24 June 2016

Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan (a novella I’ve never read) as Love & Friendship starring Kate Beckinsale was a delight. Understood as a comedy of manners, it brought pleasant laughter throughout. In comparison with the recent unpleasant experience of Me Before You (my comments here), Love & Friendship revealed a principal character (Lady Susan Vernon, exquisitely played by Beckinsale) every bit as self-centered as Will Traynor and even more venal. After all, Traynor merely hurt those who loved him by taking his own life. Lady Susan engaged in a tawdry manipulation of her young daughter and various and sundry friends to achieve a suitable match. Suitable in her case meant a rich dunderhead who suspected nothing amiss when told that he would be a father one day after the wedding.

The difference between the films doesn’t so much lie in their characters but in the moral universes in which those characters operate. Or, perhaps more accurately, in the very presence of a moral universe in Love & Friendship. Instead of the will o’ the wisp of personal autonomy, Austen proves the truism that hypocrisy is the tribute vice plays to virtue. Oh for a return to the days of rampant hypocrisy instead of the contemporary paeans to treacly authenticity!

In any event, we highly recommend Love & Friendship. But see it soon. In spite of its quality and critical acclaim, it looks to be in for a short first run in theaters.

22 June 2016

Me Way Beyond You

We couldn’t think of a more apt title for director Thea Sherrock’s film Me Before You. Various sources had decried it as promoting assisted suicide (here and here) and disability groups have their own critical reactions (here and here). Neither negative stance is incorrect but neither gets to the heart of the moral abyss that sits at the core of this film.

Based on a novel and screenplay by JoJo Moyes, the plot of Me Before You begins with a flashback of Will Traynor, apparently something of a vulture capitalist, who is struck by a motorcycle and rendered a quadriplegic. The film quickly switches to a perky sweet thing, Lou Clark, who loses her job as a waitress. The loss of Lou’s income throws her extended family into financial distress so she takes a job as one of Traynor’s caregivers.

By this point Traynor has given up hope for recovering any of his motor skills beyond moving two fingers with which he controls his electric wheelchair. Bitter at the loss of his physical prowess, Traynor has already tried to take his own life. His initial failure is followed by a decision to go to a death clinic in Switzerland but his mother persuades him to wait six months before letting someone else kill him.

Lou eventually breaks through Traynor’s icy bitterness and, once she learns of his decision to die, does all she can to demonstrate the wonder of life, family, and friendship. Indeed, Lou falls in love with Traynor and, so it appears, he with her. Nonetheless, a man of his word, Traynor goes through with his assisted suicide.

Me Before You is an adept portrayal of the vacuum of the contemporary moral universe. The only “moral good” is autonomy, although why autonomy is good goes unexamined. On the film’s terms, Traynor’s self-centered but freely chosen decision to end his life cannot be criticized. When there is no good except that to which consent is given there is nothing—love of family and friends or the beauty of the world or the possibility of a years of valuable service—that can or even should be counted against what the will freely choses. There is, in other words, no moral law.

Which raises the question, why should we care about autonomy? Why should autonomy be prized if there is no moral law that supplies the “oughtness” that makes autonomy a good? One might suppose an answer: that human beings have an inherent, if inexplicable, moral sense that requires that there be some standard of right and wrong, even one as deracinated as autonomy. Rather thin gruel for a well-nourished moral life, and one which will quickly succumb to a vigorous utilitarianism in due course. “Encouraged” suicide, anyone?

Me before you is no better or worse than you before me so long as “me” chooses.

Easy evidence of self über alles can be found in the current American presidential contest. Even though few of his supporters have the will or the means to live in disregard of the interests of others, Donald Trump is the avatar of the (psycho)logical end of ethical autonomy.

Perhaps, though, there are examples of the valorization of ethical autonomy closer to home. Hardly a week goes by when I do not evaluate a moral decision in terms of my self-identified rights. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” the Preacher wrote, and the desire for autonomy has never been far from the fallen human heart. While relatively few put our “me” as far before our collective “yous” as did Will Traynor, many of us live closer to the line than we’d care to think. And, when pressed to justify our own atrophied moral sense, how many could provide much more than autonomy with a thin Christianized gloss to justify our decisions?

