Civility and radical sexual autonomy

A story that broke this week exposes two currents in our contemporary society–a precipitous lack of civility and a firm commitment to radical sexual autonomy. That the two were exposed in a single ‘story’ is convenient.

As you may have heard, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke testified before a  committee of the House of Representatives.

Her testimony was that women covered by health insurances programs at religious institutions that exempt “reproductive health” from their insurance plans are detrimentally affected by that exemption. Her contention was that such an exemption is punitive toward such women and reproductive health coverage ought to be mandated.

I disagree, at least in part. Fluke states that the cost (over three years) of paying out-of-pocket for contraception can amount to $3,000. That is not an inconsequential cost. And I understand that it would seem unjust that two students (at comparable law schools) could be paying comparable premiums for comparable services and yet one would be forced to pay for contraception (at or around $3,000) and the other not (or at least charged only for a prescription copayment of $5-$25).

In order to think through this issue, we have to balance this claim against a counter claim to see which is more compelling. The counter claim simply is this: that Georgetown University is a religious institution related to a Christian Church for whom it is a batter of theological belief that contraception violates the will of God for His people (see the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae).

The question then becomes: which interest is more compelling? Is it more important for the government to protect the right of women to have access to contraception or for the government to protect the right of a Church to exercise its religious beliefs freely? I would say that the latter is more compelling and note that, in general, I am in favor of government-funded health insurance.

A presupposition of Ms. Fluke’s testimony is that she, as an autonomous moral agent, ought to be able to make decisions about sexual behavior without interference (even in the form of non-coverage of contraception) from any party other than (conceivably) her hypothetical sexual partner or partners. By refusing to cover the cost of contraception, Georgetown is compelling law students to alter their sexual behavior or to engage in behavior that is dangerous (i.e., might get one pregnant). The individual has been dethroned and, as a result, the cry of oppression arises.

To be fair, Ms. Fluke lays out cases to demonstrate that her case doesn’t necessarily rely on an appeal to ‘freedom of dalliance.’ She offers the case of the women with ovarian cysts. And my heart goes out to that woman and, I agree, it seems unreasonable that an insurance company and/or university would be unable to conceive of contraceptive medication beyond its instrumentality to stop pregnancies. There is much, however, that we don’t know about the specific case she references. For one, we do not know that the only effective treatment for her condition is taking  such medication. Are there alternatives? Has she exhausted her appeals to the insurance company and the university? On balance, it is compelling but not enough to outweigh the broader, more fundamental case–the desire for absolutely sexual autonomy.

I might add that a second presupposition (that I cannot explore here) is that pregnancy is a disease, a pathology, something to be controlled and manipulated and made to fit into the exact point in the narrative of our life where we wish it to go. This is unsettling.

And to eddy of cultural forces already at play in the discussion of reproductive rights, the freedom of religious expression, and the theoretical framework in which we fit pregnancy, an individual by the name of Rush Limbaugh (see right).

Here’s how Limbaugh responded to Fluke’s testimony (as reported by the BBC):

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan [sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex…. It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

Limbaugh’s critique (perhaps an overly generous word) is not that this is all about the desire for absolute autonomy in sexual practice. As far as I can tell, he’s fine with that part of the narrative. In fact, his critique advances an equally individualistic view–he’s concerned that we (the taxpayer) will be forced to pay for the mitigation of the consequences of sexual encounters.

That critique (while I don’t really agree with it) is fair enough. What isn’t fair, however, it to presuppose that Ms. Fluke’s case is really only about her own sexual behavior. This woman clearly has a proven track record of caring about access to reproductive health resources. And while, in general, that’s not something I’m particularly passionate about and often am opposed to (where it is code for abortion) I respect her commitment to a cause she cares about.

Limbaugh, however, wants to win his argument at any cost. In general when speaking with co-belligerents the easiest way to win a case (because your opponent isn’t present) is poking fun at her. So reasoned discussion gives way to, “she’s a slut who wants us to pay her to have sex.” This is clearly misogynistic if for no other reason that, in general, I’m sure there are an equal number of male students at GW eager for contraception to be subsidized as well. Limbaugh too easily falls into the “women who want sex are sluts” and “boys will be boys” metanarrative that has haunted our life together east of Eden.

