Thursday, December 14, 2023

It’s Thursday, December 14th, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

‘The World’ Agreed to What? The Real Life Political Parable of COP28

Well, it’s over. And by it, I refer to the conference of the parties, 28, formerly known as COP 28, the climate change meeting that just took place as an international gathering in Dubai. It’s over. It’s over late. That’s usual for these events. But it’s not over very late, and behind that is a story, but there’s an even bigger story just in how the media is trumpeting this. For example, CNN read a headline yesterday. Here’s the headline: “World agrees to climate deal that makes an unprecedented call to move away from fossil fuels, but cavernous loopholes remain.”

Now, just from a worldview perspective, no pun intended, just consider the headline here, “World agrees to Climate Deal.” Now, wait just a minute, tongue in cheek, I have to ask, what in the world does that mean? How does the world agree to anything? Did you agree? I wasn’t called about this. But nonetheless, the headline is that the “world agrees.” Just think of the astounding nature of that headline. The entire world, untold billions of people agreeing on a specific set of climate change proposals and regulations and agreements that it turns out, and here’s the bottom line you probably expected, don’t really bind anyone to anything. But everyone left happy, congratulating themselves that they’d done something big. Not only had they done it, the whole world had done it.

And it’s not just the headline, CNN reported again this way. “The world agreed to a new climate deal in Dubai on Wednesday at the COP 28 summit after two weeks of painstaking talks, making an unprecedented call to transition away from fossil fuels, but using vague language that could allow some countries to take minimal action.”

So in terms of the first paragraph of a news story like that in print and in language or terminology, this is also found in terms of broadcasts, the opening words, the opening paragraph of a news story are referred to as the lede. Interestingly, it is spelled L-E-D-E, but it is the paragraph that begins the article. And if you’re writing an article or you are editing this kind of article, the lede has to be strong and the lede has to be clear. And that takes me back to this particular lede where we are told that the world has agreed to a new climate deal in Dubai. And then we are told that it makes an unprecedented call to transition away from fossil fuels, but then we are told it’s using vague language that could allow some countries to take minimal action.

So the world agreed to something. The first issue is, who in the world is the world? This of course isn’t the world. It’s a bunch of people representing international elites who met in Dubai, and they agreed to something that we are told in one single sentence really represents something breathtaking, and in the next phrase says, well, maybe not so much.

The next paragraph reported by CNN is this: “The gavel went down on the agreement known as the global stock take in the morning after the talks are pushed into overtime by marathon negotiations between countries bitterly divided over the future role for oil, gas and coal.” No surprise there. The president of the assembly, Sultan Al-Jaber called the agreement historic. Of course he’s going to say it’s historic. And as he spoke before the national delegates of the final statement, he said, “We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement, for the first time ever.” He went on to say that the new document known as the global stock take represents “a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”

The most important thing there to recognize is the inclusion of words that take away everything that’s been said before. So we are told that this has accomplished a very great deal, but then the word potential shows up. Maybe it turns out to be a big deal. We’re then told that the speech was historic. But just to state the obvious, it takes a while to find out whether something is historic or not. It’s really something that’s decided by future historians, not by people in the present who say, “You know, right now we’re making history.” Maybe you are, maybe you’re not.

The ironies here abound. And this story really is important because it reveals so many worldview consideration simultaneously. We’ve been looking at the fact that the claim is made, that the world has agreed to something when the world doesn’t frankly come together to agree on anything. And from a Christian perspective, it is downright dangerous for there to be offered or claimed the moral authority that the world has decided something. Just think of the Tower of Babel. The world doesn’t actually get to decide anything.

That doesn’t mean that this is meaningless. What makes this more meaningless is the fact that even as we are told that this was a breakthrough agreement, the first one talking about the kind of language that would transition away from fossil fuels. We’ll just think of the irony, this is being held in Dubai. And the only reason it’s in Dubai is because Dubai is extraordinarily rich. And the only reason it is extraordinarily rich is because it is rich with fossil fuels.

The other ironies on closer examination are just blatant hypocrisies, including the obvious fact that an incredible amount of fossil fuel was used very inefficiently in order to get the thousands of people to Dubai who attended this conference, which finally made some kind of statement about sometime in the future cutting back on fossil fuels, but not before they get home on their private jets.