15 June 2016

The Parable(s) of the Talents and the Law of Fiduciary Duties

Stephen Bainbridge has recently published an interesting legal and economic analysis of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. You can download it here. I’ll assume my readers’ basic familiarity with the parable, which is found in two places (Mt. 25.15-30 and Lk. 19:11-27), albeit with some differences that Bainbridge notes.

Bainbridge is the William D. Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA and is well-known as a scholar of corporate law. His list of publications is enormous. He is a conservative (in the modern American sense) and has followed the path of a significant number of Evangelical academics to the Roman communion.

His piece is not theological as typically understood. Instead, Bainbridge sets out to answer some legal questions: “What was the relationship between the master and the servant? What were the servants’ duties? How do the likely answers to those questions map to modern relations, such as those of principal and agent?” These questions are not merely some jejune inquiries from someone with nothing better to do. As Bainbridge notes, the modern common law of fiduciary relations is grounded more directly than any other field of private law on distinctly moral and even religious notions of duty. To understand the modern notion of fiduciary (= faithful) relationships, Jesus’ parable(s) in light of the legal backdrop of first-century Judea might prove helpful.

Bainbridge begins by making a distinction between Anglo-Australian fiduciary law and that of the of America and Canada. The formal Anglo-Australian understanding of the duty of the fiduciary is essentially negative, i.e., she must not have an interest in conflict with the other party. The negative is certainly part of the American understanding which, however, goes further and requires the fiduciary to act affirmatively on behalf of the other party. Passive vs. passive+active, in my words.

This distinction between the negative and positive duties of a fiduciary might be operating in the background of Jesus’ parable, especially when we consider the differences between the Matthean and Lukan accounts. In Matthew, the wicked servant buried the talents entrusted to him but in Luke, Jesus has the servant store it away in a handkerchief, an insecure form of storing a large amount of money. In Matthew the wicked servant is cast into outer darkness but in Luke, the master takes the single mina from him and gives it to the better investor of the two other servants.

In both versions of the parable, however, it is clear the master expected the servants to do something, not merely safeguard what had been entrusted to them. Thus, the background legal rule of which his initial auditors would have been acquainted seems closer to the American understanding of affirmative fiduciary duties than to the negative duty of Anglo-Australian law.

Why might this be the case? Bainbridge speculates that an understanding of fiduciary duties in the negative sense was associated with an agrarian society in which investment for profit was largely unknown. By way of contrast, as the Jews in Palestine came under the domination of Rome and its large-scale commercial economy, the background understanding of fiduciary obligation took on an affirmative sense. This might be the case although I would think that the shift from an agrarian to a commercial economy would have begun under Greek domination.

Even so, what accounts for the greater condemnation of the first servant, who at least stored the talents safely? Why should he be cast into outer darkness when the servant in Luke, who hardly exercised the baseline duty of care, merely loses what had been entrusted to him? Bainbridge again draws on the changing economic order—agrarian to commercial—to argue that Jesus was making the point that the fundamental spiritual background rules (which, after all, are the point of the parable) also had to change with the times.

In my words, for God’s people in the about-to-be-inaugurated messianic age, the pattern of life would no longer be the pattern of the nation of Israel as a relatively static exemplar of God’s rule in the world. Instead, with the decoupling of God’s people from a single ethnic group and a single piece of land, and with the empowering of the Spirit, God’s people were to adopt an affirmative, outward-directed understanding of their place in the world. To be sure, Jesus wasn’t advocating a crass health-and-wealth gospel, such is to reduce the eschatological to the material, but he was (and is) urging on his followers a mission that will be characterized by world-wide growth and expansion with “profits” measured in terms of increasing numbers of followers from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

13 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 5: Francis Turretin and the Possibility of Pagan Virtue

I was moderator for the presentation by Stephen Wolfe on Francis Turretin and the Possibility of Pagan Virtue. Wolfe undertook two significant arguments. First, he wanted to correct the continuing misapprehension of many contemporary theologians and political philosophers about early modern Calvinist political thought. And, second, he articulated Turrentin's rationale for the conclusion that pagans could produce real civic good(s) yet even so stand condemned as unrighteous before God.

