Vices vs. Virtues

“Let us rather avoid greed, through which injustice thrives and justice is banished, brotherly love is spat on and hatred of mankind is embraced. Let us avoid drunkenness and gluttony, which are the parents of fornication and wantonness; for excess of every kind is the cause of insolence, and outflow is the begotten child of plentitude, from which fornication and wantonness are hatched. Let us avoid strife, division, seditions, whereof plots are born and murders begotten; for evil crops grow from evil seed. Let us avoid foul speech, whereby those who are accustomed to it slip easily into the pit of evil deeds; for what one is not ashamed to say, one will not be ashamed to do either, and what one enjoys hearing one will be drawn into committing. Let us abominate these things and spit upon them, but let us love the Lord’s commandments and adorn ourselves with them.

Let us honor virginity, let us attain gentleness, let us preserve brotherly love, let us give lodging to hospitality, let us cling to fortitude, let us cleanse ourselves with prayers and repentance, let us welcome humbleness that we may draw near to Christ; for the Lord is near to those who are of a contrite heart, and He will save the lowly in spirit. Let us embrace moderation; let us practice the judgment and distinction of the good from the bad. Let the soul be undaunted by the evils of life, especially if they are inflicted on us on account of Christ and His commandments, for we know that justice will follow, and it is thanks to them that we are easily carried up to heaven.”

(St Photius, The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 71-72)

Caring for the Sinner


by Robert Morris (1989)

“When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.”  (Blaise Pascal, in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 39)

Robert Morris’s painting, Private Silence/ Public Violence, which I saw some years ago at  the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is certainly timely.  The many recent reports of sexual misconduct by famous people shows how people keeping silence enables public violations/ violence to take place.  The #Me Too Moment has blossomed, rightfully disgracing some while empowering others.  Pascal writing in the 17th Century points how change can take place – by showing people from what point of view their behavior is wrong.

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

Show Mercy to the Unfortunate

Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1)

St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin.  Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them.  Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with.  For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them.  If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them.  Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin.  St. Basil writes:

“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.”   (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)

A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control:  poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control).    Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.

For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control.  Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth.  In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy.  His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy.  He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way.  Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy.   Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones.  My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy.  We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us.  We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us.  Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day.  In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires.  In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us.  Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science.  In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another.    The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.


The Virtue of Sexual Purity

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 that foods are relatively unimportant.  We are permitted to eat most anything, but we shouldn’t be enslaved to anything.  But more important than food is sexual purity because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – your body will be raised by Christ at the resurrection.  Therefore you need now to keep your body pure so that it can be raised from the dead – can be united with the Holy Spirit and with Christ.  But if you practice sexual immorality – something you do with your body – you make your body unfit for the resurrection from the dead.  You have killed your body through sin.  We aren’t trying to escape the body because it is unimportant, rather we are trying to make it holy through a Christian way of life.

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them.

Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Biblical Scholar Michael Gorman comments:

“The first topic of the countercultural life addressed by Paul is sexuality, specifically abstention from any kind of “sexual immorality” (NIV; NAB, “immoraility”; Gk. pornea, which includes but is broader than NRSV’s “fornication”). Paul’s basic point is that the call of God is to be different from the Gentiles “who do not know god” (4:5) by being pure rather than lustful (4:5, 7). Here Paul continues the general biblical and Jewish tradition of criticizing pagan sexual immorality and stressing that one of the primary distinctives of those in covenant relationship with God is sexual holiness (see Lev. 18:1-3, 24-30). Jews claimed to be, and were known as, those who did not engage in such pagan practices as sex outside marriage, homosexual relations, abortion, infanticide, and the exposure of unwanted newborns. The earliest believers in Jesus followed suit, and Paul follows the Levitical example in treating this matter with the utmost gravity (4:6, 8). (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p 158)

Genetics: Ethics and Editing

DISCOVER MAGAZINE’s January 2016 issue is devoted to the top science news stories of the year 2015.  I’m not a scientist but am fascinated with what science is doing, especially on the cutting edge.


