Saturday, January 29, 2011

On Mathematics as a Language of Faith

You may recall a few months ago when I commented on the language of the New Atheists, and how very like the language of theology it is, both in form and function - how much it is in fact a "language of faith."

Well, I was fascinated by Brian Greene's appearance this past week on "The Colbert Report."  Watch, and see just how much spirit (if not Spirit) there is in Greene's understanding of mathematics (a tone that is not lost on Colbert):

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Greene
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Now, I'm not suggesting that Greene is one of the "New Atheists."  I haven't heard him on that topic.  Moreover, I'm not rejecting what he's saying.  I think that he's doing his best to describe what he's discerning, and I think he's quite possibly accurate.

However, like many I think he overstates what mathematics is.  It is in fact a language, one that is pretty good at describing concisely some known phenomena, and at speculating about implications of those phenomena.  Theological language does the same thing.  We watch how light changes from a star far away, and infer from those changes that a planet orbits that star.  The math suggests that's how a planet would affect the light of a star.  The thing is, unless and until we can actually send someone to confirm it (something I sincerely believe we will one day accomplish), it remains a faith statement.

I look at how the world operates, in all its consistency, and at how love seems to shape experience.  I see in that evidence of God.  I know it's a faith statement, but it's also based on observations, and the language of theology suggests that's how God will be perceived.

So, let's appreciate all that we can observe and learn that is best described in the language of mathematics.  Let's also recognize that, like any other language, it has its limits; and that, for all our conviction, mathematical consistency is no more "proof" than theological consistency.  Until we can experience things directly, both are essentially faith statements.

Friday, January 28, 2011

News of Note: We're In the Loop

If you haven’t seen it, let me draw your attention to this report from the Episcopal News Service. It refers to a telephone conference call with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on implementing the Affordable Care Act. She included in the conference call a number of religious leaders, including the Rt. Rev. Barry Howe, Bishop of West Missouri. Yes, as you read down you’ll see that he is my bishop, and that he because he is Bishop of West Missouri he also serves on the Board of the Saint Luke’s Health System, and is Chair of the Board of our central referral hospital. So, naturally, this would be important to me.

However, I also want to note that it has meaning for Episcopalians beyond West Missouri. Bishop Howe is also a member and past Chair of the Standing Commission on Health of the General Convention. So, in a real sense he was representative of the Episcopal Church, both as a bishop but also as a member of that Commission.

This is not the first time that the Obama team has reached out to the faith communities specifically about health care. During the last presidential campaign I participated in a conference call on the topic coordinated with the Obama campaign staff by PICO National Network (which was also represented on this call). Perhaps there is a sense here that the faith communities can collaborate with government in pursuing social welfare, instead of simply substitutes (and poorly funded substitutes at that!) for government programs.

So, take a look at the news story. The Episcopal Church has long had a commitment to universal access to health care. Now those in government who share that commitment want us informed and involved, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Good Theological Discussion Can Be Had - and Here's One Example.

There are those who suggest that lively theological discussion doesn't happen in the Episcopal Church; or that the conclusions are so determined by current social fashion as to make the discussion short, predictable, and vapid.

With that in mind, I'd like to invite my regular readers to an active online discussion led by one of my colleagues at the Episcopal Cafe.  Derek Olson has written in three parts a discourse on "Communion Without Baptism."  We all know that it happens occasionally, just because few of us want to set "crossing guards" between the front pews and the communion rails.  The question is whether we should make that an acceptable option (as happens in the invitation in a few congregations), or an exception to the norm to be addressed pastorally and individually.

It's a great discussion, and you can get in on it.  Read the first part, the second part, and the third part; and with each part read the comments.  Feel free, too, to add your own comments.  Sure, it will take a while - but, then, good theological reflection in community does take a while.  And this is good theological reflection, and well worth your time.  So, sit down, grab your favorite beverage, and get into it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Spending the Time: Reflections for Epiphany 2, Year A

This sermon, or something like it, preached 1/16/11 at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church, Kansas City.

Those who know anything about me at all know that I love music – in eclectic, almost chaotic variety.  Most also know that I call myself “a noise person.”  I prefer not to work in silence, but to have something in the background.

So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I have music playing in the background while I work.  Usually, it’s from the web site Pandora, where I have several “channels.”  Usually, I’m not paying all that much attention.  But one day, not long ago, I heard this:

In a seedy karaoke bar by the banks of the mighty Bosphorus
There’s a Japanese man in a business suit singing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”


And the muscular cyborg German men dance with sexy French Canadians,
And the overweight Americans wear their patriotic jumpsuits.

