28 June 2002

Today begins Philadelphia's ten-day long "Welcome America!" celebration in honor of the nation's up-coming birthday.

It is a panoply of free events, to name a few:
  • neighborhood jazz concerts

  • a fitness festival

  • an ice cream festival

  • a celebration of America's religious diversity and freedom

  • a celebration of the spoken word

  • a town crier competition

  • outdoor films

  • a summer mummers' parade

  • a fashion show

  • orchestra concerts

  • opera exhibitions

  • a display of a copy of the Magna Carta from 1297

  • the bestowal of the Philly Liberty Medal to Colin Powell

  • a July 4th parade

  • several massive fireworks displays

  • Revolutionary War re-enactments at Fort Mifflin

  • a 1902 July 4th party

  • several large pop concerts

  • an arts festival

  • a Gospel music extravaganza

So, if you plan on being in the Philly area anytime between today and July 7th, don't miss out. If you're from out of town, let me know you're coming since I always love to show off my fair city to visitors.

27 June 2002

The Courts have been busy lately.

As many of you probably know by now, the 9th Circuit Court ruled yesterday in the case of Newdow v. US Congress that the Pledge of Allegiance as currently written, including the phrase "under God", is an unconsitutional violation of the Establishment Clause. Most legal experts seem confident that the decision will be overturned on appeal, either before the full 9th Circuit Court or in the Supreme Court.

I really have little vested interest in the case one way or another, but it was an interesting ruling. Part of the question facing the courts is the meaning of and relationship between the US Constitution's two clauses that deal with matters of religion: first, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" and, second, that it will do nothing "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (First Admendment). These two clauses can be construed in a variety of ways, legally speaking, and even can be seen as involving a fundamental tension.

For instance, some scholars (e.g., Jane Rutherford, Mary Becker) read the clauses as requiring a strict "wall of separation" between religion and the civil government, commiting government to a secular neutrality towards religion, neither prohibiting its free exercise nor in any way doing anything to promote it. Thus religious citizens are encouraged to embrace their varying versions of Moses Mendelsson's outlook, "Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home." This appears to have been the reasoning of the 9th Circuit Court in the present case in which Judge Goodwin reasoned that no public profession that includes any reference to God could be "neutral with respect to religion" which, apparently, he believes the Establishment Clause to require.

This approach, in itself, however, does not resolve a variety of issues. For example, how should government treat private, self-originating religious expressions within the public square? In the case of Goldman v. Weinberger the courts ruled that it was permissible to forbid a Jewish officer in the US military from wearing a religious headcovering. Was this a limit on free exercise or an attempt to avoid establishment?

To my mind, the "secular neutral" approach tends to pit the two clauses against one another and read the Establishment Clause too strongly. There is the additional difficulty that the supposed "neutrality" this approach takes towards religion is no neutrality at all, but a decided bias against religion, relegating it to the sphere of private religiosity and communicating that God and faith are irrelevant and unwelcome in the public arena.

Other scholars (e.g., Michael McConnell) don't read the Establishment Clause in quite so strong a way, instead seeing it as supporting and undergirding the Free Exercise Clause. Thus the point of the clause is not to prohibit any and all government support for religion, but to prevent government from giving preferential treatment to one religion over another. This more "pluralist" approach allows for government support of religion and general public expressions of religiosity, so long as a variety of religions as well as irreligion are all equally tolerated and welcomed.

Such an approach would be more favorable towards the kind of decision that was made by the Supreme Court today in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which ruled that school voucher programs--even ones giving public funds to religious schools--are constitutional and do not violate the Establishment Clause. The reasoning was, in part, that both secular and various religious institutions deserve equal treatment under law and in the public sphere.

The high court, however, has not always been consistent in its rulings and a variety of legal difficulties remain. For instance, can the government can limit or burden the practice of religion with laws that are of general applicability even if that limitation does not constitute a compelling interest on the part of government? Or should the government accomodate religion to some reasonable degree when it violates the laws or those laws impose a burden upon its free exercise?

In Employment Division of the Oregon Deptment of Human Resources v. Smith the court decided that it was permissible to fire Native American government employees who occasionally used peyote sacramentally in worship since peyote use is a violation of law. On the other hand, thousands of churches across the nation freely promote underage consumption of alcohol every Sunday in the celebration of the eucharist. Was free exercise violated in Smith?

And, even more schizophrenically, the court ruled in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder that Amish school children were to be released from the final two years of compulsory education requirements (7th and 8th grades) since the additional two years would be an undue burden upon the Amish way of life and thus undermine free exercise.