Number 10 on the list of stories is “The Ethics of Editing Human Embryos.”  Science is never simply about data and proving or disproving theories.  All activities in science and technology involve decisions that can affect human life and therefore have an ethical dimension.  There are two very different questions when it comes to any specific scientific experiment:  Can it be done?  AND  Should it be done?

So the magazine reports researchers are applying those to questions to human genetic engineering.  The potential for good is very alluring.

doublehelix“Imagine if genetic diseases could be removed from the very biological code of our species — a future in which the likes of hemophilia, cystic fibrosis or dozens of other afflictions are simply edited out of human embryos.”

If doctors could simply remove the code for certain diseases from the human genome, there would be great rejoicing in the medical world and in the population as a whole.  The trouble comes with the word “simply” for indeed a tool has emerged in biology which makes changing the DNA of embryos fairly easy:  the gene-editing system known as CRISPR/ Cas9.   However, the success of the technology on human embryos has had not positive results.  Chinese scientists tested the technology on 86 human embryos, “But the editing worked for only four of the embryos and created numerous unintentional mutations.”  It is these unintentional mutations that have alarmed some scientists.

“Those accidental mutations illustrate the concerns some scientists have about using the tool in humans. Earlier in the year, when the Chinese team’s experiment was still a rumor, 18 researchers co-authored a letter in Science that called for the community to address the ethical questions and potential hazards of using CRISPR in humans. Until we can wield CRISPR more precisely and understand the implications of its use more fully, said the scientists, it should not be used on humans.”

Introducing “unintended” consequences into the human gene pool should alarm all scientists.  This is science fiction horror come to real life.   Once such mutations were introduced into the gene pool, the entire future population of humans could be at risk.  So a battle against certain diseases might be won, but a war on being human would be lost.

In the same issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE, story #66, “One Little Gene Could Explain Our Big Brains”, we read about what a difference one gene can make.  Neurobiologists discovered a “DNA snippet” that is present in humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, but not in chimpanzees.  These scientists are becoming more convinced that this one gene might in fact explain the difference between human and chimp brain size and development.

The introduction or removal of one little gene in the human genome can have massive effects on the species – as big as the difference between chimps and humans who otherwise share 99% of the genome. So those researchers and scientists who are alarmed about using the new technology to tamper with the makeup of human embryos have much to be concerned about – as do we all.  DISCOVER MAGAZINE notes:

“Despite the concerns, in September researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London applied to the United Kingdom’s governing authority on fertility research for permission to use CRISPR on human embryos. The need for clear guidelines has spurred the organization of an international summit on human gene editing. As of this writing, it was scheduled for early December in Washington, D.C.”

It is not only scientists who have a stake in this.  This is of concern to all humans.  And while some will label those concerned about where science might go with this technology as being reactionary or alarmist, all humans should be concerned about the ethical issues of this science.  And it should be noted that even if scientists propose “clear guidelines” on the use of this technology on embryos, guidelines won’t stop researchers who want to push the limits of science or ethics, not to mention the very big concern these days over terrorist and rogue governments.   As is reported in the magazine articles, even with some scientists issuing alarms about what is happening in genetic editing, there are already scientists applying for permission to go ahead with the research.  What ethics guides them?

This is why Christians need to be following what is trending in science.  Humans, though created in the image of God, can have that image altered genetically.  And God only knows what that will introduce into the human race.

Great Lent: Returning to Christian Morality

“It’s rare to hear a rip-roaring Sunday sermon about the temptations of the five-course meal and the all-you-can-eat buffet, or to hear a high profile pastor who addresses the sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:

The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you can help.

