“Two’s company, three’s a crowd … and four’s an environmental disaster!”

One would think that if anyone’s genes need reproducing, David and Victoria Beckham would have approval. But even in our success-obsessed culture today, the achievement and beauty of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham is not enough to get them off the hook among those who believe that one’s family size should be a debate for the whole world to weigh in on.

Recently, an article in the UK Guardian criticized the Beckhams after the birth of their fourth child, Harper Seven, calling them “environmentally irresponsible.”  Simon Ross, chief executive of the UK based Optimum Population Trust was critical of the couple: “We need to change the incentives to make the environmental case that one or two children are fine but three or four are just being selfish . . . The Beckhams, and others like London mayor Boris Johnson [who also has four children], are very bad role models with their large families.” He went on to argue, as do many who are concerned with the world’s population, that with 7 billion people in the world and counting,  “there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.”

Mr. Ross, like others with concerns about overpopulation and the world’s food supply, fail to take a few things into account.  When Thomas Malthus predicted in the 1800’s that the population would overtake the food supply, he failed to also predict the impact of the Industrial Revolution, along with many subsequent technological innovations that allow crops to be grown faster and in harsher climates than he could have possibly imagined.

The concern about resource depletion isn’t a proven science, and studies show that human capital and labor productivity are what actually drive the increases and reductions of resources.  What’s more, worries about overpopulation disregard the principle that life is inherently good. Even if humans and the environment existed adversarially (though I believe that they don’t), human life is still an unqualified good. The choice for life shouldn’t be made on the basis of environmental concerns, though all our decisions about consumption should certainly be with prudence. And empirically speaking, if there’s a crisis in our world today, it’s underpopulation. Most countries in Europe, for example, are seeing birth rates drop below replacement levels (looked at Russia lately?), though immigration will contribute some stability to these nations’ numbers.

While we must certainly care for the environment, the answer is not that families or developed nations are to blame. Even if developed nations use a larger proportion of the earth’s natural resources, the technology coming out of these countries allows many people in the developing world to be fed, and affords a greater quality of life to everyone around the globe. The earth’s resources are not a pie whose portion for everyone at the party shrinks as new guests arrive. Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, argues that because each person has unique value, “more people means more for all of us — more economic production, more potential for artistic and scientific achievement, more innovation.” And speaking of innovation, two hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, we are still not running out of food.

What is more unsustainable than the current rate of population growth is the increasing numbers of people who do not grow up in stable, married families. Dr. Henry Potrykus, of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, recently released “Our Fiscal Crisis” detailing the relationship between the future of America’s economy and the proportion of intact, married families. It is impossible for a country to remain strong when fewer than half of its citizens grow up in homes that do not offer the stability that marriage provides.  This holds true for any nation, not just the U.S., and the negative effects of broken homes are well-documented.

David and Victoria Beckham have remained committed to one another in marriage, thus demonstrating what is right about families in Britain. To the Beckhams I say, Congratulations! The begetting and raising of human life in the context of marriage is one of the greatest adventures in the world. You are setting a good example for the world to follow.

Sacred Spaces

A blank canvas does not carry much meaning as a work of art until the artist begins to use lines to create shapes and figures, separating each section of the painting from the others. A place, much like a work of art, is endowed with definition—and therefore, with meaning— by its history and purpose.

Walter Brueggemann, retired Old Testament scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary attributes to human nature the tendency to sanctify a certain space as a sacred place. “Place is a space which has historical meaning,” he says,“where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued.”

That place is a space with accumulated meaning is no less true about a family living room than it is about a church sanctuary. Each has its own history and has been set apart for a particular purpose. It is precisely the act of setting spaces apart that allow them to be sacred. Frederic Debuyst, Belgian architect, author and monk, defines the Christian church building as “a Paschal meeting room, a place where the assembled community experiments and exercises the full impact of the Paschal Mystery. This reference to the central event of our faith, in its always renewed Eucharistic expression . . . is and remains the specific note which distinguishes the Christian church from any other religious or secular building.”

