Martin Luther King Jr

On this celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., it is worth re-reading one of his most famous letters – the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  First published in the Atlantic, they republished it today here.

One thing a re-reading will show is that the contemporary appropriation of MLK has banished the moral foundations which he himself saw that as necessary for morally justified civil disobedience.  MLK Jr appeals, in almost every case, to the natural law.  He specifically cites St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas in this letter on the natural law, as he defends his civil disobedience by explaining that the segregation laws are unjust –   precisely because, and indeed only because, they violate the eternal and natural law.

Something else I find noteworthy.  When I learned about Martin Luther King Jr in school as as child, he had been completely secularized.  That he was a Christian preacher was a historical footnote.  It is clear from reading this letter (and indeed all of his works), that MLK did not see his Christianity as a footnote.  Quite to the contrary, his whole work followed from his Christian calling, and it is in explicitly Christian terms that he understood all of his own work.

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Tolkien and Catholicism discussion

Totolkiennight (Monday Nov 14) I will lead a discussion on Catholicism and the Lord of the Rings.  USU Catholic Newman Center (795 N 8000 E), 7pm.

All are welcome

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Election panel discussion


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Christian – Mormon dialogue

Given where I teach, the question about the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity is something that comes up quite often in my classes and in general religious discussion.  For those interested in that discussion, this article may be of interest.  The author, Richard Mouw, is an evangelical who is very Mormon friendly.  Here he takes up a big sticking point – the LDS claim that man and God are members of the same species.  Perhaps the most famous expression of this LDS belief is the so-called ‘Lorenzo Snow couplet’, which says, “As man now is, God once was; As God is, man may be.”

I think there is no doubt, and Mouw seems to agree, that orthodox Christians simply cannot sign on to the view that human beings and God are members of the same species or that God the Father was, at one point, just as we are now.  A clear ontological difference between Creator and created is basic to orthodox Christianity and indeed orthodox Jewish teaching.  If Mormons believe the Snow couplet on its plain meaning, then Mormonism is a religion fundamentally distinct from the rest of the Christian world.

But Mouw proposes that the LDS church is actually backing away from the more controversial, heterodox (from the point of view of the rest of Christianity) part of the famous/infamous Lorenzo Snow couplet, that “as man is, God once was”.  If he is right, perhaps LDS theology is tracking toward a more conventional and orthodox set of beliefs that would be accepted as ‘Christian’ by the rest of Christianity.

I am frankly not informed enough on internal LDS theological debates and internal decisions about belief within the LDS hierarchy to have a view much worth sharing about where Mormonism is going.  I can, however, say this: in my experience with teaching thousands of LDS students over the last 12 years, my sense is that an overwhelming majority of my LDS students  believe what is contained in the Snow couplet.  Some if not most consider it a central belief (along with other related beliefs: that God is material, etc).  My LDS students who seem the most devout and informed have, in every case I can think of, deeply believed the doctrine contained in the Snow couplet and consider it fundamental to the Mormon faith.  In view of this, it seems odd for Gordon Hinckley to have said, regarding the claim that “God the Father was once a man”, that he was not sure if it was really taught (“I don’t know that we teach it, I don’t know that we emphasize it.”).  Given how widely held those beliefs are among my LDS students, it is hard to believe it is not taught or that it has not been a topic of discussion for some time.

And it is not hard to find echoes of the Snow couplet in popular and contemporary LDS works.  Terryl and Fiona Givens are widely respected scholars and very well regarded by all of the devout Mormons I know.  There are very clear shades of the Snow couplet in their book The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.  Indeed, that book dedicates most of a chapter to arguing that a wide range of orthodox Christian thinkers (they cite Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Weil) are wrong to think that God is metaphysically “other” than human beings.  Granted, the Givens are not part of the LDS hierarchy and so (a) their views are not authoritative for Mormons and (b) perhaps they have not received the internal memo suggesting that Mormons begin to de-emphasize the point.  But the book was published some 15 years after Gordon Hinckley’s remarks, so it is hard to imagine Mormons of the stature of the Givens would not have received the message.  All of that said, the main point here is that this example of a widely read book of popular LDS theology suggests that, for most of the Mormon world – including some of her intellectuals – the Snow Couplet is not being de-emphasized and re-interpreted.

