Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mere Anglicanism Conference: a Report

The Mere Anglicanism Conference for 2014 in Charleston, South Carolina, has just concluded, and what a Conference it was! This was a double first for your Curmudgeon: the first time attending Mere Anglicanism, and the first time in the delightfully hospitable environs of Charleston.

The Conference reached “sold out” capacity weeks before it began — even though it had moved to a larger venue this year in order to accommodate a crowd of up to 650 in the two-story high Charleston Music Hall. The organizers attribute the dramatic increase to the timeliness and topicality of this year’s theme: “Science, Faith and Apologetics: an Answer for the Hope That Is Within Us.” In my humble opinion, however, the draw of the event was equally due to the stellar lineup of speakers.

Oxford University Professor of Mathematics John Lennox both led off and summed up the Conference. He began Thursday evening’s session with a bravura survey of all that is faulty with the arguments and logic of the so-called “New Atheists”, that is to say, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris and the like. Essentially they want to exclude religion from the public and academic sphere, and replace it with methodological naturalism — which they call “science”, but which as they spell it out is really just a religion in its own right: it excludes all discussion or concepts of the supernatural on grounds which are just as dogmatic and doctrinal as is their straw-man chimera of religion based on faith. Quoting passages from his recent book, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target, Dr. Lennox had the audience laughing over the self-induced isolationism of the intellectual atheists.

Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Alvin C. Plantinga led off Friday morning’s session with a compact analysis of “Where the Conflict Really Lies” between science and religion. (That is also the title of his most recent book.) As he explained it, the conflict is not between science and religion, but between (methodological) naturalism and evolution. Those who follow Darwin assert that evolution is unguided, that is, that the mutations on which evolution depends are wholly random, and have no correlation to an organism’s adaptability to its environment. “Survival of the fittest” is just the luck of the draw. However, the randomness of mutation is not necessary for the theory of evolution to explain the development of species — it is, as Prof. Plantinga characterized it, a “metaphysical add-on”. God can just as easily be directing the changes which occur, and intervening from time to time to multiply phyla and possibilities.

Indeed, random evolution utterly undermines methodological naturalism. The reason is that random mutations lead, more than 99% of the time, to deleterious effects on the organism. This means that the reliability of our (evolved) cognitive abilities, if they mutate and evolve randomly, would be extremely low. They might have evolved luckily thus far, but at any given moment, the odds are no better than 50-50 (and very likely much less) that their next conclusion would also be true, and thus useful for further adaptation. And even if the next conclusion is false, it still would result in adaptive behavior so long as man relies on his cognitive abilities. Thus in the final analysis, man has no way of knowing whether his behavior is based on true or false perceptions of reality, because evolution aims for environmental success, and not truth.

Naturalism, however, depends on the complete reliability of man’s cognitive faculties as they purport to have (randomly) evolved over time, and indeed asserts that there is no other trustworthy means of discovering scientific truth. Thus random evolution — as opposed to God-guided evolution — leaves man without any strong leg to stand on. If evolution is taken as unguided, then belief in the soundness of the methods and conclusions of naturalism solely by use of our unguided faculties is irrational. (And yet the atheists claim it is "irrational" for Christians to believe that God gave us our faculty of reason, created and designed in His image, to enable us to understand and believe the truth!)

The next speaker was Stephen Meyer, of Seattle’s Discovery Institute. He presented a lecture based on his latest book, Darwin’s Doubt. Examining the evidence for the breadth and depth of the so-called “Cambrian Explosion”, he showed how the great number of new phyla introduced on earth in such a brief time period (speaking from an evolutionary standpoint) could not have occurred solely through random processes of evolution (and in that sense, his lecture was the perfect sequel to Prof. Plantinga’s). The inability of traditional Darwinism to explain the sheer proliferation of phenotypes during the early Cambrian period was known to, and acknowledged by, Darwin himself (hence, “Darwin’s doubt”). Not only must one explain where all the new phyla came from, given the lack of fossil evidence for any forebears in the previous ages, but given the requirements of DNA, one must account also for the vast increase in coded information which underlies their DNA. “Information” is not material, and so cannot evolve physically or randomly (think of monkeys at typewriters trying to crank out Hamlet). Information is always, in mankind’s experience, the hallmark of an intelligent mind. Dr. Meyer did not go so far as to point it out, because his brand of Intelligent Design makes no claim to prove the existence of God as such, but the only intelligent mind around at the time of the Cambrian period was God.