Wow!  Now, if you’re at all a fan of the poets Bob Dylan or e. e. cummings, or even Walt Whitman, you have some sense of lyrics that can be put together just because the words feel right.  Still, I was intrigued.  I also realized that what I had heard was the last verse, the end.  I wanted to hear more.  So, I started to listen for the song.

Soon enough it came up again, and I listened with more care.  That’s how I caught the first verse.

In a wooden boat in the shipping lanes with the freighters towering over me,
I can hear the jets flying overhead, leaving trails across the darkening sky.
And as the sun is going down I can take a taxi into town,
And the waiter at the restaurant sets a table just for one.

Cool!  This was just as interesting an image as the last verse.  Of course, there was no obvious connection, except perhaps the reference to the Bosphorus, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world.  But, the song had me, and I wanted to know more.

Fortunately, from Pandora I had the name of the song and the name of the group: “Wheels” by the group Cake.  With that, then, I was able to go to that other online reference for contemporary culture, YouTube.   There I found the middle, the second verse that brought it together.

So I had a plane to take me to a place so far away from you,
Eventually we began to see that we could be completely free.
And I could get away from you, and you could get away from me,
And we could live each separately in our cities in the sun.

Now, with that the song made some sense.  It’s a song about the failure of a relationship, and looking for a “geographical solution:” running away.  Having run away, the first and last verses show us just how far the singer had run, both geographically and emotionally; and just how empty he had found the new life he had run to.

I came to like the song a lot, and to appreciate the poetry of it.  But if I hadn’t gone beyond my initial interest and taken the time to hear it out, I would never have put it all together.

There’s something like this going on in today’s Gospel lesson.  This is a short passage, but it speaks of events over several days.  It begins with John’s proclamation of who Jesus is, and how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that John has been preaching.  “Here is the Lamb of God, here is the Son of God.  Here is one I’ve been talking about!”  And he’s not just saying this once.  The lesson says he said it from one day to the next.

Two of John’s disciples hear it, proclaimed aloud as Jesus passes: “Here is the Lamb of God.”  They take off after Jesus.  Clearly they’re intrigued.  Jesus notices, turns and says, “What are you looking for?”

They don’t really answer.  Perhaps they don’t know how to answer.  So, they say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Jesus does answer, but his answer is not a location but an invitation: “Come and see.”

They are intrigued, and so they follow.  But, more important, they stay.  “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”  That verse has intrigued me, because there are several possibilities of meaning here.  One is that from that point, from that day, they remained followers of Jesus, and never returned to John.  Another is a simple note of time: they stayed all day, or all that was left of it.

I found myself thinking about that reference to time: “It was about 4:00 o’clock;” or, in a more literal translation, “It was about the tenth hour.”  Did they join Jesus late in the day?  Or, did they follow Jesus earlier and stay with him into the late afternoon?  The sentence is really just dropped in there – a time reference with little context – without clear connection to the verse before.

Or, for that matter, to what comes  after.  Here is the next event: “ He [that is, Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).”  First thing after Jesus invited them?  First thing when they decided to stay with Jesus?  First thing the next morning?  It’s not really clear.

What seems interesting to me in this is that time seems to be passing in all of this, however concisely it’s reported.  Andrew and another heard John, and followed Jesus, and then spent some time.  It was sometime late in the day or early the next morning – sometime after they’d first followed Jesus – that Andrew can say to Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”

And perhaps even more time passes.  Those scholars who want to harmonize John’s report with the report in Mark and Matthew suggest that Peter and Andrew, and also James and John, were prepared to leave their boats and follow because they had first met him well before, as reported by John.

What strikes me about all of this is that all our important relationships are like that.  They begin with a sense of excitement and curiosity, but it’s only with time that they become mature, and we discover who the other person is.  It’s certainly true of being in love.  There’s that first flush of infatuation, but it takes time to know and love the person as he or she is.  It’s true for us as parents.  We’re enchanted with that new child, but really loving the child comes as the child grows and changes and becomes a person. 

It’s also true of our relationship with Christ, and with his Body, the Church.  Like the first disciples we find something compelling about Jesus.  We hear for ourselves that invitation, “Come and see.”  And yet it takes time for us to grow in that relationship, to discover for ourselves what it means, and what it means for us, that Jesus is the Messiah.  It takes time for us to discover our various vocations, and to find our place in the Church. 

Perhaps that especially true for us in the Episcopal Church.  After all, when someone asks, “What it the Episcopal Church about,” our answer is, “Come and spend some time.  To see who we are, how we understand the Christian faith, come and worship with us for a while.”  Sure, we do put it into a book – but it’s a book to structure a life of prayer and worship, and not a set of theological propositions.

And if that’s true of our experience of the faith, that it’s not just about coming to Christ but also about growing in Christ, what does it say about how we bring others to Christ?  It is not enough for us to point to Christ, to say, “There is the Messiah.”  We are also called to show them Christ, to help them learn what we have learned, what Andrew learned so that he called Peter.  We need to be ourselves the light to the nations, reflecting God’s light so that those we encounter will not only come and see, but also want to come and stay.  That is about welcome, certainly; but it’s also about a profound hospitality of the kind that held Andrew on that day and in the days that followed, that led Andrew to invite others, beginning with his own brother.

Like Andrew, we find Christ compelling. And like Andrew, we need to spend some time with Christ so that we can learn what it really means to say, “We think we have found the Messiah.”  We are called to invite others, and to provide them the hospitality that encourages them to learn what we mean when we say, “We have found the Messiah.”  It isn’t enough for us to respond with someone says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” or for us to say that to another.  We need to commit ourselves, and to invite others to “Come and see; come and stay; come and grow!”

Thursday, January 06, 2011

I'm Up Again...

at the Episcopal Cafe.  My first piece for the new year went up today.  And don't let the headline frighten you: I haven't lost my Biblical center or my orthodoxy.  I'm really concerned about the limits of the phrase "an organic communion," and the way I think we often conflate that with our image of the Body of Christ.

Well, you may or may not agree.  So, take a look; and feel free to let me know what you think, whether at the Cafe or here.  We can have some good discussions (look at the one about the General Ordination Exams), and we'd be happy to have you come join the fun.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Georgetown Mantra and the Mississippi Sisters

Well, it’s been all over the news: Governor Haley Barbour has examined the cases of Jamie and Gladys Scott, two sisters in the Mississippi Correctional System. They were convicted of participating in a robbery, and each received life sentences. To this point, they have served sixteen years.

Now, these women have been subjects of discussion for some time as possible recipients of clemency. First, the robbery netted $11.00. The young men who were also participants, who actually struck the victims and took their wallets, all received much shorter sentences. In general, a life sentence for participation in the crime in question is quite exceptionally long.

Governor Barbour has decided they can leave prison. Unusually, he has not decided to commute their sentences. Instead, he has decided to suspend their sentences. An important difference between commutting the sentences and suspending the sentences is that once committed, the sentence is ended, while a suspension can be made conditional.

And in this case, there is reportedly a condition, at least for one of the sisters. Jamie is in kidney failure and quite ill. Her care requires dialysis. Her suspension is on compassionate grounds, although the governor was explicit that the cost to the state of Jamie’s dialysis was also an issue. For Gladys, on the other hand, there is a condition for the suspension of her sentence: that she donate a kidney to be transplanted into her sister. Now, this is something that Gladys is willing to do; indeed, it was her idea. However, that raises a question of why it should be made a condition. Fact is, it’s not known whether she’s actually a compatible donor. The sisters share a blood type, and that’s some indication, but it’s not the only measure.

In news reports and in blog comments, it’s been widely noted that this raises all sorts of ethical questions. However, I haven’t yet found an analysis of why. So, I thought I’d consider the question in light of the Georgetown Mantra.

The first category to consider in the Mantra is that of Autonomy. There are a number of questions related to autonomy, and these are initially the thorniest when considering donation. First, there are actually two patients here, Jamie and Gladys. The issues of autonomy for Jamie, at least initially, seem straightforward. Does she wish to receive a transplant? Conceivably, she could prefer to continue dialysis, although that certainly has its own risks for her. However, at this point it appears she is prepared to receive a transplanted kidney from her sister.

That said, I would raise a question of whether she understands the consequences of the transplant. If things go well, she will have a functioning kidney. However, to protect the new kidney from rejection and infection, she will also be committed to a regimen of drugs for the rest of her life. This is the case for all transplant recipients, and they accept it gratefully. However, if Jamie has not thought about this, we can question whether her consent is properly informed.