The language that’s employed in this kind of statement and the process that brings it about, both of these are very interesting, the language that’s missing in this statement is phase out. That’s what many of the climate activists had demanded. They demanded that the nations, and this is the conference of the parties, the parties are to previous agreements so this is basically the biggest international gathering, there’s at least an attempt to bring it about every five years. So this is 2023. The agreement points to 2028, thus it’s COP 28. But the terminology phase out of fossil fuels is not used. And you just need to recognize the reason it’s not used is because phase out is fairly easy to understand. So that language was avoided, which you should easily understand is an effort to make the actual document more difficult to understand.

So the big issue is that the document did include references to fossil fuels, but it avoided any kind of clarity such as phase out. And you just have to consider the fact that the people who got to the conference got there by fossil fuels, and as they were there, they were kept in some kind of comfort by the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were behind virtually all the energy that was needed by the conference and would be needed by all the conferees going home to their countries in order to say that they had just agreed on something historic. But on the other hand, the lack of the phrase phase out also means that there might be conceivably nothing that happens because of this conference.

But that’s not actually what’s likely to happen. Something is going to happen. And that’s because the real importance of these kinds of meetings is that they give impetus towards regulators and administrators and politicians to frame policies at least often with reference to these kinds of agreements or statements as if they are authoritative and have some kind of binding authority like a treaty, which by the way, they do not. Which means that the countries that do not go ahead with this program and do not move to phase out fossil fuels such as China, for example, and many other countries, there are basically no sanctions whatsoever. So in other words, the people who are saying that this doesn’t amount to much, they’re probably more right than those who say that this is an historic statement that will amount to much.

And none of this actually is taking aside on whether or not the document is right or wrong because there is certainly a mixture of things when you look at this document. It is not necessary to deny the reality of climate change or the challenge of climate change to point to the fact that human beings are not going to trade some kind of assurances about mitigating climate change. They’re not going to trade using air conditioning and flying on airplanes and going to hospitals that have power. They’re not going to trade those things for the other. They’re simply not going to give up on what is now necessary, which is energy from fossil fuels. Although I think it’s quite accurate to say that the vast majority of fair-minded people, and that would include Christians who are very concerned about the stewardship of the earth that is given to us by God, the twin commands that we are to exercise dominion. And that dominion also includes the command of stewardship that’s very clear about the old and New Testaments.

I think most Christians would recognize that we would welcome alternative forms of energy that would also ground human health and human economy and the goods that human beings need, and for instance, the power and energy that human societies need. I don’t think there’s any particular attachment to fossil fuels. There is, however, an attachment to reality. And the reality is the headline after headline, even in the last several weeks has made clear that the United States is not going to meet the commitments we’ve already made and other societies are not going to meet the commitments that they’ve already made.

And then you have reality intrude in some rather awkward ways, and we’ve seen that in a couple of ways. For instance, I pointed to the fact that when Hamas attacked is real, everyone talked about men and women understanding the difference. So all the gender ideology stuff was put on pause while we’re talking about this. Again, Christians understand reality will do that to you.

Reality also shows up when you castigate fossil fuels. And again, there’s an argument to be made there. But nonetheless, fossil fuels are what we’ve got basically for a functioning economy. And even the people who went in order to negotiate and claim victory in this agreement, as I said, they went home and they were fueled by fossil fuels. Or if they weren’t, if were in some kind of experimental situation, that’s the exception that proves the rule.

The reality is that when it comes to many of these so-called alternative energy sources, it turns out that it takes an awful lot of traditional energy to create this alternative energy. And so fossil fuels and almost all these things are still very much in the picture somewhere. Or to put it another way, you can create a giant solar energy farm as they are called, but the solar energy panels don’t get there by solar power. They get there the old-fashioned way, fossil fuels. I’m not saying that to celebrate the fact. It’s just a matter of reality. Every once in a while it’s good to make sure we are in touch with reality.

But there’s another aspect of this which is also very, very interesting. There’s a lot of money at stake here, an awful lot of money, and there’s a lot of power at stake here, an awful lot of power. And there is also always a political machination somewhere to be seen, and it was seen big time in the adoption of this statement. Let me just read to you this again, I’m just going to continue using the CNN report. “Several parties expressed disappointment and concerns over how quickly Al Jaber struck the gavel and adopted the draft deal. Typically, countries voice their supporter objections and agreement follows a debate.” So this is just about pitch perfect.

