Planting Trees As Penance For Sin?

"I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate we have today is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." Michael Griffin NASA Administrator.

Robert Royal in First Things examines the position of various religious leaders on the current discussion surrounding global warming. Paraphrasing what he writes we read:

Religious fervor for curbing global warming and protecting the environment reached a confusing peak this week when a member of the Council for Culture at the Vatican announced that offsetting carbon emissions, which the Holy See will be able to do almost completely in the future thanks to a donation of land in Hungary to be planted with trees, is roughly parallel to doing penance for your sins. There’s nothing wrong and a good deal right with contemporary religious leaders pointing out our responsibilities to care for the Earth. But with all due respect to the good monsignor, it’s a very bad idea to suggest that steps to deal with environmental questions are like doing penance for sins.

Carbon emissions are not intrinsically wrong. All animals that inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide do so by natural design all the time. Even cars, electricity generating plants, and mechanical appliances do much good in addition to adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Deciding when and how to use them is not like deciding to cheat on your wife, an intrinsic wrong that requires confession and penance. It’s more like deciding how much of the family income to allot for a better gas-mileage car, and how much for food, housing, healthcare, or education for the children. In other words, it’s always a choice among competing goods, not between good and evil, within limited resources.

In addition, though the potential negative consequences of global warming are worthy of serious consideration, they need to be put in the proper perspective of the actual nature of the world that God created. Temperatures on the earth have changed drastically without benefit of human intervention. In the multiple Ice Ages that have regularly occurred over geological time, glaciers miles thick covered Northern Europe and much of North America. At their retreat, they scraped the earth cleaner than any logging company would dare, but enabled the growth of the lovely boreal forests we prize today.

In historical times, the changes have been less drastic but still quite striking. Leif Eriksson found grapes growing in Newfoundland, which is why he called it Vineland. Other explorers seem to have had similar reasons for giving the frozen expanses of today’s Greenland its name. From just before 1000 A.D. and continuing for a few centuries, the earth experienced what is sometimes called a Medieval Climate Optimum, a period of significant warming that may have helped in the cultural recovery of Europe, followed by a cooler period called the Little Ice Age beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting until around 1850. Since then, the earth has generally warmed but with another cooling dip from around 1950 to 1975. These simple facts of geology are much cited by both sides in the debates about global warming. But it’s rare to find any religious figure who shows any familiarity with the fact that God did not create a world of stable climate where species and habitats are forever fixed and or that change represents anything other than a violation of, and perhaps a sin against, the created order.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin was vilified when he called it “rather arrogant” to assume that the present climate was optimal for human beings. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Griffin was not saying that global warming should not be examined carefully. What he was saying - that we need to calm down and examine evidence more fully - is so outside the generalized hysteria among the media and the political class that his opponents could not fathom it. A similar fate has befallen Bjorn Lomborg, whose just-released book Cool It looks to be a worthy sequel to his controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist. This statistician has tried to weigh the various potential harms and benefits of global warming, which he not only believes is occurring but concedes is significantly owing to anthropogenic causes. There are two unforgivable sins among the most fervid environmentalists. As Al Gore has taught us, one is being a global-warming denier, which is on a moral level with the Holocaust deniers. Deniers at least can be summarily excommunicated. But it is precisely the Lomborgs and his like who are more infuriating to a certain type of true believer. To acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and to believe it may be effectively handled through anything but curtailing global capitalism through reducing carbon emissions, or, even worse, that we ought to add some of global warming’s benefits to our deliberations seems, to some, on a par with calling evil good.

But the facts are the facts. In Cool It, for example, Lomborg analyzes the conditions that produced the thirty-five thousand deaths in Europe during the infamous and much reported on heat wave of August 2003. That was a great tragedy, but every year, in Europe and around the world, far more people die of cold. In August 2003, some two thousand Britons died from the heat; on average, twenty-five thousand Britons a year die of cold and in some years more than twice that figure. If you turn to any ordinary media outlet, you will hear the usual litany of impending catastrophes: twenty-foot sea rises owing to Greenland melting that will submerge Florida and Bangladesh; widespread famine and death because of changes in precipitation patterns; the spread of tropical diseases to warmer environments; and of course the disappearance of charismatic flora and fauna. This, we are told, is the scientific consensus that should tug at our heart strings, and only reduced carbon emissions can prevent such an apocalypse.

