The Briefing

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Thursday, May 9, 2019

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Part

Christine Quinn claims the life in a mother’s womb isn’t a human being, raising the question, "What then is the standard for recognizing human life?"

The fetal heartbeat bills recently adopted in several states contemplated by others most recently signed into law by Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, these laws are intended to be provocative. They are intended to provoke public debate. And furthermore, they're intended to promote the interest of the United States Supreme Court. At target in this is defending human life by going right at the central logic of the tragic 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade, also the following decision known as Doe v. Bolton. Put together, those two bills tragically changed the entire landscape of abortion in the United States in the early 1970s. But now things are changing, and you see these fetal heartbeat bills as intentional efforts to confront Roe in its very logic. But the interesting thing we need to note today is that the passage of these bills has also provoked a public conversation. And today, that's what we need to look at, the public conversation.

For example, on Monday night on Chris Cuomo's CNN program, Cuomo was talking to Christine Quinn. She had run for mayor of New York. She had also served as speaker of the New York City council until 2013. In response to the news about Governor Kemp in Georgia signing the law, Christine Quinn responded to Chris Cuomo, "When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her." Let's look a bit closer at those words and recognize that as unscripted as they were, they are incredibly revealing of the worldview that is really at the heart of the pro-abortion or sometimes called pro-choice movement. Again, she said, "When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her." That statement just points to exactly what's his stake. If it is not a human being, then what is it?

Well, the defenders of so-called abortion rights argue that whatever the inhabitant of the womb is, it's not a human being. It's not a human person because then they would have to recognize the personhood, and they would have to recognize the rights. But what we really need to notice is that the pro-abortion movement doesn't want to recognize the baby at all. Not only do they not want to recognize it as a baby, they don't want to recognize it as being even meaningful. Again, the words: “When a woman is pregnant, that's not a human being inside of her.” Again, let's throw the question, then what is that inside of her? And here's something else we need to remind ourselves of: every single human being other than Adam and Eve spent some time in a mother's womb. Every single human being who has ever existed other than that first pair of parents, they were unborn babies at some point. And then we need to point to the quandary, the irony, the absolute horrific inconsistency in the pro-abortion position, and that is this.

Even as they deny that the inhabitant of the womb, that being inside the womb, is a human being, they want to say that they recognize that it is a human being the instant it emerges from the mother's womb. But here is where we see their own logic beginning to break down because if it isn't a human being just before it's born then it is questionably not yet a human being after it's born. This is the argument actually made by bioethicist Peter Singer at Princeton University. He argues that the very fact that a baby is born is not enough to grant it recognition as a member of the human species, as a human being. It is not yet a person deserving of rights. Singer goes so far as to say that infanticide, the killing of a baby outside the womb may well be morally warranted if that baby does not have self-consciousness and awareness of the future and also an ability to communicate.

Notice those three criteria. Without that, he says, this is not yet a human being deserving of the recognition of human rights. The logic simply begins to break down. If you can justify killing a baby inside the womb, then it's going to be very difficult for you to resist the logic that you can also kill a baby outside the womb. If it's legitimate inside the womb, then why is it automatically illegitimate outside the womb? And then you begin to talk about what criteria must be set whereby a human being or we could just say at this point, a biological being that might become human. At what point according to the accumulation of what criteria would that individual be recognized as being human? And this is where you also understand that when you begin to break down the sanctity of human life at the beginning of the lifespan, you find it very difficult to resist the logic to redefine human dignity and to undermine the sanctity of human life at the other end of the human lifespan.

Just keep in mind this logic, if an individual has to achieve certain criteria, let's go back to Peter Singer's the ability to communicate, to have a sense of self consciousness, and an awareness of the future, then many of the people who are now inhabiting nursing homes or other forms of medical care or for that matter are just nearing end of life or for that matter have just lost the ability to maintain that kind of consciousness, well, that very same logic means that they are now expendable because they are no longer to be recognized as human beings.

Let's go back to that statement made by Christine Quinn on Chris Cuomo's CNN program, Monday Night: "When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her." Here's what we should see so clearly, Christine Quinn is in this case just articulating the logic that other people have not been either so brave or for that matter, so candid and honest to say in a forum such as CNN.