We are told in the opening of the article, we are told in the headline of the article that the world has agreed to something. And it turns out, of course, the world hasn’t agreed to anything. But even the people who were in the room, they agreed to something without many of them recognizing they were agreeing to it because the moderator of the meeting simply struck the gavel and declared that the motion had passed. And it turns out that a lot of people weren’t in the room and there was no debate. It was basically a way of short-circuiting the entire thing so that there could be a quick announcement of victory. So it turns out that not only did the world not adopt this statement, the world didn’t even debate the statement because the gavel came down and the world went home.

One final consideration here, of course we do have the big biblical imperatives of dominion and stewardship that have to be central to Christian considerations of these things. And we understand that when it comes to dominion, and that means deploying human ingenuity and human energy into organizing the creation that God has given us and using it for the ends that lead to human flourishing and human good, it does mean that we, exercising dominion, ought to celebrate the ability to bring, say heat, where otherwise there would be devastating cold and food, where otherwise there would be devastating famine.

We come to understand that the entire business of feeding those who are on the planet and just undertaking everyday life that leads to the things that we would all agree are very important for human flourishing and human health. It turns out that those things have been dependent upon fossil fuels. And you say, “Well, how recently?” Well actually, basically all throughout human history. You would have to add wood and say even a campfire or a cooking fire in the ancient world to the use of that kind of non-renewable energy and one that also releases carbon into the air, into the atmosphere.

Exercising the responsibility of dominion and stewardship at the same time means that we have to make very intelligent questions weighing off different goods and different goals. It also means we need honesty in the entire process. And a part of the frustration with this recent COP 28 deliberation and statement is that there was an almost deliberate evasion of honesty, and that’s because you can’t get the world to agree to anything that comes down to common understanding and honesty. Again, the world wasn’t even there. But those who were there, supposedly representing the world, let me tell you what one of the hot debates came down to. It came down to a distinction between phase out and phase down.

When it comes to fossil fuels, phasing them out means you have to come up with a plan to, well, phase them out. When it comes to phase down, well, after all, who knows exactly how far down phase down commits one to. And so that’s why not as a bug in the system, but as a feature of this system, everyone was able to go home from the COP 28 meeting and declare victory, whatever that means.

Part II

An Overtly Political Act or an Exercise of Legislative Responsibility? The House Approves Impeachment Inquiry of President Joe Biden

But next, coming back to the United States, of course the big political news was the vote in the House of Representatives to begin a formal impeachment probe or inquiry. The vote as is often said, was long party lines. It was 221 for 212 against. Now, anytime you talk about an impeachment probe or you use the word impeachment related to the president of the United States informal action by the House of Representatives, you understand we are talking about something of grave moral and historical importance. The impeachment provision in the Constitution was intended as a safety valve for the American system of constitutional self-government so that if a chief executive, a president, should act in ways that are counter to his constitutional responsibility, he can be removed from office.

It does require two separate actions. First of all, the action of the House of Representatives and bringing a charge of impeachment and then a trial in the United States Senate. So both chambers of the national legislature would have to be involved. But the Senate never even has to become involved unless the House passes or adopts articles of impeachment against a president. We’re a long way from that.

But nonetheless, the action undertaken yesterday made not only headlines, it also made a bit of history, because there never has been a situation in which you have had two successive presidents who have been the subjects of formal inquiries of this sort with impeachment on the horizon. And now we’re talking about it with President Trump and we’re talking about it with President Biden. Now, in the case of President Trump, the inquiries moved all the way under a Democratic majority to actual impeachment. That’s the action by the House, but not removal from office. That’s based upon conviction and what amounts to a trial in the Senate. But as we’re looking at the formal launch of an impeachment inquiry under the leadership of the Republican majority in the House, so are we looking at just an overtly political act or are we looking at an exercise of legislative responsibility?

The fact is there is some mixture of both, and there always is, there always has been, and there always will be because we are talking about politicians here. And so it’s a part of our honesty and looking at this political world and recognizing that politicians, if they’re going to be successful, can never be without concern for the politics of the moment and what their own electoral bases expect. Every single previous impeachment action undertaken within the United States’ Congress has included a political element. That’s just inevitable. But as you’re looking at the situation here, the White House is responding by saying this is merely a stunt. That’s actually in the headline from the official White House response, “Statement from President Joe Biden on baseless House Republican impeachment stunt.”

So the way the president and the White House have responded to the action by the House majority yesterday is to dismiss it as just a political stunt. Now, that raises an interesting question. Will this be a winning political strategy or not? I’ll simply say at this point it is a high stakes political strategy.