So if LDS leadership is trying to genuinely back away from the first part of the Snow couplet and the claim that God and man are members of the same species, as well as reframing the second part of the couplet in terms of pretty ordinary Christian doctrines of theosis, then that shift in belief has not yet trickled down to the ordinary Mormon faithful.  And, if that is all so, it is understandable enough.  It takes time for shifts in belief to take hold across a culture.  Or perhaps Mouw’s interpretation of LDS theology and its trajectory is just wrong.

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Abortion language

Hillary Clinton was on Meet the Press on Sunday, and a surprising amount of time was devoted to asking her about abortion (usually Republicans get those questions, not Democrats).  Clinton was making the point that her position is in line with Roe, women have a constitutional right to abortion but there are reasonable restrictions.  But the language she used in articulating this position was quite surprising.

When asked when the unborn have constitutional rights, Clinton responded: “The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.  Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possible can, in the vast majority of instances, you know, to help a mother who is carrying a child …”

An “unborn person”, “carrying a child”?  I imagine that Planned Parenthood and pro choice lobbies were less than pleased with Clinton screwing up the language that is customary for pro-choice talking points.  Pro-choicers are usually slavishly attached to impersonal jargon like “fetus”, “blastocyst”, “blog of tissue” or “clump of cells”.

This episode illuminates something interesting.  In talking about abortion in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Saint John Paul II remarked that we need to “call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”  He was warning against referring to abortion as a “procedure” or an “interruption of pregnancy”, noting this sort of “linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience.”

Those who support abortion typically cannot speak about pregnancy in ordinary language.  When women (whether they are pro-choice or pro-life) have a desired pregnancy, they quite naturally refer to that which is in the womb as a “baby” or a “child” or a “person”.  They’ll ask things like, “When is your baby due?” or “What name will you give your child?”  Or the expectant mother will excitedly show pictures from the ultrasound, “Look at my baby!”  In every wanted pregnancy I have ever heard of, this is how mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, siblings, and friends speak about the unborn.  Understandably, then, this is how Hillary herself spoke (calling things their proper name) during Chelsea’s first and now second pregnancy.  It is also quite common for expectant mothers to cultivate and feel an interpersonal bond with their unborn child.

But in case this is not obvious, let’s remind ourselves that the metaphysical and personal status of the unborn is not contingent on whether the pregnancy is wanted or unwanted.  We all know that what grows in the womb is not merely a “blob of tissue” or a “clump of cells”.  It has never made any sense to me how a pro-choice person can feel bonded to her unborn child, or talk about “the baby” in her womb when the pregnancy was desired but use entirely different terms when the pregnancy was unwanted.  Of course, it doesn’t make sense, given that it is completely unprincipled and incoherent.  And it is to deceive oneself so as to hide this incoherence that pro-choice folks cannot call things by their proper name, for if they do, the obvious moral horror of their pro-abortion position becomes clear.

This is what makes Hillary Clinton’s language on Meet the Press so interesting.  The mask came off, inadvertently I am sure, for just a moment on Sunday.  This is a dangerous slip-up for pro-choice folks, for they cannot afford to call things by their proper name.


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Republican intellectual roots

Please join the Institute of Government and Politics for a lecture today given by Matt Lewis titled, “How can the Republican Party return to its intellectual roots?”  Today (March 22), at 12:30pm in the Perry Pavilion on the 4th floor of the new Huntsman Hall.

Matt Lewis foxley

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On sin, love, and the Grateful Dead

I read this fine article on love and the Grateful Dead this morning and it occasioned the following reflection:

Though this may seem odd to some, I think the Lennon song “Imagine” is one of the stupidest songs ever written.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the Beatles.  But they, and Lennon in particular, routinely imagine a love wholly disconnected from truth, wholly disconnected from the real human condition.  They ignore realities like sin, bonds, family, the irreducible longing for the transcendent.  Their love is sentimentalist and naive and, as a result, is actually destructive.  It is, in the end, a profoundly inhumane love; being disconnected from the actual human condition it reduces us to feelings rather than edifying us in our condition.  It is a fantasy, in the worst sense of that word.  Our contemporary understanding of love is almost entirely infected with this sentimental naiveté.    It is why we say we ignore basic metaphysical facts – like sexual difference and complementarity – and the profound need for overcoming and finding a way to love (rather than understanding love as mere desire satisfaction).  Our sentimentalist love traps us inside ourselves rather than calling us out of our selves.