For this reason, the pastors of Aldersgate Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and of Heartsong Church of Cordova, Tennessee, should have said no when approached by Islamic groups wanting use their churches for prayer. This is not because I do not respect their need for a place to worship. I do. I understand the importance of sacred religious places, and a church sanctuary is not a multi-purpose room, but a room dedicated to the worship of the Triune God. A sacred space is, by definition, set apart for a particular use. For Anglicans (like myself), as well as for Lutherans and Catholics, a church sanctuary is even more than a room reserved for corporate worship. It is, as Debuyst noted, the Pascal meeting room. It is the space where the Eucharist is celebrated—where the Real Presence of Christ is in the bread and wine, the remains of which may be kept in the tabernacle at the front of the church long after the Sunday service is over. This only serves to underscore what all Christian sanctuaries have in common: they are the space used for the worship of the Triune God.

But why does it matter if the space is used by another group who also wants to participate in their own religious acts of worship? I am sympathetic, and I understand that, to the extent that religious worship would be taking place, the sacredness of the space would be maintained. However, as blank canvas has no meaning without definition, so space cannot remain sacred for long, once lines are removed. Philip Bess, director of graduate studies and professor of architecture at Notre Dame, summarizes this line of thinking well: “A sense of the sacred therefore necessarily seems to include a sense of prohibition as a precondition.”

John Bergsma, associate professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, makes a similar assertion, that sacred places should be distinguished. Removing the distinction of sacred spaces does not lead to the sanctification of all space, but to its profanation—now no place is sacred because there are no limits.

And this position that conveys dignity to all other groups as well. Allowing another group to use Christian worship space for their purposes would not only violate our space, but would also be demeaning to them and their own understanding of sacred space. That action would convey that others are, in fact, so unimportant, that we would allow them to violate our sacred traditions; they are not relevant enough to threaten our customs.

My position is not so much about who to keep out, as it is about what to keep in. It is not that I care too little about others. It is precisely because Christians and Muslims alike believe that devout worship matters, that I would insist on remembering the sacredness of space.

What’s in a Name?

Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban announced the birth of their second child, Faith Margaret, last week thanking everyone for their support, especially Faith’s “gestational carrier.” While Nicole and Keith were simply using the vernacular of the fertility industry, referring to their child’s birth mother as a “gestational carrier” betrays an underlying cultural attitude fostered by technological developments in this field.

With advances in the field of assisted reproductive technologies [ART], a surrogate mother can carry a baby conceived with her egg and a donor’s sperm. Now there are also gestational carriers: a woman who carries a couple’s fertilized embryo to term, but is not herself the baby’s genetic mother.

Ethics within the field of ART are, admittedly, complex, but the shift from surrogate mothers to gestational carriers, while subtle, is significant. In the past, the words “birth mother” or “surrogate mother” and “adoptive mother” have been used to describe the situation in which a baby born biologically to one mother was given to another family. But as technology evolves, so does its vocabulary.

Regardless of the technical intent behind “gestational carrier,” the term is, at its root, dehumanizing. The phrase reduces a woman to a function, instead of a person in a relationship. No longer does her title represent who she is— a woman, a mother bearing a child in her body— she is her function, a gestational carrier.

Thanks in part to technology, our society makes distinctions between function and identity. Men can be “sperm donors” without being known as the father of the baby. We have children who are biologically one man’s, but socially another’s. This calls into question the very nature of relationships. Not all fathers always act like fathers, and children may look up to another man as a “father figure,” but for most of human history, fatherhood was tied to biology, except in cases of adoption. This is no longer the case.  Technology is changing what it means to be a parent: the creation and raising of a child can involve a sperm donor, an egg donor, a gestational carrier, or surrogate mother, and the couple that the child eventually lives with and calls Mommy and Daddy. And this technology defines people by what they do, instead of who they are.  While calling someone a mother certainly does not describe the totality of who that woman is, at least the title of “mother” is defining her relationally, humanizing her, for the ability to have relationships is uniquely human.

Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, notes that the use of ART is turning baby-making into a consumerist activity. Pregnancy has been reduced to a “bits and pieces” brokered industry: sperm from a handsome Scandinavian stud, eggs from a beautiful Ivy League graduate, a womb-for-rent from a poor woman in India trying to provide food and education for her children, and brokers in the middle setting up the legal transactions to build a better baby the 21st-century way.” Individuals are applying their bodies to bringing new life into the world through a segmented, fractured process,turning children into things to be designed and purchased. The Scandinavian man and the Ivy League woman are now means to an end. Lahl argues that children are not products to be made, but with the rise of medical tourism, that is what they are becoming.

