The world has become fragile

Steven Pearlstein reflects on our recent disasters, all of which took us by surprise and none of which we were prepared for:

In just the past decade, we’ve had the attacks of Sept. 11, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis, a global flu pandemic, the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and devastating floods in Australia and New Zealand. Now, Japan has been hit with a triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

What all of these have in common is that they are all low-probability, high-impact events — the “long-tail” phenomenon, to use the jargon of risk modelers, referring to the far ends of the traditional bell curve of probabilities, or “black swans,” to use the metaphor popularized by former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Such calamitous events have been a regular part of the human experience since Noah and the flood, some of them natural, others manmade. In spite of that, however, we continue to underestimate their frequency and severity.

To a degree, that is a good thing. If we were to focus too much of our attention on all the really, really bad things that could befall us, we’d never get out of bed in the morning.

But the same psychological trait that allows us to go about our daily business also creates blind spots. Although we observe that calamities happen, we assume that they won’t happen to us, or they won’t happen again. And if it has been a long time since the calamity, we are apt to take false comfort that we have beaten the odds. . . .

Part of the problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. The other part is that small miscalculations of probabilities can have large effects on outcomes when dealing with long periods of time. Think of the sailor who sets off on a voyage a few degrees off course. A few miles out, the error is small, but by the time he crosses the ocean, he may find himself hundreds of miles from the intended destination.

Our reward structures don’t encourage spending the time or the money to deal with low-probability disasters. The chief executive of Citigroup acknowledged as much when he told a reporter in 2007 that he would lose his job if he gave up profit and market share to shield his bank from the obviously excessive risk-taking that everyone knew was going on. And you can only imagine the outcry from the industry and those Gulf Coast politicians if government regulators back in 2009 had ordered oil companies to spend millions of dollars to have enough boats and booms at the ready to deal with a BP-sized oil spill from deepwater drilling.

Indeed, it seems that when we conclude that the chance of something really bad happening is very small, we wind up taking actions that either increase the probability of the disaster or the damage that it will cause. Once the rocket scientists on Wall Street, for example, concluded that it was virtually impossible for investors in so-called “mezzanine” tranches of mortgage-backed securities to lose money, it set off a chain of events that made the prediction untrue. The heavy demand for the securities led to dramatically lower lending standards and a sharp increase in housing prices, creating a bubble so large that when it burst, it caused heavy losses for those same mezzanine investors. The declaration that a particular investment was riskless became a self-negating prophecy.

Similarly, when the government builds a levee, it may reduce the frequency of damaging floods but may also encourage even more people to build homes and businesses behind the barrier. When the Big One finally arrives, the total damage will be even greater than if no levee had been built.

We’re also discovering that the impact of disasters is magnified by globalization. The troubles in northern Japan, for example, are beginning to ripple through global supply chains, creating bottlenecks and shortages in dozens of industries. The way globalization increases economic efficiency is by leveraging the advantages of scale and specialization. Yet the bigger and more concentrated production becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes to disruption.

Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life — including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions — is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.

via Lessons from the long tail of improbable disaster – The Washington Post.

Disaster and national debt

Japan’s and ours. . .

As Japan begins the complex and costly job of rebuilding the areas of the country that were destroyed, the task will be made more difficult by the government’s vast debt.

Japan has the highest level of debt relative to the size of its economy of any major industrial nation — 234 percent of gross domestic product this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates, compared with 99 percent for the United States. With the cost of rebuilding devastated areas expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, that debt level is likely to grow in the years ahead.

There are lessons for the United States. Even when borrowing rates are low, as they are for the United States and Japan, running high budget deficits can leave a country with less flexibility to respond to a disaster or an economic setback.

“When you have as much debt as the Japanese have, you’re vulnerable to this kind of shock and can’t do much about it,” said Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics whose research shows that financial crises frequently lead to high debt burdens, which in turn cause other problems.

Borrowing money to rebuild after a disaster is a productive use of debt, most economists say. It is likely to have a high economic payoff and is a one-time expense. But because of its already high debt levels, the Japanese government may be forced instead to raise taxes or cut other spending to pay for the reconstruction, further damaging Japan’s weak economy.

