tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on Faith and Reason

One of the really good things to come out of the demands by radical Islamists that Pope Benedict XVI apologize for his September 12 speech at Regensburg, Germany is that the ensuing media brouhaha might actually incite some people to dig up the speech and read it. That’s exactly what I did and I hope you will too. Find the full text at

Benedict delivered an absolutely brilliant speech about the inseparability of faith and reason. The great divide among God-fearing people in our world today is between those who believe God’s actions are completely random and indiscriminate, and those who believe God’s actions are in harmony with reason. Some people say God can do anything He wants, even evil. This doesn’t make any sense to me. We Catholics believe God cannot contradict Himself. God is pure love and evil does not come out of true love. Reason would require this consistency.

I am very grateful for the integration of faith and reason. If God’s actions correspond with reason, then I have some hope of knowing God and of understanding His ways. But if His ways are entirely separate from reason, then I have no way of discerning the meaning of God’s actions. I would have no way of knowing whether a particular action is godly or otherwise.

Benedict notes the Greek translation for “word” in the first verses of John’s Gospel. The Greek word is “logos,” which means both “reason” and “word.” Benedict said: “John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God…”

Although faith and reason are necessarily integrated, Benedict notes three distinct efforts in Western culture to separate them over the last 500 years. He notes, first, the Reformation of the 16th century which reduced faith to one component of an over arching philosophical system, unduly influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant who stated that “he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith.” The principle of sola scripture, a pillar of the Reformation, dramatically reduced the grandeur of God and His revelation to mankind.

The second effort to bifurcate faith and reason came out of liberal Christian thought developed in the 19th and 20th centuries which focused on the humanity of Jesus. The idea, Benedict said, “was to bring Christianity back into harmony with ‘modern’ reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God.”

The third effort, which is currently underway in some theological circles, discounts the significance of Greek culture in the presentation of the scriptures. It dismisses the word “logos” and its significance as merely a cultural phenomenon that should not have meaning in a world-wide application of scripture and theology.

Benedict states that faith without reason prevents religion from creating community because faith ends up being entirely personal. On the other hand, reason without faith offers a very narrow view of science which reduces mankind to something much smaller than God intended. The fullness of God's creation can only be understood in a context that honors the inseparability of faith and reason.

God-fearing people should be willing to have the discussion that Pope Benedict initiates with his speech at Regensburg. The radicals who threatened the Pope with death and burned his image in effigy clearly don’t want to have that discussion. Their reaction to the speech validates the importance of Benedict’s message.

While the opportunity for dialogue with Muslims may be minimal now, my hope is the opportunity is far greater with non-Catholic Christian denominations. What is the role of reason in a “scripture alone” theology? Was Kant right? Do we really need to turn off our brains before considering our faith? Pope Benedict in his speech affirmed that the Catholic Church says no.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Author, speaker shed light on gender differences

I’m reading a book by Myrna Blyth, who edited Ladies Home Journal magazine from 1981 to 2002. In the publishing world, the magazine is referred to as one of the “seven sisters,” the others being Family Circle, Redbook, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day. These magazines have absolutely nothing in common with the industry magazines I work with on a daily basis, but I always find it interesting to read the musings of other magazine editors.

The premise of Blyth’s Spin Sisters: How the women of the media sell unhappiness and liberalism to the women of America, is that the seven sisters exploit women by promoting unrealistic images of beauty. They also play on women’s anxieties by printing a preponderance of journalistically flimsy stories about health, stress and safety.

Blyth offers a glimpse into how major media works, but what fascinated me most was her take on the differences between men and women. It seems so politically incorrect today to acknowledge any differences between men and women. But Blyth is not worried about political correctness. She goes into quite a bit of detail about how the media (not just the major women’s magazines) prepare stories differently for men and women.

“Coverage of health topics, which provide the best fodder for frightening stories, dramatically increased during the past decade both on television and in women’s magazines,” she writes on page 125 of the hard-cover edition I’m reading. “On TV, the increase was part of the ‘feminization’ of the media, the realization by executives that more and more often it was women out there watching -– and watching everything -– including the news. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the Tyndall Report, a network news monitor, who tracked CBS news broadcasts in 1968 and 1998, saw the broadcasts shift from foreign policy, military, economic, and business issues to lifestyle topics like health, education, and sexuality. In fact, measuring coverage on all three networks, he found that the news time devoted to what he calls ‘news you can use’ aimed at women quadrupled from 16 minutes to 71 minutes a month and helped transform TV news in the process.”