Then Dr. Denis Alexander, a Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, gave a lecture on “Human Evolution and Adam and Eve”. He surveyed the genetic evidence that supports man’s evolution from earlier ancestors, and pointed out that human DNA contains pseudogenes (genes that were functional in our forebears, but which have no function in humans) that, in present-day chickens (for instance), enable them to lay eggs with hard shells. In all, he said, the human genome contains over 11,000 such pseudogenes — showing its broad connections with all the DNA that preceded it.

With this genetic background, Dr. Alexander explained that by computer analysis of the human genome, it is possible to derive a mathematical demonstration that all current humans on earth are descended from a group of hominids that at one point in time was as small as 10,000 individuals — a “genetic bottleneck”. While some claim that the evidence shows an even smaller bottleneck (of around 3,000 or so), there is no genetic proof that all of current mankind is descended from a single man-woman couple. Thus Dr. Alexander posed the question: is the Biblical story of Adam and Eve incompatible with evolution as we understand it?

He turned to four hypothetical models that have developed to reconcile the apparent discrepancy, and commented on the strengths and weaknesses of each insofar as they account for “the Fall” of man through Adam’s original sin. The first model makes no pretense that Adam and Eve were historical, and treats the Genesis narrative as wholly theological, i.e., it is the story of “everyman”. This model fails to explain just how or when apes became men accountable to their creator God (or, as I have put it elsewhere, “when did the lights come on?”).

The second and third models both try to fit Adam and Eve into evolutionary history — the second, by treating them as symbolic of mankind’s evolutionary progress to the point where a spiritual nature, or awareness of God, evolved among an African tribe of early humans, and the third, by positing Adam and Eve as a pair of neolithic African farmers, chosen and singled out by God, who then led their fellow tribe members to consciousness and enlightenment. The second model suffers from the same weakness as the first, and while the third preserves the historicity of Adam and Eve, it robs the story of all its MiddleEastern context and removes it to the African savannah.

The fourth model was the one preferred by Dr. Alexander (among the current ones on offer — he expressed the hope that still other, closer models could be formulated). This model, advanced by the Rev. John Stott, retains the main features of the third model, but assumes that the two neolithic farmers chosen out by God lived in the Middle East, and that their tribe became the progenitors of Israel. Original sin, and man’s corruption, is then explained by seeing Adam as the “federal head” of mankind. Just as the poor decision of a country’s leader could bring his whole country into a state of being at war, so Adam’s mistake landed all of humanity into a fallen state, because he as “God’s first human” was the standard-bearer for all of us, and failed.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that the topic of the historicity of Adam and Eve is a favorite of mine. For an in-depth treatment of the problems and critique of the previously suggested solutions, along with my own humble suggestion to explain original sin naturally, please start with this post, and follow the subsequent ones in the series as they are linked.)

Prof. of Biochemistry Michael Behe, of Lehigh University, closed Friday’s lectures with a talk based on the evidence reviewed and discussed in his new book, The Edge of Evolution. By looking at the extensive medical and genetic evidence assembled over the years concerning those who evolved sickle-shaped hemoglobin as a preventative against malaria, and also looking at the adaptations made by the malaria virus against drugs used to kill it, Dr. Behe was able to show that the evolutionary processes involved could not be seen as “random” — again, because of the relatively short time frame in which they took place. Like his earlier focus on what he calls the “irreducible complexity” of certain organs (e.g., the bacterial flagellum, which is a microscopic outboard motor), this conclusion undermines the asserted role of random mutation in Darwinian evolution.

Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College and The King’s College (New York), one of my favorite philosophers, and the author of a prodigious number of wonderful books, led off Saturday’s session with a talk on his favorite author, C.S. Lewis, and Lewis’ refutation of scientism. (The term is a synonym for methodological naturalism as discussed by Prof. Plantinga; it is the view that all truths about the physical world can be derived only by the methods of science — and that anything which science cannot measure or detect, such as God, therefore does not exist.) Quoting from a variety of Lewis’ works, Prof. Kreeft underscored that C.S. Lewis had arrived at many of the same conclusions about scientism as demonstrated by Prof. Plantinga the previous day, and foreshadowed the recent book by Thomas Nagel (an atheist) who questions the reliability of Darwinian evolution as a model that fits the evidence that has accumulated. As is the case in many areas, C. S. Lewis pointed the way.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali then gave (without notes or lectern) a wide-ranging commentary on the themes of the Conference, in which he managed to touch upon Darwin’s personal Christian faith, which was sorely tested by the deaths of three of his daughters, and upon the current culture’s indifference to the lives of the unborn. Scientism can offer no principled basis for morality, and our culture reflects that fact. The challenge for the Christian is to maintain God-based morality in the face of attacks by atheistic scientism. (The entire Conference was a wonderful source of material with which to accomplish just that goal.)

