Russell and Duenes

Archive for October 2012

Nothing From Rivalry

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“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit.” – Philippians 2:7

My mind somehow locked in on the word “rivalry” in the apostle Paul’s statement above, and I thought, “Have you considered how unbelievable that command is?”

“Nothing from rivalry.”

But my law school gives me a number so that I know my class rank, and I like knowing it. I sit in class, sizing up the others so that I might know where I stand in the pecking order. Everyone knows who made it onto Law Review. Don’t I just love making fine sounding arguments in class, if indeed they are “fine sounding.” They’re all my rivals.

I think of others my age and how they are now likely well into their careers, with steady incomes, and here I am starting over. How can I possibly catch up? Why do I want to catch up?

I must make my points. I must have the last word. I can’t let a bad argument lie. I must be thought smart, or at least, smarter than the next guy. My family must be better. I must be more articulate. Never let something that might reflect negatively on me go unchallenged. Assert thyself!

“Nothing from rivalry!”

I thought of Dallas Willard, who’s brilliant. I remember an interchange he had with a college student once, a student who thought he’d intellectually outflanked Willard. The student was confident, yea, cocky, and remained so even after Willard calmly asked the student if he might answer a question that posed a difficulty for the student’s worldview. The student’s answer was laughable, and yet Dallas did not pull out the intellectual “big guns.” No, he let the student go on his way without any real further challenge, the student remaining confident that he has bested Willard. Willard never lost his cool, indeed, never raised his voice or took a negative tone. I remember being quite struck by this, wanting to emulate it. If a man of Willard’s stature did not need to act out of rivalry with others, why did I think I had to? But I still think I have to, almost all the time. The thought that someone could get one up or one over on me in an area where I feel “c0mpetent,” and that I would let them do so unchallenged, just seems inconceivable. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter, like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth.”

I think there’s much to ponder here.

“Nothing from rivalry”



Written by Michael Duenes

October 31, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Duenes, Reflections

Are You a “Person” if You’re in a Coma?

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A friend of one of my students wrote me a thoughtful comment about abortion, and rather than just respond to him with a comment of my own, I figured a post would allow others to partake of our exchange as well. He writes,

I’ve recently been struggling over the issue of abortion. With regards to whether or not a fetus is living, I would say with confidence that a fetus is biologically alive. But my question is, is a fetus a person? I don’t think that an animal like a gorilla, or a chimpanzee, or an aardvark is a person. A person, I think, has self-directing capabilities. Thus a person would be a being that is self-directing in its nature.

Let me begin by making a claim that I think is uncontroversial. A fetus is definitely an alive human being, separate from his or her mother, because the fetus cannot be anything else. The sperm from the father was a human sperm and was alive at the point of conception. The egg from the mother was a human egg and was also alive at the point of conception. Thus, when they come together, we have a being who is alive and who is human. There’s no other option. All the DNA is there, and this life, barring some unforeseen interruption or complication, has all that he or she needs within herself to become a fully mature human being. Note well, the fetus is already a full human being, just not a mature one. This by itself should cause us to ask: What is the nature of a human being, and do we have the right to take the life of other human beings, who have committed no crime, without their permission? Are human beings the kind of beings that, just by their very existence, have inherent dignity and worth such that we should protect their lives? So let’s begin there.

The question you’ve asked is: Is this human being a “person?” First I think it’s important that we define our terms. In my view, every human being is a person, by definition. It seems to me that the responsibility is on those who want to make some kind of important distinction between “human beings” and “persons.” This is particularly so  in the case of abortion, because we must ask ourselves why we should preserve the life of one (that is, the “human being”), but we are OK with taking the life of the other (the “person”). What is the difference that makes this permissible? Further, the one arguing that there is a class of “human beings” who are not “persons” is going to have to give me some kind of justification for this distinction, and the justification will have to go beyond the argument that: “The Constitution says so” or “such and such group of ‘experts’ says so,” or “philosophers say so.” The Constitution and the laws are not equipped to decide matters of being and existence and the nature of who we are as human beings. Only God is equipped to define such things. He created us.

But more to your point, you said you think that “persons” are those who have “self-directing capabilities.” Let me ask you this: If you fell into a coma tomorrow, do you think you would cease to be a “person” because you no longer possess self-directing capabilities? What if you suffered a spinal cord injury in your neck and could only move your head, would you cease to be a “person” because you could no longer self-direct your own affairs, but would be wholly dependent on others? Does a baby who was just born 5 minutes ago, and cannot reason or speak or direct his or her own affairs in any way cease to be a person? I think you would answer “no” to these questions, and thus, self-directing capabilities cannot be the measure of who is a “person.” Even if that baby will be able to have more self-direction in the future, does she not become a “person” until that point? When is that point reached? How much self-direction must she be capable of? You see the problem.