A third option for funding reconstruction would be for the Japanese government to sell off some of its foreign assets, such as U.S. Treasury bonds. In theory, Japan maintains those reserves so it is prepared for an economic emergency, which surely this is.

via Nikkei recovers 5.7%; U.S. stock futures fluctuate over nuclear crisis – The Washington Post.

Online Apologetics Conference

And speaking of Apologetics Conferences, here is one sponsored by Anthony Horvath at Athanatos Ministries.  It will be held completely online, April 7, 8, & 9.  The overall topic will be “Defending Christianity and God’s Plan for Marriage, Family, and Life through Creative Arts such as Film and Literature.”  I’ll be the keynote speaker.  Here is the lineup:

Keynote:

 

Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Provost and Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, and columnist for World Magazine.  Website.  Topic:  “Cultural Apologetics.”

Plenaries:

Jason Jones, Co-executive producer of the award winning Bella and president of the Bella Hero Project and humanitarian project, I Am Whole Life

Dallas Jenkins, Producer/Director of Jenkins Entertainment (eg, What If and Though None Go With Me) “How to Convey the Christian Worldview To a Skeptical Audience”

Dick Rolfe,  CEO of the Dove Foundation “Using Hollywood to Win the World.”

Dr. Angus Menuge, Concordia University Wisconsin.  “C. S. Lewis on Domesticated Living.”

Dr. Ryan MacPherson, Bethany Lutheran College.  President of The Hausvater Project.  “The Biblical Model of Marriage.”

Mikel Del Rosario, Apologeticsguy.com.  “Families Under Fire: Defending a Biblical view of Marriage and the Family through the Visual Arts.”  Info

Mr. Anthony Horvath, Athanatos Christian Ministries, “The Enduring Impact of the Scopes Monkey Trial on Marriage, Family, and Life Issues.”

1st Prize Winner of ACM’s Christian Writing Contest.

Workshops

Glenn Jones, apologist.  “Hollywood, Lewis, and Planet Narnia: A Look At The First Three Films”

Holly Ordway, writer and professor. “Family-Friendly Fantasy? Questions of Morality in Twilight and Harry Potter.”

Israel Wayne, writer and presenter.  “The Family Culture vs. Pop Culture.”

Brian Auten, apologist.  “Tips and Secrets for Creating Apologetics Media Content”

Jamie Greening, pastor and author. “Family in the Trenches… a Pastor’s Perspective.”

Go to the site to sign up.  It only costs $30.

via Online Apologetics Conference: Casting a vision for promoting the Christian worldview through literature and the arts..

Luther and the universalism debate

The evangelical blogosphere is all abuzz over a new book entitled Love Wins by the influential evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell, in which he argues for universalism, the notion that God will save everyone, whether or not they have faith in Christ.   I had assumed that this debate did not concern us Lutherans, since we have our theology thoroughly worked out and this is just not an issue in our circles.  But now I learn that Bell enlisted Martin Luther in his cause, quoting a letter from 1522 in which he  said that no one could doubt that God could save someone after death.
Now Luther, in his long and tumultuous and developing career, said all kinds of things, including things that were flat out wrong.  They mean nothing for Lutheran theology, which is defined by the confessional statements collected in the Book of Concord.  But Westminster Theological Seminary Professor Carl Trueman dug out what  Luther actually said (with Bell’s quotation in italics):
If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to hold this wine–yes, is unable to hold and contain it.
It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes faith necessary. (Works, 43, ed. and trans. G. Wienke and H. T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], 53-54; WA 10.ii, 324.25-325.11)
Talk about taking something out of context!  Bell takes a sentence out of Luther while ignoring what he says about it!  And ignoring Luther’s conclusion, that, yes, faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.
HT:  Cap Stewart

St. Patrick and other missionaries

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, so wear green or get pinched.  You may recall my crusade to use this day to honor ALL missionaries. Those of us of European descent had ancestors who also were brought to faith by missionaries no less than our fellow Christians in Africa, Asia, South America, and the rest of the world.  So lift a glass to St. Patrick who brought the faith to Ireland.  And lift a glass to St. Augustine of Canterbury who converted the English.  And lift another glass to St. Boniface who converted the Germans by cutting down the Tree of Thor without getting hammered.  You might get hammered if you lift a glass to all of the missionaries who deserve our thanks.  Those would include St. William Carey of India, St. James Hudson Taylor of China, St. Jim Elliot of Bolivia, and many more, including those who are bringing the gospel to people all over the world today.