This is a mixture of truth and misapprehension. If the Greenland ice pack melts, for example, it will take one thousand years and over the next century will produce a sea-level rise of about one foot. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that this Greenland, which was naturally green around 1000 A.D., is being ravaged by human activity. Glaciation naturally varies a great deal in the Northern Hemisphere and similar doomsday scenarios were common in the 1930s, a naturally occurring warm period that preceded emissions of large quantities of greenhouse gases.

Our religious leaders cannot be expected to be experts in environmental sciences or policies. But it would be a great help toward a better climate debate if they made greater allowance for the complexities of creation and the inevitable trade-offs in policy decisions while calling us all to responsible action. Our technological developments have brought great benefits to the whole of humanity in the past century. Failure to spread those benefits further may be the greatest harm we can do to the poor and marginalized. And it is beyond question a mistaken application of a crucial religious notion to suggest that the costs of those benefits are, even metaphorically, like sins.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates

Global Warming - Curse or Blessing?

Posted September 26, 2007

Proverbs As The Motif In '3:10 To Yuma'?

"You're so sure that your crew's comin' to get you?" - Dan Evans
"Sure as God's vengeance, they're comin" - Ben Wade

"All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart" - Ben Wade quoting Proverbs 21:2.

Christianity Today recently reviewed the religious and moral aspects of James Mangold's new movie '3:10 to Yuma'. The review states in part:

'3:10 To Yuma' is a very modern western. This is a film that strives for and achieves a deeper inquiry into moral psychology. On one level it's about gunfights, spurs, and saloon showdowns, but on another it's a film about the fuzzy lines between right, wrong, and the law in an altogether lawless frontier land.

Director James Mangold deals with the personal quest for honor and redemption. Dan Evans is down on his luck, about to lose his ranch to the Southern Pacific suits who are bringing the railroad to the tiny town of Bisbee. Seeking to redeem himself financially and in the eyes of his adolescent son Will Evans stumbles upon a major chance to prove himself. The notorious outlaw, Ben Wade has just been captured. Hoping to rid the region once and for all of this infamous scourge to the railroad's safety, a Southern Pacific businessman offers to handsomely reward any man who will join the posse to safely transport Wade to prison. Evans jumps at the opportunity, but the task is easier said than done. It's a three-day journey to the town of Contention, where Wade is to be put on the 3:10 train to the Federal Court in Yuma. And it promises to be a perilous journey fraught with hostile Indians, railroad ruffians, as well as the violent gang of outlaws determined to free their leader, Wade, before he is put on the train to Yuma.

As the fateful journey plays out, bullets fly and blood is spilt. The posse finds Wade to be deadly even when bound and gun-less. As the body count grows Evans becomes determined to be the last man standing with Wade—the man who successfully delivers the criminal to the law in Yuma.

Wade seems to respect Evans as a morally upright family man driven only by a desire to protect his land and dignity. Likewise, Evans seems uninterested in destroying Wade. If not for the circumstances of their meeting, they might have been friends. Ben Wade is a self-described rotten-to-the-core villain who is as enchanted with his own mythology as everyone else is fearful of it. He is a holster-bearing Hannibal Lecter—minus the cannibalism. Like Lecter, Wade works on his victims primarily psychologically. He's deadly with his gun ("the hand of God"), but his words are even deadlier.

Like many of cinema's most psychologically toxic antagonists, Wade is well read and adroit at quoting Bible verses to tease his foes. Apparently he read the Bible cover to cover only once but he quotes it like a preacher. His motto seems to be Proverbs 21:2: "All a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart." Wade takes from this verse a twisted justification for his own wayward actions—apparently believing that since God is ultimately the only judge of right and wrong, man has no mandate but to do what is right in his own eyes.

