two peers want it to. “When the church has a position that many people do not hold, and those people are in leadership or desire to be in leadership, they have to make compromises with their own integrity,” he says. The Statement itself claims that bishops are “being drained of energy because of a stance that contradicts their convictions.”
Well, yes, we can see that. It speaks well of them that they find their differences with their church so difficult. And we have a way to energize those poor drained bishops, and it’ll be a lot easier than trying to change a church so stuck in its old ways. They can find a new church. It does take a degree of narcissism to think that the church, which has the approval of a continuing majority of its members, must change its beliefs to accommodate you.
• We’ve written of notorious church bulletin bloopers and wayward homily aides, and Matthew Archbold, a columnist at the National Catholic Register, offers his list of the “Craziest Things I’ve Ever Heard in Church.” Among them:
Whispered by a father to his noisy children: “When we get to the car I’m testing all of you on what the Gospel was. And if you get it wrong you’re dead.” Said by a woman to her husband during the homily: “This is a really boring bulletin.”
What some priests say can be a little alarming. Archbold once heard a priest say at the beginning of Mass, “If this is your first time here, we do things a little differently. . . . Now give the person next to you a hug.” Worse was the time he heard a Jesuit priest say right after Communion: “Are the dancers ready?” We hope the bulletin was interesting.
• Here’s a story to make us a bit more grateful for our own mothers this Mother’s Day. “Mad-as-heck Manhattan mom says her daughter’s Ivy League dreams have been all but dashed—and she’s only four years old.” So the mad-as-heck Manhattan mom is suing the preschool she holds preeminently responsible for her daughter’s imminent failure. The $19,000-a-year preschool, we ought to mention, which has a no-refund policy.
“Getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school” because that leads to getting into a “high-caliber” elementary school, according to the suit, but this school proved to be nothing but “one big playroom.” Mad-as-heck Manhattan mom has pulled her little girl out of this poor excuse for a school after just a month, presumably to place her in a school that is less fun. “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua would be proud. The poor little girl, well, maybe she liked to play. Maybe playing was just what she needed to prepare her for life, if not the Ivy League.
• The University of California-Davis recently released a new policy against religious discrimination, which would be a good thing, except . . . it turns out the university doesn’t really mind religious discrimination. The new policy proclaims that religious discrimination is—you were about to say something like “unequal treatment of someone because of his religious beliefs,” weren’t you?—“the loss of power and privilege to those who do not practice the dominant culture’s religion. In the United States, this is institutionalized oppression toward those who are not Christian.”
There’s certainly a revenge motif in modern political correctness, but what UC Davis seeks to avenge is unclear. We have not recently heard of Jewish or Hindu students reporting oppression by Christianity in academia, although we most certainly do recall several lawsuits successfully executed by Christian students victimized by university speech policies, leftist syllabi, and ridicule in classrooms.
A recent study of faculty at public universities revealed that 53 percent of professors admit to significant personal bias against Christian students, particularly evangelicals and Catholics. We are inclined to think UC Davis’ proclamation about religious discrimination has little to do with any belief in religious tolerance—something most universities bend over backwards to display—or the desire of believers in different religions to live in peace with one another, and everything to do with legitimizing the censorship of Christianity against those who proclaim themselves its perpetual victims.
• When President Obama called his grandmother a “typical white person” for her unthinking racial stereotype of blacks, he presumably meant to absolve her of intentional racial prejudice. But being a typical white person is often more of a handicap than an excuse these days, at least in the view of one non-profit organization that has launched a scholarship for white men who need help covering college tuition.
Colby Bohannan, an Iraq war veteran and student at Texas State University in San Marcos, started the Former Majority Association for Equality after seeing white male friends have trouble covering tuition bills, but have no recourse to ethnically based scholarships available to nonwhite students. Requirements for one of the four $500 scholarships include a 3.0 grade point average, application essays, demonstration of need, and a 25 percent Caucasian background. Bohannan says that the organization’s aims are nonpolitical and, indeed, aimed at equality for students.
Then again, by giving race-based scholarships at all, isn’t the organization playing the game it supposes to counteract? No one—even the ubiquitous white male—will settle to see himself as typical anymore.
• Richard John Neuhaus famously offered what he called “Neuhaus’ Law,” the insight (derived, we suspect, from his years as a mainline activist) that “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” Orthodoxy, he said,
suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.