Name the missionaries you know and support, and let us all pray for them today.

Relics

Some people go to Cancun on their Spring Break; others go to Myrtle Beach.  We went to Baltimore.   My wife and I are both interested in medieval art, and the Walter Art Museum there is featuring a big exhibit of medieval reliquaries.  That is, containers for relics, bones and other remains of saints that played a big part in medieval spirituality, and, indeed, in Roman Catholicism to this day.

The containers ranged from mini-tombs to realistic statuary.  (The arm and hand pictured below used to contain an arm bone of a saint.  The priest would wield it to touch the sick and other worshippers, who considered that it was the equivalent of being touched by the late saint.)  They were quite well-crafted and beautiful, considered as works of art.  But the show made me intrigued with the whole practice of the veneration of relics.

What surprised me is that some of the reliquaries still contained relics!  I saw the tooth of John the Baptist!  Another tooth of Mary Magdalene!  And splinters from the True Cross displayed behind glass that was worked into an elaborate gold cross.  Other relics were tiny bits of bone that were wrapped in colored cloth, with a label identifying the saint they belonged to.   Even today Roman Catholic altars have to contain some relic of a saint, if not a fragment of his or her body, a “contact relic,” which is something that once touched the saint.  (A scrap of cloth from the saint’s clothing, or the like.)

Now a good many of these relics are obviously fake.  For example, I saw the sindarion, a cloth that supposedly wiped the face of Christ, leaving a miraculous image.   At the museum it was displayed in an ornate frame behind cloudy glass, and one could indeed see the face of Jesus, but instead of looking like a photograph, it was an image that conformed–surprise, surprise–to the style of late medieval paintings.  I learned that the sindarion was a very popular kind of icon, which meant that there must have been quite a few of them.  One question of my Catholic friends:  If an altar requires an icon, if the icon is spurious, does that invalidate the altar and its sacraments?  Surely not.  But why not?

According to the exhibit, the value of a relic is not just as a historical artifact to encourage one’s faith–as in, “wow, that saint really lived, and all this stuff really happened”–but rather, it is thought that these objects have some sort of spiritual power.  So surely an object that is not actually a relic cannot have that power.

Certainly some of the relics are authentic, particularly the remains of contemporary people who had been canonized.  Apparently, the practice is to dig up the grave of a person who has been named a saint, and to break up the body or the bones, distributing them as relics.  At the end of the exhibit we saw a modern reliquary containing the brown, desiccated finger of Elizabeth Seton, the 19th century American who was canonized not long ago.  I found that macabre.  Another question to my Catholic friends:  Why is it wrong to desecrate bodies in general, but that it is all right to do that to saints?  Is that what is in store for the body of Pope John Paul II?  It has been announced that it will be disinterred for the canonization ceremony.

Another modern relic on display was a bone from Francis X. Seelos, a 19th century priest with local ties, who served in the Baltimore area.  He has been beatified and awaits full canonization from the Pope, which is pretty much a done deal since two miracles have been attributed to him.  As I was marveling at this relic, an elderly woman with a European accent who was standing beside me asked if I were Catholic.  I said, no.  She said that she had prayed to Father Seelos, and he healed her son of cancer.  Then she caught herself and said, well, God healed him, but Father Seelos interceded for him.

I know quite a few evangelicals and Lutherans and others who have converted to Roman Catholicism.  I understand the appeal of the great intellectual tradition, the scholastic theology, the aesthetics, the ceremony, the history, and the like.  What I don’t get, though, is the popular piety.  Again, any of you Catholic readers, please explain it to me.

In the meantime, I have to say that the exhibit, fascinating as it was, brought out even more the Lutheran in me.

Treasures of Heaven · The Walters Art Museum.


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