Wade's odd brand of moral relativism makes him an interesting character—especially in the film's final moments, when his mythologized shell begins to crack. Evans' motivations become more ambiguous as the film goes on. Is it really about the reward money or serving justice? Or is it a pride issue? Some deeper psychological drive that makes him in the end not all that different from Wade? As he is forced to kill dozens of people and put his own family in grave danger, these questions become ever more pertinent. At what point does proving your honor become secondary to protecting yourself and the lives of your loved ones?

Much of the tension of the film comes from what we know is coming at 3:10. As the train's arrival becomes imminent, so too does the dread of an unavoidably nasty fight. Wade's gang catches up to Evans's posse in Contention and their second-in-command leader, Charlie Prince, unleashes a ruthless wrath. Prince, who is really the worst scoundrel in the bunch is a deliciously wicked character who steals most of the scenes he's in. Foster really captures the soulless, unruly spirit of the western outlaw.

Yuma portrays a West that is stark, barren, and morally ambiguous … very few characters are all good or all bad … everyone is a mixture (just as Evans and Wade are, in a way, two sides of the same coin) and everyone has an opportunity to change, to redeem whatever rotten past they came from.

Was Proverbs used as the motif in '3:10 To Yuma'?

Posted September 15, 2007

God's Attorney Met The Atheistic Jew?

"There are also two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible" - Gottfried Leibniz

"Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many” - Baruch Spinoza.

We have had interesting discussions recently on a couple of books in which two philosophers had come into some intellectual or philosophical conflict - Rousseau's Dog involving Hume/Rousseau and Wittgenstein's Poker involving Popper/Wittgenstein.

The next book in this series, The Courtier and the Heretic, involves the opposing world views of Leibniz and Spinoza. The book publisher writes that "philosophy in the late seventeenth century was a dangerous business. No careerist could afford to know the reclusive, controversial philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. Yet the wildly ambitious genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who denounced Spinoza in public, became privately obsessed with Spinoza’s ideas, wrote him clandestine letters, and ultimately met him in secret".

Writing in The New York Times Liesl Schillinger said: - With The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas that casts the hallowed, hoary thinkers as warriors in a heated ideological battle. He reveals early on that he believes the battle was one-sided, and that both men fought for the same cause. Even so, the conflict, as he paints it, is no less compelling for ending in a draw. This is a harder trick to pull off than it may sound because Stewart's rivals are both relatively unknown to modern nonspecialists. In other words, he has to acquaint his readers with both his main characters before he can unspool his take on their story.

Publishers Weekly review stated: According to Nietzsche, "Every great philosophy is... a personal confession of its creator and a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir.". Stewart affirms this maxim in his colorful reinterpretation of the lives and works of 17th-century philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz. In November 1676, the foppish courtier Leibniz, "the ultimate insider... an orthodox Lutheran from conservative Germany," journeyed to The Hague to visit the self-sufficient, freethinking Spinoza, "a double exile... an apostate Jew from licentious Holland." A prodigious polymath, Leibniz understood Spinoza's insight that "science was in the process of rendering the God of revelation obsolete; that it had already undermined the special place of the human individual in nature." Spinoza embraced this new world. Seeing the orthodox God as a "prop for theocratic tyranny," he articulated the basic theory for the modern secular state. Leibniz, on the other hand, spent the rest of his life championing God and theocracy like a defense lawyer defending a client he knows is guilty. He elaborated a metaphysics that was, at bottom, a reaction to Spinoza and collapses into Spinozism, as Stewart deftly shows. For Stewart, Leibniz's reaction to Spinoza and modernity set the tone for "the dominant form of modern philosophy" a category that includes Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger and "the whole `postmodern' project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought." Readers of philosophy may find much to disagree with in these arguments, but Stewart's wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.

Did Leibniz and Spinoza decide the 'fate of God' in the modern world?

Posted September 05, 2007