If you mean something else by “self-directing capabilities,” something along the lines of “the ability to reason and make free will choices,” I would only ask you to think about how self-directing you ultimately are. If we are to take the Bible seriously, we must also take seriously the notion that human beings do not have the ultimately sovereignty and autonomy over their decisions. We are not in charge. That is reserved for God. Proverbs 16:1 says: “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” Or Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” The Bible says that from God and through God and to God are all things, and that includes human decisions. “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9).

Animals are merely automatons who’s brains react automatically to automatic stimulation. With humans, there’s something more along with the brain there, or at least we have to assume there’s something else there if we are to believe in free will.

Yes, I assume that animals do not exercise will in the same way that human beings do, but even they may have “something more” than just a brain there. They may have souls themselves, but I cannot be sure of this. I tend to believe it. I’ve addressed the human “free will” point above (though I’d be happy to go into it further in the future). I think we must not only “assume” that we have more than brains, but must positively affirm it. We have souls. We are not just physical. Were we just physical, then we would only be acting upon chemical instincts, and all notions of human rationality and morality would be mistaken. In order for things like justice, love, compassion, and morality to be real, we must be more than just our bodies and brains.

With regards to a fetus being a person, I’m not certain it would be a person. So basically, the question of personhood seems to come down to when does an animal, specifically a human, become a person? Is it at conception? Is there a spiritual state of being existing dually with the fetus at the time of conception? Or is it at birth? Is there a spiritual state of being existing dually with the fetus at the time of conception? Or is it some time a little later? I’m a waffler on this topic, so I don’t have a set opinion on it right now, I was just interested to hear your response.

I think you’re asking the right question, but I think that in order to be a “waffler” you have to have more than one plausible argument in your mind about what a “person” actually is, and then be undecided about those two arguments. You seem to have only one argument about what a person is, namely, that a person must be capable of self-directing activity. And yet I hope I’ve shown that this cannot be the measure of personhood. For I think you would agree that there are many “persons” existing who cannot engage in self-directing activity. In other words, the comatose 31-year old lying in a hospital bed is no more capable of directing his own activities than a 12-week old fetus is, and yet I’m guessing you would say that the 31-year old is a “person.” You may respond by saying, “Yes, but the 31-year-old, were he healthy, would, by nature, be capable of directing his own activities.” To which I would say, and which is no different, “Yes, but the fetus, were he given a bit more time, would also, by nature, be capable of directing his own activities.” Both the man in the coma and the fetus are the kinds of beings that are capable of mature human activity. Thus, there is no distinction between them.

The “nature” of a human being, and the “nature” of a person, are one and the same. We may split them up because we find doing so useful in order to promote some political, social, or moral agenda we may have, but don’t you find it interesting that those who want to argue that some human beings are not persons virtually always do so in order to infringe some right those human beings may have? If one has no interest in doing harm to some class of human beings, why define them as non-persons? I’m not saying this to imply that YOU have some interest in harming human beings. I’m simply saying that defining some humans as non-persons virtually always has this consequence, in the larger scheme of things. Historically, people were not arguing that Africans were non-humans (though some, no doubt, argued this), a whole other kind of species or being; they were arguing that, though they were human, they were non-persons (though even the Constitution said that blacks were “persons,” they were just counted as “three-fifths” of a white person). Defining blacks this way made it easy to enslave them.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and I would welcome any thoughts you have in response to this.


Written by Michael Duenes

October 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Who Will Speak for Me?

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“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?” ~ Ancient Proverb

My home is warm and comfortable, and I’m well fed. I don’t worry about anything really because I have all I need right here. Yet my house is an interesting place, kind of cramped sometimes. And I live in the dark. My eyes work just fine, but all I see is a faint aura of light which occasionally brightens my home. My mouth and tongue also work, but I do not say anything. I haven’t lived here very long, and I’m hoping to move out soon. Happy will be the days when I might breathe the fresh air, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, hear the pitter-patter of rain on my window, savor a morsel of some freshly picked fruit, relax in my mother’s arms, feel the strength in my father’s grip, and lock eyes with another human being.

But wait! I now see a light, brighter than usual, shining into my world. I’m startled, for I have never seen such a light. As I begin to wonder what’s going on, I sense something cold and hard grasping for me, touching me all over my tiny body. Nothing painful, just odd. My home’s been breached, and I’m not sure I like it. In fact, I’m now trying desperately to move away from the cold, hard steely thing, but there’s nowhere to go.