For Gladys, on the other hand, the issues of autonomy are more complicated. She has expressed her willingness to donate a kidney to her sister. However, in the situation as presented, we have to raise the question of whether this is a free choice. When we think about consent to a procedure, we usually worry about whether the patient’s consent is informed. However, there is also a concern about whether the patient’s consent is free – free from inappropriate inducement or coercion. In research, prisoners are considered a protected class, a group whose consent is questionable because the freedom to consent isn’t necessarily free. In Gladys’ case, the primary question raised has been whether suspension of a life sentence is excessive inducement. More to the point, is rejection of the suspension of her sentence so significant a threat as to be coercive? This would be an important question in any procedure, whether for research or for therapy. However, this is in relation to a transplant procedure, one that, while not requiring that Gladys die, does entail significant risks. First and foremost, it leaves Gladys with one functioning kidney herself. Suppose that now she should develop kidney failure. Her sister did, and it’s conceivable that she might. By and large, a person can function with one kidney, and we are blessed with the redundant system of having two. Thus, if one fails, the other can function; or if both are disabled, between the two they might continue to maintain function equivalent to two. For Jamie, this is not the issue. Her kidneys together do not function well enough to sustain her. With the new kidney she would have one functioning, which is more than she has now. However, for Gladys she is reducing from two to one, with the consequent risks. Those risks are known, calculable, and relatively small. However, the question remains whether making the donation a condition for the suspension of a life sentence in prison is coercive.

The second category to consider for these two sisters is Non-maleficence, summarized in the well-known premise, “First, do no harm.” Once again, for Jamie this seems straightforward. There are risks for her in the procedure, but in general we’re not concerned for her in avoiding harm.

For Gladys, on the other hand, there is potential for harm. She is, after all, taking a significant risk, and increasing her risks for the future. In addition to the risks we’ve already referenced regarding the loss of a kidney, there are also the risks related directly to the surgical procedure. Once again, these are known, calculable, and manageable, but they are significant.

The third category is Beneficence, determination of the patient’s best interest. Again, for Jamie this seems simple. It is not in her best interest for her kidney failure to go untreated; and with the risks and significant limitations related to dialysis, a kidney transplant seems in her interest.

There remains, though, the question of Gladys’ best interest. She is making a sacrifice at measurable physical risk. However, there is also the interest of having her sister survive. While we tend to focus on the physical risks, the emotional benefits of her generosity, and of the continuing relationship with her sister, are interests we need to appreciate.

Finally, there is the question of Justice, which I commonly describe as how these issues affect society. In this instance we have issues of justice in the narrower, legal sense. Both women are prisoners serving life sentences, convicted presumably by juries of their peers. There is arguably some effect to society in suspending these sentences. This is countered to some extent by the argument that a life sentence for the crimes in question was in itself unjust.

The governor also acknowledged the concern about the cost of providing care for Jamie in the correctional system. Dialysis is certainly costly, and is an expense ongoing until Jamie’s death. The medications to maintain a transplanted kidney are also costly; but if the sentence is suspended, presumably the costs won’t be born by the state of Mississippi. That may be temporary as well, in that she may need support from Medicaid; but I can only imagine that this has been calculated as well.

While we resist discussing dollars in health care, they are important. Funds are limited, and so money spent on Jamie is not available for the care of other prisoners, or for other activities of the state. It is a reasonable question as to whether continuing to spend the costs of dialysis serves the interests of the people of Mississippi. In fact it is a reasonable question whether continuing the costs of imprisoning these two elderly women serves the interest of the people of Mississippi.

At the same time, there are also issues of justice that are common in all cases of transplantation. It is well known just how small supply of organs donated is in relation to the possible recipients. A real-life exercise in “lifeboat ethics” is the function of a Transplant Committee is to decide which of a number of eligible patients will receive a donated organ. Family donations are a special case, both because of the greater likelihood that the siblings will be a match, and also because rarely are there any other circumstances in which a donation can be directed. Now, while Gladys might well be altruistic enough to be a registered organ donor for a stranger, we can ask whether she would willing to be a living kidney donor for a stranger, or whether any other donation would wait for her death. This affects the supply of a scarce resource, and so to some extent, however small, all the possibly eligible recipients on the list.

The possibility that the condition of the suspension might be coercive also raises a justice issue. If Gladys can be coerced into donating a kidney (even if she’s actually willing), to what possible ends can other prisoners be coerced, or at least inappropriately persuaded? This is an especially difficult issue in organ donation in light of allegations that in China organs for donation are recovered from executed prisoners, with no consideration of consent; or that in South Asia poor donors are persuaded with large amounts of money to donate kidneys that are then available to foreign recipients based, not solely on good clinical criteria, but also on the ability to pay. While there are limits to a “slippery slope” argument, this is certainly one place we might expect one.

There could be more complete reflection on this case. However, this seems to me an appropriate beginning to consider the case in light of a set of well-known principles in medical ethics. I imagine others will go to greater length, largely in academic publications. I thought it worthwhile to get the conversation started here. So, here are my thoughts. The thoughts of others are welcome.