Here's something else of interest. When Christine Quinn left her job as speaker of the New York City council in 2013, she took another position as was reported by New York Magazine. Her new position was joining the board of NARAL Pro-Choice New York “where she will provide political advice and help." She said, "What I'm going to be doing is doing everything I can to make sure that Albany," in this case, that means the capital of New York state, "is soup to nuts pro-choice. "Well, you might have wondered back in 2013 what exactly that would mean, soup to nuts pro-choice? Well, now we know that it means soup to nuts, pro-abortion. It means a comprehensive denial of human dignity. And thus if you go back to 2013 and 2014, it wouldn't perhaps be all that surprising except for its candor. When you look at the statement that she made on Monday night: “When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her.”

By the way, it is one of the most important responsibilities of Christians in this generation to be able to confront that kind of argument first for what it is and second for how it must be answered because we are looking at the undeniable fact that the sanctity of human life and human dignity are now very much hanging in the balance. I want to also point to the fact that just after the Georgia governor signed the bill, USA Today ran an article by Nicholas Wu. The article began, "Progressives heavily criticized the signing of a Georgia bill that would make it illegal to receive an abortion after a heartbeat was detected in the womb about six weeks into a pregnancy."

Notice before we move on too quickly, the reporters use of the word progressive in this case. This is an undeniable assessment that those who hold to a pro-abortion position are the progressives. It is progress culturally to hold to that position. But nevertheless, he cites two progressive politicians as they are identified in the article as opposing the bill. One was representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, kind of the poster congressperson right now for the Democratic Left. But the article also cited Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee who said that, "Six week abortion bans are effectively total bans on abortion as many women don't know they are pregnant at six weeks." What's so important to recognize there? The absolute refusal to acknowledge the unborn child at all. The only significant moral agent when it comes to those who are representing this pro-choice pro-abortion position. The only important moral agent is the mother, the woman. The babies simply doesn't exist except when that maybe does as in when Christine Quinn says, whatever it is, it's not a human being.

Part

Rival views of human nature: Should prisoners be allowed to vote? The morality of human nature and the consequences of evil.

Next, we'll turn to another issue that has really interesting worldview dimensions to it. Dimensions that show up in the news coverage, although not many people appear to be talking about this particular news headline. One example comes from the Washington Post, the headline, "Sanders," meaning Bernie Sanders, "faces heat for saying people should be able to vote from prison." The reporter in this case has Cleve R. Wootson Jr.. He writes, "As the words left his mouth, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, could see the shape of the attack ads that could be used against him. A questioner at CNN town hall Monday night," this would be last week, "asked the presidential candidate whether he believes that incarcerated felons, the Boston Marathon bomber for instance or sex offenders, should be allowed to vote while they are serving their sentences." Sander's answer? An unapologetic yes.

The senator who still refuses to be called a Democrat though he's running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he said, "I think the right to vote is inherent in our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people because once you start chipping away, you're running down a slippery slope. I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy." It was a very interesting pattern of response that followed coming especially from those who are his competitors for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. For example, several of those candidates were asked about the question before they knew how Bernie Sanders had responded. Most of them responded as if the Vermont senator were speaking nonsense. But there were also some who very quickly understood that given all the concerns in American culture about mass incarceration and especially on the Democratic Left, all the accusations that prisons are being filled with all kinds of people who are there unjustly and especially as convicted felons in some states then have their voting privileges permanently revoked, there was also a reticence to say that they absolutely disagreed with Senator Sanders.

But then you need to step back for a moment and ask what exactly is at stake here? We're talking about the right to vote. Now, when you're talking about the right to vote, what kind of right is that? We should note for example that it's not a universal fundamental right. I don't have the right to vote in Germany. German citizens don't have the right to vote in the United States. It's a conditional right and is also considered a part of citizenship. And again, citizenship is legally defined. It's historically defined. A part of what it means to be a citizen in a constitutional republic is to be recognized as having the franchise as it has been legitimately called, the franchise to vote. You are authorized to vote. One citizen, one vote. But the problem is when you are talking about certain people who are still recognized as citizens, you have had societies, the overwhelming majority of American states and the states determine the actual policies related to voting within the states.

You have states that have said at some point, persons who still remain citizens have forfeited some of their rights and privileges as citizens by committing an act and being convicted of a crime that is a felony. Now, let's just take the obvious. One of the privileges they have given up is the privilege not to be in prison. If you are in prison, you have already lost the privilege of moving freely throughout society. But most of the states have also gone further to say that those who commit felonies and are convicted of felonies lose the right to vote. That's a very important right, a very important part of citizenship in the United States. That's a very significant action. But Senator Sanders says it is an illegitimate action, but you'll notice he's taking the argument further than most of his Democratic colleagues. They had been arguing that persons who have served their time, even for felonies, should have their voting rights restored. Senator Sanders took it further arguing that even while they are in prison, they should have their voting rights intact.