The Crystal Cathedral in southern California, reports the Los Angeles Times, is embroiled in a controversy over a request that choir members sign a statement that God intends sex only for married people. The upsetting paragraph from the Crystal Cathedral Worship Choir and Worship Team Covenant reads: “Crystal Cathedral ministries believes that it is important to teach and model the biblical view. I understand that Crystal Cathedral Ministries teaches that sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.”
Some members protested, of course, but so did the cathedral’s founding pastor, Robert Schuller, who is also the father of the current senior pastor, Sheila Schuller Coleman. (One of Schuller’s early and reputation-making books was titled Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Luther and Calvin are spinning.) “I have a reputation worldwide of being tolerant of all people and their views,” he told the Orange County Register. “I’m too well-educated to criticize a certain religion or group of people for what they believe in. It’s called freedom.”
The former choir director is even more upset. “In my opinion, I keep thinking that they’ve made as many mistakes as they can make and they’ve sank as low as they can sink—and behold, they sink lower.” He resigned after the church’s programming director said she was going to make sure each person was “spiritually and emotionally fit,” because, he told the Times, this “meant excluding those who were gay as well as heterosexuals living together out of wedlock.” And that, he declared, is “absolutely horrible.” “It’s the antithesis of what Christianity should be.”
Sheila Schuller Coleman issued a somewhat ambiguous semi-apology. “The church of Jesus Christ at large is grappling with the challenge of reconciling love and adherence to God’s word, even those passages that challenge us,” she said. “As the church has been engaging in this sensitive dialogue, people that we care for deeply have been hurt. We are sincerely sorry.”
Orthodoxy, in other words, is apparently optional. We have to confess that the most shocking aspect of the story is that some of the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral were willing to commit an “intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated” by advocating a biblical view of sexuality. If they keep this up, they may face an angry congregation or pastor who wants them out. Neuhaus’ Law is not a law of nature, like the effect of gravity, but it seems almost as certain a law of human life.
• The world can never have too many good journals. One readers will want to know about is The City, published by Houston Baptist University. The Spring 2011 issue includes articles on the Christian relation to public policy, capitalism in Chile, socialism and solidarity, Constantine, Whitaker Chambers, and Christopher Nolan’s movies. Among the writers in that issue is our editorial board member Wilfred McClay (author of “The Moral Economy of Guilt” in this issue), who serves as a contributing editor for The City along with our web editor Joe Carter and former assistant editor Ryan Anderson. For more information, go to the journal’s website (www.civitate.org).
• Here at the office on East 21st Street we have a very nice central space, big enough for lectures and discussions, and we’ve taken advantage of this over the past year. The speakers we’ve had include papal biographer George Weigel, Yeshiva University scholar Shalom Carmy, Catholic theologians Paul Griffiths and Gary Anderson, the poet Christian Wyman, and the Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod.
Coming up on the evening of May 18, Cardinal Francis George will talk about his new book, God In Action. If you’re in or near New York, please come. The office is a few blocks north of Union Square and near several subway stops, including one just three stops from Grand Central Station for those of you coming by train. Check the website ( www.firstthings.com) for details.
• But what we mainly do, of course, is publish a journal of religion and public life. And one we think indispensable, because unique, to public discourse and the defense of certain fundamental commitments in the public square. And being a magazine, we always need new readers. If you know people who ought to be reading FIRST THINGSbut aren’t, please send their names and mailing addresses to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to send them a copy.
WHILE WE’RE AT IT SOURCES: Smart ones and Brave new worlders: christian.org.uk, March 15, 2011. Church music: Forum Letter, March 2011. Chinese religion: The Times, August 7, 2007. Luther today: Lutheran Forum, Spring 2011. Strip searches: lifesitenews.com, March 7, 2011 and cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com, February 23, 2011. Church discipline: David Calhoun, The Glory of the Lord Risen Upon It (1994). Dogs in heaven: The Cresset, February 2011. Prophecy: Forum Letter, February 2011. Methodist bishops: umc.org, February 2, 2011. Bloopers: National Catholic Register, January 27, 2011. Manhattan mom: New York Post, March 15, 2011. UC Davis: calcatholic.com, February 16, 2011. White scholarships: dailymail.co.uk, February 27, 2011. Crystal Cathedral: FIRST THINGS, March 2009 and Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2011.
WWAI TIPS: Joe Carter, Meghan Duke, Joe Long, David Mills, Kevin Staley-Joyce, and Thaddeus Whiting.