Limbaugh has the right to his opinions and to broadcast those opinions. However, if he really cares about the health of our society (and not just about his own wealth) I would suggest that he apologize and begin to speak a little more carefully in future.

Can you put a price on solitude?

In about thirty minutes I’ll be out the door on my way to New York for Q Sessions | Practices with Eugene Peterson. I’m sitting here in the pre-dawn silence, drinking coffee and reading. I just finished Todd Henry’s recent post on the Value of Solitude. You can read it here.

Some highlights:

Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it. – Thomas Merton

A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for. Source: NY Times

Good ideas, at least for me, require time and space to germinate. My take-away is: how will I create space for reflection?

Best Books of 2011

Leadership Magazine recently released its best books of 2011. Here’s their list:

The Leader’s Inner Life

Best of The Best:
A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership
by John Dickson (Zondervan)

“A transformative yet largely unexplored virtue is explored from various angles to reveal its surprising depth and power.” —Wayne Schmidt

Our Very Short List:
Sanctuary of the Soul
Journey into Meditative Prayer
By Richard Foster (IVP)

“The author plumbs the deepest biblical view of meditation and its ability to transform … an excellent refocusing on a crucial topic.”—Nina Gunter

Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
by Skye Jethani (Thomas Nelson)

“This book changes the way we think about God. If we understood even half of what it means to live with God, our world would be transformed.”—Kara Powell

Going Deep
Becoming a Person of Influence
by Gordon MacDonald (Thomas Nelson)

“The author calls for helping people to go deep with God. This book is a timely and practical guide on how to disciple others in a way that will foster spiritual maturity.”—Nina Gunter

Love Wins
A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
by Rob Bell (HarperOne)

“Bell’s book stirred the evangelical community like nothing in recent history. As he concedes, his conclusions are not new, but he started a lively conversation based on the questions a generation is asking, questions that won’t go away anytime soon.”—Katherine Callahan Howell

The Leader’s Outer Life

Best of The Best:
The Pastor
A Memoir
by Eugene Peterson (HarperOne)

“With poetic imagination and prophetic insight, Peterson reviews a pastoral life dedicated to a community of everyday people being formed by Christ.—David Swanson

Our Very Short List:
Renovation of the Church
What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation
by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken (IVP)

“A fascinating peek behind the mega church curtain … this book about an unlikely transition is startlingly honest, provocative, and humbling.”—Lillian Daniel

What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth
by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson (Zondervan)

“Compelling research breaks church leaders out of denial and directs them to the truth about our greatest commission—making disciples.”—Wayne Schmidt

You Lost Me
Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith
by David Kinnaman (Baker)

“The next generation is leaving institutional Christianity but they are drawn to movements of God which invest in relational discipleship. Kinnaman sounds the alarm while providing savvy advice on connecting with disaffected youth.”—Charles Kyker

Radical Together
Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God
by David Platt (Multnomah)

“Platt challenges churches to move beyond self-centered Christianity and live out the gospel with abandon. An excellent reminder that only in losing your life will you ever find it.”—Charles Kyker

I was surprised to learn that I had read only one of the books of the list–Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. That got me thinking: what were the best books I read in 2011? Stay tuned for the list.

What were your best books of 2011?

I stand with the Supreme Court

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the following in his concurrence in the recently-decided Hosanna-Tabor case (you can read the slip opinion here):

 “a religious body’s right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about, those who will serve as the very ’embodiment of its message’ and ‘its voice to the faithful.'”

I’m not a lawyer so I cannot speak to the string of precedent that undergirds an assertion (or even to whether or not such precedent exists).

As a thinking person I can, however, laud this an important consideration in the way the Courts deal with religious groups and their employment relationships with those they select to lead them. I hope the courts will continue to be very reticent to intervene in the self-governance of religious groups generally, and especially so where it relates to belief and its relationship to leadership.

Why I am a Presbyterian

I have never heard John Ortberg (of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church) preach before. I’ve never read any of his books, I’ve never listened to a podcast. In my sinfulness part of my was suspicious of him as basically a non-denom pastor masquerading as a presbyterian–a theological lightweight. That was foolish of me.