The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, almost always “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).  They are not naive about sin and brokenness, and as a result genuinely understand love and hope.  It is not an accident, since this deep understanding of the human lot appears in so many of their songs.  The article linked above does an excellent job of unpacking this in a number of Grateful Dead songs (Wharf Rat, Loser, Friend of the Devil, Me and My Uncle, Mexicali Blues, Jack Straw, etc).

Here is one way to frame the difference:

When Imagine expresses regrets, it regrets that others are unable to be as enlightened as Lennon.  He hopes that someday you will “join us” – the enlightened few – so the world can be better.  Obviously Lennon was a profound hypocrite, calling for others to live a life of no possessions while he had an estate worth something close to a billion dollars at the time of his death and lived in the lap of luxury in New York.  I don’t mean to be harsh – we are all hypocrites.  But to live anything resembling an examined life is to know and admit that we are hypocrites.  So it is not his hypocrisy that is the problem, it is the lack of sin consciousness that is the problem.  Of course progressive love denies sin entirely, so it is not surprising that there is no sin consciousness in its anthem.  The impulse is to blame the mote in the eye of the other while ignoring the plank in one’s own.

Of course if we really do imagine what Lennon asks us to imagine – no families, no culture, no countries, no possessions – we should know the result – chaos, ill-mannered, if not violent, and illiterate children with no mothers and fathers to love and form them, no sense of moral obligation to others or to the future (we all would live only for today), no one really connected to any value (nothing to die for).  “A brotherhood of man” which would invariably a dictatorship of relativism, the abolition of man.

Compare this to the Dead.  Let’s take Wharf Rat, as an example (lyrics here).  After spending half of his life doing time (half-heartedly blaming others for his bad life, “some other fuckers crime”), the other half spent drunk on burgundy wine, our sinner named August West says: “But I’ll get back on my feet again someday.  The good Lord willin’, if He says I may.  I know that the life I’m livin’s no good, I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.”

That deep experience of sin and regret, viewed in contrast with a real moral law, is a condition for the possibility of redemption, hope and love.  The song itself expresses an act of love, in that the person hearing the story (a fellow sinner, we can surmise, who doesn’t even have a dime), has time to listen to his story.  Is there any greater act of love?  And Dead songs routinely speak to the family, often in its – and particularly the mother’s – disappointment.  But it is the bond to family and God that keeps the sinners in a condition of possible redemption.  It is, rather naturally, in our mothers and fathers and our faith that we have developed in us a moral sense.

Of course even redemption is somewhat problematized in the song.  August West is still trapped in a sort of rebellion, loving things in the world (Pearly) more than his Maker, who he declares to be “no friend of mine” (note his internal tension with God, however, who he calls “the good Lord” later in the song).  And yet listeners of the song know that his hope for redemption in temporal things (Pearly) is sure to be disappointed.  No one believes that Pearly has been true to him.  And the young man who hears the story commits a self-deciet in convincing himself that his girl, Bonnie Lee, has been true to him.  Of course those listening to the song know better, for we know Pearly and Bonnie Lee are sinners too.  What August West needed was someone who believed in him (the mark of his downfall is when Pearly believed what everyone was saying – that he’d come to no good).  What August West needed was some capacity to be more than he could be on his own.  While the Dead plainly do not make this move (though I think they routinely gesture toward it), a Christian  like myself would of course suggest that what he needed was the grace of Christ.  If you’ve ever heard Martin Luther King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon (truly great), what August West needs – what we need – is not to abandon our desire to be good and to be recognized as such (Lennon’s prescription, noting the irony that he prescribes this while being totally self-righteous).  What he needs is the grace to be able to be good and be recognized for love.  The answer is not to “get up and fly away”, but to convert and reform.  Sadly, like most of us sinners, he keeps looking for redemption in the wrong places, and routinely confuses redemption for escape (flying away, which he has already been doing by spending half of his life drunk).

Those Wharf Rat lyrics resonate with every human person who is the least bit honest with themselves. Sadly, we struggle to be so self-honest.  I am teaching a course on Lewis and Tolkien this term, and yesterday we discussed The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe.  I was quite surprised that most students reported that they resonated the most with Lucy, Peter, Susan, perhaps the Beaver family.  Can’t they see that we are all Edmunds?  The Dead had no illusions about this, they know we are Edmund and as a result know what real love is.

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