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seem terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high-finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda. But a Christianity that cannot use the language of Basil – and of Jesus – to attack the cult of Mammon will inevitably be less persuasive when the time comes to attack the cult of Dionysus. In much the same way, the Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists. The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pp 289-290)

Alcohol’s Blessing and Curse

“When watered in due measure the earth yields a good, clean crop from the seed sown in it; but when it is soaked with torrential rain it bears nothing but thistles and thorns. Likewise, when we drink wine in due measure, the earth of the heart yields a clean crop from its natural seed and produces a fine harvest from what is sown in it by the Holy Spirit. But if it is soaked through excessive drinking, the thoughts it bears will be nothing but thistles and thorns.”

(St. Diadochos of Photiki in The Philokalia: Vol. 1, pg. 267 )

Bacchanalia: The Triumph of Dionysius, god of wine

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine, those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.”  (Proverbs 23:29-35)


Remembering What we are Told

This is the 18th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves? (II).   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

One of the areas which the new neuroscience is exploring is the nature of memories.  What a memory is exactly in terms of brain function is still not completely understood.  While scientists are exploring the nature of memories in mice, how this translates to the human mind is not completely known.

“A mouse’s memory of a single fearful event is one thing: the complex associations of human memory, powered by a dense network of neuronal connections, is quite another. … More complex memories, like the recollection of an event that happened to you, are  stored in many different areas of the brain.”  (Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives,” DISCOVER, April 2012, 37)

Tallis commented extensively on how memories cannot be reduced to a simple biochemical or neuronal action.  Memories are complexly stored over a wide area of the brain.  Part of the wondrous mystery of the brain is exactly how the memories are stored and how they are recalled to form cogent images that our brain can interpret and use.  Not only does an individual’s brain use these memories, but they can be shared socially by a number of people in meaningful interactions.

Tallis’ point is that human mental activity is not coterminous with the brain functions that bring them about.  There is an immaterial element to thinking, remembering, choosing and creating.  This is the “self” which the neo-atheists cannot allow because of their ideological commitment to materialism, not because it doesn’t exist.

Even the recent claims by some of the neo-atheists that science proves the brain begins to act seconds before the human appears to know what action it is going to do fails to take into account that a human does not just begin acting in any one second, but rather each human mind is composed of a countless number of neuronal connections – memories of past experience as well as inherited reflexes.  So any activity we do is shaped by and founded in memories and thoughts that are already stored in the brain.  We simply do not have the complete picture yet and so cannot claim that free will does not exist.  Past choices and experience do shape our thinking, choices and actions – the brain doesn’t just suddenly jump into motion with no premeditation when it has a choice before it.   Past experience, likes, pleasures, memories, emotions, etc, are all already at work in us and so predate every decision we make.  The fact that neurons begin working and that scientists can from fMRIs predict what a person is going to do before they are aware themselves of what they are going to do, doesn’t disprove free will, it only shows us that our self and will is married to our physical bodies and cannot be completely separated from them.  The science is telling us that a dualistic understanding of the human is an incorrect understanding.  The notions of self, consciousness and free will are essential for understanding what it is to be human – to understand what has evolved in the human species, in the uniqueness of the human mind.

Jonah Lehrer writing in the March 2012 issue of WIRED (“The Forgetting Pill”) describes the efforts of medical science to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Neuroscientists are trying to understand the nature of memories to see if a memory can be isolated in the brain and then in one fashion or another removed or neutralized so that a person can overcome their PTSD and be freed from the pain of those memories.   Such “memory tweaks” raise a variety of ethical problems and questions:  Who decides which memories are to be erased?  When we lose memories we also lose lessons learned – who accepts responsibility for that loss?  How do we deal with people who intentionally erase memories so as not to be held accountable for things they did?  Who owns our memories – do future generations (our children for example) have a right to possess or inherit our memories?   And legally a host of problems will be raised in courts when people intentionally erase memories which are needed as evidence (tampering with evidence is a crime after all) and witnesses will be invalidated by accusations that their memories were tampered with.

Again, the push for the use of science raises ethical concerns that science itself cannot answer.