Technology brings with it as many questions as answers. In the process of advancing our physical capabilities, it (in this case) blurs the bright line of relationships. I will not make a moral judgment on all blurry lines; not all things unclear must be rejected as wrong. But how we speak about things matters for words frame how we see the world. In this case, it is important to remember that people are fundamentally ends, not means thereto. Before helping ourselves to the vast array of opportunities technology offers, it is imperative that we ask hard questions and consider the ethical implications of each. When people are defined by their functions and not their relationships, are we seeing an age in which technology helps the body while harming the soul?

An Open Letter To Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy

An open letter to Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy:

I must admit, I don’t understand everything about the different segments of your Islamic faith—anymore than I understand everything about all the different denominations of Christianity. But they say actions speak louder than words, and I do understand that you and thousands of other Muslims in Egypt were willing to put aside differences in creed to unite for the sake of peace in your nation.

Thank you for being willing to protect the Coptic Christians in Egypt who were afraid for their lives this Christmas. You put yourselves in very real danger when you offered yourselves as “human shields.” Fortunately, the deadly New Years’ Eve attack was not repeated, and no one was hurt.  Thank you, all the same, for being willing to sacrifice yourselves for my Christian brothers and sisters.

I admire the theme emerging from your actions: “We either live together, or we die together” for indeed, these were no mere words. You were willing to literally put your life on the line in support of your fellow Egyptians, despite the religious differences which can so easily separate neighbors.

Just as we Americans learned from Abraham Lincoln that a house divided against itself cannot stand, the world can learn much the same from your actions last Thursday. We do not have to be threatened by all of our differences, and it’s good to be reminded that, for the sake of a nation, people will act on the courage of their convictions. There is much here to be admired.

Thank you.

Editors note: We offer our sincere condolences for the families of those who were shot on an Egyptian train today.

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Free Speech, Amazon and Your Community

In the name of supporting freedom of expression and consumer choice, Amazon made a controversial book available for sale to Kindle users: “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct.” According to an MSNBC news article, the book offers “advice to pedophiles afraid of becoming the center of retaliation.” According to the author, his work is (misspellings his own) his “attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian rules for these adults to follow.”

The reviews on the book’s page reflected the outrage of many of Amazon’s patrons, to whom Amazon defended their choice to sell the book. Responding that “it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable…we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”

The purpose of free speech

Amazon is correct in that they do have the freedom to publish such material. But does that mean they should?

When it was included in the Bill of Rights, free speech was not designated arbitrarily. It was included to protect an individual’s rights from being trampled by the federal government—not to give the individual permission to do whatever he wanted. Freedom of speech is foundational to all other freedoms because it preserves space for dissent, for ideas and opinions to be heard—but it is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.

In order for truth to surface in public dialogue, there must be public space for a free exchange of ideas. Wendell Berry, in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” argues that freedom exists because people will disagree, and that freedom is “a way of guaranteeing to individuals and to political bodies the right to be different from one another.”

Notice that Berry does not say that free speech is protected for the purpose of doing what we want—it exists for the good of society. Because freedom is not the license to do whatever we please, our individual freedoms come with corresponding duties to our communities. In the case of this book, Amazon is the private individual and the community is all the families that shop Amazon.com.

Why Amazon was right to remove the book

After a few days, Amazon removed the book from its site, presumably because of the public outcry and threats of boycott. And they were right to do so. Respect for the community should not be taken lightly. According to Barry, only the sphere of community can mediate between public and private interests.

Community “identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests”—namely, virtues such as trust, temperance, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. In order for communities to flourish, they must encourage these virtues. Properly functioning communities will “invariably, not as a rule . . . enforce decency without litigation.”

Absent this idea of community, where decency is encouraged, “private” comes to mean an area which individuals defend as space for doing what they please, even if this includes limiting or destroying the rights of others. The community alone has the power to influence behavior by dictating “what works and what does not work in a given place.” Only a community can determine for itself what is good and what is harmful.

Community has an interest in being able to protect itself. And for the sake of freedom of speech, the public ought to let it. But free speech is not an absolute right. It only exists as people concur that it should. Says Berry, “One person alone cannot uphold the freedom of speech…[It] is a public absolute, and it can remain absolute only so long as a sufficient segment of the public believes that it is and consents to uphold it. It is an absolute that can be destroyed by public opinion…If this freedom is abused and if a sufficient segment of the public becomes sufficiently resentful of the abuses, then the freedom will be revoked. It is a freedom, therefore, that depends directly on responsibility. And so the First Amendment alone is not a sufficient guarantee of the freedom of speech (emphasis added).