Professor Lennox then gave the concluding talk, in which he regaled the audience with accounts of his numerous debates with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and their illogical attempts to dismiss his claims for Christianity and a universe which is the product of the ultimate Intelligent Designer. Again and again, scientists are discovering the ordered designs in nature — including the incredible degree to which the universe is “fine-tuned” so as to enable and support life here on earth — but are blinding themselves to the proofs which those designs give of the universe’s creator. The phenomenon would appear to be a psychological one. Quoting the German psychiatrist Manfred Lütz, Dr. Lennox pointed out that the atheists’ view of God and religion as an escape from the harshness of nature’s realities is true only if God does not in fact exist. But if God does exist, then it is atheism which constitutes an effort to avoid having to face Him. And in this regard, the Christian takes note of the opening sentences of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were created by him, and without him was not one thing created that was created.

The final event of the Conference was an hour-long panel discussion by all seven speakers, moderated by Dr. Kenneth Boa, the head of Reflections Ministries, and an accomplished theologian and philosopher in his own right. The topics for the panel were derived from questions submitted earlier by the audience, which Dr. Boa had synthesized into a short list. Alas, the time proved inadequate to discuss more than the first four, but the range and depth of Christian faith that was on stage provided a powerful witness to ultimate truth and the light it provides to those who follow it. There was a general consensus that Pascal was onto something when he opined that God provides just enough evidence to challenge the skeptics and to comfort the faithful, and that as the world’s skepticism increases, so does the quantity of evidence for God’s existence — as witness the evidence discussed at this Conference.

One cannot fail to mention the accompanying worship services at the Conference, which provided the liturgical means to express the depth of faith engendered by the lectures and discussions. A choral evensong on Thursday, provided by the choir and organist of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, demonstrated how music enhances worship and makes it more meaningful. There followed a spectacular high mass on Friday, with music provided by the choir and organist of St. Helena’a parish, in Beaufort, together with the Charles Towne Brass Quartet plus tympani and bagpipe (!), and celebrated by Bishop Mark Lawrence. The music went on and on until the very rafters (figuratively speaking) were ringing by the final procession, and all went into the night with singing hearts.

Continuity between the two services was provided by the sermons on the readings from Genesis delivered by Prof. C. John Collins, of Covenant Theological Seminary. Not only did Dr. Collins tie the readings into the theme of the Conference, but he brought his expertise on the Hebrew text to bear in his theological insights into and dramatization of the Fall. (Dr. Collins has also published a number of books in this area, including an examination of the same models for Adam and Eve discussed by Dr. Alexander, in Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care.)

In addition, the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding of South Carolina led two sessions of morning prayer, at which he delivered two fine homilies drawn from the readings from Chapter 7 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and tied his thoughts into the themes of the Conference as well. The worship services and the lectures were perfectly in balance: the lectures inspired the worship, and the worship gave concrete meaning to the message of the lectures.

All in all, this was one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences of my life. To be in the midst of such intellects, to be able to interact with them and respond to their insights, all the while enjoying the company of kindred souls and friends whom I had previously known only at a distance, was a great blessing, for which I am deeply grateful to the Conference’s organizers and facilitators. This was not just “Mere” Anglicanism; this was Anglicanism at Its Top-level Best, for the Questioning Faithful. I have to believe that the clergy who attended came away with a multitude of facts and arguments with which to disarm skeptics and to strengthen their own pastoral abilities, while the lay attendees gained no less for their daily forays into the secular world.

Next year’s Conference should be equally sought out and well-attended. As announced by the Rev. Jeffrey Miller of St. Helena’s, the Director of Mere Anglicanism, its tentative theme has to do with the three greatest threats to Christianity today: secularism, multiculturalism, and radical Islam. Mark your calendars for next January 22-24 in Charleston!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

First, Just One Question: What Is Marriage?

The Indiana legislature is currently considering a bill to amend its constitution by redefining marriage to include same-sex unions. On January 13, Ryan T. Anderson (the co-author, with Prof. Robert George and Sherif Girgis, of What Is Marriage?) offered testimony in favor of the current law to the Judiciary Committee of the Indiana House of Representatives. The video (at the link, and below as well) is just eleven minutes long, but his arguments are timeless, and can provide you with a number of excellent and principled reasons for bucking the current trend to redefine marriage.