John spoke at the Fellowship of Presbyterians/Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians covenanting conference last week. His address was dynamite. It evoked a response from me that surprised me. I heard myself saying, “yes!” “That’s right!” “You’ve got it!”

In short, he managed to express many of the reasons that I have chosen to reside in that room of Christ’s house called presbyterian. Specifically, he advocated for a theologically rich, culturally engaged, missional form of evangelical church. And that’s something that I get excited about.

Judge for yourself–here’s the video:

John Ortberg: A Vision for Ministry & Introducing ECO from Fellowship of Presbyterians on Vimeo.

Hitchens on faith

The late Christopher Hitchens

I wrote earlier about my sadness over the death of writer Christopher Hitchens at 62 years of age. A friend, I cannot recall whom, posted this transcript of an interview in which Hitchens proves himself to be an ally of historic Christian orthodoxy.

His interviewer, a retired Unitarian minister, attempts to maneuver Hitchens into a corner and get him to proclaim his acceptance of the sort of progressive Christianity she espouses. Her faith is marked by such vagaries as a belief in “the other” and a desire for the moral improvement of humanity along a utopian trajectory. Surely this sort of faith should warm your heart, Hitch? 

Not exactly.

[Interviewer] The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

[Hitchens] I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Don’t get me wrong, this argument is not a principled defense of Christian orthodoxy–at least I don’t think it is. It is an incidental defense of Christian orthodoxy, but a defense nonetheless.
It’s possible that he really believes that his interviewer isn’t really a Christian in any meaningful sense of the world (an argument I too would make), but it’s also possible that he believes it necessary to define the term Christian in such a way as to encompass beliefs that he regards as “fraudulent.” I prefer the former.
What do you think?

Vanderbilt enters the pre-9/11 world

The concept of the post-secular university is an intriguing and hopeful development in American higher education. It arises from the realization that modernity has not produced a lessening of religious belief despite the best efforts of many moderns to bracket religion and place it in the margins of the life of the mind and of that modern project known as the university.

The post-secular university, at least in my view, is hopeful because in it religion is once more added to the voices and perspectives that contribute to the conversations around ideas and meaning that stands at the core of the university as a learning community. Post-secularity seeks to empower all voices to contribute to this conversation rather than marginalizing either those outside the Christian mainstream (a mark of the university in an earlier age) or those within the Christian mainstream (a mark of a recent various of the secular project).

It’s increasingly obvious to many that religion is a significant force in culture and that interfaith literacy and competency are no longer luxuries but critical skills for navigating life and work in a global marketplace.

That’s why it is so unfortunate, and dare I say backward, that Vanderbilt University should have re-introduced a fairly radical secularist agenda in respect to the religious student organizations that contribute to the life of the university.

In introducing a new policy that prohibits religious student groups from requiring their leaders to adhere to the beliefs and practices represented by the group, Vanderbilt takes one step back into a pre-9/11 world–a world where all religions and religious beliefs are the same and are pushed to the margins of the life of the university.  

A thoughtful response to the secularist agenda is a post-secular community that practices hospitality that is rooted in principled pluralism as well as principled particularity. Such a community will value and respect the differences within it because the authentic expression of beliefs and practices by diverse groups actually enriches the community rather than erodes it. Perhaps ironically, such respect can only happen where there is freedom for diverse communities to be themselves–that is, principled pluralism can only flourish in a context of principled particularity.

I commend Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful commentary on the Vanderbilt controversy which was recently published at She argues:

Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question:  Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?

And further,

This promise of principled pluralism is why I, an evangelical Christian, was glad the university granted greater religious freedom to Wiccan students by excusing them from class on their holidays. This is not because I think Christianity and Wicca are basically saying the same thing or equally true, but because I want Vanderbilt to be a place where student communities — not just individual students but students united around common belief — can authentically express their ideas and ideals.

[Repost] Renewing your mind

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

-Romans 12:1-2, TNIV

These verses show that how we think is intimately connected with who we are and how we act. I don’t wish to suggest that we are simply brains on sticks. Certainly not, we are a complicated interaction of mind, soul, and body. It is important, especially perhaps for evangelicals, to remember that mind is no less a part of our being than soul and body.