The other strategy undertaken by the Democrats and by the White House is to say that there is currently no evidence, no credible evidence linking President Biden to the misdeeds of his son, Hunter Biden. The Republican response to that is, “Well, at this point we have big questions and we have huge suspicions and we have lines of evidence, but we have been unable to proceed along those lines, which is why we are starting a formal impeachment inquiry because the House will then assume the power to subpoena witnesses and with a far greater authority and frankly far easier legal access to answering many of the questions that the House Republican Majority has been asking.”

So here you have a political standoff, and that was also made clear yesterday in the video that came from the Capitol of Hunter Biden, the President’s son, there, and at least in his own words, agreeing to testify so long as it would be in public that is testified before a House committee but not to testify if it is in private.

Now, the showdown is perhaps more dramatic than many people recognize because with the launching of this formal inquiry, the House Republican majority actually picks up an awful lot of procedural power to compel evidence and testimony they might otherwise be unsuccessful in compelling.

Now, we talked about the COP 28, the conference of the party’s 28 agreement, and we noted what was said and what was not said, the difference, for instance, between phase down and phase out. Well, I want you to listen to this particular statement made by Hunter Biden yesterday as he was trying to make the case that his father had nothing to do with his misdeeds. “Let me state as clearly as I can. My father was not financially involved in my business, not as a practicing lawyer, not as a board member of Barisma, not my partnership with a Chinese private businessman, not in my investments at home nor abroad, and certainly not as an artist.”

The big thing to note there is that those particular issues that Hunter Biden raised do not exhaust, by any means, the possibility of his father’s involvement in his business. That’s a rhetorical strategy coming out and saying, “There is nothing here. It’s not A, it’s not B, it’s not C.” Well, the problem is there are far more letters in the alphabet.

Will anything come of this? Will the president be impeached? That’s actually difficult to say. Is it political? Of course it’s political. We’re talking about every single person involved in this being a politician. Is there something real here in terms of potential charges against the President? Well, the House of Representatives has said, “We’re not going to know until we undertake this process.” And so we’ll all have to wait at least a while to find out what comes out of the process.

It would be insane to look forward and think that we are bracing ourselves for a boring period of American politics and American political history. We knew that already, but the action in the house yesterday certainly underlines that fact emphatically.

Part III

From Orthodox to Reform in One Generation: The Death of a Prominent Rabbi Reveals the Theological Landscape of American Judaism

Finally, for today, a very interesting obituary appeared in the New York Times. The obituaries that appear in that paper are particularly interesting, often particularly comprehensive, and the very historical record of the obituaries that have appeared tells us a lot about the American story. In this case, it’s David Ellenson who died at age 76, a very prominent reform Jewish rabbi in the United States. The headline is that he “Guided a Generation of Rabbis.” In this case, you are talking about a very influential rabbi. He taught for years in the system known as the Reform Seminary. It has four campuses, New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. Very closely associated with New York. He also assumed leadership in the reform movement of Judaism. He eventually became the president of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, and he died just a matter of days ago and ranked a major obituary in the New York Times.

Here’s what’s perhaps most interesting theologically, “Though he was raised Orthodox, Rabbi Ellenson remained true to the beliefs and ideals of reformed Judaism. He championed the rights of women and LGBTQ Jews to be ordained, and he promoted the belief that fathers, not just mothers, could pass on Jewish lineage positions that were rejected by the more traditional branch of his youth. He saw the evolution of reformed Judaism in the modern era as very much in line with the broader Jewish tradition, which he said had always been changing.”

Later in the obituary we read, “His family was Orthodox, but he bristled against the religious strictures imposed on him, Rabbi Ellenson said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2004, ‘Particularly difficult,’ he said, ‘was being prohibited from playing basketball on the Sabbath. I didn’t know anything about the reform movement. I simply did not want to observe the commandments’.”

And looking at this, even as we understand it’s an obituary for one of the most important and influential rabbis in the United States, I thought it might be helpful for listeners of The Briefing just to lay out the labels here, not only so that we would understand Judaism, but because there are direct analogies to understanding, say, Protestant Christianity in the United States. There are liberal and there are less liberal representations. There are conservative and there are less conservative representations. When it comes to Judaism, you have three major branches. You have Orthodox Judaism, which claims continuity with the longer Jewish tradition and looks to the scriptures as authoritative. As a matter of fact, basic to the worldview of Orthodox Judaism is the continued authority of both the written and the oral commandments. At least some among the Orthodox are members of Hasidic groups. They’re sometimes set off in particular by their dress. So if you see someone dressed in that way, you can be virtually assured of the fact that they belong to some branch of Orthodox Judaism. And as Christians, we understand the word Orthodox, which means right beliefs or right teaching.