The philosophical issue that interests me is that, in whatever way limits on free exercise are constructed, these limits will have to have some basis in a value-laden outlook on what constitutes "compelling interest" on the part of government and the like. For instance, Jehovah's Witnesses are opposed to blood transfusions as a violation of the biblical prohibition upon consuming blood. Yet, when the child of a Witness is in medical need of such a transfusion the US courts don't hestitate to order that the procedure be carried out, even against the parents' wishes and religious convictions. The compelling interest that the government has in protecting the lives of its citizens is seen as outweighing any claim to free exercise on the part of the parents.

But on what ethical basis is this "compelling interest" established and isn't the government imposing its interests upon unwilling citizens some form of "establishment," at least philosophically and ethically, even if not, strictly speaking, religiously? I certainly can concur with the courts as a Christian since I find the biblical application to blood transfusions unconvincing and believe that life in the image of God is to be valued and preserved. But those are my religious values and, from the perspective of the courts, they have no business undergirding court orders.

In any case, there is a complex of issues involved that goes beyond mere Constitutional interpretation.

On the personal information post below, I changed my personality profile. Laurel (my wife, who has her own blog) pointed out that I had misremembered my Myers-Brigg results. I double-checked by taking an on-line test and she (of course) is right. I'm a ENTJ.

26 June 2002

Since his name has come up several times recently, those of you who read Andrew Sullivan with any regularity might want to take his reader survey, if you haven't already. He's attempting to compile some statistical sample of the kind of readership his blog attracts.

25 June 2002

Craig's "Leaderboard" has been updated, drawing upon Martin Roth's newly revised list of Christian bloggers and having been slightly re-programmed in its ability to recognize links. As a result, Presbytermark has moved up considerably in the number of links (with 26), putting him in the top ten, which makes a whole lot more sense, it seems to me.

24 June 2002

Today I started teaching a summer class at La Salle University. There were eleven students signed up at one point, but the official roster now only lists nine and a mere six showed up today. Still, that's enough to run the class according to the official rules. The class is called "Philosophical Approaches to God."

Of the six students who showed up, four are Catholic, one is Presbyterian, and one is Episcopalian, though not all of them are active and practicing. This diversity will be helpful and interesting, however, since we both share a common core of beliefs while having experienced God and religion in a variety of contexts. What's more, the class is ethnically diverse since the two Protestants are African-American and three out of the four Catholics are Latina. Thus the cultural expressions of faith we each bring to the class will also represent varying traditions. I'm looking forward to seeing how our class interaction develops.

The book we are using is edited by Brian Davies and is entitled Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology (Oxford 2000). It includes readings both classic (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas), modern (Clifford, Hume), and contemporary (Alston, Plantinga). The topics covered are likewise wide-ranging: faith and reason, "God-talk", arguments for the existence of God, religious experience, the problem of evil, the attributes of God, morality and religion, and life after death. I plan on covering all of these in the six week alotted to us.

It would be difficult for the students to have to read all the articles included in the volume, so I will be selecting among them, dividing the readings between ones I expect everyone to read and ones which will be summarized by means of in-class presentations. Each student will have to give several presentations and I hope to assign the articles in juxtaposition in such a way as to provoke discussion. If all goes well, I pray that the class will be a impetus for each student to come to a deeper understanding and commitment to the Faith in which they are all baptized.

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled theological discussion for a moment of personal revelation.

(I stole the following from Rick and Jon W. and thought it might be vaguely interesting for those of you who enjoy the more "personal" kind of blog.)

Birthplace: Abington, PA (a Philly suburb; we moved into the city shortly thereafter).

Age: 32 (almost 33).

Birthday: Early September (since my paranoid friends tell me we're not supposed to reveal our birthdates on-line).

Hair Color: Brown, with reddish highlights.

How long/thick is your hair: Short, thinning a wee bit in back.

Eye Color: Blue.

Height: 5'10".

Weight: 140 lbs or thereabouts.

Personality: On the Myers-Brigg I'm an ENTJ (I know that's a weird combination, the NT combination in particular). I'm E, but borderline I. It depends on whether I'm in the classroom (where I'm very E) or the rest of life (where I'm much more I).

Do you drink? Of course. Without liquid you die.

Have you had your appendix or tonsils out? Neither.

Have you ever gone skinny dipping? Nope. I'm way too self-conscious.

Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Speeding and reckless driving.

'Dream' dream car: Cooper Mini.

Favorite place to visit: Used bookstores around the world.