And just in case you might wonder if Senator Sanders wasn't asked a specific question, embedded in the question was the example of the Boston Marathon bomber. And Senator Sanders went on to say yes, even someone who was convicted of that kind of crime, even sex offenders, should continue to have the right to vote. Interestingly, this is prompted also some public conversation far outside the Democratic presidential race.

Aubrey Menarndt, writing an article for the New York Times entitled “Let Prisoners Vote” goes on basically to affirm the argument made by Senator Sanders. But in worldview analysis, what's most important is how her article ends. She writes, "This disagreement over felon voting rights gets to the heart of what we believe to be the purpose of prison. Do we, like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana who is running for president, believe that prison is simply meant to be a punishment that includes the restriction of rights or do we want our prisons to be places for rehabilitation where those who have violated our laws can learn to be good citizens once more?"

Menarndt goes on to make her claim. She says, "Prison should be rehabilitating, re-educating and providing prisoners with the skills they need to reintegrate into society upon their release. Engaging in civic duties such as voting should be modeled behavior we teach in prisons and encourage in our citizens." Yes, those are actually her words. But remember the fact that embedded in the question asked of Senator Sanders was even what you might consider to be an extreme example, someone like the Boston Marathon bomber. Here we are looking at a massive worldview divide over human responsibility over questions of good and evil, over the question of human nature. And thus on the other side of criminality, what we should do as a society in response, how as a society we should view someone who has committed horrifying acts.

And here's where you have to understand that going back to the Enlightenment, there was an intentional effort to try to replace the Christian understanding based in depravity and understanding of original sin with an Enlightenment understanding that became the foundation of modern humanism. It comes down to the question, is human nature basically morally innocent or is it morally neutral or is it already even at the point of birth, even as the Psalmist said, at the moment of conception already marked by sin. The reality is that Western civilization so shaped by explicit Christian teaching, it began with the presumption that law and government, police and even military would be necessary because human beings are sinful. That doesn't mean that we always sin, it doesn't mean that we always do what is wrong and never do what is right. It is to say that those who operate out of a Christian understanding are never really shocked when human beings do what is wrong.

We understand that the source of that problem is the human heart and that the human heart is never morally innocent. But if you're operating from a more humanistic understanding, then you suggest human beings are either basically morally neutral or even morally good. If they are morally neutral or even basically morally good—and just think of how many politicians say, “I believe in the basic goodness of humanity”—if they are morally neutral or morally good, then when human beings do something wrong, that appears as an aberration. And thus if the right technique can simply be found, if the right lessons can simply be learned, if society can just create the right context, then that aberration will disappear and the person who is basically morally neutral or morally good can be morally good again or at least neutral. This is the very idea behind “rehabilitation,” a word that is so often used.

It even became a part of our vocabulary when what had been referred to as prisons, they were often re-labeled as penitentiaries. Now, what does that mean? Well, it means places where those who are incarcerated are encouraged to become penitent. That's the root of the word. So on the one hand you can say that all of a sudden this has become one of the most unexpected, one of the oddest recent controversies in American politics. But as we have seen, it points to something that is a fundamental importance, and it is also an issue that divides Americans and American politicians whether or not they ever get to the fundamental issue.

Many of the arguments about law, many of the arguments about crime, many of the arguments about human behavior are actually deeply theological arguments about what it means to be human, what is the nature of the human being. And here's where we need to recognize that to the consternation of many who want to escape all the so-called shackles of that Christian inheritance, they still do believe in human responsibility and they still recognize that the American people believe that people who do wrong should be held accountable for that wrong.

But there's something even beyond that. There's a basic moral instinct still among the American people that there are some people who can commit such evil acts, acts of such evil intent and effect that they remove themselves from human community and society. They forfeit the rights that are understood to be the privileges of every other citizen. There's something morally right about that intuition, and there's something deeply dangerous, morally and mortally dangerous about a society that would lose that instinct.

Part

Avatar baptisms? Why there can be no such thing as a virtual reality church

But finally, we need to turn to a story that tells us just how bizarre American religion is becoming. Headline front page article at USA Today's money edition, "Keeping the faith from comfort of home." The report is by Dalvin Brown. He begins, "Instead of ceremoniously sitting in a sanctuary on Easter Sunday like millions of Americans, dozens of experience-driven parishioners from all around the world took a walk into Jesus's tomb, peering at the massive stone that once marked the entrance before taking a tour of the cross where their Savior was crucified. No plane tickets to Jerusalem are required, all they needed was an internet connection and a VR,” that is virtual reality, “headset.”