Blyth cites a University of Michigan psychology professor in her explanation of the different way news impacts women and men. According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “women tend to ruminate, brood, and worry a lot more than men,” she writes on page 116. “Through an extensive 20-year study, she found that many women spend countless hours thinking about negative ideas, feelings, and experiences.” This finding is in apparent contrast to men.

“Gender plays a powerful role in the perception of hazards, was the conclusion of Professor John Graham, founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, after the center polled more than a thousand Americans to find out whether they believe in widely reported but unproven ‘hazards’ like radon and pesticide residue on food. Graham found that women were more likely to believe such scares were true by a margin of 10 percentage points or more.”

Blyth got me to thinking about a speaker I heard who addressed a group of parents in Arkansas last June. Dr. Philip Mango, the president and co-founder of Saint Michael’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences in New York City, described distinct neurological differences between men and women in his presentation at the annual convention of the Couple to Couple League. Dr. Mango doesn’t have a lot in common with Myrna Blyth but he affirmed the hypothesis that there are concrete differences between men and women, including the way they approach problems, think about things and come to conclusions.

Testosterone and vasopressin, the two primary male hormones, flood a man’s mind, affirming characteristics such as assertiveness, Dr. Mango explained. For men, maturity is a matter of harnessing these hormones.

Dr. Mango took us back to the beginning, noting that when a girl is born, her first relationship is with someone like her –- her mother, a women. This is not true when a boy is born. Initially, a boy identifies with his mother, but as his self-awareness grows at about 18 months, he becomes aware that he is not like his mother. His search to find his identity can affect his outlook for the rest of his life, Dr. Mango said. The greatest responsibility of any father, Dr. Mango said, is to love his son. A father must help his son affirm his identity.

“Most boys today are not getting that from their fathers today. Most boys are walking around hungry for their father’s affirmation,” Dr. Mango said. In the same way that God the Father affirmed Jesus at His baptism, saying “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Mt. 3:17) fathers should affirm their sons, Dr. Mango said. “God gives us affirmation; when we know that the King loves us, that gives us the power to go out and do anything. That is what fathers can give their sons.” Dr. Mango urged fathers to spend time with their children and show physical affection toward them.

I can read about the differences between men and women, and I can listen to speakers explain the differences, but I can learn the most just by watching my own two daughters and two sons. My girls have magnificent feminine characteristics and the boys have the classic masculine traits. Whatever this means for the way they will approach life as adults, I only know one thing for sure. My wife and I love those kids and that love is essential to their healthy self fulfillment.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

National security expert says we’re much safer

The United States is a safer place today than it was five years ago, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey told a business audience in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 18. McCaffrey is a national security and terrorism analyst for NBC News and writes a national security column in the Armed Forces Journal. He is the president of a consulting practice based in Arlington, Va., and he is an adjunct professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

A year ago, I had a chance to interview McCaffrey when he was in Minneapolis. (See my November 4, 2005 blog entry.) Hearing him speak again earlier this week, McCaffrey largely re-iterated the message he delivered a year ago.

In Des Moines, McCaffrey urged his audience to review the web site maintained by the U.S. State Department, where 42 organizations are identified as terrorist groups that threaten U.S. national interests. He noted that the majority of these organizations are funded by criminal activity. One group is smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina and selling them in New York, generating “tens of millions of dollars for a middle east terrorist organization,” he said.

The Taliban, which is operating in Afghanistan, is funded largely by its sale of opium and heroin. Last year, McCaffrey said, Afghanistan produced 582 metric tons of heroin, which is more than 90 percent of the world’s supply. “If you want serious resources as a terrorist organization, you have to get involved in the drug trade,” said McCaffrey, who noted the convergence of international crime, drug money and terrorism.

Many of the 42 identified terrorist groups, McCaffrey said, “are Islamic extremist groups who have hijacked Islam and have attempted to explain their terrible animosity and frustration with their own governments, which frequently they characterize as incompetent, corrupt and hypocritical toward Islam.” Americans are having a difficult time understanding the situation because “we don’t want to see it as a war of Islam against the West, nor do we believe that’s the case.”

The State Department web site also lists governments which it believes sponsor terrorism. Five years ago, seven countries were on the list –- North Korea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba. At the time, the United States thought five of those countries had weapons of mass destruction, McCaffrey said.

“We should understand that WMD capability is still resident in many of these states,” McCaffrey said. “There are probably 30 nations that could rapidly develop a nuclear weapons capability. Our concern is, can any of these 42 terrorist organizations gain access to that technology?” McCaffrey called North Korea and Pakistan particularly harmful due to their potential for proliferating such technology.