For that is what all these laws must first do: in order to sanction same-sex unions, the legislatures have to replace the traditional definition of marriage with a new one. Few are the legislators, however, who pause to analyze the pros and cons of such a move -- because the argument in favor of it is all about "rights" and "equality." Here is how Ryan Anderson introduces his response to that argument (from the adapted transcript of his remarks):
... It’s interesting that we’ve had a three-hour conversation about marriage without much by way of answering that question [of "what is marriage"?].

Everyone in this room is in favor of marriage equality. We all want the law to treat all marriages equally. But the only way we can know whether any state law is treating marriages equally is if we know what a marriage is. Every state law will draw lines between what is a marriage and what isn’t a marriage. If those lines are to be drawn on principle, if those lines are to reflect the truth, we have to know what sort of relationship is marital, as contrasted with other forms of consenting adult relationships.

So, in the time I have today, I’ll answer three questions: what is marriage, why does marriage matter for public policy, and what are the consequences of redefining marriage?
Take the time to listen to the video, and also open up another tab and follow along with the transcript, if you like. You'll find it well worth your while (H/T: Stand to Reason blog):

As Anderson explains in this interview, Indiana is one of the few states left that is entertaining legislation on the subject, and he predicts the eventual divide will be 15 or so states that jettison the traditional definition of marriage, and 35 states that retain it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

San Joaquin Trial Concludes; Court Sets Briefing Schedule

The trial in the case of Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin vs. Schofield finished in Fresno Superior Court on Monday, with the videotaped testimony of Bishop John-David Schofield played in a courtroom packed with both his admirers and his opponents. (Bishop Schofield passed away at his home last October, but his testimony had been preserved in 2011 in anticipation of the trial.)

At the conclusion of his testimony, both sides rested -- the plaintiffs declined to put on any rebuttal evidence -- and the court then put questions to counsel in lieu of closing arguments. Judge Donald Black began by asking the plaintiffs point-blank: "Can you show me just where in the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons it says that a member diocese may not amend its constitution so as to remove its accession clause?"

(The former Diocese of San Joaquin, under the leadership of then-Bishop Schofield, had voted on December 8, 2007 to amend its constitution and canons to replace language acceding to ECUSA's constitution with language that affiliated the Diocese with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. Since then, the Diocese has called itself "the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin." However, when the newly formed rump Episcopal diocese brought this lawsuit in April 2008, it did not join the Anglican Diocese as a defendant, but only its bishop and its subsidiary property-holding entities.)

The plaintiffs' counsel, of course, could point to no such language, because it does not exist. And with that one question, Judge Black put his finger on the crux of the case.

The Anglican parties contend that their 2007 amendments to disaffiliate from ECUSA were fully proper and valid under California secular law, as well as not contrary to any language in ECUSA's governing documents.

The ECUSA parties contend that even though there is no concrete language prohibiting such amendments, it is "understood", as a matter of ECUSA's "hierarchical" structure, that once a diocese "accedes" to ECUSA's Constitution, it may never thereafter "de-accede" (i.e., secede). To date, ECUSA has paid its expert witness, Dr. Robert Bruce Mullin of its General Theological Seminary in New York, the princely sum of nearly one million dollars to testify to that effect as a matter of "historical fact," and he so testified in Fresno.

The Episcopal parties have also fastened on certain language in the earlier appellate court decision in this same case, when the Fifth District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed and vacated the trial court's order granting summary judgment to ECUSA on its hierarchical claims as a matter of law. Among other "ecclesiastical facts" which the Court said could not be re-examined in any civil court was "the continuity of the diocese as an entity within the Episcopal Church." Although the Court was responding to a defense argument that the plaintiff diocese had no standing to sue in court because it had never been admitted into union with General Convention, and was thus not a real Episcopal diocese, plaintiffs ever since have trumpeted that language as affirming their position that dioceses cannot leave the Church, as a matter of law.

At the outset of the trial, Judge Black almost agreed with the plaintiffs' version of the Schofield decision, but if he had, there would have been no need for a trial. The basic facts were not in dispute, and if the Fifth District Court had really meant to decide that as a matter of law, dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church, then the actions of the diocesan convention in 2007 were ultra vires and void, and all property stayed with the remnant diocese. Since the appellate court, however, sent the ownership of property issues back to be tried upon "neutral principles of law", defendants argued that it could not at the same time have ruled that the case was, in effect, over. This realization caused Judge Black to let the case proceed to a full trial, but he still wants the parties to address the proper meaning of the Schofield decision in their final briefs.