Michael Walzer and, to a lesser extent, Charles Taylor were the objects of Wolfe's first argument. Walzer's classic "The Revolution of the Saints" continues to stand for the proposition that John Calvin's political philosophy was proto-Hobbesian, a world in which the effects of sin were so devastating, both morally and epistemically, that the post-lapsarian social life of human beings could be arranged only by rulers who imposed their will on the recalcitrant masses. According to Walzer, Calvin's only addition was to add God's revealed positive law to the mix to the end that a Christian ruler would rule by imposing God's will on an atomized political community.

Walzer's account clearly fails to do justice to Calvin. My own take on the subject can be found by reading God's Bridle: John Calvin's Use of the Natural Law (download here) published in 2007 in the Journal of Law and Religion. My 2007 review of David VanDrunen's "Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought" (download here) also sheds light on this topic.

In short, Turretin, like Calvin, argued for a natural-law basis for human society, one in which pagans and Christians (and pagans at least as often as Christians) could arrange their individual and communal lives in accordance with the pattern implanted in them by nature and observable from the successes and failures of human societies in general. Turretin asserted that human beings were not utterly fallen with respect to the ends of creation; man can naturally do good with respect to earthy goods, those that pertain to our essential human nature. With the Fall, however, humanity’s orientation toward God was gone so that our accidental nature has been lost. It is thus in the distinction between essence and accidents that Turretin finds the power of the pagan to do good while simultaneously being unrighteous.

Wolfe went on to drawn four contemporary applications from Turretin. First, and what should be obvious to anyone, the external actions of those converted to the Christian religion may not be any different than those of unbelievers. Second, that the long-forgotten appeal to the “consent of the nations” should be revitalized as a means of discerning right political and social order. Third, focused as it is on the accidents of human nature, Christianity is not so much world-forming as it is world-perfecting. And, finally, contemporary Christians in the secularizing West should emphasize the revitalization of their local communities rather than on national politics.

Wolfe’s conclusions were met with varying degrees of assent by those who listened to him present his paper but it seems that everyone in attendance had concluded that triumphal “Christian transformationalism,” whether of the Left or the Right, had obscured more than it had accomplished. Whether the now-passing generation of the Religious Right or the momentarily ascendant Social Justice Warriors, the power of the Christian faith to restore our Godward orientation is often downplayed in an effort to change the world. Gaining the levers of power is not the means of bringing the Kingdom of God. Thus, a two-fold account of human nature like Turretin’s may provide a better platform for moving forward on both human essentials and accidentals.

Part 5 is the final of these Convivial posts. All in all, I adjudge the Convivium Irenicum 2016 to have been a great success. I know I had a great time and I’m confident others in attendance were encouraged as well. Kudos to The Davenant Trust for its work to bring ressourcement to the Reformed world.

09 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 4: Hypothetical Universalism and Libertarian Free Will

(For Parts 1, 2, and 3 of my comments on The Davenant Trust’s Convivium Irenicum 2016 go here, here, and here.)

What is hypothetical universalism (HU)? And what do the Reformed confessions and theologians have to say about it? There were the subjects of Michael Lynch’s paper. The original answer to the first questions is straightforward. Peter Lombard’s pithy aphorism sums up HU: Christ’s death is sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. But what does it mean to say Christ’s death is “sufficient for all”? And, for those who subscribe to the Westminster standards, is there any sense in which “sufficient for all” can be cabined so as to remain consistent with those standards?

Lynch carefully worked his way through the post-Westminster arguments in England that pitted Richard Baxter against William Cunningham in their disputations over the meaning of Westminster Confession of Faith 3.8, 8.5, and 8.8. Perhaps my lack of focus on the details of the debate says more about me than the importance of the issue. In any event, some form of HU is consistent with the WCF but it’s not precisely clear how it should be stated.

Like many before him and surely more to follow, Paul Nidelisky took a shot at answering the question of the relationship between a strong doctrine of God’s providence and the meaning of free will. Nidelisky had the advantage(?) of not being a theologian and approached the issue as an analytic philosopher of metaphysics. His first of three points—and one with which I fully concur—is to define “free will” in terms of a power. In other words, my will is free so long as I have the power to do otherwise even though I will never actualize that power apart from God’s providential decree. (The so-called irrefragability of Christ’s bones is the prototypical biblical example.)