My leg is suddenly grabbed, and I cry out in pain. Struggle as I might, I’m being pulled inexorably downward toward the light. My fragile skin is now pierced and a searing pain shoots up through my torso and into my whole upper body. My heart is pounding now, feeling as if it will burst out of my chest with from the sense of panic I feel. I’m backed into a corner and pinned down. Then, in one violent motion, my leg is ripped from my body. Pain washes over me and floods my soul like unending waves in a tsunami. Could I speak, I would scream out, “My God! My God!” But alas, I make no sound as my body wriggles and writhes in agony. Blood flows all around me now. The warmth I knew of my home has been ravaged, and I’m dismembered and disoriented.

The forceps grab me again, this time my arm. It too is torn from my body, and my mind explodes with uncomprehending torment. My mouth shoots open, my neck muscles seize, and I feel as if on fire. I instinctively try to reach with my attached arm to the place where my other arm used to be. I must get away from this monster that’s ripping me to pieces bit by bit. I move jerkily now, swimming and swaying, without control over the throbbing in my leg, the stabbing pain in my arm, and the tenseness in every fiber of my being. Now comes the ultimate fait accompli: The steel tongs find my head and in a heartbeat – my last – my skull is unmercifully crushed and I am no more.  My lifeless, mangled body is pulled and suctioned from my home in my mother’s womb, to be unceremoniously dumped, hopefully in some medical receptacle, rather than a toilet or a trash can.

No crying, no laughing, no singing, nor frolicking. No seeing the stars or dancing in a field. No moonrises or sunsets. No running and playing. No hugs or kisses. No wonderment at the miracle of human existence. No loving and being loved. My parents, they wanted a boy. And the Supreme Court, the ultimate judicial authority in our land, says I’m not a person, says they do not need to decide when life begins. They’ve defined me out of existence, saying the Constitution forced them to. I’m merely a “potential life,” fetal material, a “product of conception.”

I would speak for myself and tell my story over one million times each year, but I’m unable. I’m no longer here. Who will speak for me?


Written by Michael Duenes

October 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Some Musings: October 24, 2012

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There is something soul-smothering about constantly reading law or about the law. As Pascal said, each one of us has a God-shaped vacuum in our soul, which can only be filled by God Himself. Law is a cheap substitute, and can be a deadening one at that. It promises to be not only exciting, but also a kind of savior. This constant immersion in law and legal texts tends to breed a kind of arrogance, as Harvard Law Professor, William Stuntz, wrote, giving us the false notion “that smart people like us (us lawyers, us judges, and especially us law professors) can always solve [problems with other people’s behavior] — that if we can only get our hands on the levers of power, we can manipulate them so that everything will turn our just right.” Reading law, writing about law, researching law, discussing law, from morning until evening, creates a kind of insular, constrictive existence. No wonder drinking to excess seems to be the remedy of choice for so many in the profession.

I just read a piece by someone who took great pains to insinuate that the public schools are rife with Islamophobia, but whose thesis was that we need more religious dialogue in the public schools to combat the alleged Islamophobia. “Hey, you’re a bunch of hate-mongering Islamophobes, and now, let the dialogue begin!” That’s rich.

Related to the last point, one ought not wonder why there’s so precious little religious dialogue in public schools. It’s because none of the “dialogue” can ever have the discovery of truth as it’s goal. Grade school students may not be hip to everything, but they’re human beings, and if you tell them in a thousand different ways – explicitly as well as implicitly – that the only goal of their engaging in “religious dialogue” is going to be “learning about other people’s faiths,” then there’s not going to be much interest over the long haul. Life’s too short, and too important, to just engage in a bunch of meaningless “fact-finding” about Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and if you get around to it, Christianity. No, God’s image-bearers want to know if these things are true, and if you can’t discuss the truth-status of any of these various religions – and in public schools, you can’t – then the dialogue is going to be pretty unappealing, and scarce. We were made for worship, not information input.

As I’ve been out driving around Topeka, I’ve happened upon a law school buddy of mine who is out jogging. I’ve seen him while we’re both waiting for lights at an intersection, so I honk my horn to get his attention and wave. To no avail. He’s got the ipod ear-buds going, and so he doesn’t hear my horn and thus, doesn’t see me; and I think to myself that it’s an opportunity lost. Sure, it’s no big deal. If he had been able to hear my horn and we’d waved to each other, it would only constitute a small gesture. But it also makes me think about the fact that we can live practically on top of each other in cities, and yet be strangers to one another. It seems that even the small opportunities to make relational connections would add to our sense of belonging to one another as human beings, but increasingly, we’re able to define and demarcate our own private spaces, and our worlds have become small, and our relationships shriveled.

I love this time of year in the Midwest. It’s not just that the leaves are falling off the trees, but it’s the wondrous experience of driving or walking down the road with leaves swirling around you like snowflakes in a storm. The clacking of the leaves together as the Autumn winds pick up here in Kansas gives one a tangible sense that one season is ending and another beginning. I rarely had this experience in California.

You don’t think about how valuable a good and trusted friend is until you don’t have one. I miss many things about the Bay Area, but the thing I miss the most has nothing to do with the Bay Area. It’s the friends. They could not be replaced, nor should they be, but I have yet to find any friendships here which could be added to their kind. My heart counsels patience, as I know my good friends in the Bay Area did not become so overnight, but it sure leaves a void within me. Perhaps what it most leaves is an absence of laughter. The absence of laughter is a loss I had not consciously considered, and a greater loss than I had imagined.


Written by Michael Duenes

October 24, 2012 at 8:21 am

Posted in Duenes, Reflections

Is It Just a Modification of What the World is Doing?

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Over the summer I did a study with a couple guys from church in the book of Micah, and now we’re in the book of Philippians, and I don’t know how to put this, but each time we discuss the Scriptures, I get this nagging sense that there’s a way that the Christian faith is supposed to be lived, and we’re not living it (“We” meaning, not just us three). Much of this sense stems from a picture I have in my mind’s eye of a group of Christians living out their faith together. I can see Christians connected by geography, meeting together for prayer and encouragement more than just once a week for “worship,” whose lives are oriented around exhorting each other, and tangibly caring for each other in practical and embodied ways (meaning, not just through cyberspace) and who strategically and intentionally find ways, through common effort, to tangibly serve and bless others in and for the name of Christ and His kingdom. I see these people sharing their possessions, strategically thinking about their possessions so as to maximize their impact for the blessing and encouragement of others in Christ. Perhaps it’s just a mirage in my mind.

And then I look at my own Christian life. Each weekday I get up early, hurriedly get myself ready to go to school and work, and then I’m off to class, and then to work, and then back to class, and then back to work, and then home to eat dinner with my family, play a bit with my boys, read them some stories and the Bible, pray and sing with them some, and then back to studying until bedtime. Exhaustion and a feeling that there’s never enough hours in the day. This routine can be, and usually is, done without any vital connection to any other Christians in my context. Every other week I go to a men’s meeting at church, which provides a nice place to get together with other Christian men. And then there’s church on Sundays, where we chat with the two families we know at our church, and then every other week I have this Bible study that gives me this nagging feeling. Oh, and I lead a little devotional at the Christian Legal Society meeting each Thursday at lunch. But it’s all so atomistic and individualistic, and it all seems to have no chance of producing much by way of spiritual growth in my life, or of truly fostering the formation of vital Christian fellowship that will be characterized by the advancement of God’s kingdom purposes in the world. We tread over well-worn Christian ideas, but they seem to just vanish into the ether.

The Christian life I have in my mind’s eye just never seems possible. We’re busy, others are busy, needs at home take precedence, and the general flow of the world squeezes me into a vice-grip, such that I feel that I cannot get out of “the way things work.” It just seems to me that true Christian faith is not some slight, or even serious “modification” of what the world is doing. It’s something almost wholly other. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we don’t eat, clothe ourselves, pay our bills, head to work, drive our cars here and there, and many other mundane things. I have to think underground Christians in China do these things as well. But I somehow can’t imagine that the underground Christian in China’s spiritual life is fashioned in the same way as mine. When I read the New Testament, I get the sense that these men and women were being guided by a different compass, based on assumptions foreign to “the way things are.” Somehow, having been apprehended by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, whole groups of them, they seemed to have the idea that they were now part of a new community, with new purposes for rising out of bed each day, and a sense that this new life that Jesus had called them to could not be lived simply by “reading their Bibles more” and “trying to find quiet times.” It makes me think of Chesterton’s aphorism: “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

I need something more, something bigger. God has to be bigger. His purposes and His call of His people’s lives together has to be more compelling than this. And in the pages of Scripture, it is! I suppose this feeling came to me afresh, for I’ve had it before, from a sermon by Thomas Chalmers, entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In it he is expositing 1 John 2:15-17…”Love not the world, neither the things in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Chalmers says that “we shall never be able to arrest any of [the world’s] leading pursuits by a naked demonstration of their vanity.” Christians are good at showing the shabbiness of the world, as am I. We hold up the world to exposure, and think that this will compel us to pursue Christ together with reckless abandon. But it’s not so. Chalmers says, “It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of [the world’s] illusiveness. We must address to the eye of [man’s] mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former.” I suppose we need whole communities to come under the power of this divine charm and influence. But how does that happen? And when it does happen, what shape and contours does it have? What would we all be doing if we came under a more powerful influence of the Holy Spirit?

I may say more on this, but I at least wanted to set down my initial thoughts, and I would welcome any comments which might aid in further reflection.


Written by Michael Duenes

October 22, 2012 at 8:37 am

Posted in Duenes, Reflections