Favorite soft drink: I don't drink soda, but when I do I prefer Birch Beer.

Adidas, Nike, or Reebok: Actually Airwalks, Vans, or Skechers.

Favorite Blog: Presbytermark and JH3K.

Favorite subject in school: English literature in high school; philosophy in college.

Least favorite subject in school: Math.

Favorite movie: Comedy: Much Ado About Nothing. Drama: Billy Elliott Sci-fi: Bladerunner. Kids: Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space. Musical: Moulin Rogue. See, I have no taste in film. And if you asked me again tomorrow, I'd give you a complete different list.

Favorite book: Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest.

Favorite alcohol: Beer: Dundee's Honey Brown Lager. Wine: Thomas Fogarty Gewürtztraminer. Liquor: Bombay Sapphire Gin. Hard cider: Woodchuck Dark and Dry.

Favorite sport to watch: Probably soccer among normal competitive teams sports. Otherwise, gymnastics and various extreme sports (especially moto x and snowboard half-pipe).

Favorite sport to play: Soccer.

Anything different about you: You have to ask?

Tattoos/Piercings: Nope, though I've considered getting an ear or eyebrow done seriously on several occasions. It's not going to happen.

Quotes: "In every act of thought and will, God is also thought and willed implicitly." -- St. Thomas Aquinas

Favorite ice cream: I don't really care for ice cream that much. I had a ginger sorbet at a Thai restaurant once that was really good.

Favorite color: Green, particularly sage or olive.

What's your bedtime: Usually around 11pm or otherwise I turn into a pumpkin.

Favorite TV Show: I don't watch much TV and nothing regularly. I've enjoyed what I've seen of Scrubs.

Words or phrases that you overuse: "Definitely." "Cool."

Something that can be improved upon: What can't be? I guess I've have to say my use of time.

What you want to be: Resurrected unto life.

The one place you would like to see: Italy.

Famous person you have met: Chaim Potok, Ed Rendell, Frank Rizzo, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Oliver North, Bill Cosby, Madeline L'Engle, C. Everett Koop, J.I. Packer, Martin McGuinness (a Sinn Féin leader), Jacques Derrida.

Favorite animal: My dog Nicky (short for "Dominicanus") with Keats our cat in a close second.

Are you too shy to ask someone out: I would never have asked my wife out if my mother hadn't said, "Say, that Laurel Webster is a nice girl. Why don't you ask her?" I was trying to figure out who might want to go see a gymnastics exhibition.

Have you ever thought you were going to die: All the time.

Do you believe you have a soul mate: Oh, please. Wake up and live in the real world.

Have you ever felt you were in love: Yes.

Do you pray: Yes, but not as much as I should.

Do you attend church: Yes.

Single or attached: Married, so fairly permanently attached.

1. What are the first things that you do in the morning to start your day? Get up. Pee. Let the dog go to the backyard so he can pee too. Get the coffee going. Pack Laurel's lunch (usually a sandwich, fresh fruit, a veggie, some crackers or pretzels, and a sweet). Set out the breakfast dishes and pour some juice. Eat breakfast with Laurel. See her off to work. Shower.

2. What are the last things that you do at night before going to bed? It depends. Usually I let the dog go out for a final pee. Get ready for bed. Water-pic teeth. Often I read aloud to Laurel while she cross-stitches in bed--mostly a novel for an upcoming bookclub meeting. Sometimes I check e-mail or do some last minute prep for the next morning's class.

3. What daily routine have you recently added to your day? I've been biking the days I don't jog.

4. What routine do you wish you could get rid of? Actually, I'm fairly content with my routine.

5. What's the one thing that makes you feel like something is missing if you don't do it some point within your day? Sadly, checking my e-mail.

21 June 2002

Craig over at the blog Chairon ("Thinking Out Loud") has written a program that searches all the Christian blogs on Martin Roth's list of Christian bloggers and determines the popularity of various blogs by how many links there are to that blog from other blogs on the list. Craig is calling the page of results "The Leaderboard".

The really amazing thing is that the blog you are currently reading is ranked #2 (with 31 links), which is right after Martin Roth himself (with 32 links) and just ahead of Andrew Sullivan (with 28 links). Wow!

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is underway in Birmingham, Alabama this week. And the news from it so far seems good, at least to my ears.

The Assembly decided to add "and unity" to the ordination vows for ministers who swear to maintain the "purity and peace and unity" of the Church. This brings the vows for ministers in line with those for ruling elders. It also commits ministers to ecumenism, which is close to my heart.