Moving the argument another step down the chain of how God brings his decrees to fruition in human affairs is more problematic. Nidelisky took the position that God so decrees all of the multiple contingencies of each person’s life that she will inevitably choose in accordance with his decree with respect to matters in the domain of the will. While not entirely clear how this differs from Molinism, Nidelisky contended that it did. In any, his too was a working paper so we can all look forward to the published version to learn how Nedilisky works out all the multitude of perplexing details.

08 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 3: George Carleton and the Synod of Dort

(For Parts 1 and 2 of my comments on The Davenant Trust’s Convivium Irenicum 2016 go here and here.)

It was good to see Andre Gazal again. As best as we could recall, we hadn’t seen each other since 1997 or 1998 in our Geneva School days. Andre presented his work-in-progress titled “George Carleton’s Reformed Doctrine of Apostolic Succession at the Synod of Dort.” I knew of the 1619 Synod of Dort from my days in the Christian Reformed Church; it’s the one famously identified with the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. I also generally recalled that Dort was an international synod, one in which there were Reformed delegates from nations outside the Dutch Republic. I was a blank slate, however, when it came to who those delegates were and what influence they had.

Several of the non-Dutch delegates at Dort were from England who attended at the direction of James I on behalf of the Church of England. And one of the English delegates was George Carleton, then bishop of Llandaff in Wales. James had carefully instructed the English delegates to remain firm in their advocacy for distinctively Anglican teaching and practices, which included an episcopal form of church government where bishops ruled. Thus, it should be of no surprise that Carleton and the others came in for some strong criticism on their return to England because the Synod had reaffirmed Article 31 of the Belgic Confession, which provided that the Reformed churches of the Netherlands would have a Presbyterian form of church government in which there were no bishops, and ministers and elders had equal ruling authority.

Two interesting points followed. First, Carleton protested that the English delegates had vigorously pressed the Dutch to modify their church order to provide for episcopacy and that the Hollanders claimed they wanted rule by bishops but that their civil magistrates were unalterably opposed. Such an admission by the Dutch greatly surprised me, especially when in Scotland it was the magistrate—James VI—who distrusted a Presbyterian form of church government and in England—as James I—he liked having bishops. In other words, if the English civil magistrate preferred episcopacy, why wouldn’t the magistrates in the Netherlands likewise want it?

Second, and of more general interest, was Carleton’s rational for episcopacy: only bishops could maintain a legitimate claim to authority via apostolic succession. My notes regarding Carleton’s argument as relayed by Gazal are sketchy but it went something like this: #1—Christ delegated to his apostles governing authority over (i) doctrine (i.e., creation of Scripture) and (ii) the church (guaranteeing correct teaching by ordaining clergy (presbyters) and, if necessary, removing them if they began to teach heresy); #2—this two-fold authority is perpetual; #3yet with the close of the canon, revelation of doctrine (#1(i)) is complete; #4someone (the apostles’ successors) had to have continuing jurisdiction over the church (#1(ii)) since the need for godly teachers and the danger of heresy remain; #5the clergy couldn’t have jurisdiction over themselves; thus, #6only bishops today have that residual apostolic authority.

Whatever the substantive merits of Carleton’s rationale, it suggests another question: Why don’t the bishops of the Church of Rome have this residual apostolic authority? Because, Carleton argued, they forfeited that authority by wrongfully delegating it to the Pope. According to Christ's apostolic order the Church is to be governed by a plurality of bishops, not a single “super-bishop,” and thus there had to be a “reset” after the failure of the Conciliar Movement in the 15th century.

Altogether, Gazal’s was one of the most intricate of papers presented at the Convivium and it certainly left everyone with plenty of food for thought.

07 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 2: Theodore Beza and Martin Bucer

Go here to read my preceding post on the 2016 iteration of the Convivium Irenicum sponsored by The Davenant Trust. For a précis of all the papers presented go here. For coverage of the extremely good time had by all, you'll need to consult those in attendance.

Two more papers for today. First, one by Eric Hutchinson: “Written Monuments: Beza’s Icones as Testament to and Program for Reformist Humanism.” (For comments on Hutchinson’s papers from 2014 and 2015 go here and here.) As a classicist, Hutchinson needs no excuse for the obscure, and you might find a picture of Theodore Beza’s Icones in the dictionary for obscure. But obscure doesn’t meaning uninteresting or unimportant and his early-modern multimedia address (woodcuts, prose, and exceptional poetry) to James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) can stand as a testament to Beza’s extraordinary humanistic erudition, his broad and ecumenical range of contemporary Christian “heroes” (icons), and his hope for continued reformation of church and culture.