At the other extreme, you have reformed Judaism. And so in this one man’s life, he was raised in an Orthodox family, but he didn’t like the strictures, so he moved to reformed Judaism. Reformed Judaism is the most liberal of the main branches. And reformed Judaism claims continuity, but not with authority looking to either the written or the oral tradition. It understands Judaism as a movement that is informed by tradition, but the tradition is not authoritative. And so under reformed Judaism, you can have people who actually don’t even hold to any form of traditional theism or belief in God, but they do believe in Judaism in some sense. So this is the most liberal of the representations of Judaism in institutional form in the United States, very pro LGBTQ and longer than is true for some of the other groups very pro, for example, women rabbis. And sometimes you can combine women LGBTQ identities in the intersectionality of modern liberal Protestantism. You can find the same in reform. And by the way, it’s not reformed, it’s simply Reform Judaism.

Now, somewhere in the middle, you have what is known as Conservative Judaism, and that goes back particularly to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an intentional effort to create a position between the Orthodox and Reform Judaism in order to create kind of a middle ground. And in terms of Conservative Judaism, you have a much greater attachment to an affection for the commandments and for the tradition, but Conservative Judaism is not orthodox. It does not look to either the written or the oral tradition and the commandments as being absolutely binding.

Like Reform Judaism, it sees Judaism as an evolving system of tradition and beliefs. But Conservative Judaism, and that’s what the capital C is, a formal name of this movement, has wanted to be less progressive, less cutting edge on the left than Reform Judaism. So Conservative Judaism has held to something of a middle position. But when it comes to issues like LGBTQ issues and women rabbis, well, Conservative Judaism has been moving more in alignment with Reform Judaism quite predictably by the way. If you’re in middle position, as the left moves left, you get pulled with it because the middle gets renegotiated.

There is another movement in Judaism known as Reconstructionism. It was established largely by a very prominent rabbi by the name of Mordecai Kaplan. Now, the thing about Reconstructionism is that it’s basically antis supernaturalist, which is to say at least a lot of people in Reconstructionism actually don’t believe in the supernatural, but they do believe very much in Judaism.

But going back to the obituary, here you have a very prominent rabbi. Now, the late Rabbi Ellenson, who had been raised in an Orthodox home, but became reform. And I just pointed to the theological spectrum that is apparent in American Judaism. In the four major movements on the far left, reform. On the far right, orthodox. In the middle, conservative. The Reconstructionism’s a more modern movement, but pretty much allied with Reform Judaism in terms of its social positions.

But I just wanted to remind you that as you look at the spectrum of Protestant denominations in the United States, you see virtually the same groupings. You see those on the far left. Perhaps most graphic illustration would be what’s known as the UCC, the United Church of Christ. But you could also add, these days, the Episcopal Church in the United States and many others, where quite frankly, if their denominational positions are not uniformly far to the left, including even the potential of antitheism or the antis-supernatural worldview, those denominations are way off on the left. And even if they don’t require leftist beliefs, they openly allow them, and eventually the leadership very much represents them. Now, from a conservative Protestant perspective, that’s an abandonment not only of the Protestant model, that’s an abandonment of biblical Orthodox Christianity. I believe that’s exactly what it is.

So when you look at the liberal branches of Protestantism or of Judaism, when it comes to LGBTQ issues, sexuality issues, gender issues, you see pretty much the same thing. They’re reading off the same score. When it comes to the more conservative branches, and that certainly means conservative, evangelical, confessional Protestantism in the United States, and when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, well, here’s something else, you’re far more likely to find not only conservative theology, but conservative moral judgments as well. By the way, this is true of evangelicals, and it’s true of evangelical couples and evangelical families. It is profoundly true and well-documented that when it comes to Orthodox Judaism as compared to reformed Judaism, guess which one has far more babies? The more theologically conservative you are, the more orthodox the movement to which you belong, the more likely it is that you are to have babies and then to have more babies. That’s another test that is also deeply biblical.

And when it comes to those who claim to be in the middle, just as in Judaism with the movement known as Conservative Judaism pulled continually to the left because the left keeps moving left, the same thing is true in what is claimed to be the Protestant middle. Its middle keeps moving. And guess what? It keeps moving left.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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