The Assembly has also clarified the meaning of "Confessional Subscription" by officers within the denomination, re-affirming the traditional Presbyterian position of "good faith" subscription that steers a path between "strict" subscription on one hand (which allows for no exceptions) and "loose" or "broad" subscription on the other hand (which allows for any and all personal differences with the confessional standards so long as one can, in good conscience, affirm them loosely). The Assembly has put it in the hands of each Presbytery to allow for candidates for office to take exception to a particular statement of our Confessional Standards so long as that "declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion."

The PCA is a denomination that takes Scripture as it's ultimate authority with our Standards subordinate to Scripture and with the admission that all human Confessions can and often do err (or are otherwise inadequate) in their interpretation of Scripture, thus making exceptions to the Standards a necessity. Moreover, we are denomination in which decisions are made by persons deciding together in counsel, under the authority of Scripture and with the guidance of our Standards--not simply by the strict application of those Standards in every detail. I am happy with the Assembly's decision here.

The Assembly also approved and adopted a declaration confessing the racism and racial sins of our forebears and our continued struggles with those sins. The declaration also asked for forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters and commits the denomination to actively pursuing racial reconciliation. This declaration is particularly important, I think, since a significant portion of the denomination finds its roots in a Southern Presbyterianism that looks back to figures such as J.H. Thornwell and R.L. Dabney who both defended the American institution of slavery on biblical grounds. Whatever merit their other theological writings may have, the denomination needed to distance itself from aspects of its past. As a member of the PCA who has his roots in the norther Reformed Presbyterian Church (a portion of which joined the PCA in 1981), this was a particularly important matter to me since the Reformed Presbyterians were among the first denominations to make slave-owning an excommunicable offence and to embrace the cause of emancipation.

More details and further news can be found at PCA news.

14 June 2002

Laurel and I went to the Free Library last night to hear Oscar Hijuelos do a reading from his new novel, A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good (HarperCollins, 2002). He answered audience questions afterwards. Both the reading and hearing his answers were quite enjoyable.

If you are unfamiliar with him, Hijuelos is the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love as well as several other novels, among which I've only read Mr. Ives' Christmas. His novels often seem to have significant musical themes and he notes that he often thinks of their of composition in lyrical or symphonic terms.

He also often writes about faith (or lack thereof), though he is himself somewhat adrift of his Catholic upbringing. Still, there was a fascinating interview with him in Image journal a couple of years ago (a prominent arts and religion journal). In that interview at one point he comments:The individual I'm most fascinated by is the figure of Christ, and I'm always trying to figure out why on earth this particular story of this man revealed through history managed to survive, how this imagery managed to survive in a world in which there were indeed a lot of mystics, a lot of magical people. What's going on?...I think Ives [of Mr. Ives' Christmas] is a better person than I am, but he also has some of my wariness about breaking down an area of life that I think requires a tremendous amount of talent, a certain kind of gift, a certain kind of humility, not so much before the Church, but before the very fact of life. You need to be humble to believe in God, and humility is out of fashion. And yet, you have to ask yourself, with all the horrible tragedy in the world, how can you justify or explain or even think in terms of any kind of God that cares? For me, that goes back to the image of Christ, which is an image of compassion, ultimate compassion, the story of man--the baby in the cradle, the man on the cross, and the resurrection--which is the whole.In any case, Hijuelos' own personal desire for faith, his Catholic upbringing, his intellectual and emotion struggles, and his obviously deep affection for Christianity emerge in various ways in the characters he portrays, reflecting in many ways the difficulties we all face as people of faith.

Is it just me, or is the latest Weezer album just not quite of the same quality as their previous stuff? And what happened to those guys? They used to be fairly average looking folks, but judging from the spread in the latest Spin they've taken a decided turn toward the unattractive end of the spectrum. Not that I care particularly...

12 June 2002

I'll add this. I read Bruce Marshall's book Trinity and Truth (which I blogged about below) and thought it was quite good, even if I had the occasion quibble. My one misgiving is that he didn't interact more with Continental philosophy, particularly some of the post-modern and phenomenological thinkers who have, I think, a number of affinities with what Marshall argued.

Still the obsessive bibliophile, I've also purchased/received several books I'm hoping to work my way through this summer.
  • The Religious, edited by John Caputo in the series Blackwell Readings in Continental Philosophy (Blackwell, 2002).

  • Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology, edited by Philip Blond (Routledge, 1998).

  • On Christian Theology by Rowan Williams in the series Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Blackwell, 2000).

  • Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England by the Church of England (Church House, 2000).