No one knows if James read the Icones; it seems likely that even before he became king of England he found other matters in Scotland of more pressing concern. Nonetheless, the Icones stands as a counterweight to the popular perception of Beza as the intellectual inferior to his mentor John Calvin and as a narrowing influence on the Reformed churches preoccupied with the doctrine of predestination.

Second, Jake Meador’s paper addressed the (in)famous Reformed “third mark of the church” in “That No One Should Live for Himself, but for Others: Love and the Third Mark of the Church in the Theology of Martin Bucer.” Since spending the better parts of three summers in Strasbourg during the first decade of this millennium, I’ve become a bit partial to Martin Bucer and it’s to Bucer that credit is often given for adding administration of discipline to the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments as a mark of the true church. Why Bucer would do so and the purpose of the third mark in Bucer’s understanding were the burdens of Meador’s paper.

Bucer was called to the pastorate of Saint Aurelia’s Church in Strasbourg at the behest of the city’s large and powerful gardeners guild. This guild along with other Strasbourgeoise had been affected by the radical Reformation. A leading Anabaptist, Pilgram Marpeck, subsequently arrived in Strasbourg in 1528 and caused a number of Reformed leaders to lean toward the Anabaptist position. Bucer worked hard to lead them back to the Reformed fold but greatly appreciated the emphasis of the Anabaptists on a disciplined life issuing in selfless love.

In addition to trying to reach a modus vivendi with the Anabaptists in Strasbourg, Bucer was working to bridge the gap between the Reformed and Lutherans more broadly. Ultimately, his efforts to cover their differences with artful (if not obfuscating) drafting lead both sides to mistrust him and, in any event, his efforts came to naught.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg city council with Bucer’s support ordered Marpeck to leave the city. Nonetheless, Bucer’s personal irenicism, his ecumenical efforts, and his long-standing work with Anabaptists guided him to add church discipline oriented toward loving restoration as a mark of the true church.

06 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part I: Cardinal Henry Newman

2016 permitted me to attend my third Covivium Irenicum. Sponsored by The Davenant Trust, each Convivium has combined serious scholarship with substantial opportunities for developing lasting personal friendships. (A blog post from several years ago here gives a good sense of what The Davenant Trust does. My posts herehere, and here cover the 2014 Convivium. I posted seven times on the 2015 Convivium so I'll only link here and here for two on "God and Constitutionalism" or, in my words: What Would "Christian America" Have Meant To Late 18th Century Colonial Americans?)

This year's theme was more ecclesial than political but was nonetheless interesting, stimulating, and practical: “Confessionalism and Diversity in the Reformed Tradition.” Piqued by Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress Press 2014), the objects of papers presented at the Convivium included figures as diverse as Martin Bucer, Theodore Beza, Richard Hooker, George Carleton, Francis Turretin, and Cardinal Newman(!). Topics included early-modern Reformed takes on natural theology, natural virtue, hypothetical universalism, apostolic succession, and libertarian free will. There were, in fact, enough quality papers that for the first time there were break-out sessions; thus, I won’t be reporting on everything that transpired.

I’ll begin with some comments drawn from keynote speaker Carl Trueman’s work-in-progress, “Reading the Reformers After Cardinal Newman.” Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine is crucial across confessional lines. In other words, (to a certain extent mine) by reading the history of Church doctrine through a Hegelian lens, Newman provided later Catholic theologians with a means of explaining how doctrines that changed throughout Church history actually never changed at all. Substituting all sorts of cool-sounding organic metaphors for in-depth historical scholarship (it seems evident that Newman never read the Reformers closely), Newman has enabled contemporary Catholic apologists to pull a rabbit out of the historical hat.

Next, drawing from the book “Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome” (Ignatius Press 2016), Trueman observed that one thing was noticeably absent from these seminarians’ seminary curricula: Church History. Ignorance of that history leaves theologically sensitive young’uns vulnerable to the claims of a church that has history in spades.

