Lord’s Day Controversies, December 30, 2012

    1. SETI.
    2. Christmas.
    3. Nominalism and Realism.
    4. Liberal intolerance.
    5. The “Contraceptive” Mandate.


There are controversies that I just don’t understand, although I recognize that they are a big deal to some people.

One of those is the speculation behind SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It’s a minor irritant to me that tax dollars are being spent on radiotelescopes combing the radio spectrum of the cosmos for signs that someone, somewhere out there, is reaching out to us, or to their own version of “someone, somewhere out there,” with primal dots and dashes, or ones and zeroes, and that it’s really important for us to listen for them.

The idea seems to be that (1) if we see intelligence, we’ll know it (although we do back-flips to label “creationist” any claims that features of our world exhibit intelligent design) and (2) if we see it and know it, the silver stake will have been driven, once and for all, through the heart of the Christian god, who is vaguely rumored to have vouchsafed that this earth is the only rock in the cosmos that supports life. It’s my suspicion that tax dollars are being spent in order to drive a stake through God’s heart that irritates me. It might infuriate me if I hadn’t gotten accustomed to the reality that my government is pseudo-Krustian, which is at least one step removed from pseudo-Christian (which means I’m not a proponent of Christian America mythology).

I don’t recall God vouchsafing that. I might be scandalized by ETI if I thought that God would have mentioned it in the Bible if there were life elsewhere in the cosmos, but I don’t think that. The Bible’s not intended to scratch my curiosity wherever it may be itching at the moment.

Indeed, God is sufficiently fecund that He definitely created intelligent beings besides us, albeit invisible to us: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible ….” Those beings include angels, fallen and unfallen.

So just in case SETI some day reports back that they’ve found intelligent life out there, Tipsy strikes preemptively to say “Glory to God for all things!”


Another of those controversies is the date on which Christmas is observed. That’s what I was going to write about before I got sidetracked by SETI, which started as a “for instance” of controversies I don’t get.

The Usual Suspects were trying once again this Advent season to scandalize people with the “news” that we really don’t know when Jesus was born and that chances are about 364/365 that December 25 isn’t it.

But that’s really stale news. The controversy has been around all my life because Christmas falls suspiciously close to the Winter Solstice, and so our vague modern imagination about ignorant savages in olden days, fortified with the sort of anti-catholicism that infects even Catholics today, picks it up and says … well, here:

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

Enough good and smart people have linked this Advent and Christmastide (yes, Virginia, it’s still Christmas) to the article from which that quote is taken that it behooves me to pass it along to any reader who’s troubled by Jablonski or his spiritual descendants or who takes comfort in Hardouin’s rejoinder in its contemporary form (as I find it sufficient, though I now doubt that it’s true of Christmas).

In the article, William J. Tighe, Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, argues, contra Joblonski and Hardouin, that that the date of Christmas is a by-product of early Christian efforts to date the Resurrection of Christ (the most important of Christian dates) — a by-product via conjunction with the idea of the “integral age”: that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. The consensus (less than unanimous) was that Christ was Crucified on March 25, and therefore (via integral age) was conceived on March 25 (now the feast of Annunciation), leading to birth 9 months later, December 25.

Read it all here. If you’ve been troubled, I hope you feel better now. But I’m moving on.


A controversy that does matter to me currently is that between realism and nominalism. Yeah, I’m that weird.

Here is a version of nominalism in a nutshell in Saturday’s Dilbert strip, with the conehead playing the nominalist God.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve been a Christian Realist for a long time, but it’s explicit since I read the series from which this is a quote:

Another way to make the same point would be to note that an action is not good simply because God wills it [Nominalism]; but neither does God will an action simply because it is good, at least if “good” is taken to be a standard external to Himself [a sort of Realism, I guess]. Rather, both God’s will and the goodness of the action both follow from the goodness of His eternal character [Christian Realism]. Since God’s actions are anchored by His character (which is perfect goodness, justice, love, holiness, truth, etc.), there are some things that He simply cannot do, such as lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). (C.S. Lewis has an insightful discussion about this in The Problem of Pain.)