Jeffrey Kluger writing in the 5 March 2012 issue of TIME applies some of the same neuronal questions to the subject of will power and whether science can reshape the will once it understands the neuronal activity involved in self-indulgence and self-denial.  Here too the complexity of brain function has meant so far an incomplete understanding of how will power works and what can be done to affect it.

But the implication in all of these studies is that science one day will be able to know exactly how the brain functions and will be able to control or change that function in any/every human being.  Whether we want science to have that power, or whether we believe that power will be harnessed by other social groups (government for example; or militant ideologues) for their own nefarious purposes, we come to understand that all of these issues in neural science have serious ethical implications for us all.

We need to pay attention to what science might wrought.

Next:  Brain Life and Death

Implications of the Free Will Debate

This is the 14th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Free Will.   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

The new fMRI technology has opened some exciting possibilities regarding our understanding the functions of the brain.  As Tallis notes popular media stories about neuroscientific findings are ubiquitous in the news these days.   Claims about what fMRIs can prove abound in scientific and popular literature.  Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer some cautionary advice about what the new neuroscientific achievements can actually prove.  Tallis especially points out that those with strong materialistic beliefs are proclaiming neuroscience now proves consciousness, the self and free will are illusions created by brain biochemistry. And Tallis warns that these claims far exceed what the science actually shows but rather the materialists are reading into the evidence what they already believe rather than extracting from the evidence testable conclusions.    Just a quick look at 3 Magazines that come into my house:

DISCOVER magazine, a publication reporting on recent trends and findings in science has regular features on the brain and new neuroscience:  The April 2012 edition had an article by Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives”;  Carl Zimmer contributes regular articles on “The Brain” to the magazine.  The 5 March edition of TIME magazine had an article, “Getting to NO: The Science of Building Willpower”, by Jeffrey Kluger which also relies on fMRI studies on the brain.  The October 2011 edition of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC featured David Dobbs’ article, “Beautiful Brains: The New Science of the Teenage Brain.”

Claims are abounding as to what neuroscience has proven and because of the drive of some neoatheists, this science is now being offered as the basis for an entirely new morality and calling for sweeping reforms of the justice system.  For if the material world is all that exists and free will is an illusion, than any ideas about morality and personal responsibility will have to be completely revamped.  Age old ideas of how to deal with social problems and crime which are based in the free will choice of the perpetrators will have to be thrown out.

Tallis offers a very stark warning about the agenda being pushed by the neo-atheists.

“The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart.  The twentieth century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe.  Unfortunately, historical examples may not be successful in dissuading the bioengineers of the human soul because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous.”  (Tallis, p 70)

Tallis is clear in his book that the scientific evidence and logic itself do no support the claims of these neo-atheists.  Though himself an atheist he comes in his book to the defense of religious beliefs about free will and personhood and calls upon modern philosophers to challenge these modern claims based in sound logic.  He also sees dire consequences to humanity not in following science but only in allowing science to be interpreted by scientism.

Gazzaniga offers some thoughts which perhaps not his main intention are solid support for the notion of free will and a rejection of materialistic determinism.

“On the neurophysiological level, we are born with a sense of fairness and some other moral intuitions. These intuitions contribute to our moral judgments on the behavioral level, and, higher up the chain, our moral judgments contribute to the moral and legal laws we construct for our societies. These moral laws and legal laws on the societal scale provide feedback that constrains behavior. The social pressures on the individual at the behavior level affect his survival and reproduction and thus what underlying brain processes are selected for. Over time, these social pressures begin to shape who we are. Thus, it is easy to see that these moral systems become real and very important to understand.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2966-70)

Wisdom and Lady Justice

Social pressures (non-material forces) do in fact change behavior as can be demonstrated in scientific studies.  People have free will and are shaped by society and moral beliefs.  Thus the claims that all behavior is purely controlled by biochemical processes in the brain are not supported by our experience in life nor by what scientific studies show.

Next:   A Test Case – Applying Neuroscience to Law