“This, he said, “is a radical change from how many experienced church as a kid." Brown goes on to report, "As churches across the nation install giant screens in the sanctuary and professional grade cameras to live stream services, others are embracing technology on a whole new level. Some perform digital baptisms where avatars are immersed in pools of water-colored pixels. More exist entirely online with no geographical footprint while others recruit coders to develop apps to enhance Sunday service."

Now, when you see a story like this, you need to recognize that USA Today understands that this is something outside the mainstream. They're looking for interest in the story. But even as it is unquestionably outside the mainstream, they also want to say this is a big enough movement, this is an important enough development, that it deserves this kind of real estate in the print edition of USA Today. Not to mention all of the click-worthy attention that it will receive on the internet. The USA Today article then cites D. J. Soto, identified as pastor of VR Church, which we are told, he says is “one of the first fully computer generated religious institutions. One week church going avatars attended service on top of skyscraper that's hovering in the clouds. By the next week,” we're told, “they could be teleported into a grassy field with a Dubai-like skyline in the background. Roughly 150 people,” we are told, “attend each week.”

Well, let's just also note that the word “attend” here has to be used with a certain amount of irony. Soto told USA Today, "Our sermons are less stage delivered, they're more engaging. We want people to really experience the Scripture, so I'll have everyone follow me as we go through the story."

USA Today continues, "To attend the church, congregants with virtual reality headsets use AltspaceVR, a social media platform that provides digital meeting spaces for avatars.” On AltspaceVR, there's a calendar that lists events you can attend such as computer generated comedy nights and cyber open mic nights. The events list is home to Soto's VR church. Soto, we are told, set out to create a radically inclusive worshiping experience after he quit his job at a Pennsylvania mega church. Just months later, we are told he started this virtual reality congregation, as USA Today identifies it. Soto said, "There are certain conversations that are tough to have in physical churches. And some people who don't identify with any specific religion may have a hard time finding where they fit in."

The article later sites Lauren Hunter who's identified as the founder of Church Tech Today, an online technology resource for pastors. She said, "Nowadays, you can really build out your own faith without going to church." Later in the article Brown states, "One of the most common criticisms of digital churches is that it contributes to a growing isolation epidemic which is recognized by the medical community as having physical, mental and emotional consequences."

I just want to state very clearly that as much as loneliness may be a part of the effect of these so-called digital churches, the biggest problem is let's just be clear, biblically defined, they are not churches. Having a bunch of avatars show up in pixels in a VR technology is not going to church. It's not to say that there can't be a religious conversation, it's not to say there can't even be a Christian conversation. But let's be clear, it is not church. This isn't going to church, it's actually not going anywhere. Furthermore, the most common use of ecclesia, the word that is translated “church” in the New Testament, is of a gathered community that is meeting together.

The biblical understanding of ecclesiology, the New Testament understanding of the church is that it is a visible gathered community of persons who have come to know and have confessed together that Jesus Christ is Lord and they are marked by a common obedience to Christ in baptism and they share together in the life of a congregation, a congregation that is not only a gathered community but is actually also a membership. It is actually also a people.

But in conclusion when you look at this kind of article, it's a form of techno-celebration. It's a form of the techno-optimism that so infects our society. If it's possible to do something online, then we should do it. And online is more convenient, and online can be radically inclusive. By the way, one of the things we need to know is the theological inclusiveness of what is now claimed as this virtual reality church, I'll just use the word they use, “church.” You'll recall that the one identified as pastor said, "And some people who don't identify with any specific religion may have a hard time finding where they fit in." And whereas we want non-Christians to come to church, the church itself is made up only of professing and confessing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I'm glad that those who are physically or otherwise unable to attend the church service can have access to that service at least to the teaching and the preaching by means of technology, streaming worship services and all the rest. I'm glad that Christians today can listen to and sometimes even watch faithful preachers now long dead or at least very far away. That's good. Although discernment, theological discernment, is no less necessary online than on the ground.

Years ago I made an argument that many people didn't like when I said that the internet is a lousy place to go to church. But now driven by theology, I have to take that argument one step further. Whatever VR is, there isn't any such thing as a virtual reality church. It may be a virtual reality something, but whatever that something is, it isn't the church. It is the responsibility of any Christian who can, to be part of a faithful, gospel, biblical congregation. That's the New Testament vision, and that's not changing in the internet age.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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