I’ve been frustrated for a couple of decades by people who argue issues of public policy from a Krustian Nominalist perspective, waving their Bibles (in some cases, literally) at elected officials and saying that such-and-such vote would be wicked because God condemns what that vote would tolerate. The frustration comes because in more than a few cases, they’ve reached the right conclusion, a conclusion that I’ve reached and argued from a Realist perspective (Christian realism, because that’s what I am, but that doesn’t require Bible-waving), yet they drown me out with the false tacit message that “the only reason not to vote for this is religious extremism.” They just don’t know what’s got valence and what doesn’t.

I think, by the way, that my Christian Realism is reflected in my not infrequent calls for some thought of anthropology when framing policy. There are things that are wrong not because God declares them so, but which God declares so because they’re contrary to his character, and derivatively contrary to the nature of His image-bearers.

As the Robin Phillips series on Nominalism and Realism, and that on Gnosticism today both reflect, the effects of bad theology/philosophy run deep.


Another controversy that matters to me, at least a little, is the liberal intolerance taking shape in Northfield, Massachusetts, birthplace of Dwight L. Moody. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway tells the story in the Weekend Wall Street Journal (possible pay wall).

As I’ve said, I no longer trust either side in the culture wars. That doesn’t mean I’m neutral on the issues at stake, but rather that I don’t follow a party line intentionally (I won’t argue as the Krustian Nominalists do, for instance). I don’t see how these “tolerant” New Englanders are any better than the folks who fight, fair or foul, to keep the Muslims among them from building a Mosque.


Last but not least, a contemporary and very newsworthy controversy about which I care quite a bit: the employer “contraceptive” mandate (with scare quotes because it’s broader than that).

This has been a big week for legal wrangling over that mandate. Hobby Lobby fared poorly in the Tenth Circuit while Cyril B. Korte et al. fared better in the 7th Circuit.

In both cases, the key issue seems to me to be the religious freedom claims of private for-profit corporations, as also Jonathan Adler apparently sees the issue.

For reasons cited by the 7th Circuit majority, I think the mandate loses on RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) grounds when the issue is squarely presented by a religiously motived proprietor or perhaps some folks of like religious persuasion in a general partnership. That’s because a general rule under RFRA is that a law impinging on religious freedom must be neutral and of general application. Exceptions to the law – and I think the health plans that are grandfathered in without contraception coverage are such an exception for RFRA purposes – mean the law is not “of general application” even if it’s neutral.

But you must be someone with religious freedom rights that are being impinged to make that argument.

Even I, a strong proponent of religious freedom, hesitate to say that artificial persons, like corporations and limited liability companies, have religious freedom rights. Those entities exist precisely to serve as a shield against personal liability of the (secular or religious) owners. So I’m hesitant to let those owners, who are using a legal fiction (the corporate form) to shift the risk of their business failure to their creditors, to dart out from behind the shield and yell “Whoa! I’m religious! I may by legal fiction not have duties to creditors, but I’ve got real religious freedom rights!”

In other words, if you sleep with responsibility-shirking dogs, you may just get infested with pesky fleas.

So with all respect to Hobby Lobby, I’m afraid that its hard case might make some bad law — unintended consequences like the Citizens United case or worse. This is not my final answer, by the way; my day job has kept me from thinking this through to the utter, bloody end, and as usual, I refuse to parrot a party line.

This is not meant to defend the political pandering to Julia and her kin instantiated by the contraceptive mandate. That mandate is an odious burden on consciences, and Sebelius knew it would be. But elections have consequences, and we’ve knowingly elected her boss, whose pre-Presidential voting record was as radical as his demeanor is mild, twice, because the GOP gave us such odious alternatives.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.