The standards of a community ought to be considered because the community is a part of “the people” whose support is necessary to uphold free speech as a right. This is why it is not right for Amazon to ignore the opinions of the community in the name of free speech alone.

Amazon is correct: individuals do have the right to make their own purchasing decisions. However, when the community complains, Amazon ought to listen.  Communities are rightfully interested in their own self-preservation, and this includes upholding some sort of moral standard. Where public laws exist to bind the government to a particular arena, communities exist to uphold morality and decency, and to tell people how they ought to live. The government should not do this, and an individual alone cannot. Therefore, we must rely on the community to be the mediating pathway in many areas. If a community determines that it ought to uphold certain standards of decency, the public sphere ought to listen. If free speech exists only because the majority of people support it, individuals should not destroy that which allows the community to flourish with their freedom– lest they lose it.

Finally, it is right that the government not control what books Amazon sells. It is dangerous when the government involves itself in our ability to freely exchange ideas. Yes, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” is offensive. However, the government should not make a law, and it will not have to, if the community is allowed to function properly. Decency will be encouraged, and there will be no desire—or need—for litigation.

Life is work, Life is leisure

When I first started working, I promised myself that I’d never be “that person”—you know, the one who lived for the weekends. As time went by, however, I found myself increasingly looking forward Friday rituals—“TGIF!” emails, the Starbucks run to celebrate the end of the week, weekend to-do lists. It did not take long for me to get from my Friday fixation to asking myself about the purpose of life.

In Leisure, Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper, a twentieth century German Catholic philosopher, talks about a connection between leisure and the world of work (i.e., world of utilitarian measures). For Pieper, leisure and the world of work are two fundamentally different ways of approaching reality, and our understanding of human existence is derived from one or the other.

Though we typically think of leisure as relaxation, entertainment, or other non-career related activities, Pieper says the essence of leisure is an attitude of the mind, a capacity for silence, and the ability to steep oneself in the whole of creation. We have leisure “[w]hen we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery,” Pieper says. Leisure allows the appreciation of things for what they are, not what they can help us achieve.

He contrasts leisure with the world of work, which looks at life though utilitarian glasses. When Pieper refers to the world of work, he is not referring merely to earning a wage and making a living, which is necessary for our existence. The world of work is the mindset opposite that of leisure. It does not contemplate, it calculates and assigns value based on utility. Within this mindset, there is no room for leisure because it has no utility. The problem with dwelling in the world of work is that, by doing so, we never learn the meaning of human existence.

Pieper is not condemning the category of work. He recognizes both that it is necessary for sustainment of life and that God created man with the ability to do work. It is good for me to remember to be thankful for my job on Monday’s as well as Friday’s.  But those who find meaning only in how much they produce or how far ahead they get have forgotten what it means to be human. Life cannot be reduced to a formula to maximize output, and if we allow ourselves to forget that we are not just functionaries, we are subjecting ourselves to slavery of the mind and a kind of spiritual impoverishment, according to Piper.  Only when we step outside of the routine do we encounter mystery, wonder, and hope, which arise only from contemplation.

These experiences are what foster our ability for leisure, and on Pieper’s thesis, as leisure develops, so does culture. He sees the two as almost synonymous, defining culture as human achievement that transcends utility: poetry, art, music, education. Piper argues that the greatest capacity for culture comes from philosophy, because it is contemplation of reality. Though culture is not more important than our real need to work, it should be our capacity for leisure which defines us.

When I look forward to the weekend, it can be a good thing because in doing so, I am recognizing that there is something in me which is not fulfilled by a nine to five. But it is not just the act of ceasing from work that is needed. I must leisure. One way we can do this today is by placing a high priority on community and fellowship, making time for the horribly inefficient activity of being with friends, enjoying the company of other human beings. And in going to church on Sunday, we are partaking in the pinnacle of leisure and doing that thing which most fulfills our human purpose: we are worshipping the Living God. As Pieper says, divine worship is the foundation of leisure, and this is no small matter, if leisure is the basis of our culture.

When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

When a man claims he can build a tower so tall that it reaches God, raise your eyebrows and ask skeptical questions. Beyond warnings against architectural hubris, the story of the Tower of Babel also says much about modern understandings of government.

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