In particular, Trueman went on to say, it is necessary to know the history of the Church and its dogma (as opposed to, say, the hagiography of one’s tradition, long or short) to avoid, on the one hand, the Scylla of the contemporary chaos of “me and my Bible” shortcuts to heresy and, on the other, the Charybdis of misleading cross-Tiber claims to unchanging certainty.

Finally, Trueman observed that meaningful knowledge of the history of the Church and its doctrines can play a positive role for ecumenism. Church history is a means by which we can both reject with integrity and at the same time prioritize doctrines. Ecumenism must be based on something more substantial than “Can’t we all just get along?” but doesn’t require jot and title conformity on every point of one’s confessional tradition before we can cooperate. 

25 May 2016

What Critics of South Asian Studies Programs Can Learn From Christians

Of late I have been reading of efforts by certain Indian-Americans to change California's sixth grade curriculum with respect to it coverage of India and Hinduism. You can read of the outcome of the most recent round of controversy here. In short, the opponents of the current textbooks, some of whom are associated with the Hindutva movement in India, argue that the texts unfairly criticize India's culture by their inclusion of the word dalit and discussion of the caste system. "Fair and balanced" is their ostensible goal but others aren't as sanguine and suggest that whitewash is a better characterization.

Conservative culture-warrior Christians have likewise been concerned that mainstream American textbooks elide what they believe are the Christian foundation of American constitutional government and improperly weight the faults of the Founders. Thus, discontent with the education of America's children comes from both long-term residents and newcomers to the American cultural scene. Disestablishment of America's system of public education would go a long way toward satisfying all parties (with the exception, of course, of the politically entrenched educational-bureaucratic industry).

Of more even more interest, however, is this piece addressing professional and deeply personal attacks on American (and some Indian) academics. For example,
In February scholars in India initiated a petition calling for the removal of a major Sanskrit scholar, Columbia University’s Sheldon Pollock, from the general editorship of a Harvard University Press series of Indian classical texts on the grounds that his writings “misrepresent our cultural heritage” and that he had “shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India” (this of a scholar who has received the Indian president’s award for Sanskrit, as well as the Padma Shri Award, one of the Indian government’s highest civilian honors).
And lest one think such attacks come only from people in India, Martha Nussbaum (whom I discuss at some length in my paper on human rights here) observes, “For about 20 years at least, members of the Hindu community in the U.S. have been carrying on a well-funded campaign to substitute an ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history for serious historical scholarship.”

What account for such contemporary antipathy toward scholarship? One of the objects of Hindutva-inspired attacks, Wendy Doniger, puts it this way: The misunderstanding arises in part from the fact that there is, in India, no real equivalent of the academic discipline of religious studies. With only a few recent exceptions, students in India can study religion as a Hindu or Muslim or Catholic in private theological schools of one sort or another, but not as an academic subject." In other words, the modern-day antagonists of the academic students of Hinduism reject out of hand the modern, Western, secular, naturalistic mode of "scientific" study of religion.

For over 200 years believing Christians have had a similar relationship with the academic approach to their faith. As even a casual observer of the publications of the Society of Biblical Literature would conclude, the work of many academic students of the Christian religion have no personal stake in the faith of that religion. But not all of them. In other words, many serious academics are themselves Christians.

In any event, Christians have learned a great deal about the original meaning of the Scriptural text and the history of their religion from those whose only interest in that text or that history is as a matter of archaeological, linguistic, literary, or historical study. Study of the phenomena of the bible or the church is not, as such, inconsistent with belief in the meaning of the Bible or the transcendent reality of the Church.

So too, I suspect, of the Hindutva. Exposure to the academic reconstruction of the history of the texts and practices of the religions(s) of India may be uncomfortable. Such reconstructions on occasion may even be incorrect. Yet in the long run retreat to commitment is not a program for success. Toleration of the valuable insights of those who do not share one's presuppositions can be helpful while erroneous academic speculation can be sloughed off. Attacks on the competence and libido of scholars of Hinduism should not be tolerated. Indeed, advocates of Hindutva might do well to consider pre-Hindutva Hinduism, which demonstrated far less defensiveness than its contemporary descendants.

20 May 2016

A Friday Afternoon Distraction: What's A Bible?