McCaffrey called the threat to the United States “considerable,” but described a three-pillar approach the country is using to defend itself.

The first pillar is made up of the country’s law enforcement agencies and its intelligence services. He called the CIA and the FBI among the greatest agencies in the world. Despite widespread international displeasure with American foreign policy, McCaffrey said the CIA continues to enjoy tremendous access to sensitive information. The FBI, he said, which traditionally has responded to criminal activity, is in the process of transitioning into a pro-active agency which prevents terrorist actions before they occur.

The second pillar, McCaffrey said, is the United States’ armed forces. He called the American soldiers in Iraq today the “most courageous, competent force we have ever fielded.” American armed forces, he said, are tactically nimble and very powerful.

The third pillar is the country’s domestic counter-terrorism effort. The Department of Homeland Security brought together 22 government agencies into one department of 177,000 people. Although much more work needs to be done, McCaffrey said progress has been made in many areas. “The nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are immensely better defended, and the nation’s aviation system has gone from unprotected to being pretty well defended,” he said.

Border patrol, McCaffrey said, is one of the greatest homeland security challenges. He said there are currently 12,000 border patrol officers. “Why would you think you could defend America’s 304 ports of entry with a force that is a fraction of the size of the New York City police department?” he asked. He said the border patrol needs 45,000 people.

The Coast Guard also is understaffed at its current level of 32,000 people. “That force ought to be 75,000 people,” he said. And the National Guard, he said, is not equipped to keep up with the demands that are being made of it. He said the National Guard needs more military police brigades, light infantry, engineering and medical resources and fewer F-16 aircraft and M-1 tanks.

“At the end of the day, the great question asked every 9-11 is going to be: Are we any safer? It’s a silly question,” McCaffrey summarized. “Of course we are. We have made enormous strides internationally and at home to better set ourselves up to protect us from these new forms of terrorist threat. To a large extent it’s working.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Congressman pushes bankers to help stop internet gambling

I had an opportunity to listen to Congressman Jim Leach earlier this week speak about the growing phenomenon of internet gambling. It is illegal to gamble over the internet in the United States, but internet gambling web sites are among the fastest growing category of web businesses. Rep. Leach has introduced legislation to improve the enforcement of laws prohibiting internet gambling.

I have had the chance to cover Rep. Leach for more than 15 years and I have a great deal of respect for this Republican from Iowa, who often is called the smartest man in Congress.

“The fastest growing financial industry in the world and in the United States today, probably by a quantum measure, is gambling,” said Rep. Leach. He said $6 billion per year is wagered over the internet. “In the last five years, it’s grown three-and-a-half fold; it could grow at least that in the next five years.

“In gambling, in general, there are about 2 percent who participate who become what are called ‘pathological’ gamblers, which means they absolutely cannot stop. There are about 5 percent who become ‘problem’ gamblers, which means they can hardly stop, and about 20 percent of bankruptcies relate to gambling,” said Rep. Leach.

Rep. Leach’s legislation, which was approved by the House of Representatives, would prohibit banks and credit card companies from settling internet wagers involving credit cards. “If it works it is clearly worth it. If it doesn’t work, we will all have to reconsider,” Rep. Leach said.

Rep. Leach said he hopes the Senate takes up the legislation this fall. It will be interesting to see what happens. If credit card companies stopped honoring wagers made over the internet, they could shut down the internet gaming business instantly. But most bankers don’t like the idea of being cops. Bankers already don’t like their role in the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures which require them to take extra steps to look for money-laundering. While most bankers would agree that internet banking is a problem, it will be interesting to see whether any believe they should be required to do anything about it.

“I personally think bankers ought to be amazingly sympathetic to this kind of approach because of concern for your customers, and concern for other Americans in a society that wants to save rather than go for the big pot at the end of the rainbow,” Rep. Leach told a group of bankers in Des Moines on Monday.

Rep. Leach said internet gambling is a particularly serious problem among college students, citing one study that estimated 10 percent of college students gamble on line. “The number of college males who reported gambling on line once a week or more increased four fold last year alone,” Rep. Leach said. “Never has it been so easy to lose so much money so quickly at such a young age.

“Gambling through the internet has been brought to the home and to the bedroom. It’s been brought to the office, to the college dorm, and increasingly in the very near future, to cell phones and Blackberries so you can gamble to and from work or while waiting in a movie line,” Rep. Leach said. “This is a very serious phenomenon.”