Os Guiness has suggested that we have fit bodies and fat minds. He wrote a book by that title, which contains this telling subtitle: Why evangelicals don’t think and what to do about it. We’re naturally concerned that our souls be reconciled to God through Christ. We’re concerned that we take care of our bodies (as evidenced by the proliferation of spiritually-themed exercise and weight loss programs). Google “Christian weight loss programs” and you will get more than 3.6 million responses. There are, however, few intellectual boot camps for Christians. Few resources for training the mind.

Paul’s words to the Roman church suggest that an essential part of faithful living in a fallen world is renewed patterns of thought. Growing up, I would have primarily applied this concept to personal, moral thoughts (i.e., renewing your mind means no longer having impure thoughts about attractive women, no longer thinking that it is acceptable to cheat on a high school quiz, etc.). Granted, the renewing of our minds would certainly entail the transformation of thoughts like this. However, these things are only the tip of the iceburg.

God is interested in our delving into deeper patterns of thought, patterns of thought that extend beyond our own inward and internal thoughts (i.e., what we think). God is also interested in what we think about and how we think (our process or method).

Followers of Christ need places to talk about what we think about important matters and how we go about arriving at the conclusions that inform our being and doing. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us these things are already being shaped and acted up by forces external to us. Paul refers to, “the pattern of this world” (v. 2). John R W Stott points out in his classic book, The Christian Counter Culture (IVP) that Jesus challenges his followers to chart a course that in informed by the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus outlines these in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is a manifesto, a starting place, for the renewing of the mind which is rooted in believing what God has said and done in Jesus Christ. That renewal is extended through the apostolic witness to Christ contained in the rest of the New Testament.

This is our foundation, our starting place. And the work of the Christian is to be so saturated by Scripture that the ways we think and act become profoundly informed by the same values that are expressed in Scripture. We go beyond Scripture such that we form arguments based on revelation to teach us how to act on matters not expressly addressed by Scripture following the lead of those great souls who have gone before us.

And we do this in the context of a community that is perpetually coming to God in prayer, Word, and Sacrament: humbling ourselves before God for the purpose of turning our lives over to him.

This is as much discipleship as receiving Holy Communion, reading Holy Scripture, or praying the Divine Hours. This is the discipleship of the mind that Paul calls us to in chapter twelve of Romans.

Big in body and mind

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was big in many ways–in body, mind, and soul. As an essayist his writings range in subject matter from religion to economics, from popular culture to politics. He was also an exceptional writer of the murder mystery, biography, and even poetry.

It is welcome news to learn that there is something of Chesterton revival happening in the academy. Mike Hickerson of the ESN Blog put me on to the this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review.

As the piece mentions, Chesterton has long be sequestered in the realm of Christian apologetics and conservative politics, a favorite of Catholic reader of The National Review. There are some good reasons for this. Chesterton did, in later life, become a Roman Catholic leaving the Anglo-Catholicism of his earlier life.

His writings are deeply conservative in that they find their inspiration outside of the present moment. When asked to write an essay about my theological identity when applying to divinity school, I cited a favorite section of Orthodoxy where Chesterton describes the thrill of adventure to be found in landing on what appears to be a new shore in a new land and simultaneously discovering that it is one’s homeland. There are new vistas and new angles on familiar and traditional truth that make it every bit as exciting (and rather less cruel) than heresy.

Ironically, Chesterton is often cited by political conservatives. Perhaps this derives from his profound respect and admiration for the common man. Interestingly, Chesterton would be no favorite of today’s “conservatives,” many of whom tend to be Ayn Rand-style libertarians. Chesterton was quite critical of the capitalism that existed in his day, and worked deliberately to find ways to give expression to the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding labor. As a distributist, he critiqued both socialism and capitalism is concentrating wealth in too small a group–either the government or the owners of big business.

This critique is germaine today. As much as many of us fear the intrusion of government into many areas of our common and private life, we should do well to consider the ways in which big business too has a controlling interest in shaping, forming, and even controlling us.

Chesterton has long deserved a wider audience than he has enjoyed so it’s wonderful to hear that, at least in literary circles, the big man is making a comeback.

My favorite G K Chesterton books:

  1. Orthodoxy
  2. The Man Who was Thursday
  3. Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox