This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Honor of Reformation Day....

In honor of the 495th anniversary of the 95 Theses, I offer you this excerpt from chapter 2, Martin Luther and the Break with Rome, from The Reformation for Armchair Theologians:
Meanwhile, in Italy ...
To understand the events leading to this break, we must travel south to Rome, where Pope Leo X was building St. Peter’s Basilica. Like any of us faced with financing new construction, Leo approached his bankers for a loan. The Medici bank of Florence, which was owned by Leo’s family, had been the papal bank for some time, though by Leo’s day it had been replaced by the Fugger bank, centered in Augsburg, Germany. The Fugger bank had been founded relatively recently, but it rose rapidly to become the largest bank in the world due to the same silver boom in Germany that had led to the establishment of the University of Wittenberg and the relative prosperity of the Luther family. Jacob Fugger, the head of the bank, approved the loan, but this left Leo with the problem of figuring out how to pay it back. Leo decided that the best approach to handling that problem was to sell off some of the assets in his treasury, specifically, the Treasury of Merits of which he was the custodian. In other words, Leo decided to hold an indulgence sale.
So, what are indulgences? To understand that, we need to know something about Roman Catholic conceptions of sin. According to Catholic theology, every sin you commit results in both eternal and temporal penalties. Eternal penalties affect your relationship with God; they are spiritual and deal with your status in eternity, that is, whether you go to Heaven or Hell. But since a sin against God is also a crime against your neighbor, sins must also be punished in this life, hence the temporal penalties, which are paid in time. When you confess your sins to a priest and he absolves you, that absolution takes away the eternal penalty due to your sins, but leaves the temporal untouched. He then assigns you a penance (a good work) that you can perform that pays the temporal penalty. This may be saying prayers, going on a pilgrimage, etc. These penalties could be pretty hefty; for example, knights fighting at the battle of Hastings in 1066, in a campaign that had been blessed by the Pope, were required to do 10 years of penance for every person they killed in the battle. And this didn't even touch other battles the knight fought in or any extra-curricular activities he might have indulged in. If you die with your temporal debt unpaid, the remainder has to be paid in time in the afterlife, so you go to Purgatory, a doctrine developed in the twelfth century to deal with the problems associated with unpaid temporal penalties. After your temporal penalty is completely paid in Purgatory, then you go to Heaven.
So how do you avoid languishing in Purgatory for who knows how long? There are a couple of possibilities. You could endow a monastery or a church and get priests to say Mass or monks to pray for you. If you pay the expenses, the credit for the time and the Masses goes to your account. This may seem odd, but think of it like this: if you get a speeding ticket, the town doesn't really care if you pay it or someone else does; it just wants its money. The same logic applies here. As long as your temporal debt is paid by someone, it counts. Going on pilgrimage is another good option. Not only do you get credit for the time you spend on the road, but the shrine you're visiting itself conveys a certain number of years of penance depending on its importance.
This is where indulgences came in, particularly in connection with armed, fighting pilgrimages, or as we call them, Crusades. To try to drum up troops to free the Holy Land, the Pope had promised certain unspecified spiritual benefits to all who fought for the faith; the Church then needed to figure out exactly what these benefits were. The doctrines outlined above were elaborated to a large extent to answer this question. The Church eventually decided that going on a Crusade would remit the entire temporal penalty due to sins that had been confessed to a priest and absolved. But since not everyone could go on Crusade—women, the sick, the aged, etc.—and not everyone who wanted to go on Crusade could afford it, it was decided that if you paid the way for someone else to go on Crusade, you would receive the benefits of Crusading yourself. These benefits would be paid to you out of the Treasury of Merits, the collection of good works performed by Christ and the saints above and beyond what was necessary for their own salvation. The Pope was the custodian of this Treasury and could call a Crusade and authorize a withdrawal for the participants. (Not all the Crusades were to the Holy Land: the Reconquistà which drove the Muslims out of Spain actually began before the Crusades proper, and other Crusades were called against the Albigensians in France, pagans in the Baltic, the Hussites in Bohemia, and even the Pope's political rivals.) With the end of the Crusades, the practice of selling indulgences, as these crusading benefits were called, continued. Some were limited indulgences, which paid only for a specific period of time, say, 10 years of penance. Others were plenary indulgences, which paid the whole penalty. Leo's indulgence sale was the latter type.
Leo, of course, was not going to go out hawking indulgences on the streets. The man who was reputed to have said, "God gave us the papacy; let us enjoy it!" was not about to turn himself into a salesman. Instead, he let it be known that for a fee, he would authorize other ecclesiastical authorities to sell plenary indulgences themselves. One person who bought into the scheme was Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, in the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht wasn’t about to peddle indulgences on the corner any more than the Pope was, so he sub-contracted the indulgences sale to the Dominicans, an order of friars founded in the 13th century to supply the Church with preachers and expert theologians. The Dominicans would sell the indulgences and take a cut of the profits; the rest would go to Albrecht to recoup the money he had paid Leo to hold the indulgence sale; Leo used Albrecht’s money to help pay back the loan he had gotten from the Fugger bank to build St. Peter’s Basilica.
Unfortunately, the Dominicans were not above twisting the theology of indulgences to make more sales. One of them, Johan Tetzel by name, was a master of the hard sell and was generally the sort of person who gave used car salesmen a bad name. He literally would tell his listeners that his indulgences were so good that even if you had violated the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, this would get you off the hook. He told people repentance wasn't necessary for the indulgences to work and that it was a virtual ticket to Heaven regardless of what you had done or would do. And when he couldn’t get any more sales from that, he ratcheted things up a bit more. If you are not worried about yourself, what about your dearly departed mother languishing perhaps for thousands of years in Purgatory? Were you to spend but a few coins on an indulgence, she would be released to go directly into Heaven. After going on about this for a while, Tetzel would end with a little jingle: "As soon as the coin in the coin box rings, another soul from Purgatory springs!" (It rhymes in German, too.) There was no mention that indulgences applied only to sins already committed, confessed to a priest and absolved, only to the temporal penalties due to such sins, etc.

The Indulgence Controversy and the 95 Theses

This indulgence sale upset many people. Among them was Elector Frederick the Wise, the prince of Electoral Saxony and one of the people who elected the Holy Roman Emperor. He opposed the indulgence sale for two basic reasons. First, it meant that money his people were producing in Saxony was being sent out of the country to Mainz and ultimately to Rome, thereby hurting the prosperity of Electoral Saxony. In fact, Frederick suspected the whole thing was a scam designed to enrich Italy at the expense of Germany. Second, in addition to using his revenues from silver mining to build the University of Wittenberg, he had also spent a great deal of it purchasing relics; in fact, he had one of the largest relic collections ever assembled. People went on pilgrimages to view these relics—further enriching Saxony's coffers—and Frederick was afraid that the indulgence sale would hurt business. So Frederick simply banned the Dominicans from his territories; Tetzel and company were forbidden to set foot in Saxony, and thus the indulgence sale had none of the negative consequences that Frederick feared.
This wasn't the end of the matter, however. The University of Wittenberg had picked up a star theologian from the University of Erfurt, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. He had begun work as a Bachelor lecturer at Wittenberg, then completed his doctorate in theology a few years later. Luther was very proud of that doctorate, and always referred to himself as Herr Dr. Luther. Luther had  new approach to theology based on the insights he gained from his Tower Experience; he and his students had converted the rest of the theological faculty at Wittenberg to his way of thinking. And like Frederick, Luther was also upset about the indulgence sale, though more for theological reasons, and thus he decided to back up his prince by doing what theologians did in the sixteenth century: he challenged the Dominicans to a debate. Debates were the standard academic exercise of the period, more or less like a combination of term papers and exams today. The protocol involved first writing a list of propositions, or theses, in Latin (the language of academia), which the debater was willing to defend against either specified individuals or all comers. He then posted the theses along with information on the time and place of the debate on the University bulletin board. In theological debates, the theses also had to be sent to the person's spiritual superior to be checked for heresy. Luther wrote a series of theses against the abuses of this indulgence sale—ninety-five of them, to be exact—and posted them on the University bulletin board, the church door at Wittenberg. This has often been portrayed as a great act of defiance, as Luther boldly challenging the corruption of the Church. Actually, it was more like an act of conformity. All Luther was doing was following standard procedures for debate in an attempt to defend what he thought was good church doctrine against the abuses of the Dominicans. Although the debate never took place (remember, the Dominicans couldn't enter Saxony), two things came together to make the 95 Theses an enormously controversial event.
First, following standard procedures, Luther sent a copy of the theses to his spiritual superior, who happened to be Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Like Queen Victoria, he was not amused. Second, some of Luther's students got hold of the theses, thought, "this is really hot stuff," and sent them off to a printer AFTER TRANSLATING THEM INTO GERMAN. Much to everyone's surprise, the 95 Theses became a runaway best seller, with translations following into most European languages. Despite the best efforts of professors since then, this was the only time in history that an academic exercise has generated such an incredible volume of sales. Luther thus unexpectedly found himself at the center of an international controversy over indulgences.
The reason the controversy grew so heated and generated so much interest was that the issues Luther raised went far beyond the details of a particular indulgence sale. Although initially about indulgences, the theological scope of the controversy rapidly expanded. Luther may have been trying to defend good Catholic doctrine against the abuse of the Dominicans, but the way he went about doing this implicitly attacked much of the generally accepted theology of the Catholic Church. Soon questions about indulgences were overshadowed by issues of free will and divine grace, and by the most basic questions of religious authority: how do you settle theological questions? Where do you go to get answers?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reflections on the Superstorm

We in the east coast of the US have just gotten through what has now been labeled superstorm Sandy. The storm, which was 800 miles across (about 1300 km) caused a massive amount of devastation and has taken at least 38 lives in the US and another 69 before it got here. In Connecticut alone, which was only on the periphery of the storm, over 600,000 are without power. During the storm, Manhattan was shut down, and today lower Manhattan is still without power. The subways are flooded, and they estimate it will take four days to pump it out. New Jersey, my home state, was hit especially hard, with 2.4 million people without power and houses lifted from their foundations and deposited on highways. In West Virginia, they had 1-2 feet of snow, and in upstate New York 3 feet.

For those of you not in the US, the superstorm came about because a hurricane merged with a nor’easter (a major storm in the north Atlantic with winds coming from a northeasterly direction) and cold air pulled down from the arctic by the jet stream. It’s pretty much the same set of conditions that created the “perfect storm” of book and movie fame.

The storm was a stark reminder of the power of wind and wave, and the awesome force of nature that dwarfs our abilities to preserve our comfort, our possessions, and even at times our lives. And yet the storm had little to no effect in other parts of the country other than gumming up the air traffic system and closing financial markets. It had even less effect on other countries outside of the Caribbean.

If you pull back and look at this from the perspective of the solar system, there are longstanding storms on Jupiter that are many times larger than our entire planet. What kind of power is at work there? Solar storms are even bigger. And our solar system is a minuscule part of the galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions in the universe.

And what of the God who created the universe, the one who set the planets spinning and the galaxies wheeling in their cosmic dance? What kind of power does He wield?

From a cosmic perspective, earth is less than a speck, and even on an earthly perspective, this superstorm leaves most of the world unaffected. Our lives and our concerns mean a lot to us, but they are less than a breath to the universe.

Except that isn’t how God sees it.

Maybe because we are so insignificant, God places special value on us, gives us special responsibilities in the world, and has forever ennobled humanity by His own incarnation. And so we matter profoundly to God, whose opinion is the only one that matters.

The superstorm should put our lives and our over-inflated sense of power and importance into perspective. It should remind us of how small, weak, and insignificant we are in ourselves, how illusory is our control of nature, and how our powers fade to insignificance in light of the forces of nature and of the cosmos. But it should also make us think of the amazing grace of God, who has placed inestimable value on us. It should remind us of the fact that the power that created the universe is present for us and is working on our behalf. It should also make us realize the wonder of His love and of His calling to us to carry out His purposes in the world. And that should move us to humility, gratitude, and worship.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Recovering Virtue

The next article in my series on Christianity and Politics is up at the Colson Center. This one points toward solutions.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Announcing Portals: Entering Your Neighbor's World

My latest book is out. It's called Portals: Entering Your Neighbor's World. It's a brief introduction to the competing worldviews in America today written at the request of Chuck Colson a few years back. For the full story, click here. The book briefly summarizes seven worldviews using Chuck's four questions (Where did I come from? What's wrong with the world? What's the solution? What's my purpose?), and gives some suggestions about how to use the information in conversations with the people around you.

If there's enough interest, I may expand the book to cover other worldviews. For example, the section on Eastern Religions could be easily broken up into three or more separate chapters. I also plan to do a video series where I teach the worldviews, as well as a follow up video series on holding worldview conversations. Stay tuned here or on the Every Square Inch website for updates. And if you would be interested in hosting a seminar on worldviews, please let me know. Thanks!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Politics and Virtue

The next article in my series on Christianity and Politics is up at the Colson Center. This one is on the importance of virtue in politics, and a not-so-rosy assessment of the state of American culture with respect to both virtue and liberty.

And no, I wasn't in a particularly good mood when I was writing it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Common Sense Economics

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything specifically for the blog—the start of the new semester and a heavy teaching load has taken its toll, I’m afraid—so I thought it would be a good time to post on a few books I’ve read lately on economics that cut through a lot of the clutter and rhetoric we hear regularly today and that will give you a good grounding in basic economic theory and what works in the real world.

The first book is Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity, by James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, Dwight R. Lee, and Tawni H. Ferrarini. The book lays out in clear and simple terms key elements of basic economics. (If you think that sounds boring, you need an attitude check: how can you even begin to vote intelligently in an election in which the economy is a major issue if you are clueless about how it works?)

Part one covers Twelve Key Elements of Economics:

  1. Incentives matter.
  2. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
  3. Decisions are made at the margin.
  4. Trade promotes economic progress.
  5. Transaction costs are an obstacle to trade.
  6. Prices bring the choices of buyers and sellers into balance.
  7. Profits direct businesses toward activities that increase wealth.
  8. People earn income by helping others.
  9. Production of goods and services people value, not just jobs, provides the source of high living standards.
  10. Economic progress comes primarily through trade, investment, better ways of doing things, and sound economic institutions.
  11. The “invisible hand” of market prices directs buyers and sellers toward activities that promote the general welfare.
  12. Too often the long-term consequences, or secondary effects, of an action are ignored.

Part two covers Seven Major Sources of Economic Progress:

  1. Legal system: The foundation for economic progress is a legal system that protects privately owned property and enforces contracts in an evenhanded manner.
  2. Competitive markets: Competition promotes the efficient use of resources and provides continuous stimulus for innovative improvements.
  3. Limits on government regulation: Regulatory policies that reduce trade also retard economic growth.
  4. An efficient capital market: To realize its potential, a nation must have a mechanism that channels capital into wealth-creating projects.
  5. Monetary stability: A stable monetary policy is essential for the control of inflation, efficient allocation of investment, and achievement of economic stability.
  6. Low tax rates: People will produce more when they are permitted to keep more of what they earn.
  7. Free trade: A nation progresses by selling goods and services that it can produce at a relatively low cost and buying those that would be costly to produce domestically.

Part three covers Ten Elements of Clear Thinking About Economic Progress and the Role of Government:

  1. Government promotes economic progress by protecting the rights of individuals and supplying a few goods that are difficult to provide through markets.
  2. Allocation through political voting is fundamentally different from market allocation, and economic analysis indicates that the latter is more consistent with economic progress.
  3. The costs of government are not only taxes.
  4. Unless restrained by constitutional rules, special-interest groups will use the democratic political process to fleece taxpayers and consumers.
  5. Unless restrained by constitutional rules, legislators will run budget deficits and spend exclusively.
  6. Government slows economic progress when it becomes heavily involved in providing favors to some at the expense of others.
  7. The net gain to those receiving government transfers is less, and often substantially less, than the amount they receive.
  8. Central planning replaces markets with politics, which wastes resources and retards economic progress.
  9. Competition is just as important in government as in markets.
  10. Constitutional rules that bring the political process and sound economics into harmony will promote economic growth.

Lastly, part four covers Twelve Key Elements of Practical Personal Finance:

  1. Discover your competitive advantage.
  2. Be entrepreneurial. In a market economy, people get ahead by helping others and discovering better ways of doing things.
  3. Use budgeting to help you save regularly and spend your money more effectively.
  4. Don’t finance anything for longer than its useful life.
  5. Two ways to get more out of your money: Avoid credit-card debt and consider purchasing used items.
  6. Begin paying into a “real-world” savings account every month.
  7. Put the power of compound interest to work for you.
  8. Diversify—don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
  9. Indexed equity funds can help you beat the experts without taking excessive risk.
  10. Invest in stocks for long-run objectives, but as the need for money approaches, increase the proportion of bonds.
  11. Beware of investment schemes promising high returns with little or no risk.
  12. Teach your children how to earn money and spend it wisely.

This is a long list of principles, many of which you may already know. For most of us, however, there are important principles to be learned that have huge implications for our personal lives as well as for how we view government policies. (This is an equal opportunity problem—both parties in the U.S. regularly violate key principles outlined in this book.)

I was particularly struck by the discussion of the importance of information and the connection between information and prices. This goes a long way toward explaining why centrally planned economies have never worked.

All in all, this is a short book, easy to understand, that will bring you up to speed quickly on key ideas in economics. Highly recommended.

Next up: books on moral and theological arguments related to economics. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Aristotle and Augustine

My next article on Christianity and Politics is out at the Colson Center. It is about Aristotle, his influence on medieval thinking on politics, and the influence of Augustine and Aristotle on the development of the U.S. Constitution.