The parties are to file simultaneous briefs on February 24, and simultaneous reply briefs on March 17. The court will then take the matter under submission and issue its decision within three months thereafter.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Legal News Updates from South Carolina and San Joaquin

On Monday of this week, South Carolina Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein denied the motion by the ECUSA parties to expand their counterclaims against Bishop Mark Lawrence and certain of his clergy -- a motion which I previously predicted would be denied in this earlier post. In ruling from the bench, Judge Goodstein noted that the counterclaimants had failed to show any good reason to single out specific members of the clergy for acting in accordance with the wishes of the Diocese they served -- actions that were ratified and approved by literally thousands of its members.

The Diocese's Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Jim Lewis, responded to the ruling with this statement: "“We are grateful that Judge Goodstein dismissed this most recent effort to harass our people with time-consuming, expensive litigation. Attorneys for both TEC and TECSC have tried to distract attention from the denomination’s efforts to seize our property by suing our clergy and pursuing our lay leadership. The judge’s decision ends the legal fishing expedition and forces all to focus on the only issue that matters: whether our religious freedom is protected.”

 Judge Goodstein also denied TECSC's motion to reconsider her earlier grant of a preliminary injunction (to which TECSC's attorneys originally stipulated), which forbids that group from appropriating the name, trademarks and insignia of Bishop Lawrence's Diocese. As a result, the injunction will remain in force until the conclusion of the trial of the case, now scheduled for July.

Meanwhile, ECUSA's lawsuit against (now-deceased) Bishop Schofield of San Joaquin, and the corporate entities holding title to that Diocese's real property and bank accounts, goes to trial in Fresno starting next Monday, January 6.

After the Diocese of San Joaquin voted in December 2007 to amend its governing documents to take it out of ECUSA, Bishop Schofield also amended the articles of his religious corporation sole, which up to that time had held the title to all diocesan real property and bank accounts. But in April 2008, the newly elected Provisional Bishop for the seven remnant parishes, the Rt. Rev. Jerry Lamb, filed papers with the California Secretary of State which purported to designate him as the new incumbent of Bishop Schofield's corporation sole.

This clouded the title to the properties and the accounts (held with Merrill Lynch), so Bishop Schofield eventually signed deeds and other papers transferring the properties and accounts to a new corporate entity called "the Anglican Diocese Holding Corporation." Alas, shortly after those transfers ECUSA persuaded Merrill Lynch to freeze all the accounts, so that none of the Diocese's funds has been available now for over five years to assist it in defending the lawsuit brought by Bishop Lamb and his remnant group.

Now this dispute over ownership to property goes to the Superior Court of Fresno County next Monday at 9:00 a.m., the Hon. Donald S. Black presiding. Essentially, the ECUSA parties maintain that because "ECUSA is hierarchical", no diocese may withdraw from it unilaterally, and must keep all of its property in trust for ECUSA. (Note that this is a general claim of an implied trust that took effect when the Diocese first joined ECUSA. The so-called "Dennis Canon" has no application to the property of dioceses, but only to the property of parishes.) Accordingly, they seek orders transferring title to all of the real and personal property to the control of the remnant group. For a more detailed explanation of their position, you may read their trial brief here.

As for the Anglican Diocese, it was never made a party to the lawsuit (since ECUSA does not recognize that it ever left). Nor has its current Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Eric Menees, been named as a party, on the theory (I presume, but do not know for certain) that it was Bishop Schofield who made all of the transfers that the plaintiffs challenge. Consequently, the parties before the court will be the personal representative of Bishop Schofield's estate, and the corporate entities of the Anglican Diocese.

For them, their case is simple: the Anglican Diocese, as an unincorporated religious association under California law, had the statutory right to amend its governing documents at any time and in any manner, provided only that it follow the procedures for amendment specified in those governing documents. ECUSA exercised no power of review or control over the Diocese's ability under California law to amend its Constitution and Canons, and the Diocese had regularly done so at annual conventions ever since its admission into ECUSA as a diocese in 1962. Nor is there any provision in ECUSA's Constitution and Canons which forbids dioceses from withdrawing, or requires them to submit constitutional amendments to General Convention for its approval.

Thus the Anglican defendants argue that under the "neutral principles of law" which the California Supreme Court requires be applied to church property disputes, their amendments should be given the legal effect they had under secular law: that of removing them from any further affiliation or connection with ECUSA.

They also argue that under the "freedom of association" guaranteed to all persons (including corporations and unincorporated associations) by the First Amendment, the Anglican Diocese had the unqualified right to withdraw from its association with ECUSA. For a more detailed statement of their position, you may read their trial brief here.

Your Curmudgeon will be at the defendants' table as co-counsel assisting the very capable Chancellor of the Diocese, Russell G. vanRozeboom, Esq. Consequently, blogging will take a back seat for the next few weeks, but if I can manage an update or two, I will post them here.