  • New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope by N.T. Wright (Grove Books, 1999).

  • Matthew for Everyone and Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2002).

I've already read the short book on eschatology by Wright (only 24 pages) and thought it was a wonderful little summary of biblical teaching on Christian hope--the kind of thing you could easily hand to someone who asks, "So, what do you Christians believe about life after death and so on?"

The Religious is divided into two sections, one section collecting together classical texts in continental philosophy regarding religion (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Irigaray) and the other section providing a series of contemporary essays on religious themes from a continental perspective (Marion, Kearney, Westphal, Milbank, and others). I've not started to read it yet.

Post-secular Philosophy is premised on the disintegration of "the modern" in philosophy and with it, the isolation and construction of the secular, thereby opening philosophy to a critique from the standpoint of theology, laying bare the unfounded atheistic assumption of modern thought. The book is a series of critical essays on various modern thinkers: Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Wittgenstein, among others.

In addition to a wonderful introductory essay by Philip Blond, the volume includes contributions from Jean-Luc Marion, Rowan Williams, John Milbank, John Peacocke, Graham Ward, Fergus Kerr, Regina Schwartz, and seven others. I've read through Milbank on Kierkegaard, Kerr on Wittgenstein, and Ward on Marion (though I may need to re-read them to grasp all they have to say) and found them very helpful.

As for the other books, Rowan Williams' volume is a collection of previously published essays on topics of theology, God, language, sacraments, incarnation, and resurrection. The Wright books "for everyone" are a continuation of his series of popular-level expositions of all the books of the New Testament. Common Worship is the new set of authorized liturgical texts for the Church of England comprised of texts from the Book of Common Prayer, various alternative services, and other materials.

"O Garver, Where Art Thou?" asked Josh.

Well, I'm right here. But I've been busy. And I was away for a long weekend in Virginia Beach this past weekend, attending a family reunion of sorts with my wife's family.

Besides, it's late spring and very hot and my brain isn't coming up with anything interesting to say.

03 June 2002

A few words about Star Wars and Spider-man. Since every other blogger seems to weighed in on these already, I don't have a lot to add.

I liked both movies.

With regard to Star Wars, Episode II was better than the first one. Less Jar-Jar. More Jedi. Less cutsie-ness. More conflict and intrigue. Yoda kicks butt. Padme Amidala shows where Leia got her tough streak. The love story was excruciatingly sappy and Hayden Christiansen (Anakin) ought to have be spanked more regularly as a child. But I'm most interested in how the overall shape of the plot is developing and I'm looking forward to getting all the missing pieces in Episode III.

I have no objective opinion on Spider-man.

I've always loved the comic books and cartoon series. I guess I'm a complete sucker for a story about a nerdy, smart guy who has super-powers on the side. If I'd been more of a science guy and less in the humanities, I probably would have wanted to be Peter Parker as a kid. I also like Tobey Maguire a lot since he seems fairly ordinary and normal as folks go. So, the movie would have had to have flubbed it up big-time for me not to like it. But it didn't. It's really quite a good film, strong plot, decent characterizations, and certainly better dialogue than Star Wars (especially the love story). Personally, I liked the special effects that some people have complained about--I thought they really caught the cartoon quality of it all.

Someone mentioned O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Great film. Own it. Have watched it numerous times. Buy the soundtrack.

01 June 2002

It's taken me a while to report back, I suppose. The week, however, has been rather busy.

I'll start with the movie Ultiamte X. For those who don't know, Ultimate X is an IMAX format film that features highlights from the 2001 X-Games, which were held here in Philadelphia (as they will be again this year--woo hoo!). The movie, which was being shown at the Franklin Institute science museum, focused on moto x, BMX, street luge, and, of course, skateboarding. It was a montage of interviews with various athletes (Tony Hawk, Kerry Getz, etc.) interspersed with incredible footage of the competition itself, all on a 5-story high IMAX screen.

I took my 12 year old nephew Zach to the movie with me since he's a great kid, lives nearby, and is really into skateboarding, BMX, snowboarding, etc. Afterwards we swung by LOVE park to view the atrocity that the city has foolishly perpetrated.

Then Zach and I trekked to South Philly to visit the skate area in FDR park which always is busy on the weekend full of folks from age 8 into their early 30s, several of whom are usually impressively skilled. It's a great little park, open to the public, with two half pipes and a large concrete skateboarding area that includes a couple of bowls and a wall with an overhang, among other terrain. I think the urban setting intimidated Zach a bit, but I suspect he'll be asking to come back, skateboard in hand.