Like all states, Illinois permits an individual debtor to keep certain property free from the claims of unpaid creditors. (See my five-part series of posts here, here, here, here, and here for some theological observations about biblical exemptions and my article The Missing Piece of the Puzzle: Perspectives on the Wage Priority in Bankruptcy (download here) about the impact of biblical exemptions on federal bankruptcy law since 1841.) And like most states, among the list of exempt property in Illinois is a "bible."

Some Bibles are, of course, more valuable than others and the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in February about what to do with a particularly valuable one. Or at least a book that the parties conceded was a Bible.

The text in question was a first edition of the Book of Mormon. Anna Robinson, who owned multiple other copies of the Book of Mormon, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but claimed as exempt only her first edition, appraised at $10,000. The bankruptcy court denied her exemption of this copy reasoning that the purpose of the exemption was merely to "protect a bible of ordinary value so as not to deprive a debtor of a worship aid." The Seventh Circuit in an opinion reported as In re Robinson, 811 F.3d 267 (2016) disagreed. The appellate court reasoned that the Illinois legislature hadn't placed a limit on the value of an exemptable bible so neither should the court--a conclusion with which I agree.

But the case got me to wondering: Is the Book of Mormon a "bible"? In Ms. Robinson's case the bankruptcy trustee stipulated that "bible" means simply "a religious text." Of course, orthodox Christians would differ believing that the canon of Scripture (and thus the Bible) closes with the book of Revelation. But disagreements exist among various Christian traditions with respect to what constitutes the text of "the bible," e.g., the intertestamental works known variously as the apocrypha or deutero-canonical.

And what of the Koran? Or the Vedas and other texts associated with what is known as Hinduism? Or Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet? Are they "bibles" too? The answer on the bankruptcy trustee's definition would be yes but is that what the text of the Illinois statute means? Or meant at the time of its enactment? And even if the answer to those two questions is no, would such a limitation be constitutional? And what should we make of the lack of capitalization of "bible" in the Illinois statue?

Oh well. Enough time wasted. I had better get back to something really important like the fate of home owners associations in bankruptcy.

11 May 2016

170,000 And Counting

Earlier today the blogspot.com counter passed 170,000 pageviews for Pryor Thoughts. Nothing particularly impressive about this number but I am intrigued by the geographical distribution of my audience.

According the free counter that comes with blogspot, the vast majority of my viewers (I'm not sure everyone who looks at a page ultimately reads it) come from the United States (119,617). No surprise there.

Coming in at #2, however, is Russia (5309) with Ukraine (3900) at #5. The reason for so many pageviews from countries that made up the former Soviet Union escapes me.

In any event, my reasons for keeping up this blog remain the same and I hope those reading my posts find them worthwhile.

Puerto Rico And A Coda on Municipal Bankruptcy

I posted often during the course of the chapter 9 bankruptcies of Stockton and Detroit. You can read one on each here and here. I have not posted about Puerto Rico's extraordinary financial distress for two reasons: Puerto Rico is not eligible for any bankruptcy relief and others have been writing seriously and posting frequently about what can be done.

Today, however, I am breaking my Puerto Rico silence because this piece at the New York Times DealBook is spot on: Puerto Rico is the canary in the mine shaft.

Across America, dozens of cities, counties and states may be heading down the same financial rabbit hole. Illinois, New Jersey, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Jacksonville, Florida., to name just a few, are all facing their own slowly unspooling financial disasters.
Generous pension promises made decades ago, without enough funding, are now coming due as baby boomers retire. Bonds issued in the distant past to build bridges, highways and other projects also must be paid — even as the projects themselves could by now use expensive makeovers.

Exactly right. As I described at length in Municipal Bankruptcy: When Doing Less Is Doing Best (download here), American cities (and States) have promised their public-sector employees pensions and health benefits in amounts that are actuarially unsustainable, especially given current demographic trends. In addition, to try to reduce such benefits, once accrued, would violate the U.S. Constitution. Only if Congress permits cities (and States) to seek bankruptcy relief can anything be done.

Currently exceptionally low interest rates and the "flight to safety" that causes international investors to buy American debt securities are masking this problem. In not so many years, however, perhaps during the next presidential administration and certainly, in my opinion, by 2024, the time bombs hiding in state and local balance sheets will begin exploding. Were it not for the dysfunction endemic to our current political system, one might expect our elected leaders to begin planning for the inevitable. Reality being what it is, however, we'll find ourselves hanging on for dear life hoping for some means of redress.